Adam Michnik, Poland's renowned dissident activist, says his friends were amazed to discover that he had become an avid reader of the Soviet press. "I would come home with an armload of papers and my wife would say, `How can you carry those things around in public? What will the neighbors think?' "
Indeed, two of Poland's oldest traditions are dislike of Russia and its rulers, and intellectuals' resistance to influence from the east. For more than two centuries, relations between the two Slavic nations have been governed by an unending cycle of subjugation, bloody conflict and mutual contempt.And it is because of that historical legacy that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who begins a six-day visit to Poland Monday, faces a special challenge in winning the popular support here that he has sought throughout Eastern Europe. Yet Michnik's compulsive reading offers a signal: Never before have Poland's political and intellectual elite been so open to a Soviet ruler.
"This is a turning point in Polish-Russian relations," said Michnik, who recently wrote a two-part study of the anti-Stalinist campaign under way in the Soviet press for the Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny. "These relations could now be completely different than what they have been for the last 200 years. But it depends a lot on Gorbachev."
So far, Gorbachev's leadership has had only a limited impact on Poland and its seemingly endless political and economic crises. The government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, which frequently boasts of a close alliance with the Kremlin leader, has introduced some political and economic liberalization measures since 1986 but has stopped short of major change.
Increasingly, however, leading Polish intellectuals and political activists are looking to Gorbachev's rule to create conditions for fundamental reforms in Poland, as well as a sea change in the Polish-Soviet relationship. "There is a feeling that Gorbachev started a process that he didn't plan and which will lead to the democratization of the system," said dissident writer Jan Litynski.
The fascination with Gorbachev is particularly remarkable because of the almost complete alienation of Polish intellectuals from the communist system since suppression of the independent Solidarity union in 1981. For years, Polish journalists, writers and artists have focused on creating their own "civil society" free of communist influence.
Yet underground journals are now full of articles on the Soviet leader. "There's been a complete change," Litynski said. "Four years ago, no one could have imagined in independent circles that there would be such interest in the Soviet Union."
What has yet to be tested is the degree to which Gorbachev favors a rebuilding of his country's most challenging alliance. During his last visit to Warsaw, in 1986, the Soviet leader spoke candidly about overcoming the "wars, violence and seizures of territory" that "poisoned the minds of the people and aroused mutual hostility."
At the same time, Gorbachev has expressed strong support for the cautious and increasingly unpopular leadership of Jaruzelski, and the Soviet press has published hard-line accounts of recent strikes and protests by the outlawed Solidarity union.
"The difference between the way the Soviet press covers the strikes in Poland and the way they covered those in Armenia is amazing," said Michnik. "Judging from the coverage of Poland, the Soviet attitude toward the country is stuck in the (Leonid) Brezhnev era, or even the Stalinist era."
For many Poles, the key test of Gorbachev's attitude toward this country has become his handling of the issue of Katyn Forest, a World War II massacre of at least 11,000 Polish Army officers who had been captured by the Soviets.
Moscow has never admitted culpability for the crime.
During the last year, a Polish-Soviet commission of historians has been studying what Gorbachev has dubbed the "blank spots," or formerly taboo topics of Polish-Soviet history, and the official media in both countries have detailed such events as the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in 1939 and the mass deportation of Polish civilians to Soviet labor camps.
Despite inching closer and closer to the truth, however, neither the Soviets nor the Polish communists have acknowledged Soviet responsibility for Katyn. As a result, says Michnik, "the central issue is now whether Gorbachev will tell the truth about Katyn, because Katyn has been the subject of the most lies over the years."
In March, a group of 59 Polish intellectuals, artists and political activists released a letter addressed to a group of Soviet intellectuals saying that acknowledgement of Katyn was "a necessary condition for real change in the relations between our two nations." Remarkably, the letter was published by the Polish communist party newspaper Trybuna Ludu.