Bierut, Boleslaw (1892–1956)

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BIERUT, BOLESŁAW (1892–1956)


Polish Communist leader.

Born in 1892 in a suburb of Lublin, in the Russian-ruled part of Poland, Bierut grew up in a poor, Catholic family. His parents were impoverished peasants who had just moved to the city; of their twelve children only five lived to adulthood. Bierut did not complete elementary school. Although Russian proved most useful in his future political career, during the 1905 Revolution he joined a student strike in demand for instruction in Polish and consequently was dismissed. In the next few years he took various manual jobs but also read widely. Bierut became active in a secret patriotic youth circle, and at the age of sixteen he joined the printers' trade union. Evening classes enabled him to take a clerk position in a grocery cooperative, which began his career in the cooperative movement. In 1910 he met Jan Hempel, a self-taught philosopher and Freemason who greatly influenced young Bierut and in 1912 introduced him to the (illegal) socialist movement. Bierut joined the radical, left splinter of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS-Left). In 1918, as Poland was regaining independence, the PPS-Left merged into the Communist Party; in this way Bierut became a Communist.

In the 1920s Bierut advanced within the Communist Party of Poland (KPP) and in the cooperative movement. He was by no means outstanding, rather a mediocre but diligent and devoted activist. Like many Communist adherents, loyalty to the party and to the USSR ("the fatherland of the world's proletariat") became Bierut's guiding principle. As a party functionary beginning in 1925, he visited the Soviet Union several times and was admitted to Lenin's International School, which combined political instruction with military and intelligence training. In Moscow he met his second wife, Małgorzata Fornalska, a KPP activist. In 1931–1932, under the alias "Iwanow," Bierut became the Comintern envoy to Austria, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia. The police interrupted his activity in Poland with repeated arrests and eventually a longer imprisonment from 1933 to 1938. Paradoxically, imprisonment saved his life: during what became known as the Great Purges most of the KPP leaders were summoned to Moscow and executed. Because of alleged infiltration by Polish intelligence, the Comintern disbanded the KPP in 1938.

Following the German-Soviet partition of Poland in 1939, Bierut went to the Soviet zone but did not play any prominent role there. After the German invasion in 1941 he worked in the local administration in Minsk and probably also served in the Soviet intelligence. In 1943 the Soviets moved him to Warsaw, where (as comrade "Tomasz") he entered the executive committee of the new Polish Workers' Party (PPR). In early 1944 he took the chairmanship of the Communist-dominated National Council of the Homeland (KRN), which despite its narrow political base challenged the mainstream underground movement, which was loyal to the Polish government-in-exile.

In the summer of 1944, when the Soviet-backed Polish Committee for National Liberation began to build its administration in territories freed of Germans, KRN was declared the official legislature; Bierut began to act as the head of state and used the title of president. Following the spurious elections of 1947, the Communist-dominated Diet (Sejm) confirmed him in this position. Meanwhile he went to Moscow several times and earned Joseph Stalin's confidence. His membership in the PPR and its Politburo remained secret until 1948 when, along with the Stalin-Tito rift and the tightening of Moscow's grip on its satellites, he replaced Wladisław Gomułka as the party's secretary general. He was most eager to eradicate "deviations" inside the party and accelerate the Sovietization of Poland. The latter included completing the process of building a monolithic and monopolist Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR), suppression of all independent organizations, forced collectivization, heavy industrialization, mass political mobilization, and mass repression. He strictly followed Soviet Cold War policies in aggressive anti-Western propaganda, isolating Poland from the West and dramatically increasing military spending during the Korean war.

Quiet, modest, and polite, Bierut was an unlikely tyrant, yet he became one of the "little Stalins" (like Hungary's Rakosi or Albania's Enver Hoxha): head of a gigantic party-state pyramid and object of public worship, with his icons omnipresent, his name given to factories and schools, his sixtieth birthday a national holiday. He personally supervised progress of political trials and rejected thousands of petitions for pardon of death sentence. He continued to be called "Stalin's most faithful student" by Polish communist propaganda, even after the latter's death. Destalinization in the USSR literally killed him: he went to the CPSU Twentieth Congress despite serious illness, and his health deteriorated further after hearing Khrushchev's "secret speech." He died in Moscow in March 1956, opening the struggle for succession inside the Polish Communist Party.

See alsoCold War; Collectivization; Destalinization; Gomułka, Władysław; Hoxha, Enver; Poland; Stalin, Joseph.


Kozłowski, Czesław. Namiestnik Stalina. Warsaw, 1993.

Lipiński, Piotr. Bolesław Niejasny. Opowieść o Foreście Gumpie polskiego komunizmu. Warsaw, 2001.

Paczkowski, Andrzej. The Spring Will Be Ours: Poland and the Poles from Occupation to Freedom. University Park, Pa., 2003.

Dariusz Stola