Our papers’ unquenchable thirst for regurgitating yesterday’s news is nothing short of amazing.
That Lech Walesa was in cahoots with Służba Bezpieczeństwa, the Polish secret police, has been mooted since 1989, when he was universally hailed as the heroic liberator of Poland. His codename in the Służba, Bolek, was also widely known.
Walesa first denied any association with that sinister organisation, then at some point admitted he had pretended to cooperate to be allowed to lead Solidarity so heroically. In 2000 a specially convened tribunal cleared him for lack of hard evidence.
Now such evidence has come to light, the whole charade has restarted. Did he or didn’t he? What if the secret police fabricated the evidence to compromise the great liberator’s image? What if he indeed only feigned collaboration, the better to liberate Poland? What if Poland’s enemies planted the evidence to besmirch the country’s reputation?
Any of those possibilities may be real. Then again, we tend to trust documentary evidence until it has been proved false, and in this case the evidence seems incontrovertible.
Yet what’s interesting here isn’t that Walesa may have been a communist spy, but that so many people are reluctant even to consider this possibility. I myself wasn’t surprised when I first heard about Walesa-Bolek back in 1990, and I’m still not surprised.
It’s not that I’ve studied the evidence closely. It’s that I really don’t care much one way or the other. What matters to me isn’t whether or not Walesa was a communist spy, but that such an affiliation is so likely that I’d be surprised if he wasn’t.
All depends on the context. If Solidarity and other pro-democracy movements in Poland (and elsewhere in Eastern Europe) had represented a real popular uprising against communism, like the indisputably genuine 1956 uprising in Hungary, then one would be justified to feel incredulous about any such revolt being led by a communist spy.
If, however, all those perfectly synchronised revolutions had been orchestrated by the secret police in pursuit of some strategic objective, then it stands to reason that the police would have its agents leading the charge.
The salient point here is that, while most commentators proceed from the former assumption, it’s the latter one that’s true.
The blueprint for the whole glasnost and perestroika offensive, preceded by a trial foray called ‘communism with a human face’ in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, was created in 1953 by Lavrentiy Beria, the murderous head of the Soviet secret police.
His contention was that the Soviets (and the whole communist bloc) would be more likely to succeed in world conquest if they presented a more liberal face to the West. Correctly perceiving the demob-happy mood in the West, Beria calculated that Western powers would be happy to accept any pretext to disarm, both physically and morally.
Beria’s startagem included everything actually done 40 years later: withdrawal of troops from East Germany with its subsequent reunification with the West, getting rid of collective farms, loosening the Party’s control and so on.
When Beria presented this plan to his Politburo colleagues, it struck them as too bold and premature. As a result, Beria was summarily arrested and killed, with a bogus trial held post factum.
This represented yet another battle in the eternal war for supremacy between the Party and the KGB. The Party won that time, but in the long run the KGB emerged victorious. The line of descent led from Beria to one of his successors Alexander Shelepin, and from him to Yuri Andropov, Shelepin’s protégé.
It was Andropov who defeated the Party when in 1982 he became the first KGB chief to take over the dictator’s mantle. He died 15 months later, but not before ensuring apostolic succession by having his own protégé Gorbachev, then a relative unknown, transferred from the provinces to a top Party post in Moscow.
It was Gorbachev and later Yeltsyn, both Party bosses intimately linked with the KGB, who carried Beria’s plan to fruition. Hence, what was in the West hailed as a triumph of democracy, human rights and general moral goodness was in fact a massive transfer of power from the Party to the KGB.
Since the Soviet Union was the metropolis of a communist empire, it was critical that the plan be carried out throughout the bloc simultaneously. To that end the Soviet KGB, acting through its Eastern European stooges, encouraged a similar process all over Eastern Europe. Movements like Solidarity were instantly created throughout the Warsaw Pact, and they were led by effectively police agents, men like Walesa or the Czech Havel, about who similar rumours also circulated.
(The only communist dictator who refused to play along was Romania’s Ceaușescu, which is why he was the only one brutally murdered.)
Whether these gentlemen, or their Russian counterparts like Andrei Sakharov, were witting or unwitting agents is of some antiquarian interest, but of little value to historical understanding – or indeed to current policy making.
One would expect our papers at least to cover this angle, rather than resurrecting scoops of decades ago. But such a hope will remain forlorn – it’s British papers we’re talking about.