Koszutska, Maria (1876–1939)

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Koszutska, Maria (1876–1939)

Polish Socialist and Communist leader who was the most politically prominent non-Soviet woman killed during the Soviet purges of the 1930s. Name variations: (party names) Wera Kostrzewa; Vera Kostrzewa; Vera Kocheva; Vera Kostisheva; M. Zboinska; M.Z. Born Maria Koszutska in Glowczyn near Kalisz, Russian Poland, on February 2, 1876; secretly arrested in 1937 and killed in 1939; daughter of a landowner.

A professional revolutionary for virtually her entire adult life, Maria Koszutska was one of the founders and leaders of the Communist Party of Poland. Joseph Stalin attacked her views in 1924, and she bravely defended them as a delegate to a Congress of the Communist International. Like most of the Polish Communist leaders residing in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, she was secretly arrested (1937) and killed (1939).

Maria Koszutska, who would be known throughout most of her adult life as Vera or Wera Kostrzewa, was born on her parents' estate at Glowczyn near Kalisz, Russian Poland, on February 2, 1876. Like many members of the gentry (szlachta) class, she was raised in a tradition that fused literature and Romantic revolutionary fervor. She was trained as a teacher and drawn to the Socialist revolutionary movement early in life, as were many others of her generation. Already active in these circles by the dawn of the 20th century, Maria joined the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) in 1902, carrying out her party assignments mostly in the industrial city of Lodz. After being imprisoned by the Russian authorities in 1903 and exiled in 1904, she resumed her revolutionary activities in Warsaw during 1905, when that city was at the epicenter of nationalist upheavals. Arrested again after the collapse of the revolutionary movement in 1906, she lived in Cracow, St. Petersburg, and Vienna following her release, using her party names—Wera Kostrzewa, Vera Kocheva, M. Zboinska, and M.Z.—to evade detection by agents of the tsarist secret police, particularly when she entered Polish territory to carry out party work.

Koszutska was interested in the fine points of ideology and played a major role in the events that led to the split within the PPS that resulted in the creation in 1906 of a new party, the PPS-Left. The nascent organization was grounded in a more orthodox and internationalist Marxist philosophy of action. The "official" PPS became increasingly nationalistic in both its theory and practice, and its leader Jozef Pilsudski—who ruled Poland as a dictator from 1926 until his death in 1935—in later years told one of his former comrades: "My friend, you and I caught the socialist train together. I got off at 'Polish Independence' station. I wish you good luck on your journey to … Utopia."

Koszutska was one of the leaders of the PPS-Left from its birth, serving on its central committee and playing a large part in the formulation of the organization's strategy and tactics. She was instrumental in drafting the official platform of the PPS-Left at its 10th Congress, held in 1908. Convinced that the Polish working class needed to be systematically educated in a broad framework of Marxist internationalism, she was active in various mass educational projects including the "University for All," the Society for Polish Culture, and the Prisoners' Aid Association. In 1915, these educational efforts for workers were formally organized in the Swiatolo (The Light) organization. In 1916, Koszutska helped to found the Rechniewski Workers' Club.

A tireless agitator and publicist, she served on many editorial boards and wrote innumerable polemical articles in both legal and under-ground journals and newspapers. From 1908 through 1914, she was associate editor of Robotnik (The Worker), the PPS-Left official organ. At the same time, she contributed to or was editorially involved with most of the illegal publications of the Polish revolutionary Marxist movement, including Na barykady (On the Barricades),Mysla Socjalistyczna (Socialist Thought), Wiedza (Knowledge), Nowym Zyciem (New Life), Swiatlem (The Light), Glos Robotniczy (Workers' Voice), and Kuznia (The Forge). Koszutska was a fervent believer in the historical validity of an internationalist perspective for the triumph of both the Polish and European working class, and she was a relentless critic of nationalism in the proletarian movement. Recognizing the destructive power of anti-Semitism, she attacked this Polish prejudice in a number of sharply written articles, including "Pseudo-Knowledge in the Service of Anti-Semitism" (Kuznia, No. 8, 1914).

The chaos and suffering of World War I, which impacted the lives of millions of Poles, only strengthened Koszutska's revolutionary spirit. During the war years, she was the de facto head of the entire PPS-Left organization in German-occupied Polish territory. Continuing to oppose the nationalistic line taken by the PPS, she was strongly against what she regarded as Jozef Pilsudski's Polish chauvinism, favoring instead a future Socialist society in which national independence and respect for ethnic diversity were basic postulates. Her viewpoints in many ways paralleled those of the leadership of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL), founded by Rosa Luxemburg and led by, among others, Adolf Warski (also known as Adolf Warski-Warszawski). In 1917, Koszutska hailed the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and in August 1918, in a series of articles published in Glos Robotniczny, she defended Lenin's proletarian dictatorship against its critics in Polish Socialist circles.

In November 1918, Poland regained its national independence after more than a century of foreign occupation. That December, Poland's Socialist left-wing parties, the PPS-Left and the SDKPiL, joined to form a united Marxist revolutionary party, the Communist Party of Poland (KPP). Koszutska was elected both to the KPP secretariat and to its Central Committee. Realizing that the majority of Poland's working class supported the PPS rather than the freshly minted KPP, in the first months of the new party's existence she organized a council of workers' delegates to bring the new party, which had a disproportionate number of urban Jewish intellectuals in its leadership, more in touch with the working-class rank and file.

By 1920, Koszutska had established herself as one of the unchallenged leaders of the Polish Communist movement. Along with Adolf Warski and Henryk Walecki, she had established a high profile for herself as one of the KPP's "Three Ws" (Warski, Walecki, and Wera). The year 1920 brought both elation and heartbreak for Polish Communists like Koszutska. In the summer of that year, it briefly appeared likely that a war between Lenin's Russia and the Polish Republic would end with a victory for the Red Army; this conquest would guarantee the establishment of a Communist society in Poland, and possibly even the spread of the world revolution into Germany and the rest of Europe. When the "miracle of the Vistula" dashed these hopes and the Red Army retreated back into Russia, the KPP suffered a traumatic defeat. Koszutska was arrested twice during this period, and after her release from prison she went into exile, living in Danzig (now Gdansk) and Berlin.

Aware that the vast majority of the Polish people were impoverished peasants, Koszutska studied the agrarian question from both a theoretical and a tactical perspective. In April 1922, she delivered a report on this issue to the third KPP national conference. In November of the same year, she repeated this in Moscow at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, or Comintern (the "general directorate of the world revolution"), where she served as a deputy representative of the KPP Central Committee to the Comintern's Executive Committee. In her reports, Koszutska emphasized that "in Poland the Revolution will be a worker-peasant revolution or none at all." Although the peasantry was in many ways a conservative social element, she argued, its grievances were deep, and the KPP could reap great benefits if it took advantage of the peasants' hunger for land by backing this demand for private property despite the contradiction to orthodox Marxist theory. Koszutska also believed that, given the relative numerical and organizational weakness of the KPP, it should strive where possible to create strategic alliances with the PPS, whose moderate socialist position remained popular with the majority of the working class.

Koszutska's power within the organization increased in 1923. That year, she was elected to the KPP Politburo, representing the party in exile (the party had been banned in Poland). In the early summer of 1924, she was once again in the Soviet Union to attend the Fifth Congress of the Comintern. This congress, the first of the Comintern held since the death of Vladimir Lenin in January 1924, revealed an entirely new political landscape in revolutionary Russia. Rapidly emerging as the most powerful personality in the Soviet Communist Party was Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), a professional revolutionary about whom Lenin had issued dire warnings in the final months of his life. At the 9th Congress of the Russian (later Soviet) Communist Party in 1922, Stalin had become general secretary, and he cunningly used that power to advance his own rise to an unchallengeable position. Ruthless and tactically brilliant, Stalin had yet to achieve absolute power in 1924, but he already revealed a colossal hunger for control and a remarkable ability to manipulate various party factions for his ultimate benefit.

An ultra-leftist group had accused the "Three Ws" of being too conciliatory on both the agrarian question and on the matter of alliances with the PPS, and Stalin used factional disputes within the KPP to create a Polish Commission within the Comintern to "rectify" the tensions within the Polish Communist Party. When it became clear that Stalin was siding with the ultra-leftists, Koszutska spoke out forcefully both on her own behalf and in defense of KPP policies. She addressed the commission twice, on July 1–2, 1924. The second time she spoke, on July 2, 1924, both her courage in defending her position and the intensity of her clash with Stalin was revealed. Demanding more time to speak than the five minutes she had been allotted, Koszutska noted drily, "Comrade Stalin has tried to sort our affairs out and to grasp what ails us. We must thank him for it, but I can't agree with him on everything." Asserting that, "We have never feared bitter clashes," she accused Stalin of having made "completely groundless" charges of opportunism against the KPP. At the same time, she accepted accusations of shortcomings, caused in her view by the fact that the party leadership lived abroad due to the illegality of the party on Polish soil.

At that meeting, Koszutska disagreed also with Stalin's ally Vyacheslav Molotov, telling him, "You cannot speak here about any single and absolutely reliable method as a principle which it is opportunistic to violate." Concerned by signs that many of the Comintern delegates had become little more than unquestioning puppets of Stalin, she addressed them boldly, "Comrades, broken bones knit in our Communist International. I fear something else altogether. Precisely because of your special privilege, it is not those people whose bones you may for whatever reason want to break who are a danger, but spineless people." Voicing her suspicions regarding the about-face of Comintern delegates whose former support had now turned into a repudiation of KPP leadership strategy, and suggesting that not principles but naked opportunism was at work, Koszutska challenged Stalin directly by asserting, "We must note that this is a dangerous thing which we cannot trust." Responding to this comment, surely an unwelcome one, Stalin asked her, "Do you regard this as unnatural?," to which she replied, "Yes, unnatural to say the least."

Determined to speak the truth as she saw it and not bend to the will of an assemblage of Stalinist loyalists, Koszutska defended the KPP's honor, describing the organization as "one of the more, if not the most revolutionary in the Com-intern. Despite its clandestine status and the vicious persecution unleashed against it, it has succeeded in maintaining its ties with the masses and inspiring them with its militant spirit."

Then, addressing her Polish comrades in the Comintern, she minced no words in voicing her profound sense of disappointment: "My charge against you is not that you failed to defend us but that you failed to defend yourselves, your work and your achievements. This I will never forgive you. Because of you, the entire Com-intern has a false impression of our work. It is your elementary duty before the party to present its image as it really is. You failed to do that."

The outcome was a foregone conclusion. The leadership of the "Three Ws" was eliminated, mainly because they had chosen not to support Stalin and his ally Grigori Zinoviev in the struggle against the faction led by Leon Trotsky. At the third KPP congress, held in January 1925, Koszutska's influence was further eroded when she was not reelected to the party's Central Committee. Nevertheless, she retained some support within the KPP and was invited to present a report on the agrarian question at the party's fourth national conference held in November

of that year. Because Stalin's power, while growing, was by no means yet absolute, Koszutska again appeared at a Comintern meeting, the Sixth Congress, held in 1928, when she was even seen on the presidium rostrum and took part in the debates. In 1929, however, the replacement of Nikolai Bukharin by Molotov signaled the final Stalinization of the Comintern, and the residual influence still exercised by the "Three Ws" was swept aside once and for all with a thorough purge of the KPP.

Starting in 1930, Koszutska lived permanently in Moscow. She worked for the Peasants' International and other organizations but no longer had any political power or influence. Despite this, her old nemesis Joseph Stalin never forgot—nor forgave—her candor. In 1936, the great purges began to decimate the best and brightest women and men of the Soviet Union. These included hundreds of foreign revolutionary veterans who, like Maria Koszutska, had found refuge in the workers' state from their own oppressive fascist and reactionary regimes. Ironically, many more Polish Communists died at the hands of Stalin and his GPU (later NKVD) secret police than in the prisons of the Polish dictator-ship. In August 1938, the Presidium of the Com-intern officially dissolved the Communist Party of Poland, noting that it had allowed itself to be infiltrated with fascist and Trotskyite agents—a charge that was fabricated and absurd.

Sometime in 1937, Maria Koszutska, for four decades a dedicated professional revolutionary, was arrested on trumped-up charges. At an unknown date in 1939, she was killed by the security organs of the Stalinist state. It is not known with absolute certainty where she was buried after her murder. In 1990, Conor O'Clery, Moscow correspondent for The Irish Times, wrote that the Memorial Society—an organization created during the Gorbachev era to commemorate the victims of Stalinist repression—discovered the remains of many hundreds and perhaps even several thousands of Polish, German, Hungarian, Rumanian, Yugoslav, Italian and other foreign Communist leaders who were buried in the late 1930s. These were found on the grounds of the Novospasski monastery, one of the ancient fortified churches that once guarded the southern approaches to the Russian capital. On the monastery's grounds, where even now nothing but weeds will grow, there is a stretch of about 100 feet that is believed to be the site of mass graves, and it is likely that Koszutska's remains are buried there. Wrote O'Clery: "If I take anyone to see the monastery now, it is to gaze at the scene of one of the horrors of Stalin's Russia. I've noticed that even on the warmest weekends this summer, very few people sunbathe near the bank with no trees."


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