Sunday, 23 February 2014

A hero or a traitor?

Gripping, witty, superbly-shot and adroitly-played is “Jack Strong”, political thriller directed by Władysław Pasikowski, which went to the silver screen on 7 Febraury 2014 and within first few days was watched by over half a million cinema-visitors. In terms of form, despite not being the ultimate masterpiece, undoubtedly it could be ranked no lower than most praised Hollywood thrillers. When it comes to substance, opinions are divided, as the film is a biography of colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, one of the most controversial public figures in the history of post-war Poland.

Mr Kuklinski was one of the most prominent officers of the Polish People’s Army. His career developed swiftly since his conscription to army just after World War 2. After several subsequent promotions, he became one of the youngest executive officers in the commandership of the Poland’s military forces and earned himself impeccable credentials of an ardent commie with comrades from Warsaw Pact’s commandership. He participated in preparations for “fraternal aid” in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Since 1972 (or according to some sources since 1967/68 when he served in Vietnam as a member of ICC) he collaborated with CIA as a spy and delivered the U.S. intelligence thousands of pages of documents relating to Warsaw Pact’s and Poland’s defence systems and strategic plans, including plausible nuclear war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Along with his family he defected to the United States, evacuated by the American intelligence in November 1981.

The film is claimed to be “based on facts”. From the first scenes, when death sentence on Oleg Pienkowski is executed by throwing the spy into the furnace (in fact the was killed customarily, by being shot at the back of his head and the “burning alive” execution is admitted to have been a myth), to the last scenes in which one of Mr Kuklinski’s sons dies in a traffic accident, being pushed off the road by a huge truck (in fact he was run down several times by an SUV with no number plates in university campus), the film departs from facts or is very likely to include overt fiction. Who can reliably confirm Brzehnev, after a phone call from Jimmy Carter, instructs marshal Kulikov to desist from plans of invading Western Europe? At best in many moments the film is based on conjectures or one-person assertions, taken for granted without third-party verification.

As Adam Krzeminski rightly points out in the recent issue of Polityka, the film is intended to leave no room for doubts or moral reflections. Mr Kuklinski’s treason (objectively judging, no matter what you thought of communist Poland’s degree of its dependence on the Soviet Union, he breached the military oath, sworn in 1947, in which subjugation to the Soviet Union was not mentioned) is fully justified and is worshipped. Actually the purpose of the film is to glorify the controversial person of the colonel and although the film will not make those who think he is a traitor change their mind, but for those who know little about the most famous NATO’s spy in communist Poland, the one-sided film will help shape a positive opinion about Mr Kuklinski.

Those who accuse Mr Kuklinski of treason claim no matter how lame the Polish country was at that time, duty of loyalty was still owed to it. In the film, Mr Kuklinski (the entire plot is a retrospect to his interrogation by Polish prosecutors in Washington in 1997) in an interview excuses himself by saying all the documents he had passed on to Americans pertained to Warsaw Pact and not Poland, hence he betrayed the Warsaw Pact, not Poland. It only takes to watch the film until the end to find out this excuse was untrue – information on preparations to martial law in Poland were internal documents of Polish army and internal office, the very martial law was not a Warsaw Pact operation.

Apart from worlds-apart view’s on Mr Kuklinski’s collaboration with the CIA, there are plenty of understatements, myths and unanswered questions regarding the biography and doings of Mr Kuklinski. Some of them are listed below. Please note facts are separated from my private opinions and other people’s opinions and asked questions mean what they mean in plain English, no need to read between the lines, nor scratch beneath the surface.

1. If Mr Kuklinski knew in advance on the planned imposition of the martial law in Poland, why did not he, nor the US intelligence let the Solidarity movement know about it, to let the dissidents better prepare for the clampdown?

2. Mr Kuklinski was said to live beyond his means long before he began spying for CIA. He earned a lot in Vietnam, but declared to have spent it for a Western car. His wealth was suspicious for his fellow army officers of similar rank, whose financial status was incomparably lower. The unclear source of Mr Kuklinski’s wealth is also mentioned in the film. But how come no one in Polish army’s commandership bothered to look into colonel lavish lifestyle, when according to procedures all persons having access to confidential information should have been closely screened out?

3. For Soviet comrades, Poland was just a satellite country, an inferior republic. Moreover, the Soviet empire of evil and relationships between its chief functionaries were founded on anything, but trust. Bearing this in mind, is it conceivable that Mr Kuklinski, an officer from the most subversive country in the Warsaw pact, could have been granted access to most confidential documents of the Soviet army, or mostly to those related to Poland?

4. During the almost 10-year espionage, Mr Kuklinski was caught red-handed photographing secret documents (this scene is shown in the film), but he got away with it, the report on the dubious situation somehow vanished into the air. In 1981 (also underlined in the film) it was pretty clear there was an American spy in the commandership of the Polish army and all evidence tipped at Mr Kuklinski. At some moment it became clear for everyone he was a traitor and no one bothered to take steps detain him. Even after his defection no one’s head rolled. Lack of reaction among the Poland’s highest-ranked army officers appears daunting.

I deliberately refrain from asking explicitly whether Mr Kuklinski was a double agent, i.e. whether he also spied for Soviets. Given abundance of arguments supporting such hypothesis, coming also from right-wing oriented, or even IPN-affiliated historians, it should not be disregarded. More on such possibility in a series of articles from “Przegląd” weekly here (part 1, part 2, part 3). I do not mind the leftist orientation of the magazine; the articles are informative, often precisely cite sources of information, ascribe statements to specific persons, although I would prefer to see it with more precise footnotes and extensive bibliography at the end, so that a reader could double-check accuracy of ample information these excerpts convey.

Poland sometimes looms as a peculiar country. Is there any other nation in the world that would hail a foreign country’s spy a national hero, as the Polish parliament resolved last Friday? I would hazard a guess in all jurisdiction espionage is a serious crime, subject to severe punishment. In 1984 Mr Kuklinski was in absentia sentenced to death, upon regaining independence the sentence was converted into 25 years of imprisonment, then, in 1997 he was vindicated. Was not it enough?

The squabble between right-wing deputies and their left-wing opponents which took place on Friday in the parliament reflects one of divide lines in the Polish society, not only concerning the assessment of colonel Kuklinski’s deeds, but also the attitude towards what Poland was between 1945 and 1989. Some claim in that period Poland was a Soviet Republic, others argue this was a dependent, lame country, being a part of the Soviet bloc, but still it was Poland, with all implications, including duty of loyalty and respect to one’s country. Stance towards political status of Poland between 1945-1989 is thus a starting point for assessment of Mr Kuklinski’s deeds.

Mr Kuklinski was a hero, but not Poland’s hero. He was instrumental for NATO in gaining the edge over Warsaw Pact and reinforced NATO’s position in case of military conflict between the two blocs and enfeebled Poland by revealing plans of its defence systems.

For me it is clear, unlike many assert, he did not act to the benefit of Poland. During the cold war, United States, nor NATO were not Poland’s allies. Poland for NATO was a part of its biggest enemy, the Warsaw Pact. If a military conflict had come to a pass, Poland would have been only worse-off on account of Mr Kuklinski’s espionage, because NATO strategist would have been better able to prepare plans of attacking and destroying Poland. If his activity could have had contributed to freeing Poland up from the Soviet dominance, I would concede there would be room for debate, but no Western country would have lifted its little finger to liberate Poland from the Soviet empire.

Giving credence to the tall story presented in the film that once Soviet comrades were informed NATO had learnt of Soviet’s blueprints to combative warfare, they immediately got scared and abandoned their plans is naïve. Putting down to Mr Kuklinski changing the course of world’s history is out of place. One man is not capable of doing so, mostly a spy from a hostile military bloc, who for CIA surely was not an implicitly trusted collaborator (as a contact from the hostile bloc he must have been handled with reserve)… Forces driving events in international politics are more complex and have many architects

Nevertheless, if you have not watched Jack Strong yet, I recommend you do so, for the pleasure of watching a decent political thriller.

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