A review of A Secret Life
Having never thought I had anything in common with a Cold War spy, I found reading A Secret Life (Public Affairs, 2004) for my newly formed Polish Women’s Book Club (“Czytamy” or We Read) an intriguing connection. Among the near-death escapes of this brave soul, who is credited with preventing a World War III type of nuclear war, the story of Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski’s experience of the food riots in Poland during 1976 coincided with my own experience on my first trip there to meet relatives for the first time.
As I traveled through Europe that summer off from my teaching job, I remember getting ready to buy train tickets from Vienna to Krakow on the cusp of alarming news that there was rioting and serious political unrest going on in Poland due to the government’s clamping down on the populace with extraordinary food price increases under the controlling Communists. I had planned the trip for almost a year and was extremely excited to get to know the land of my parents before their lives were derailed by World War II. Unable to return to Poland after the war due to the entrenched ruling Communists, my parents instilled in me a love of their (old) country, and I was anxious to finally be able to experience it. I was not going to let a little political unrest stop me, though I knew all too well from my parents’ tales that these politics should not be ignored. With nervous hesitation, I bought those train tickets for my husband and myself, ready to plunge into the unknown.
Little did I know what I would be met with that summer.
Colonel Kuklinski began his espionage against the Communists in 1972 as a result of his compromised conscience when the 1970 strikes and protests resulted in Polish soldiers firing upon crowds of Polish civilians protesting increases in food prices under the controlled economic system of communism. Forty-four civilians were killed and thousands injured. He could not justify his dedicated military training with such an outcome.
As a twenty-something year old, having just been married, such political developments in Poland were alarming but not deterring in my quest to save up enough money to finally visit in 1976. Certainly, as political tensions grew, Colonel Kuklinski was not deterred to continue working for the CIA by providing thousands of pages of important documents as (Communist) Poland under Soviet Russia’s control was taunting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), whose mission was to keep peace in Europe, including deterring Soviet expansionism.
Bravely, I entered Poland after passing through Czechoslovakia where I experienced my first encounter with the uncaring roughness of the communist system. As described in A Secret Life, there were two realities of everyday life in Poland—those who acquiesced to the Communists and were able to obtain special treatment with nice housing, abundant goods, and opportunities for advancement, and those who suffered under the confining economic system that often resulted in shortages of basic goods, like toilet paper, but also shortages of food staples, decent housing, and educational opportunities. Colonel Kuklinski benefited from the Communist system, but he used his privileges in important attempts to derail that system, though not entirely successfully when he could not prevent martial law in 1981 after the protest movement of Solidarity pushed things too far.
My own encounter with Communists that summer left me unnerved when I was suspiciously “interrogated” about my father by a too well-fed and uncharacteristically content man posing as our taxi-cab driver from the only time we had ordered a cab to get us to the airport in Warsaw. My father had been an officer in the Polish army when WWII broke out and was almost immediately imprisoned in Russia, only to be released with so-called “amnesty” when Russia was forced to release him and dozens of other officers who had survived the Soviet Katyn massacres. He had been responsible for weeding out Communists from the newly forming Polish army afterwards and there was one Communist who seemed to have vengeance against him and had managed to rise high in the ranks of the Party after the war. So, some thirty years after the end of the war, though not the Cold War, I was being asked about whether my father was still alive, whether he would be coming to Poland, etc, etc. It was just a small taste of such interrogation, but that brief encounter alone made me commiserate with Colonel Kuklinski’s many such encounters in trying to pass critical documents to the CIA while maintaining his high-level job close to powerful leaders in both Poland and Russia. And, he managed that for almost ten years after which he was denounced as a traitor and sentenced to death by the Polish authorities, after escaping to America.
Kuklinski was eventually exonerated in the 1990’s but not after suffering the personal losses of both of his sons, which many might argue were also perpetrated by his political entanglements with the Communists. Kuklinski’s code name was Jack Strong and a movie of the same name was made in 2014 which follows the true story rather well. Both the book and the film are worthy of engagement. As for me, the 1976 experience of the trip to Poland will forever make me appreciate freedom and what it means to have the privilege of living in America, the land of ultimate freedom.