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We Did Not Ask Moscow for Permission

On October 28th 2013, Tadeusz Mazowiecki died at the age of 86. Mazowiecki was the first non-communist Prime Minister of Poland.

October 28, 2013 - Andrzej Brzeziecki - Articles and Commentary

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On the occasion of his death, we are publishing an excerpt of an interview first published in the Polish bimonthly Nowa Europa Wschodnia in 2009. The interview, conducted by Andrzej Brzeziecki, editor-in-chief of Nowa Europa Wschodnia, discusses Mazowiecki’s experiences as prime minister and his first trip to Russia. 

ANDRZEJ BRZEZIECKI: Twenty years ago – on November 22nd 1989 – you went on an official visit to Moscow. It was the first visit of a non-communist Polish Prime Minister after the Second World War. What was going through your mind during this visit, did you realise that the last non-communist Polish Prime Minister hosted by the Kremlin was Stanisław Mikołajczyk in 1948?

TADEUSZ MAZOWIECKI: I actually thought more about General Władysław Sikorski – that I was following his footsteps. Our delegation was welcomed with the Polish national anthem performed by the Russian orchestra, a typical practice at state visits, but back then I strongly felt that I was making this visit as a non-communist Prime Minister of independent Poland; and that it was for this prime minister that the Polish national anthem was being played in Moscow.

How would you characterise your Eastern policy before 1989?

I did not have any personal experience with the Soviet Union; I had not been there before, but I did experience the burden of the Soviet system and this helped shaped my Eastern policy. Like many people back then, I was aware that the Yalta world order was an order of nuclear powers and I did not see a chance for Poland to overturn this order by itself. Nonetheless, I understood the need to increase the sphere of freedom within the circumstances that existed back then in the context of the situation. With great interest, I followed the events of 1956, especially the speech that Nikita Khrushchev delivered during the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but later with equal anxiety I observed the demise of this “thaw”.

I discovered Russia and the East also from a different side, through contacts with the members of the democratic opposition – this is how I would call them, although they did not create any formal organisation. My first encounter with the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was unforgettable, it was a completely different language. I remember the case of the Nobel Prize for Boris Pasternak, later I was following the news on Andrei Sakharov. In all of these examples, there was a reflection of the true image of this country, a strange truth telling us of a parallel existence of a great culture and huge brutality. When, in the second half of the 1980s, the Soviet system started to transform, I was truly hoping that this second great Russia will finally get its voice.

You have said that perestroika brought for you hope of change – when did you first think this way?

I observed this first in the press reports of the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev to the United Kingdom in 1984. Before he became the Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union he had met with Margaret Thatcher, who later said that Gorbachev is a man with whom one can do business. After the death of Konstantin Chernenko I thought that it was a moment when Gorbachev could bring substantial change. It is unquestionable that the transformations in Moscow created new opportunities for Poland.

When the opposition began to form its government, foreign policy in the East became one of the most important issues for your government. What was the general idea behind this policy?

I had to pursue a policy through which Russian politicians could understand that Poland could have a government which was independent but not hostile to Moscow. In other words, Russians do not need a satellite government in order to maintain good relations with Poland. At that time, we were not only the first, but also for a long time – back then time was calculated differently – we were the only country in the bloc undertaking democratic changes. In the beginning of my mission I had to take into consideration the possibility that we could keep this exceptional position for a long time. Upon my nomination for the position of Poland’s prime minister I received congratulating dispatches from all over the world, including the Soviet Union. It was signed “the Government of the Soviet Union”. I knew that such a phrase meant, in the communist liturgy, a cold relationship. Yet, I was not expecting anything else. Had Moscow been satisfied with my nomination, the dispatch would have been signed individually by each member of the cabinet.

On August 26th, following my nomination for the position of prime minister, I received information from General Czesław Kiszczak stating that Vladimir Kryuchkov was paying a visit to Poland and it would be advisable for me to meet him. Upon brief reflection, I decided to meet with him. Our meeting took place in Warsaw.

How did you think this meeting would be perceived by the Polish public?

The visit brought no sensation or hostility. I treated it as the first contact with a high representative of the Kremlin. More important than aesthetic issues was sending a clear message to the Kremlin: we are forming a government which could be friendly towards the Soviet Union, but decisions will be made in Warsaw. It was then when Nicolae Ceauşescu wrote a letter in which he was demanding from other countries in the Eastern bloc a reaction to the events in Poland. Thankfully, the letter was ignored. For me, the greater symbolic meaning was my first foreign trip – not to Moscow, as was the practice previously, but to the Vatican.

When you did make the trip to Moscow, how was it planned? You had sent Jacek Ambroziak first to work out details of your trip.

Indeed, it was a difficult mission. The previous practice was to prepare a template for the final communiqué even before any visit. The task for Ambroziak was to change this practice. Problems arouse immediately with the work on the visit’s program. The Russian side suggested putting floral wreaths in front of Lenin’s Mausoleum. For me this was unacceptable because I thought it was an ideological gesture with a large symbolic meaning. We were stubborn in our belief that a government which I was representing had no ideological ties with Lenin and it made no sense for us to pay tribute to him. There were also suggestions to make trips to other Soviet republics. Moscow wanted to see me in Vilnius, Minsk, Kyiv, but we turned down these invitations, believing that such visits would indicate our approval for the Soviet fate of these republics.

Upon your arrival to Moscow you refused accommodation in the governmental palace and opted for staying in a hotel. Why?

I could anticipate that wiretapping will be everywhere, but I believed that in this palace we would be under constant supervision. I also wanted to change every aspect of the visits of Polish prime ministers to the Soviet Union. That is why, we negotiated a visit to Katyń and Zagorsk.

How would you describe the talks with Gorbachev?

This was an almost two-hour meeting. It referred to the overall situation in Poland and the Soviet Union. In details we discussed the issue of Katyń and its influence on mutual relations. I tried to explain to him what I said in my first address to parliament as prime minister: that, for the first time, there is an opportunity to establish friendly relations not only between the authorities of both countries, but also between the nations. But this requires clarifying the Katyń case, which was the greatest obstacle.

And what was Gorbachev’s response?

He stressed that the Katyń case required deep examination because there may be Russians among the victims. He mentioned a name of a Bolshevik, Nikolai Bukharin, who was executed in 1938. After this discussion, we managed to push some information about Katyń in the final communiqué. Nonetheless, I realised that for a breakthrough in the Katyń case, Gorbachev will wait until his meeting with Wojciech Jaruzelski. Generally, Gorbachev made an impression on me as an open person.

In Moscow you also met with Andrei Sakharov about whom you were quite critical saying that he is not a politician. Did Sakharov disappoint you?

Before meeting with the Polish community in Moscow, I talked with him for about 45 minutes. Sakharov made a great impression on me. The thing is, after a visit to Katyń we went to Smoleńsk where we met with local authorities. Only after having seen these people I understood what obstacles Gorbachev had to face. In Smoleńsk, but probably also in other cities, perestroika was treated as yet another party directive, without any understanding of its meaning. This misunderstanding provided later grounds for Yanayev’s coup d’état. I could not believe that Sakharov was criticising Gorbachev and not those hardheads and the bulky apparatus, and that he did not see the difficulties that Gorbachev was encountering. After some time, however, I had to agree with Sakharov on one issue – in the issue of nation-building. In 1989 he was saying that this is the most important issue for the future of the Soviet Union and was criticising Gorbachev for not understanding its importance. A year later, when I met Gorbachev in Paris, I told Gorbachev about this but he responded: “Had I listened to Sakharov, I would not be here now”.

Symbolically, but also politically, the most important part of your visit was the trip to Katyń.

We had visited Katyń before we went to Leningrad. It was a late evening, it was dark, and we walked through the woods. I was reminded of Professor Stanisław Swianiewicz reporting on these executions which were broadcast by Radio Free Europe. It was an incredibly moving moment and I really had a feeling that I could hear the shootings. Father Aleksander Hauke-Ligowski conducted the mass in which a member of the Soviet government also participated. I shook hands with him as a sign of peace, but I was not sure if he understood the meaning of this gesture.

After 20 years Poland is already a member of the European Union, we are also member of NATO, yet we have still not lost our fear of Russia and the belief that, for the sake of an agreement with the Kremlin, the West could sacrifice our interests.

First of all, we are in the European Union and Poland’s Eastern policy is now a part of the problem of creating the EU Eastern policy. If Poland wants to influence this policy, then it needs to understand to achieve such influence it has to include Russia in the ideas also, and not just have an allergic reaction to everything that comes from this country. I always dreamed of our reconciliation with Russians, similar to that we had with the German nation. Much time will pass before it happens, but we need to work towards it. Russia is different from the Soviet Union, but it is not yet democratic – it is an oligarchic state. At the inter-state level, our relations should be less belligerent, while at the societal level they should be more intense. And this is the challenge for Poland.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki (1927-2013) was the first prime minister of Poland after the fall of communism. He was an author and a journalist as well as the long-time editor-in-chief of the monthly Więź. In August 1980, he was an adviser to the striking workers in Gdansk and an adviser to the Solidarity movement. He was the first editor-in-chief of Tygodnik Solidarność (Solidarity Weekly) and imprisoned during Marshall Law. In the years 1992-1995 he was a special United Nations envoy to the Balkans.

To read a review of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s recently published memoir visit: http://www.neweasterneurope.eu/node/1001

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