September 09, 2022 WASHINGTON EXAMINER
Mikhail Gorbachev died almost exactly 42 years after the movement that gave his life meaning was born. Gorbachev’s whole career as the leader of the Soviet Union was a response to the Solidarity movement, a mass protest against communist oppression. Solidarity was a working-class phenomenon, a traditional communist stronghold. Thus, Solidarity proved that communism does not represent the interests of the working people and therefore discredited it. It was a movement inspired by the great Pope John Paul II, whose first visit to Poland in 1979 demonstrated that great masses of people yearned for freedom and authentic existence. This strength in numbers could not be easily suppressed.
Since Solidarity was born on Aug. 31, 1980, Soviet leaders were debating how to deal with it. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev tried police tactics and considered a military invasion until he settled on the imposition of the martial law and imprisonment and deportation of virtually all of its leaders. Yet Solidarity continued to exist, and new strikes broke out spontaneously when least expected. Communists could not effectively eliminate continuing protests despite traditional repressions.
These protests were mainly about the state of the economy, which led to the deterioration of living standards of the working class throughout the Soviet bloc. Just when the Soviet Union seemed to be at the height of its power and spent big on its armaments and supported communist revolutions all over the world, at home, it could not satisfy the needs of ordinary people.
In Poland, martial law restored discipline, injected new money into the economy, and instituted some reforms. But efforts of the Soviet and Wojciech Jaruzelski regimes could not bring back economic growth. The situation was steadily deteriorating, and it seemed that the fate of the Soviet empire depended on whether it could provide some scraps of meat for the sullen population of Poland. Worse, the standard of living of the communist elite was deteriorating. It was the end of the road. Enterprising comrades started seizing state assets to improve their lot. They were also “sharing” the profits of the first foreign investors allowed in Poland.
In 1983 to 1984, nervous meetings were held in the Kremlin. Yuri Andropov, chief of the KGB and new secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, was asking whether the Soviet Union could tolerate the existence of Solidarity and its participation in the governance of Poland. He was considering whether raising the lid on total repression would motivate people to work harder and take initiative, whether this freer atmosphere would contribute to a success of decentralizing reforms, which were clearly necessary to revive a moribund system.
And the Soviet communist leadership had to contend with another significant challenge: the reinvigorated and purposeful United States. President Ronald Reagan was aghast about the martial law in Poland and was additionally motivated in taking on the Soviet system. He demonstrated the enormous vitality of the U.S. economy and its endless capacity for technological innovation. New defense systems were announced frequently, giving the Soviets no respite and no capacity to respond. Soviet leaders had no solutions to these three existential challenges and had to be creative in facing them in order to survive.
Enter Andropov protege Mikhail Gorbachev with a reform program for the Soviet bloc, which was formulated during the Andropov reign: share information vital to the functioning of society and the economy, a policy known as glasnost, borrowed from Soviet human rights activists of the 1970s; include new groups in governing the country, particularly those sharing the same basic Marxist fundamentals; reform the state economy and decentralize it; reduce defense expenditures and international “class struggle”; and stop the West from regarding you as the enemy and integrate with it economically, scientifically, and politically to create a new dynamism. This was the reform program that defined Gorbachev and gave his life meaning.
Gorbachev tried his best to implement it, but it was too little, too late. He encountered resistance and a lack of understanding among old communist nomenklatura. Most importantly, refraining from violence, necessary for successful cooperation with the West, liberated independence demands in both the Soviet bloc and the Soviet republics. Internal contradictions of the Gorbachev reform program crushed Gorbachev as a leader and the Soviet Union but changed the world by discrediting communism, liberating Soviet satellites and constituent Soviet republics, encouraging deeper reforms in China, and altering geopolitical relationships. Gorbachev responded creatively to Solidarity, and the world is better off for it, even if things did not work out as planned for him.
Lucja Swiatkowski Cannon is a strategist, expert, and author on Eastern Europe, Russia, and U.S.-East European relations.