Soviet reaction to the Polish crisis of 1980–1981

The Polish crisis of 1980–1981, associated with the emergence of the Solidarity mass movement in Poland, challenged the Soviet Union's control over its satellite states in the Eastern Bloc.

For the first time however, the Kremlin abstained from military intervention, unlike on previous occasions such as the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and thus left the Polish leadership under General Wojciech Jaruzelski to impose martial law to deal with the opposition on their own.

Initial reaction

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Contrary to the interpretations of US intelligence, no preparations were underway for even minimal Soviet intervention at the time martial law was imposed, according to declassified Soviet archives.[1] On 25 August 1980, a special commission was created in Moscow to formulate policy in response to developments in Poland. It was headed by senior Communist Party ideologist Mikhail Suslov, and included KGB chairman Yuri Andropov, foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, and defense minister Dmitriy Ustinov. They were reluctant to intervene in Poland, recalling the 1970 Polish protests, and dealing already with problems in the ongoing Soviet–Afghan War. The situation in Poland in December 1980 had parallels with the situation in Afghanistan before the Soviet Union eventually decided to intervene there exactly a year earlier, which led to consequences and a dip in the Soviets' relations with the United States.[2]

The East German and Czechoslovak leaders, Erich Honecker and Gustáv Husák, however, were eager to suppress Solidarity, along the lines of previous crackdowns. The aging Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev agreed with Honecker and Husák, leaning towards intervention. A planned joint Soviet, East German, and Czechoslovak attack, under the pretext of a Warsaw Pact military exercise called 'Soyuz-80,' was planned for December.[3]

Deeply concerned Polish United Workers' Party (PUWP) leaders, who had initially been lenient, slowly began to consider suppression of the popular movement on their own. On 22 October, Polish defense minister Jaruzelski started planning for martial law.[3]

United States intelligence, by this time, had an accurate idea of the Warsaw Pact's plans. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski persuaded President Jimmy Carter to disclose the Warsaw Pact military build-up publicly and to warn the Soviet Union of its consequences.[3][4]

On 5 December, at the insistence of Honecker, the Warsaw Pact countries held a summit in Moscow. The Polish leader, first secretary of the PUWP Stanisław Kania, promised to do his best to uproot the opposition by domestic means. Brezhnev didn't insist on armed intervention, Kania having managed to persuade him that foreign intervention would lead to a national uprising. Intervention was postponed, to give Polish leaders a chance to deal with the situation on their own.[3]

Final decision

However, the Kremlin was discontented with how leniently this suppression proceeded, and on 18 October 1981, it forced the Polish United Workers' Party to replace Kania with Jaruzelski. The latter promised to impose martial law but demanded backing his action by a promise of Warsaw Pact military intervention if he failed to control the situation. On 29 October, Jaruzelski's demands were discussed at a session of the Soviet Politburo, where Andropov confirmed the consensus that no Soviet troops would be sent to Poland.[3][5]

At the 14th annual meeting of the Committee of Ministers of Defense of the Warsaw Pact, which took place in Moscow on 1–4 December, Jaruzelski's deputy Florian Siwicki on behalf of the former proposed to issue a bluffing strong statement pledging support of the Warsaw Pact armed forces to the Polish authorities in order to give a "cold shower for the counterrevolution" and to deny western claims that Jaruzelski didn't have backing of his allies. The Soviet, East German, Czechoslovak and Bulgarian ministers, Dmitriy Ustinov, Heinz Hoffmann, Martin Dzúr and Dobri Dzhurov, supported the proposal. However, it failed to pass because Romanian minister Constantin Olteanu, who was not aware that the plans for invasion had already been discarded and took the threat for real, vetoed the draft after consultations with Nicolae Ceauşescu, and his Hungarian counterpart Lajos Czinege was not ready to agree unless everyone else did.[3][6][7]

At the Politburo meeting of 10 December 1981, the Soviet leadership was outraged to learn that Jaruzelski was still making his crackdown on Solidarity conditional on a promise of a Soviet military intervention if anything went wrong. The Politburo firmly and unanimously rejected the demand for military backing. Andropov, one of the most influential figures in the Politburo, who would become the Soviet leader in less than a year, wary of the threat of Western political and economic sanctions, made it clear to his fellow Politburo members that he was ready to reconcile himself to the possible loss of the Soviet control over Poland to Solidarity, however unpleasant it might be, if the Soviet communications with East Germany via Poland continued uninterrupted:

We can't risk such a step. We do not intend to introduce troops into Poland. That is the proper position, and we must adhere to it until the end. I don't know how things will turn out in Poland, but even if Poland falls under the control of Solidarity, that's the way it will be. And if the capitalist countries pounce on the Soviet Union, and you know they have already reached agreement on a variety of economic and political sanctions, that will be very burdensome for us. We must be concerned above all with our own country and about the strengthening of the Soviet Union. That is our main line.... As concerns the lines of communication between the Soviet Union and the GDR that run through Poland, we of course must do something to ensure that they are safeguarded.[5][8]

Chief ideologist Suslov supported him, considering the possibility of invasion after the Soviet support of détente in the 1970s as a severe blow to the Soviet international standing.[3][5][8] The Brezhnev Doctrine was effectively dead.[9]

Andropov and Jaruzelski

Martial law

After unsuccessfully begging Warsaw Pact commander-in-chief Viktor Kulikov and Soviet ambassador Boris Aristov for military assistance once again, on 13 December 1981, Jaruzelski finally proclaimed martial law.[3] To justify the emergency measures, Jaruzelski was still playing on the public fear of Soviet invasion. However, there was no significant resistance to the martial law and any foreign military backing proved unnecessary. Ever since, Jaruzelski himself has denied that he invited Soviet troops, insisting that, on the contrary, the martial law was aimed at prevention of a Soviet military intervention.[3]

1997 Jachranka conference

In November 1997, a conference was held in Jachranka on the Soviet role in the Polish crisis of 1980–1981, where Solidarity, Polish communist, Soviet and American participants of the events, including Jaruzelski, Kania, Siwicki, Kulikov and Brzezinski, took part. Jaruzelski and Siwicki maintained that the Soviets had been preparing for invasion all the time, Kania and Brzezinski opined that the plans for invasion had been discarded by the second half of 1981 and Kulikov denied the existence of any plans to intervene even in 1980.[4][10]


  1. ^ Douglas J. MacEachin, Soviet military activity near the Polish border in "US Intelligence and the Polish Crisis 1980–1981" (section Bloc-Country Archives Open), CSI Publications, 2007
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Vojtech Mastny. The Soviet Non-Invasion of Poland in 1980/81 and the End of the Cold War Archived 20 June 2010 at the Wayback Machine, Working Paper No. 23, Cold War International History Project, Washington, D.C., September 1998, also published in Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 51, No. 2 (March 1999), pp. 189–211.
  4. ^ a b "Poland, 1980-1982: Internal Crisis, International Dimensions" 8-10 November 1997,
  5. ^ a b c Soviet deliberations during the Polish Crisis, 1980–1981 Archived 20 June 2010 at the Wayback Machine. Edited, translated, annotated, and introduced by Mark Kramer. Special Working Paper No. 1, Cold War International History Project, Washington, D.C., April 1999.
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 12 April 2008. Retrieved 10 April 2007.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b Transcript of the Politburo session of 10 December 1981 (in Russian)
  9. ^ Wilfried Loth. Moscow, Prague and Warsaw: Overcoming the Brezhnev Doctrine. Cold War History 1, no. 2 (2001): 103–118.
  10. ^ Jerzy Holzer. Martial Law Evaluated by Historians and Generals at Jachranka Archived 11 July 2010 at the Wayback Machine
1981 warning strike in Poland

In the early spring of 1981, the quickly growing Solidarity movement faced one of the biggest challenges in its short history, when during the Bydgoszcz events, several members of Solidarity, including Jan Rulewski, Mariusz Łabentowicz and Roman Bartoszcze, were brutally beaten up by the security services, such as Milicja Obywatelska and ZOMO. The Bydgoszcz events soon became widely known across Poland, and on March 24, 1981, Solidarity decided to go on a nationwide strike in protest against the violence. The strike was planned for Tuesday, March 31, 1981. On March 25, Lech Wałęsa met Deputy Prime Minister Mieczysław Rakowski of the Polish United Workers' Party, but their talks were fruitless. Two days later, a four-hour national warning strike took place. It was the biggest strike in the history of the Soviet Bloc, it has also been called the largest strike in the history of Poland. According to several sources, between 12 million and 14 million Poles took part in it.

Brezhnev Doctrine

The Brezhnev Doctrine was a Soviet foreign policy that proclaimed any threat to socialist rule in any state of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe was a threat to them all, and therefore justifies the intervention of fellow socialist states. It was proclaimed in order to justify the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia earlier in 1968, with the overthrow of the reform government there. Mikhail Gorbachev repudiated the doctrine in the late 1980s, as the Kremlin accepted the peaceful overthrow of communist rule in all its satellite countries in Eastern Europe.The policy was first and most clearly outlined by Sergei Kovalev in a September 26, 1968 Pravda article entitled Sovereignty and the International Obligations of Socialist Countries. Leonid Brezhnev reiterated it in a speech at the Fifth Congress of the Polish United Workers' Party on November 13, 1968, which stated:

When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries.

This doctrine was announced to retroactively justify the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 that ended the Prague Spring, along with earlier Soviet military interventions, such as the invasion of Hungary in 1956. These interventions were meant to put an end to liberalization efforts and uprisings that had the potential to compromise Soviet hegemony inside the Eastern Bloc, which was considered by the Soviet Union to be an essential defensive and strategic buffer in case hostilities with NATO were to break out.

In practice, the policy meant that only limited independence of the satellite states' communist parties was allowed and that no socialist country would be allowed to compromise the cohesiveness of the Eastern Bloc in any way. That is, no country could leave the Warsaw Pact or disturb a ruling communist party's monopoly on power. Implicit in this doctrine was that the leadership of the Soviet Union reserved, for itself, the power to define "socialism" and "capitalism". Following the announcement of the Brezhnev Doctrine, numerous treaties were signed between the Soviet Union and its satellite states to reassert these points and to further ensure inter-state cooperation. The principles of the doctrine were so broad that the Soviets even used it to justify their military intervention in the non-Warsaw Pact nation of Afghanistan in 1979. The Brezhnev Doctrine stayed in effect until it was ended with the Soviet reaction to the Polish crisis of 1980–1981. Mikhail Gorbachev refused to use military force when Poland held free elections in 1989 and Solidarity defeated the Polish United Workers' Party. It was superseded by the facetiously named Sinatra Doctrine in 1989, alluding to the Frank Sinatra song "My Way".

Martial law in Poland

Martial law in Poland (Polish: Stan wojenny w Polsce) refers to the period of time from 13 December 1981 to 22 July 1983, when the authoritarian communist government of the Polish People's Republic drastically restricted normal life by introducing martial law in an attempt to crush political opposition. Thousands of opposition activists were jailed without charge and as many as 91 killed. Although martial law was lifted in 1983, many of the political prisoners were not released until a general amnesty in 1986.

Wojciech Jaruzelski

Wojciech Witold Jaruzelski (Polish: [ˈvɔjt͡ɕɛx ˈvitɔlt jaruˈzɛlskʲi] (listen); 6 July 1923 – 25 May 2014) was a Polish military officer and politician. He was First Secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party from 1981 to 1989, and as such was the last leader of the People's Republic of Poland. He also served as Prime Minister from 1981 to 1985 and the country's head of state from 1985 to 1990 (titled as Chairman of the Council of State from 1985 to 1989 and as President from 1989 to 1990). He was also the last commander-in-chief of the Polish People's Army (LWP). He resigned after the Polish Round Table Agreement in 1989, which led to multi-party elections in Poland.

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