In the summer of 1980, Poland experienced labor unrest on an unprecedented scale. Faced with nationwide strikes, the ruling Communist Party was forced to sanction, for the first time in a Soviet-bloc country, the creation of independent trade unions, free of state control.
The emergence of the Solidarity trade union movement was viewed with acute anxiety by the leaders of Poland's neighboring socialist states, the USSR in particular. How, given that the living and working conditions of Soviet workers were at least as bad as those of their Polish counterparts, could the development of similar labor unrest be fore-stalled in the USSR? The rise of Solidarity accordingly contributed to a far-reaching debate over political and economic reform in the USSR. The debate was even more significant since it occurred at a moment when the Soviet leadership was facing a major generational shift and concomitant power struggle. The aging leadership of Leonid Brezhnev had allowed social and economic problems to accumulate to such an extent that the USSR was experiencing stagnation in economic growth. This threatened the informal social contract between leaders and rank-and-file workers.
In the early months of the Polish crisis (late 1980 and early 1981), after deciding against an invasion, the Brezhnev leadership adopted a series of stopgap measures to ward off the danger of contagion. For example, the jamming of Western radio broadcasts was resumed, while government financial priorities were revised to put increased emphasis on consumption.
By the time martial law was declared in Poland in December 1981 it was clear that the danger of spillover to the USSR—if it ever existed—had been averted. Apart from a few isolated strikes and scattered leafleting in the USSR's western republics, the Polish events evoked little sympathy among Soviet workers, who were inclined to believe that the USSR was subsidising its Warsaw Pact allies anyway. Faced with a continuing slowdown in the rate of economic growth, which was leading to stagnation, if not actual reduction, of popular living standards, the Soviet leadership abandoned carrots for sticks. This was exemplified by the brief leadership of Yuri Andropov (1982–1983), who launched a massive campaign to raise workplace discipline and crack down on crime, corruption, and alcoholism, with only limited results.
The Polish events continued to reverberate when, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet communist party. Gorbachev publicly identified himself with reformist Soviet academics who argued that the Polish crisis was attributable not simply to the mistakes of Poland's leaders but to a general weakness afflicting all single-party, planned economies of the Soviet type. Members of the reformist camp used the Polish example to press for radical reforms of the Soviet political and economic system. The Polish experience can accordingly be said to have acted as a catalyst to Gorbachev's policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring).
Gorbachev's efforts to persuade Soviet workers and managers to take responsibility for the quality of their work, in return for enhanced rewards, met first with apathy, then with hostility and resistance. Gradually he adopted more radical measures, culminating in his efforts to strip the communist party of its monopoly on power. In attacking the party, however, Gorbachev was attacking the mainspring of the Soviet system. The result was the collapse of the USSR itself.
See also: gorbachev, mikhail sergeyevich; labor; poland; trade unions
Andrew, Christopher, and Mitrokhin, Vasili. (1999). The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West. London. London: Allen Lane/The Penguin Press.
Teague, Elizabeth. (1988). Solidarity and the Soviet Worker: The Impact of the Polish Events of 1980 on Soviet Internal Politics. London: Croom Helm.