Anyone who knows Polish society knows that it is obsessed with history. The streets of Polish cities are dotted with countless statues of both Polish and foreign heroes (the monuments to Charles de Gaulle and Ronald Reagan in Warsaw come to mind), historical dramas flood Polish multiplexes each year while some historical controversies seem to never be resolved. One of them concerns Colonel Ryszard Kukliński, a Polish member of the communist-era military General Staff who sent 42,000 pages of valuable classified Warsaw Pact documents to the CIA.
Recently, the controversy regarding Kukliński has returned, as Poland recently marked the 10th anniversary of his death, a new film directed by Władysław Pasikowski has become a box office hit across Poland and a majority in the Polish Parliament has voted in favor of a resolution proclaiming Kukliński a hero. Meanwhile, Polish Member of the European Parliament Paweł Kowal has recently initiated a petition to rename a Warsaw street now named for the communist People’s Army after Kukliński.
Yet many Poles are ambivalent about Kukliński, ironically largely because of the influence of veterans’ of the 1980s struggle against communism. Nonetheless, a closer look at Kukliński’s legacy reveals that he was a particularly compassionate man determined to prevent nuclear warfare. Furthermore, Kukliński should be a symbol of the Polish-American alliance and of Poland’s membership in NATO and the European Union.
Compassionate and courageous since childhood
A quick overview of Colonel Kukliński’s biography reveals that he was sensitive towards human suffering from his childhood, and that sense of decency and compassion would later lead to his turning against communism. Born in 1930 in Warsaw, Kukliński’s father was a member of the Polish Socialist Party and a devoted admirer of Marshal Józef Piłsudski, Poland’s interwar leader whose military genius helped the less-equipped Polish Army defeat the Bolsheviks at the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, thus preventing a planned Soviet overrunning of the entire European continent. In other words, while Piłsudski was certainly a leftist, he was also an ardent anti-communist who was not naïve about the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda. It was in this ideological atmosphere that the young Ryszard Kukliński grew up.
Additionally, Kukliński’s family was devoutly Catholic, and as a young boy he was expected to become a priest. Later, as a member of the General Staff of the communist Polish Army Kukliński continued to practice his faith in secret. Kukliński’s faith unquestionably helped him later see that Soviet imperialism was but moral gangrene.
Perhaps the most beautiful example of Kukliński’s compassion as a young boy was his aid to Warsaw’s Jews. Kukliński’s family lived near the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation of the city, and at the age of 12 and 13 in 1942 to 1943 (when the ghetto was ultimately liquidated after its inhabitants heroically but, tragically, unsuccessfully stood up to their oppressors) he would regularly look for holes in the wall separating the ghetto from the rest of Warsaw and smuggle in food to Warsaw’s Jews, who were awaiting certain death. In Nazi-occupied Poland even the slightest compassionate gesture towards Jews resulted in immediate execution. It is clear that already as a child, Kukliński was willing to aid others at enormous personal risk.
As an adult, Kukliński’s moral fortitude and empathy led to his ultimate rejection of communism and decision to help the West. First, in 1968 he felt ashamed as a Polish officer that his country’s military was sending tanks to Czechoslovakia to crush its government’s reformist course. Next, in 1970 Polish workers in Gdynia on the Baltic coast began striking to protest against a rise in meat prices. As a result, the militia was sent to Gdynia to brutally beat and shoot striking workers. In particular this latter episode had a dramatic impact on Kukliński, exposing the perfidy of an ideology that proclaims to help the working man, yet ultimately kills shipyard workers whose only crime was to demand the most basic standards of a decent life.
From the late 1970s until 1981, Kukliński met on numerous occasions with American diplomats to provide them confidential Soviet Bloc materials under the codename “Jack Strong.” Unquestionably, the most valuable documents that Kukliński gave the United States were those that clearly showed the plans for a Soviet nuclear invasion of Western Europe. Thanks to Kukliński the U.S. was informed of this and was able to react properly and prevent a nuclear holocaust.
In 1981, Kukliński fled Poland for the U.S., where he lived until his death from cancer in 2004. The Polish communist government sentenced him to the death penalty, and after the death penalty was lifted in Poland in 1989 his sentence was changed to 25 years in prison. Subsequent Polish governments (although, as will be discussed later, not all of them) after the transition to democracy had to pardon Kukliński as a conditio sine qua non for Poland’s joining of NATO, as laid out by the U.S. Kukliński’s sons died in undetermined circumstances in car accidents in the U.S., and many suspect that the Polish or Russian secret services played a role in their deaths.
Kukliński’s betrayal by Solidarity’s elites
Stalin has often been quoted as saying that bringing communism to Poland is like trying to saddle a cow. Indeed, over the past century the Poles have become famous for their anti-communism. In 1920, the Polish Army’s fortitude and tenacity in its victorious stand against the Bolsheviks surprised everyone. Meanwhile, throughout the 1980s the whole world was inspired by the great courage that Polish workers, intellectuals and farmers showed while fighting their oppressors under the banner of Solidarity. How is it possible, then, that in a country like Poland Kukliński has many opponents? A recent poll published in Poland shows that the Poles are divided: 33% believe he was a hero, 9% – that he was a traitor, and 37% that it is difficult to say.
First of all, the depressing truth is that the elites of Solidarity to a large degree abandoned Kukliński. Among them was Lech Wałęsa. Yes, Lech Wałęsa, the charismatic and brave electrician who led Solidarity to victory and began the process that would end communism in Poland and later all of Eastern Europe. The same Lech Wałęsa who deservedly won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and six years later became the third foreigner in history to address a joint session of the United States Congress.
As president of Poland from 1990 to 1995, Wałęsa refused to pardon Kukliński. Although Wałęsa publicly acknowledged that Kukliński was “heroic”, he nonetheless added that he considers what he did to be treason. Also, a group of Polish war veterans unsuccessfully asked Wałęsa to nominate Kukliński for the Nobel Peace Prize (by anyone’s criteria helping to prevent a nuclear attack against Western Europe by the Soviet Union should be worthy of such a distinction). It is unclear why Wałęsa did not support Kukliński. Regardless, the fact that the person who embodied Solidarity more than any other failed to stand at Kukliński’s side must have influenced public opinion.
However, an icon of Solidarity whose impact on blackening Kukliński’s reputation was even greater than that of Wałęsa, was Adam Michnik, the most famous Polish dissident intellectual under communism. Since 1989, Michnik has been the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, one of Poland’s most influential dailies. Michnik certainly was a brave, brilliant anti-communist dissident in the 1980s. However, since the 1990s his public statements have been baffling. With regards to Kukliński, Michnik has been extremely critical, sounding like a post-communist politician. Michnik has condemned Kukliński as a “traitor” and “American agent”, and said that he “is not a man of honor.”
The irony is that the term “man of honor” was one that Michnik had used with regards to… General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the now-nonagenarian former leader of Poland who introduced martial law in his country in 1981 under the pretext that it avoided a Soviet invasion, despite the fact that now-public documents that are easily-accessible online show that the Soviets were not planning invade their neighbor to the west that year. The former United States Secretary of Defence, Caspar Weinberger famously (and accurately) referred to Jaruzelski as a “Soviet general in a Polish uniform.”
While Michnik has been part of the smear campaign against the colonel, he has become an outspoken public defender of the general. Unfortunately, Michnik – an extremely intelligent man who was imprisoned under martial law and was second only to Václav Havel as the most insightful and famous dissident intellectual behind the Iron Curtain – has eroded away much of his authority by defending Jaruzelski and attacking Kukliński.
Of course, such a position is inconsistent. While in 1968, when Poland’s then-communist leader Władysław Gomułka (whose wife was, ironically, Jewish) undertook an anti-Semitic campaign (euphemistically called “anti-Zionist”) against Poland’s Jewish population, pressuring much of it to flee the country, General Jaruzelski was the primary person responsible for purging the Polish Army of Polish officers of Jewish ancestry. Bafflingly, Michnik himself is of Jewish origin, and one would logically not expect him to defend Jaruzelski.
Other post-Solidarity leaders offered Kukliński scant support. Jacek Kuroń – next to Michnik arguably the second-most influential anti-communist Polish dissident intellectual who spent nine years in prisons for his defence of human rights – publicly said that he refuses to enter the debate on Kukliński’s legacy.
Certainly, there were some post-Solidarity leaders who stood at Kukliński’s side. Professor Jerzy Buzek, prime minister of Poland (1997-2001) and later president of the European Parliament (2009-2011), defended Kukliński. Yet the fact that such iconic figures as Wałęsa and Michnik failed to protect the Cold War hero is unfortunate and has undoubtedly exacerbated the negative opinions about him present in Polish societies.
Brutus, Judas, or the Polish von Stauffenberg?
Having described Kukliński’s background and the arguments of his critics, it is worth evaluating his legacy. The most basic question is: was Kukliński a traitor? From a formal point-of-view, this is a difficult question. Kukliński sent 42,000 pages of Soviet, not Polish, classified documents to the CIA. However, because Poland was then under Soviet domination he technically betrayed his state.
Nonetheless, he betrayed his state, but not his nation. In this regard, Kukliński can be compared to Claus von Stauffenberg (such parallels have been drawn), an ardent German patriot and high-ranking military official who orchestrated a failed plot to assassinate Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Formally, von Stauffenberg was a traitor, yet he wanted to rid the world of a warmongering, mass-murdering maniac. Von Stauffenberg was a traitor of Nazi Germany but served the German nation and gave it a good name.
The United States Capitol Building houses the busts of Kazimierz Pulaski and Tadeusz Kościuszko, two heroes of both Poland and the United States. Pulaski and Kościuszko were Polish patriots who defended their country against Russian aggression in the late 18th century. They also went to the U.S. to help the Americans gain independence from the British. Kościuszko, recruited by Benjamin Franklin in Paris, introduced cavalry to the U.S., engineered the plans for the Battle of Saratoga that Benedict Arnold gave to the British and first proposed creating an American military academy in West Point. Meanwhile, Pulaski died after being fatally wounded fighting British troops at the Battle of Savannah.
I propose that a bust of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński join Pulaski and Kościuszko in the Capitol. Such a gesture would truly cement the colonel’s place in history as a hero of two nations, one who helped the U.S. win the Cold War, simultaneously helping to free Poland. Then Kukliński’s Polish critics can ask themselves not whether or not he was a hero but rather if they would prefer to be part of the West, an ally of the United States and an active country in NATO and the European Union, or if they would prefer to return to the gloomy days of the Soviet yoke.
Filip Mazurcak studied history and Latin American literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University.