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Poland's inner freedom

By Elizabeth K. Valkenier, Special to The Christian Science MonitorThe writer was in Poland for three months this summer on a Polish-American cultural exchange program. She teaches at Columbia University's Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union. / January 6, 1984



Ever since the imposition of martial law in December 1981, the Sovietization of Poland has been a predominant theme in the Western press. But arriving in Copenhagen in mid-September after a three-month stay in Warsaw, I did not experience that relieved exhilaration I invariably do on returning from the Soviet Union.

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This was not the feeling of having left an oppressive and oppressed country and reentered the free world. I left Poland convinced that the Poles act and hence are like a free people. This human factor - the independent variable - plays a crucial role in the Polish situation.

What prevents the Sovietization of Poland?

Foremost it is the Poles' psychology and demeanor, richly nurtured by a secure national self-image that comes from a distinct and cherished historical experience.

The self-perception of the Poles is rooted in the long tradition of Western political values. That in turn makes Soviet-style institutions and thinking alien and untransplantable on Polish soil. Not surprisingly, Poland is the only Soviet satellite where 80 percent of farming remains in private hands.

Similarly, years of indoctrination have not convinced the Poles that the communist principles of economic and social equality are more basic than those of individual liberty.

When arguing with a foundry worker whose children received higher education and moved on to white-collar jobs, I suggested that such social opportunity had not existed before World War II.

His response was quick and unmistakable. ''Yes,'' he agreed, ''the communists may have given us equality, but we do not have freedom.''

That simple, basic fact makes the postwar social gains only half-real.

National independence is as much a part of the Polish identity as is personal liberty. And the experience of 130 years of resistance to foreign rule following the country's partition in the late 18th century is etched in the collective and individual memory.

Poland's present-day relationship to the Soviet Union is seen as nothing but a replay of czarist Russia's domination. All the post-1944 efforts to dull the edge of resentment toward the Soviet Union have had no effect, even among the communists.

This reporter was not surprised when a high Communist Party functionary in the Ministry of Education commented that, sure, the October Revolution was important for the rebirth of Poland in 1918, but not because the Bolsheviks proclaimed the right to national self-determination (as all the school textbooks intone). It was crucial because their civil war kept the Soviets from interfering in Poland.

During the 16 months of Solidarity's existence, Poland's separate identity reasserted itself and flourished. The creation of the independent labor movement was only a part of the renovation.

Renewal consisted just as much in steps to emancipate all civil society from other Soviet-type institutions. Poles have tasted independence on various levels , and this experience sustains their resistance to the military regime, their determination not ''to give in,'' not to ''become another Kazakhstan.''

The crowds' response to the Pope's visit in June was a demonstration of that resolve. In the weeks that followed, I had a chance to observe how all-pervasive that spirit is. It is conveyed in everyday behavior no less than in open political dissent.

The Polish People's Republic may officially be a workers' state. But the population at large is guided by the social forms and graces of the pre-World War II upper class whose political ascendancy is irrevocably over.

'Madame' and 'Monsieur,' not 'Comrade'

Hand-kissing has become universal. So is the presenting of flowers to make almost any occasion from casual visits to name-day parties. As forms of address, ''Comrade'' and ''Citizen'' are rarely used - and then only in party offices. Elsewhere it is the Polish equivalent of ''Monsieur'' and ''Madame.''