YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

From Party Boss to Chimney Painter : Senior Polish Official Opts for Simpler Life

July 20, 1986|MICHAEL DOBBS | The Washington Post

WARSAW — Mihajlo Jagielo decided that the life of a senior Communist Party apparatchik was not for him on the day the Polish "workers' state" sent tanks and riot police to crush a trade union. So he switched to painting chimneys and contributing articles to a Jesuit newspaper.

The tragicomic twist of fortune experienced by Jagielo, the highest Communist Party official to resign in protest against the imposition of martial law on Dec. 13, 1981, is symbolic of the social and ideological upheavals in Poland's recent history.

This is the story of an honest man who discovered that the phrase "liberal Communist" is a contradiction in terms. It is the story of how, during one revolution, the moderates were crushed between opposing political extremes. And finally, it is the story of what has happened to Poland in the five years since Solidarity was at its peak.

Jagielo found himself catapulted into a key post in the Communist Party's Central Committee--in charge of overseeing Polish culture--at a time when the regime was trying desperately to win society's confidence.

He handed in his party card after coming to the conclusion that the only way Communists could remain in power in Poland was through force.

In Warsaw, the Central Committee building is known as the White House--the original color of the huge, neoclassical palace that serves as a monument to the centralized system of decision-making in this country.

During the 16-month Solidarity period, it provided an ideal vantage point for watching the behind-the-scenes intrigue that resulted in Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's military crackdown.

Jagielo was born in 1944 as his war-weary nation fell under Soviet domination. Like many Poles, he joined the Communist Party for entirely pragmatic reasons.

The party seemed to be the only possible avenue for useful political activity in the mid-1960s. The choice was simple: either cooperate with the regime or give up all hope of changing things for the better.

He quickly discovered that there were other advantages to party membership. As head of the rescue service in Poland's southern Tatra mountains, he needed to buy specialized mountaineering equipment from Switzerland.

To acquire the Western currency he needed to buy the equipment, he tapped his Communist Party contacts in nearby Krakow.

"It's ridiculous, but that's the way the system works," he said. "In order to buy ropes in order to save people's lives, I had to become a politician myself. Everything is political in Poland."

First Crisis

Jagielo's first crisis of conscience came in December, 1970, when the Communist Party leader at the time, Wladyslaw Gomulka, ordered troops to fire on striking shipyard workers in Gdansk.

Jagielo thought about quitting the party then but was persuaded to stay on after Gomulka was replaced as first secretary by Edward Gierek. Talk of political renewal filled the air.

Ten years later, Gierek went the same way as Gomulka, toppled from power by a tidal wave of unrest along the Baltic Coast. Yet another Communist leader--a thick-jowled peasant's son named Stanislaw Kania--promised to try to regain the nation's trust.

As a symbol of his good intentions, a group of reform-minded Communists from Krakow was drafted into Poland's White House. Among them was Mihajlo Jagielo.

Disputes broke out almost immediately between the new apparatchiks and the remnants of the old guard. The reformers wanted the party to seize the political initiative by making sweeping concessions to the newly formed independent trade unions.

Their premise was that it was necessary to sacrifice a good deal of power in order to retain any at all. This was an anathema to the hard-liners, who insisted that the party could not allow any challenge to its monopoly on decision-making.

"The party liberals wanted to work with society," Jagielo said. "We weren't willing to use ruthless measures to hang on to power. And this was the cause of our undoing. The Bolshevik political model is geared toward grabbing and retaining power."

The reformers within the Polish Communist Party were caught in a hopeless position. They were mistrusted by Moscow and opposed by hard-liners within the Polish leadership.

Their well-intentioned efforts were also viewed with skepticism by ordinary Poles, who remembered the failure of previous attempts at reform.

Solidarity strategists were haunted by memories of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Kremlin, they recalled, had intervened to crush a reform movement launched from within the Czech Communist Party.

Solidarity concluded was that it was better to leave Poland's Communist Party unreformed and organize a separate power structure.

The Solidarity analysis was correct as far as it went. The Soviets did refrain from invading Poland, and power drained away from the local party. But the apparatus of state repression--the Army, riot police and secret services--remained intact. That was the power base that allowed Jaruzelski to move against Solidarity in December, 1981.

Los Angeles Times Articles