Historical story

Martial law '81 through the eyes of a Russian historian

It was Wojciech Jaruzelski who demanded the introduction of the Soviet Army to Poland to fight "Solidarity", and the Soviet Union ruled out any intervention and insisted on the declaration of martial law. One of the most famous Russian historians, Rudolf G. Pichoja, explains what it really was like with martial law. All based on Moscow archives.

The Soviet leadership may have been rotten, and the median age on the central committee was nearing eighty, but the comrades kept their finger on the pulse. The wave of the August strikes (1980) barely swept across Poland, and a special Politburo Commission was already established in Moscow to assess the situation on the Vistula and find appropriate solutions.

Mikhail Suslov. He was the head of the commission that dealt with the situation in Poland (source:wikimedia commons, public domain).

The so-called "Suslov commission" issued its recommendations on September 3, 1980 - just three days after the Polish authorities reached an agreement with the workers in Gdańsk. The Soviets, of course, did not like the concessions of their Western colleagues.

The report stated: The agreement is, in fact, the legalization of the anti-socialist opposition. (...) The task is to prepare a counterattack . What was this counterattack supposed to be about? It was recommended, inter alia, to:focus the authorities' attention on the army, “expose” the opposition leaders and their intentions, and publicize… the benefits of economic cooperation with the USSR. All of this, as well as blaming the blame for the economic crisis on natural disasters, was supposed to calm the public mood in Poland.

Of course, the mood did not improve at all. In this situation, the Soviet leadership invited the Polish party-state delegation to its place to explain what and how to do it. On the eve of the meeting (October 29, 1980), members of the Soviet Politburo agreed on a common position in the event of an escalation of the "counter-revolution" on the Vistula.

Poles had to be persuaded to introduce martial law . This solution seemed to Brezhnev and his colleagues the most sensible from the very beginning. Another thing is that they preferred not to talk too frankly with the Polish communists, because they were afraid that they would ... report everything to the Americans.

Solidarity sausage

The army in the streets was the old, proven communist way, but Leonid Brezhnev (surprisingly) preferred to start with a carrot rather than a stick. At the October meeting, it was decided that the Soviet Union would try to ... bribe Polish society in a truly capitalist way .

Instead of the Red Army soldiers, an additional 200,000 liters of diesel fuel and half a million tons of grain were to be sent to the People's Republic of Poland. The chairman of the Soviet State Planning Committee promised Poland economic aid worth one billion rubles . It should only be added that a large part of this "aid" was supposed to be a temporary resignation from importing Polish goods, for example coal, for a song.

The Polish-Soviet meeting ended on October 31. Brezhnev did claim that it took place in an atmosphere of full mutual understanding , but at the same time complained about the Poles delaying the decision to declare martial law .

Intervention is not an option

To the great surprise of the Soviet politburo, the promises of economic aid did not affect the mood in Polish society at all. On the other hand, Polish communists were not eager to introduce martial law . Brezhnev had enough of, above all, the first secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party, Stanisław Kania. He called his concessions to Solidarity capitulation and the secretary himself was the epitome of failure and ineptitude.

Wojciech Jaruzelski wanted to bring to the streets not only Polish tanks, but also Soviet ones?

At the same time, as Rudolf G. Pichoja explains in The History of Power in the Soviet Union, the Soviet leader had his hands tied. The war in Afghanistan was still going on, and the USSR fared worse and worse every week. The preserved archival materials show that in these circumstances it was not possible to conduct active activities on the western border. In short, no military intervention in Poland was an option. Pichoja emphasizes that the leadership of the USSR was left to put pressure on the Polish authorities.

This was also still done. The Soviets themselves prepared a document on the introduction of martial law in Poland . His project was brought from Moscow for another meeting with Polish leaders, and Brezhnev instructed the Soviet participants of a secret conference in advance: They [the Poles] will have to be told what the imposition of martial law is about and explain everything . Good advice, however, did not help, because ... Kania and Jaruzelski refused to approve this document.

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Let us add that - as Pichoja emphasizes - in none of the protocols of the [Soviet] Politburo there was no direct mention of preparations for the possible entry of Soviet troops into Poland . Much has been said (...) about strong demands for martial law, but the issue of preparations for the invasion has not been addressed in any document.

Jaruzelski ... asks for the Soviet Army!

On October 18, 1981, Stanisław Kania was finally dismissed, and Wojciech Jaruzelski took his place as the first secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party. In Moscow, this change of guard was welcomed with hope and relief. However, these feelings were very short-lived…

It quickly became clear why Jaruzelski did not want to approve the martial law document. Namely, almost overnight the new secretary demanded that the Soviet authorities introduce troops of the Soviet Army to Poland. This was clearly confirmed in the Soviet archives.

Brezhnev was furious with the capitular attitude of PZPR members towards Solidarity. However, he himself - like other leading Soviet politicians - was reluctant to intervene on the Vistula (source:RIA Novosti archive; license CC ASA 3.0).

At the meeting of the Soviet Politburo on October 29, 1981, Yuri Andropov, the chairman of the KGB, reported on Polish expectations. As it turned out, Jaruzelski referred to Brezhnev's statement from a few months ago, in which the latter stated: we will not let socialist Poland be hurt. The general took the loose assurance very literally. This, in turn, caused a real panic among the Soviet tops .

None of the leading activists of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union wanted to send troops to the Vistula River. The tone of the discussion was set by Andropov himself: we should stick to our line - not to bring our troops into Poland.

The Minister of Defense of the USSR, Marshal Ustinov, echoed him: In general, it should be said that we should not introduce our troops to Poland. In turn, Brezhnev was so terrified by Jaruzelski's expectations that he immediately promised to send an additional 30,000 tons of meat to Poland, as long as no soldiers had to be sent there. Let us add that the USSR was then struggling with food shortages:it had to use state reserves and even demand support from other republics and limit internal supplies.

Overall, the Soviet documents leave no room for doubt:the Soviets not only did not want to enter Poland. They even defended themselves against it with their hands and feet!

The Soviets did not know anything

According to materials from the Soviet side, Jaruzelski reacted to his brotherly countries' refusal to provide military support with almost an insult. Pichoja writes that it was then that distanced himself from the USSR in his own way. Admittedly, he began serious preparations for "Operation X" (imposing martial law), but in his talks with the Soviets, his initiation was reserved with a whole series of demands.

If the Soviet documents are to be believed, General Wojciech Jaruzelski was very dissatisfied with the Soviet unwillingness to intervene. In the photo Wojciech Jaruzelski with the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov (photo:D. Szlachta; license CC ASA 3.0).

He expected economic support and - again! - armed. It is hard to believe, but the Soviet leadership completely lost influence on the development of events . It is clear from the protocols of the Soviet Politburo that on December 10 - less than three days before the introduction of martial law! - The Soviets did not know whether it was being prepared at all or when it would eventually be announced. It seems that the lack of a telerank on December 13th was for them a similar surprise as for the Poles themselves ...


  • Rudolf G. Pichoja, The history of power in the Soviet Union. 1945-1991 , Polish Scientific Publishers PWN, 2011.