Poland's last communist leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski dies at 90
By Vanessa Gera, AP
May 27, 2014, 12:01 am TWN
WARSAW, Poland--Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the survivor of a Siberian labor camp, was an unlikely servant to the Soviet Union and its communist ideology.
Poland's last communist leader, the general in tinted glasses who was best known for his 1981 martial law crackdown on the Solidarity union, died Sunday at age 90 after a long struggle with cancer and a recent stroke.
Born into a patriotic and Catholic Polish milieu, Jaruzelski and his family were deported to Siberia by the Red Army during World War II. That harsh land took his father's life and inflicted snow blindness on Jaruzelski, forcing him to wear dark glasses.
Despite his suffering at Soviet hands, Jaruzelski faithfully imposed Moscow's will on his subjugated nation until communism crumbled across the region in 1989.
Poland is still deeply divided over whether to view Jaruzelski as a traitor who did Moscow's dirty work or as a patriot who made an agonizing decision to spare the country the bloodshed of a Soviet invasion.
Jaruzelski stirs up these emotions for his defining act: His 1981 imposition of martial law, a harsh crackdown aimed at crushing the pro-democracy Solidarity movement founded months earlier by Lech Walesa.
Commenting on his death, Walesa called him a "great man of the generation of betrayal."
"Those times were complicated, I'm leaving the assessment to God," Walesa said.
Another of Jaruzelski's chief adversaries, communist-era dissident Adam Michnik, believes now that general had no choice.
"If you have to choose between martial law and a Russian military intervention, you should not hesitate," Michnik told The Associated Press on Sunday. "It's clear that it was the lesser evil."
Jaruzelski preferred to be remembered for the negotiations he backed eight years later that helped dismantle the regime and set Poland on track to become the thriving democracy it is today.
The suppression of Solidarity resulted in the imprisonment of thousands of dissidents, the deaths of dozens and economic stagnation.
"A tragic believer in Communism who made a pact with the devil in good faith" is how the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic described Jaruzelski.
The image of Jaruzelski in his drab olive military uniform announcing martial law on state television remains iconic to Poles. Straight-backed and betraying no emotion, he read from documents as he announced martial law and the outlawing of Solidarity, the first independent labor union in the communist bloc.
"The Polish-Soviet alliance is, and will remain, the foundation of Poland's state interest," he said.
For the next 18 months, Poles lived with curfews, dead phone lines and armed troops and tanks on the streets. Nearly 100 people died during the crackdown, while tens of thousands of Solidarity activists were imprisoned, including future Polish presidents Walesa — the Solidarity leader — and Lech Kaczynski.
Jaruzelski, who headed the government from 1981-85 and the party from 1981 until the communist regime's collapse in 1989, repeatedly defended his decision.
Warding Off 'the greater evil": Soviet Intervention
"The greater evil would have been a (Soviet) intervention," he said in a 2005 interview with the AP.
He sought historical vindication.
This photo taken on May 28, 2009 shows Poland's last communist leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, as he speaks with the AP during an interview at his office in Warsaw, Poland.