Isaac Deutscher 1957

Rokossovsky: Pole or Russian?

Source: The Reporter, 10 January 1957. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

At the beginning of last October two Polish politicians visited me in my home in Surrey, England, to discuss the situation in Poland. This was shortly before the upheaval in Warsaw as a result of which Władysław Gomułka was to return to power and Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky was to be dismissed from the Polish Politburo and Ministry of Defence. My guests, old acquaintances and prewar comrades, described the inner alignments in the Polish Workers Party, the conflict in its midst between the pro-Stalinist Natolin Group and the anti-Stalinists, the attitudes of individual leaders, and the prospects of an approaching denouement. They themselves belonged, of course, to the anti-Stalinist wing and, firmly yet with reservations, backed Gomułka.

At one point of our discussion I asked: ‘And where does the army stand in this conflict? What do you think Rokossovsky is going to do? May he not throw his weight behind the Natolin Group and stage a coup against you?’

‘Rokossovsky?’ My visitors were surprised by the question:

No, we don’t expect any difficulty from him. He will probably play no role at all in the coming crisis. He has kept aloof from the inner-party struggle, but he has indicated anti-Stalinist feelings more than once. In any case, we can count on his absolute loyalty to the Central Committee, whose orders he will carry out; and in the Central Committee the Stalinists are already an isolated minority. No, no, Rokossovsky is certainly not the man to stage a coup against the Central Committee.

Yet a few days later when the Central Committee met for its now famous session and when Khrushchev and his colleagues suddenly descended on Warsaw, the danger of a military coup appeared to be quite real. Warsaw was astir with rumours about movements of Russian and Polish troops. Rokossovsky, far from playing no part in the crisis, found himself in its very centre. Indeed, it was the question of his re-election to the Politburo rather than Gomułka’s return to power that brought the conflict between the Stalinists and the anti-Stalinists to a head. The Natolin Group had already reconciled itself to Gomułka’s return: ‘Re-elect Rokossovsky!’ was its battle cry. Since the battle was joined over Rokossovsky, the anti-Stalinists, some of whom held him responsible for the sinister troop movements and for the threat of a Stalinist coup demanded – and got – his dismissal.

Yet my anti-Stalinist visitors, who assured me so confidently of Rokossovsky’s sympathy with their attitude, were not altogether mistaken. Rokossovsky was undoubtedly one of the most authentic anti-Stalinists in Poland, an anti-Stalinist of much longer standing than Gomułka, for instance. Few could have stronger reasons for hating Stalinism than Rokossovsky. Yet it was as a symbol of Stalinism that he was dismissed from all his posts and had to leave Warsaw. What accounts for this paradox?

You Can’t Go Home Again: The city from which he has been so ingloriously expelled was his birthplace. It was Warsaw, at the turn of the century when Poland was ruled by a Tsarist Governor-General, where he spent his childhood and early youth. Only during the First World War did he find himself, together with many other Poles, in Russia. Yet from that time on something like a curse seemed to bar him from his native city. On at least three occasions, each time when the city’s fate hung in the balance, he returned or attempted to return to it. And every time disaster lay in wait for him.

The October Revolution in 1917 was to him, as to many left-wing Poles in Russia, a supreme act of liberation. In 1919, in the midst of civil war, when Lenin’s government was on the brink of defeat, the 23-year-old Rokossovsky volunteered for the Red Army and joined the Communist Party. No problem of national loyalty was as yet involved in this. After about 150 years of Poland’s incorporation in the Russian Empire, it was up to a point natural for Poles to be involved in Russian politics. Poles – it is enough to mention Dzerzhinsky and Radek – played a prominent part in the Bolshevik leadership. And Moscow did not as yet think of re-annexing the territories of nations that had been annexed by the Russian Empire. The ideals of the Revolution still held the hearts and minds of foreigners.

A year later, however, in 1920, the young Rokossovsky was marching on Warsaw with the Red Army. He marched with high hopes and enthusiasm, and there was still no question for him of any conflict of national loyalties. He believed himself to be fighting in an international civil war, not in a war between nations; and the Red Army’s march on Warsaw had been preceded and provoked by Piłsudski’s march on Kiev. It was, indeed, the Polish left-wing expatriates in Russia who most resolutely urged Lenin to pursue Piłsudski’s troops into the Polish capital and beyond, for they believed that the Polish workers and peasants would welcome the Red Army and rise against the Polish landlords and capitalists. Lenin shared the hope, although Trotsky, the Commissar of War, and Radek, the most brilliant of the Poles in Moscow, were opposed to the offensive on Warsaw.

The Poles spurned the invaders. They ignored their revolutionary slogans and international appeals and saw the troops only as the successors to the old Tsarist armies of conquest. At the gates of Warsaw the Red Army was routed and forced to retreat. Among the retreating was the unknown Polish Red Army man Konstantin Rokossovsky. His city and country had rejected him and his comrades, a remote prelude to his humiliation in Warsaw 36 years later.

Tukhachevsky’s Pupil: The young Rokossovsky was probably not unduly despondent. Like many of his comrades he must have told himself that ‘history had not yet said its last word’. It seems that in the early 1920s he was sent to the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow, where young commanders who had made their mark in the civil war were trained. The Academy’s presiding genius was Mikhail N Tukhachevsky, the Red Army’s most brilliant and most modern mind, who saw in the tank and aircraft the decisive weapons of the future and who was the originator of parachute troops.

Tukhachevsky had led the Red Army on Warsaw; and he did not entirely give up the idea of repeating the march in more favourable circumstances, when he might be able to drop Polish Communist parachute troops behind the enemy lines to organise a revolution there. Such ideas certainly appealed to Tukhachevsky’s Polish pupil. What was more important, Rokossovsky was highly receptive to Tukhachevsky’s ‘ultra-modern’, as they then seemed, conceptions of mechanised warfare, and he absorbed to the full all that was valuable in the teachings of his master.

Tukhachevsky befriended him. After Rokossovsky had graduated from the Academy in 1929 he acted as liaison officer between Tukhachevsky, that is, the Soviet General Staff, and the Polish section of the Comintern. The brilliant Soviet Staff officer remained a Polish Communist dreaming of revolution in his native country.

His closeness to Tukhachevsky and his Polish origin and Polish Communist preoccupations made him suspect to Stalin. And so in 1937 when Stalin ordered Tukhachevsky executed as ‘traitor’ and the whole Polish Communist Party to be denounced and disbanded – this was the only Communist Party in the world to achieve such distinction! – Rokossovsky was thrown into prison and then deported to a concentration camp, where he spent about four years.

Even now he avoids talking about his experiences there. Subjected to torture and thrown among ordinary criminals, he used all his willpower to keep himself mentally alive and to follow events in the outside world as much its possible. He was less concerned about personal injustice than about the great harm the purge had done to the Red Army in a most critical international situation. Lying on his prison bunk, Rokossovsky went through in his mind over and over again the complex strategic and operational games with which Tukhachevsky had occupied his staff officers. At least after September 1939, he did not doubt that the Red Army would still need his services. By then he was familiar enough with the ‘spirit’ of Russian history to know that the distance between a concentration camp and GHQ in Moscow might on occasion prove to be fantastically short.

And indeed in the summer of 1941 Rokossovsky, the traitor and Polish spy, was rehabilitated and hastily brought back to GHQ in the fall of that year, when Hitler’s armies approached Moscow and when the Soviet debacle on the Dnieper compelled Stalin to dismiss the incompetent Voroshilov and Budyenny from posts of command, he picked three officers for the most important jobs: Zhukov, Vasilevsky and Rokossovsky.

There is no need to go here into Rokossovsky’s record in the Second World War. It is enough to recall that under Zhukov’s orders he was the most important operational commander in the battles of Moscow and Stalingrad. What did he fight for? Certainly not for Stalin, his jailer and torturer. And certainly not for a Russian Empire. For military glory and fame? Perhaps. But what was the worth of glory and fame that could so easily be destroyed and turned into disgrace and infamy? To judge from his behaviour in various situations, Rokossovsky is not vainglorious. It is much more probable that the cause to which he gave his talents was still Communism – a cause which he believed debased but not destroyed or invalidated by Stalinism. Whatever his motives, within a single year Rokossovsky had risen to the stature of one of the greatest military commanders in the greatest of wars.

The Second Failure: Yet, almost at once, his triumph was marred when, after an interval of nearly a quarter of a century, he was on the point of returning to his native city. He was in command of that Soviet army whose spearhead reached the Vistula and some of Warsaw’s suburbs in August 1944, just when the Poles in the city across had risen against the Wehrmacht. The insurgents, led by anti-Communists, hoped at first to defeat the Germans without Soviet help and thus to forestall Rokossovsky. When it became clear that this was impossible, they appealed in despair for Soviet help.

This might have been Rokossovsky’s opportunity for a reconciliation with his native city. (Was not this at last the moment for dropping parachute troops behind enemy lines?) He might have entered the streets of Warsaw as its triumphant liberator. But it was not given to him to accomplish the feat.

Stalin forbade him to succour the embattled city on the grounds that the general situation at the front and a full-scale Soviet offensive mounted further to the south in the Carpathians did not allow Soviet forces to become engaged in Warsaw. Another version was that by the time the rising had flared up the Germans had dislodged Rokossovsky’s troops from their forward positions on the Vistula and thrown them back.

The insurgents, however, took a different view of the matter. They believed that Stalin had deliberately delivered Warsaw to German revenge and destruction because he did not wish the rising, inspired and led by anti-Communists, to succeed. Amid the burning ruins of Warsaw, the insurgents fought and died, cursing the Soviet Army.

Rokossovsky could not view the agony of his native city with indifference. But Stalin’s orders were clear and strict, and Rokossovsky could not disregard them. When he did enter Warsaw some months later, the city was a vast cemetery: he could not even find the streets and landmarks of his childhood.

Moscow, in its hour of victory, received its Polish defender with gratitude. On 24 June 1945, Rokossovsky was assigned to lead the whole Soviet Army in the great Victory Parade through Red Square. But Stalin’s favour did not last long. He was now jealous of the popularity of his marshals and afraid of them. Vasilevsky, the Great Russian nationalist, was perhaps the only one of them whom he still trusted. He was anxious to disperse the others from Moscow and to relegate them to obscurity. He ordered Zhukov to Odessa. Rokossovsky, who had been Zhukov’s closest associate and was known to have clashed with Vasilevsky, was posted first to Legnica in Upper Silesia, then to Warsaw.

Honorary Exile’: When Rokossovsky was appointed Polish Minister of Defence in 1949, the typical comment in the West was that, as ‘Stalin’s man of confidence’, he was to assure the subservience of the Polish Communists to Moscow. Rokossovsky and those who knew his background could only be sadly amused by such comment. For the hero of the battles of Moscow and Stalingrad, the marshal who had led the great victory parade in the Red Square, to be cast out of the Soviet army and appointed Minister in a satellite government was a humiliating degradation. Warsaw was a place of honorary exile.

But it was not only the West that saw Rokossovsky as Stalin’s Polish viceroy. Polish opinion, too, looked on him in this way and refused to accept him as a Pole. He returned to his home town as a stranger and intruder. His countrymen, of course, knew nothing about the suspicion which he had drawn upon himself as a Pole in Moscow and about his ordeal in Stalin’s concentration camps – no one dared to mention such things in those days. The Poles saw him as Stalin’s watchdog, a Russified Pole, and a Russifier. There was, in truth, never any lack of Russified generals in the Polish Army even before the war, generals incapable of addressing their men in correct Polish.

Rokossovsky, despite his long service in Russia, has remained a Pole in character, manner and speech. He did not Russify the Polish Army. He did not even put it into Russian uniforms, as Rákosi’s men did in Hungary even without the presence of a Soviet marshal. Nor was it he who brought Russian advisers and instructors into the Polish commands – they had been there before he arrived. And yet Rokossovsky had to take the blame for their presence. To the Poles he was a Muscovite and an arch-traitor.

The Final Judgement: Last October Warsaw passed its final judgement on Rokossovsky. It was the verdict of popular opinion and popular emotion aroused against Stalinist oppression. Circumstances had conspired to make Rokossovsky’s name the hated symbol of that oppression. Who, the Poles asked, could be responsible for the threatening Russian and Polish troop movement, if not Marshal Rokossovsky, the Minister of Defence? And so, in the critical days of 19 and 20 October, suddenly all of Poland’s political passion concentrated on one man. To the overwhelming majority of Poles he was the villain of the piece, while to the retreating Stalinists he became the hero; and they decided to fight their own rear-guard battle over his re-election to the Politburo.

Rokossovsky himself said not a word to advance or support his candidacy. If he had had as much political sense as he has military ability, he would have withdrawn his name, disowned his backers, and rid himself of the odium. But he didn’t, and he even seemed to be surprised to find himself at the heart of a passionate political controversy. Embarrassed and bewildered, he stammered, faltered and stumbled to his final humiliation.

Was he in fact responsible to any degree for the troop movements and the preparation of a pro-Stalinist coup? Only the historian with access to the archives will be able to give a conclusive answer. When the question was raised at the 20 October session of the Central Committee, Rokossovsky said that there had been no significant movements of Polish troops – and it was only Polish troops to which he was responsible – about which he had not kept the Politburo informed. For the movement of Soviet troops in Poland Marshal Konev alone was responsible. On the instructions of the Politburo, he had asked Konev for an explanation and was told that the movements were ordinary autumn manoeuvres; all the same he had asked Konev, on behalf of the Polish Politburo, to stop the ‘manoeuvres’. Rokossovsky concluded his brief and not very eloquent statement with a declaration of his loyalty to the Polish government and the Polish party leadership – the Gomułka leadership at this point – ‘without whose orders not a single step is going to be made’.

Not one of the party leaders denied the truth of Rokossovsky’s words. All the same, public opinion received them with the greatest incredulity, and Gomułka could do nothing but dismiss the man who was a Pole in Russia and a Russian in Poland.

The dismissal was primarily a symbolic act, designed to demonstrate Poland’s regained independence. But even now that it is all over, Rokossovsky cannot separate himself from the symbol he has become. In Moscow the Polish exile has been received with all the honours appropriate to a military leader in whose person the Soviet Union and its army have been offended and insulted. He has been appointed Soviet Vice-Minister of Defence, but it may be doubted whether that is a real consolation for the humiliation he suffered in Warsaw.