The end of the 1970s and the early 1980s marked a real negative period for the Soviet Union’s foreign policy. They ended the decade with an invasion of Afghanistan, which has often been compared to America’s involvement in Vietnam. Both of these wars were viewed negatively on the global scene. This context for the USSR was therefore still evident during the time of unrest in Poland.
The emergence of Solidarity and its popularity was huge and arguably was crucial to aiding the end of the Cold War in 1989 with the collapse of the Eastern European Soviet satellite nations. The fall of communism in Poland certainly was crucial to the spread of rejection of communism around Eastern Europe. Although the Solidarity group was officially formed in August 1980, it had its origins in 1976 when there was a Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR). This group was formed by dissident intellectuals who organised strikes in many cities.
The creation of Solidarity was interestingly aided by religion. Pope John Paul II was, some would argue, very important to the creation of the group. He was the first Pope to be Polish and this no doubt had a big influence on the Polish people, especially when he visited them in June 1979. He called for his people to recapture their own destiny. Many thousands came to visit him in his papal visit and supposedly he broke down the barrier of fear, gave them belief. Many Polish people realised that by sticking together in Solidarity, the authorities would have less power. Some historians have gone on to use this Catholic influence to claim that the Pope was crucial to the ending of communism in Eastern Europe and the Cold War, which arguably is a little too farfetched and narrow of a view.
In 1980 Solidarity really began, with the economy in crisis, shortages everywhere and food prices rising, there was an illegal strike in the Gdansk shipyard. 17,000 workers barricaded themselves in and presented the Polish government with 21 demands based on workers’ rights. The government chose to negotiate with the strikers, and their leader Walesa, they gave way to the workers key demands. They agreed on self-governing trade unions, the right to strike, more political expression and religious freedoms. Once the lid of democracy had been lifted and eased open, the people would always want more, and this is what happened.
One Solidarity activist, Karol Modzelewski, claimed that they had a taste of being citizens, with civil liberties, which you don’t forget. Like a narcotic, like breathing fresh air for the first time.
This is a bold statement about how great this progression was for the people, especially for those in Solidarity in the early 1980s, who numbered about 10 million, about a third of the working age population. Interestingly, the USA provided covert aid to the group, met their requests of providing them with communication materials. The Solidarity movement had gained too much momentum for the Soviets, they were increasingly exerting pressure on Polish leader, Wojciech Jaruzelski. The USSR pressured him to fix the problem and placed Warsaw Pact forces around Poland but had no intention of following through with the threat. The opinion was that under no circumstance could they invade Poland, the USSR did not want another Afghanistan on its hands, the Polish government had to do it internally. Brezhnev sent this message in an ultimatum letter to Jaruzelski, the structure of the nation was not to be changed. Martial law was imposed, in December a nationwide strike was organised, the Polish government sent in the army, the Solidarity leaders were arrested and the group was banned. It did however remain active underground and re-emerged in the late 1980s.