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Behind Iron Curtain, two voices vie. Poles symbolize dichotomy of individualism, communist orthodoxy

By William EchiksonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 20, 1986


In the Palace of Culture, a grandiose monument to 1950s-style Stalinist architecture, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski spoke of ``a return to normality.'' To the Polish leader's left sat Mikhail Gorbachev. At the end of the speech, given at Poland's recent Communist Party Congress, the Soviet leader kissed General Jaruzelski -- twice on the cheeks. That same evening late in June, thousands gathered in the northern suburbs at the small, nondescript St. Stanislaw Church. They held up banners of the banned independent trade union Solidarity and mocked the Palace of Culture as the ``Palace of Shame.''

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``We are praying for freedom,'' said one worshiper.

Poland speaks with two strong voices: the communist orthodoxy of the Palace of Culture and the Solidarity heresy of the St. Stanislaw Church. Each voice pushes the other in the direction of unplanned and diverse change, one step forward, then a half step backward.

The communists align the country's foreign policy with the Soviet Union and insure that its domestic policy does not deviate too far from the Soviet model. The opposition sees itself as a vanguard of Western values, fighting for the right to believe in God, to read books critical of communism, and to work for themselves, not the state.

Oddly, these two views often exist in the same individual. Many party members attend Roman Catholic Masses and talk about the need to use more free-market incentives to spur economic efficiency. Many believers at the St. Stanislaw Church criticize the materialism of the Western world and say they want to construct a more religious and egalitarian society.

Throughout Eastern Europe, the scope of life outside official control is increasing.

In Czechoslovakia, for instance, instead of defying their doctrinaire, hard-line government, many Czechs reserve their initiative for their private endeavors. This phenomenon is visible in the national passion for securing, tending, and improving country cottages. ``You go to work all week and bide your time,'' explains Jiri Dienstbier, a spokesman for the dissident group Charter 77. ``Then on the weekend, you have your own place, your own garden.''

Many Hungarians meanwhile devote their energies not to promoting communist ideology, but to acquire a Japanese Sharp stereo or an American-made personal computer.

``People don't think about freedom of the press, freedom of political parties or trade unions here,'' says dissident economist Tamas Bauer. ``They think about getting rich.''

Poles directly challenge the state's grip. Opposition demands center around the right to form associations outside of state control.

Stanislaw, a musuem clerk, invites a Western visitor to church and then to his Warsaw apartment, where he shows off a copy of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's ``The Gulag Archipelago.'' The book is banned in Poland. Henryk, a private farmer, tends his own land near Torun. He produces almost everything for himself, buying just a few staples at the village state farm.

The private farmer and the Catholic believer were not always accepted. When communism first was installed in Poland following World War II, the party tried to collectivize agriculture. It also attacked the church. Contacts with the West became dangerous. It was a period of terror, shortages, and forced industrialization.

The society, at least outwardly, began to mirror the Soviet Union. Polish soldiers wore a version of the Russian uniform, literature was molded in the style of Soviet realism, and new architecture produced equivalents of Soviet sugar-cake skyscrapers, such as the monolithic Palace of Culture.

But Poles rejected this repressive communism.

By 1956, little more than 9 percent of agricultural land had been collectivized. To impose collectivization on Poland would have involved something close to armed invasion and occupation, and for all the nation's huge security forces and police, that was too much for the authorities to attempt.

Catholicism also remained strong. Although the leader of the Polish church's hierachy, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, was confined to a remote rural monastery between 1951 and 1956, the Communist Party refrained from making religious belief a disqualification for party membership, as in the Soviet Union. Such a step would probably have lost it more than half of its working-class members.

Over the years, opposition to the communist regime increased. Workers were dissatisfied with low living standards and attempts to raise the prices of their staple-foods. Intellectuals were dissatisfied with the lack of Western-style freedoms. And the church, which was opposed to what it viewed as an atheistic regime, identified itself with workers and intellectuals.

Crisis after crisis ensued. The 1956 strikes were followed by more strikes in 1970, 1976, and finally in 1980. That last upheaval produced Solidarity, the most serious threat yet to the communist monopoly on power in the Soviet bloc.