Friday, November 21, 2008

Rakowski obituary

From The Economist print edition

Mieczyslaw Rakowski, a Polish communist journalist and politician, died on November 8th, aged 81

CLUNKY cogs in the propaganda machine, communist journalists in eastern Europe were a dreary and dutiful lot. Mieczyslaw Rakowski was different. Polityka, the magazine he edited for 24 years, was the most readable official publication in the Soviet block: cogent, insightful, sometimes irreverent.

To foreigners reporting on the long slow death of the Soviet empire, Mr Rakowski was still more interesting in person, giving candid and waspish assessments of the communist regime’s political, economic and personal shortcomings. He was amusing and friendly company, at a time when congeniality was as scarce in the east as toilet paper or matches. Unlike most senior communists, he was not pompous, bullying or hidebound: you could easily believe that he was just another human being, not a defender of a system based on lies and mass murder.

Mr Rakowski did a less impressive job, however, dealing with the people who would eventually run Poland. He habitually sneered at Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity trade union, calling him “Dr Walesa” in a dig at the shipyard electrician’s lack of formal education: a big deal in intellectually snobbish Poland. The Gdansk accords of 1980 gave Poland a few precious months of free public life, but broke down because of Solidarity’s demand for freedom to decide on Poland’s future, and not just to discuss it. Mr Rakowski, by then deputy prime minister and ostensibly representing the interests of the proletariat, memorably lost his temper with the workers’ representatives: “You’d be herding cows if it wasn’t for this system”—pause—“and so would I.”

In that sense Mr Rakowski symbolised Poland’s post-war story. A peasant’s son and a teenage lathe operator, he was talent-spotted by a communist regime which, installed by Soviet military force, was hungry for brain power. He rose through the system in the 1950s, at a time when Poland’s rulers struggled for wiggle-room inside the Soviet block and showed something of a human face at home. For many, the modernisation and industrialisation the regime brought were welcome, regardless of the political label attached to them.

Fried snowballs

Mr Rakowski was usually seen as an arch-trimmer, a prime example of the collaboration forced on Poland by its history. His ability to blow with the wind was best described in a scalding article (published abroad) called “The hairstyles of Mieczyslaw Rakowski”, which noted how the tousled blond locks of the youthful idealist gave way to the grizzled grey of the apparatchik. To Norman Davies, a British historian, the “crumpled faces” of Mr Rakowski and his like revealed their story: “pliable Greeks in a world ruled by cruel Roman savages, whom they serve with infinite regret and infinite agility.”

But it was not all trimming. In the 1960s Mr Rakowski publicly opposed the death penalty, then a heretical and dangerous stance. His finest hour came in 1968, when a quarrel between two factions in the communist party bubbled over into a public anti-Semitic (ostensibly “anti-Zionist”) frenzy. Mr Rakowski stood firm and refused to sack any Jews. Asked to reprint a pre-war article critical of Jews, he refused, saying their ashes were “scattered in the fields around Auschwitz”. Many Poles thought their Nazi and Soviet tormentors were two sides of the same coin; it was remarkable for a senior communist to agree in public, even in part.

But unlike some, he did not leave the party, either then or after martial law was imposed in 1981. With scores killed and thousands jailed, Mr Rakowski became the right-hand man of the country’s new military leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski. He was ambiguous about whether he still truly believed in a democratic form of communism; Leszek Kolakowski, the exiled philosopher, rightly described that as “fried snowballs”. Mr Rakowski preferred to argue that communism protected Poland from the Soviet Union, whereas full-scale opposition would be futile. The anti-communist fighters had died in the forests; the pre-war government, in exile in London, was a husk; the Catholic church was a reactionary force. If history had placed Poland in the communist camp, then hope lay only in being its happiest barracks.

Mr Rakowski’s great ambition was to lead the communist party. He eventually became first secretary (as the job was called), but he was last as well as first, acting as the party’s undertaker in 1989 after the round-table talks paved the way for freedom and true independence. Usually celebrated as an unalloyed triumph, that transfer of power had its drawbacks. Privatisation, launched by Mr Rakowski in the dying years of communism, had allowed influential insiders to start turning power into money to safeguard their positions. Dodgy foreign trade outfits, linked with military intelligence, flourished. Party funds that Mr Rakowski had shipped out of the country returned (via a KGB courier) to launch a new post-communist party.

Mr Rakowski’s career fizzled out, fittingly, in an abortive bid for the Polish senate in 2005. His successful opponent was Radek Sikorski, now foreign minister, who had fled Poland as a political refugee from the martial law that Mr Rakowski so steadfastly defended.

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