Asset or Liability?
Listen: take steps this very hour that Russia
Be fenced by barriers from Lithuania;
That not a single soul pass o'er the border,
That not a hare run o'er to us from Poland,
Nor crow fly here from Cracow.
—Alexander Pushkin, Boris Godunov
A DECADE AFTER THE INVASION OF CZECHOSlOVAKIA, the Soviets were still working to "normalize" communist rule in Eastern Europe. As détente took a turn for the worse, Moscow asserted bloc cohesion as increasingly vital in managing the decline of commercial relations with the West. But the cause of bloc cohesion continued to face challenges sharply at variance with Moscow's normalization goals. Nowhere was this more visible than in Poland. Nearly a decade of mismanaged growth policies, ballooning national debt, and rising consumer expectations had brought the Polish nation to the point of a popular revolution by 1979. Its Polish United Workers Party (PZPR), under First Secretary Edward Gierek since 1970, had sought to base its credibility on comparatively liberal economic and social policies aimed at winning popular support. However, widespread corruption and misuse of international investments gradually undermined Gierek's efforts, giving rise instead to a nationwide surge of indignant anticommunism. Poles turned from officialdom in all its manifestations and began to create a semilegal civil society, free from Party censors or state controls.
A number of momentous events served to galvanize this popular rejection of state authority. The 1978 election of the Polish Karol Cardinal Wojtyla to the papacy fired the furnace of national pride in Poland more than any event since the capture of Kiev in 1920. As the new pontiff undertook a policy of extensive engagement in Eastern Europe, Poles responded with a renaissance of Catholic activism that quickly spilled over into surrounding states, including the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, nationalists successfully rallied popular emotion around the memory of Polish martyrs executed by the Soviets in World War II. Unforgotten and unforgiven, this crime of a bygone era still loomed large in the public imagination, explicitly discrediting Soviet power and its allies in the Polish government.