Poland: Caught between Western and Russian imperialism

Ukrainian refugees cross into Poland
Ukrainian refugees cross into Poland following Russia's invasion. Photo: Wikimedia

To understand Polish politics today it is necessary to understand its history.

The country’s origins date back to the founding of the Kingdom of Poland in the 11th century. The kingdom lasted until the monarchy was overthrown in 1795 and its territory carved up between Prussia, Russia and Austria.

Poland only regained its status as an independent country at the end of World War I. Two decades later, however, it again lost its independence as a result of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression deal struck between Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Invaded from the west by Nazi Germany and from the east by the Soviet Union, the country was, proportionally speaking, the worst affected by World War II, losing more than 6 million inhabitants (the majority of them Jewish).

The Nazis set up large concentration camps in Polish territory, including Auschwitz, Treblinka and Chelmno, the scenes of unspeakable atrocities. The 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the 1944 Warsaw Uprising were heroic examples of popular resistance against the Nazis, but were brutally repressed and Warsaw destroyed, having to be completely rebuilt after the war.

The territories occupied by Stalin also witnessed horrific crimes, the most significant of which was the Katyn Massacre. Soviet secret police, commanded by Lavrentiy Beria, murdered more than 22,000 Poles in 1940 — prisoners of war, academics, lawyers, artists — in the Katyn Forest. The aim of the massacre was to wipe out the country’s intellectual and military elite, which the Soviets feared could lead a resistance to its occupation.

Polish People's Republic

After WWII, newly independent Poland fell into the Soviet sphere of influence, with its capital becoming the headquarters of the Warsaw Pact, a defence treaty between the Soviet Union and seven Eastern Bloc countries.

But relations between the newly established Polish People's Republic and the Soviet Union were always tense, especially after Stalin’s death in 1953 and the period known as the “thaw”, which saw a relaxing of censorship and repression in the Soviet Union.

A huge uprising of Poznań workers in 1956 demanding better living conditions was brutally repressed, leaving about 100 dead. However, it triggered a change in government in October that year that brought Władysław Gomułka back to power.

Gomułka, viewed by many as a moderate leader, had led the Polish Workers' Party from 1943‒48 and played a prominent role in the formation of the Polish People's Republic before he was removed by the Stalinist faction within the party.

In his speeches, Gomułka denounced the crimes of Stalinism, criticised the forced collectivisation drive in the countryside and promised more civil liberties.

His return to power (which became known as the Polish October) was not a simple process, Soviet troops entered the country with the aim of ensuring power remained in the hands of pro-Moscow sectors. However, following negotiations with the Nikita Khrushchev government and an agreement of compromises between the two parties, troops were withdrawn and Gomułka's accession was accepted.

This contrasted with events in Hungary that same year, where the Imre Nagy government sought to implement similar reforms, but the Soviet Union invaded to crush what became known as the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Gomułka had to contend with huge student protests in 1968, but opposed the repressive measures implemented by Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubček against protests there that same year, known as the Prague Spring, which were also put down by Soviet tanks.


Polish workers revolted again in 1970 against rising prices, with protests breaking out in northern Baltic cities, such as Gdańsk and Szczecin. After violent repression, the situation became untenable, leading to Gomułka’s replacement as president.

These protests were the embryo of what would become Solidarność (Solidarity), a trade union that succeeded in mobilising millions of workers across the country in the 1980s.

Solidarność was the first independent trade union in a Soviet bloc country. A broad grassroots social movement, it confronted the bureaucracy and fought for better living conditions and worker self-management in factories.

Its program, known as the “21 Demands of the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee”, included acceptance of free trade unions, guarantees for the right to strike, freedom of expression, reinstatement of workers fired for striking, wage rises, a reduction in sales of products to the West (to ensure the domestic market had adequate supplies), a five-day working week, and an increase in the length of maternity leave.

This program, and the mass mobilisation that supported it, forced the Polish government to sign the Gdańsk Accords and formally legalise Solidarność. The crisis resulted in Stanisław Kania taking over from President Edward Gierek in August 1980 and the start of a new opening up process that lasted about a year.

Extensive mobilisations in 1981 then led to Kania’s replacement by hardline general Wojciech Jaruzelski, who declared martial law across the country, during which more than 5000 Solidarność members were arrested in a single night. Since the union had sought to operate entirely within the law and had no clandestine structure, this brutal wave of repression led to the dismantlement of much of its leadership.

New waves of arrests occurred over the next few years, forcing Solidarność underground from where it distributed newspapers (many of which were printed by the French Trotskyists of the Fourth International) and carried out other resistance activities.

Solidarność was not a socialist organisation. Its main leader, Lech Walesa, had participated in the 1970 protests only to later collaborate with the regime before breaking with it definitively in 1976. A Catholic, he visited the Pope in 1981 and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 after spending almost a year in prison.

He had enormous popularity among workers, which he often used to shift the union's positions closer to his own, even if this required going against its own statutes at times.

The United States government undoubtedly took advantage of the situation, including by funding the Polish opposition indirectly through the AFL-CIO trade union federation and political parties. But it should be noted that, even with its access to confidential information about the Jaruzelski government, US intelligence services never issued any warning about the repression that took place in 1981.

Impact of Putin’s war

The restoration of capitalism at the end of the 1980s triggered a transformation in the Polish political landscape that was largely incomprehensible to outside observers.

According to parliamentary deputy Maciej Konieczny from the left party Razem (Together) it was a very contradictory moment across the entire political spectrum, with the Polish left shifting to support for neoliberalism, while right-wing sectors could be found standing up for an agenda of defending social rights. It became impossible to use socialist terms and symbols due to the dark legacy left behind by the former bureaucratic regime.

The situation today remains quite contradictory. The ruling right-wing nationalist party, Law and Justice (PiS), has enacted a series of social measures that have ensured its popularity while pushing an extremely conservative agenda. With a discourse that is anti-immigration and against the rights of women and the LGBT population, PiS has aligned itself with the international far right of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, among others.

These far-right sectors have maintained a contradictory stance towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; unsurprising, given that the European far right has been sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin and — in cases such as Le Pen's — even financed by his government.

In response to the refugee crisis created by Putin’s war, President Andrzej Duda was forced to change his government’s policy and open Poland’s borders to Ukrainians, just a few months after he violently deported refugees from Africa and the Middle East that had arrived via neighbouring Belarus.

It is worth noting that relations between Poland and Ukraine have always been tense, with territorial disputes dating back centuries.

This context has profoundly influenced the positions of the Polish left, which finds itself operating within a very conservative political context that is pressured by Western imperialism on one hand and harassed by neighbouring Russian imperialism on the other.

[Bruno Magalhães is a Brazilian historian, editor of Revista Movimento, and member of the International Commission of the Socialist Left Movement (MES), a tendency within the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL). This article was first published in Portuguese in Revista Movimento. It has been translated, abridged and edited for clarity by Federico Fuentes]