London protest against the Bulganin and Khrushchev visit
It was the biggest protest rally in the history of Polish emigration. Twenty thousand people took to the streets of London. Far more still signed an official petition to the UK government, demanding intervention over the Soviet occupation. The petition also demanded the truth about the Polish officers, and the release of prisoners from labour camps. It was a strong response to Khrushchev and Bulganin’s London visit.
The visit by the Soviet leaders Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev to the United Kingdom in the second half of April 1956 reverberated widely around the Polish émigré community living in Britain. In reaction to the visit by the Soviet prime minister and the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, central London became the scene of a silent march of twenty thousand people. It was the largest protest ever to be staged by Polish émigrés.
The campaign was publicized by “Dziennik Polski & Dziennik Żołnierza”, a daily newspaper popular among the UK’s Polish community. It was back in late January 1956 when the editors invited readers to send in their opinions on how to receive Bulganin and Khrushchev in London. Many letters on this issue would be published in “Dziennik Polski” over the following weeks.
One reader proposed preparing a leaflet in English to be placed in letter boxes so that the Polish voice could reach the widest possible audience within British society. He believed that the campaign should engage not only Poles but also emigrants from other Central and Eastern European countries. In his optimism, he argued that with good organisation, the leaflet could be delivered to all homes in London in a single night! Another one proposed that the Polish diaspora all over the world send the Foreign Office letters demanding the liberation of Poland from Soviet occupation and that leaders of the fragmented and internally divided emigration create an all-embracing committee that would speak to the UK government. The snag was that the British had no influence on what was happening to Poland.
Protest in mourning
A reader from Bristol was of the opinion that emigrants should welcome the Soviet dignitaries with English and Russian-language banners reading: BULGANIN & KHRUSHCHEV: MURDERERS OF MILLIONS or MURDERERS — AWAY WITH YOU BEYOND THE VOLGA. The proposal drew criticism from another reader who opted for staging a rally or demonstration, but “without any hooliganism.” He was echoed by yet another Pole living in the English countryside who suggested a “funeral-like demonstration”: “No shouting, booing, pranks or insults.” He added that “such atmosphere would only feed regime rags and suchlike, and leave a bad aftertaste, perhaps deservedly, with our host nation and the West as a whole.”
“Everyone must take to the streets!” cried another one. Many letters to “Dziennik Polski” pointed to a need to organise a demonstration together with other exiles from behind the Iron Curtain. A reader from Bradford proposed that a mass funeral procession follow the route taken by Bulganin and Khrushchev along London streets. The march was to proceed purposefully slow so that “the Sovieters wouldn’t make it to their destination by nightfall.” Others called for black armbands to be worn throughout the Soviet leaders’ stay in Great Britain as a sign of mourning. A reader from Nottingham came upon an interesting idea. He suggested that huge balloons hover over Hyde Park bearing “apt slogans.” A Londoner thought that car owners should place protest stickers on their vehicles for the duration of the visit.
On the other hand, some argued that the émigré community should “keep quiet” about the Bulganin and Khrushchev visit “because this is none of our business.” A reader from London added that “being guests” in the UK, the Poles should refrain from manifesting sentiments at variance with UK policies.
“We are no guests,” retorted another reader of “Dziennik Polski.” “Guests do not usually stay at their hosts’ for decades. Guests do not work hard or pay taxes. Guests we are not here, but a large political emigration aware of its duties, an emigration to which our most distinguished hosts have serious moral obligations.” On that occasion, a reader from Manchester proposed voluntary taxation for the émigrés and establishing a Polish National Fund. Did he not know that the National Treasury had been already in existence for few years, or even two competing treasuries to which the emigration could contribute donations for the government-in-exile? However, they struggled with perennial financial woes, no doubt largely augmented by the squabbles and divisions within London’s Polish community. Sending an attached £2 cheque, another reader placed his entire trust in grass-root activism: “Our politicians and statesmen,” he wrote with irony, “must not be burdened with this additional task—they are already overworked with infighting and destructive formalism.”
A lively response to London-based “Dziennik Polski” spoke of the weight of the matter. It showed that in spite of their internal rifts Poland’s fate is something the emigrants really care about. These letters came mostly from ordinary emigrants, often living in rural England. They did not lose the emotional bond with their home country despite the passing time, the physical distance, and despite living in small Polish populations. Even if some ideas about how to welcome the Soviet dignitaries seemed weird and some were accompanied by strong emotions, they were clearly a testimony to an ideological commitment. The emigrants were not indifferent to Polish affairs. Also the British press, including the prestigious “The Times”, covered the Polish community’s planned protests surrounding the London visit of Bulganin and Khrushchev.
London says no
In late February 1956, a programme began to take shape from among many options of how to welcome the Soviet officials. A big rally was to be held at the Royal Albert Hall, which was capable of hosting eight thousand people, ahead of Bulganin and Khrushchev’s arrival. As April was booked up, the event was planned for Sunday, 25 March. The Hall was rented by the “Dziennik Polski” Foundation. Apart from Poles, exiles from other Central and East European countries were to attend. Speakers included members of UK Parliament and Malcolm Muggeridge, a well-known journalist writing for the “Evening Standard” and “The Daily Telegraph”, two major daily titles. In his youth, Muggeridge had been fascinated by communism and the Soviet Union. In the 1930s, he would quickly turn around as a correspondent to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He was one of the few Western journalists to provide an accurate picture of Ukraine’s great famine.
Preparations for the rally were in full swing. The organisers sold over two thousand tickets within just a few days. All of a sudden, some serious issues started to appear. On 1 March, the management of the Royal Albert Hall cancelled the rent contract on the pretext that the assembly posed a risk of damage to the premises. Interventions from Polish emigrants and Muggeridge did not alter the decision. During the following days, the organisers tried to rent some other big halls in London and White City Stadium, but to no avail. The British MPs backtracked on their promise to attend, too. The press indicated that the British counterintelligence compiled a list of three thousand exiles from Central and Eastern Europe suspected of wanting to stage violent protests against the Kremlin visit. Apart from Poles, it allegedly included Czechs, Hungarians and Latvians.
Despite the mounting difficulties, Muggeridge was not about to give up. He announced that the protest rally would go ahead, be it even in the open, in Hyde Park or Trafalgar Square. The obstacles to renting a meeting place echoed widely in the British press. In a letter published in the “Times”, Muggeridge recalled that the Royal Albert Hall had not agreed to rent the hall to Winston Churchill when he wanted to hold a meeting to protest against the pact signed by Neville Chamberlain with Adolf Hitler at the Munich conference in 1938.
Ultimately, when the organisers failed to rent any bigger space, they decided to move the rally over to Manchester, where they managed to rent a hall for the night of 26 March, with a capacity of three thousand. A committee set up by the Federation of Poles in Great Britain intended to launch a protest march through central London during the visit of Bulganin and Khrushchev.
Outlining the planned activities, the editors of “Dziennik Polski” noted that the émigrés should use the opportunity of the Bulganin and Khrushchev visit to Great Britain to recall Poland’s fate to the English: “It is clear,” it wrote, “what all Poles think of this visit and how much they regret that it will go ahead. [...] But that does not mean that we should stop short of using the Soviet leaders’ visit to remind the British public that the ten nations behind the Iron Curtain have been taken into Soviet captivity, which is not only a tragedy for them, but also a threat to Western Europe’s freedom.” Calling on the émigré community to act, the newspaper argued: “It is thus wrong to think that ‘all our actions are hopeless’ and will not affect the course of events. We must act because action is all that matters in life, while passivity and resignation are not only disgraceful but fatal.”
Petition for unity
The protest campaign also involved a petition from “Dziennik Polski” to the British government. It urged the British to raise the subject of free elections in Poland during their talks with the Soviet leaders. They were to be supervised by international monitors and held after Soviet troops withdrew from Poland. The petition recalled that during the Yalta conference in February 1945 leaders of the Big Three, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union, pledged that free and unfettered elections would be held immediately after the war. The petition further demanded that the Soviets should release thousands of Poles from their camps and account for the fate of more than a dozen thousand Polish officers whom they took prisoner in 1939. More than four thousands of them had been murdered in Katyn. What had happened to the others was unknown at the time.
Asking the readers to send in the signed petition, “Dziennik Polski” made its case as follows: “The more signatures, the stronger and more serious the petition. [...] May everybody who is hesitating, who thinks that addressing an envelope and affixing a 1.5 penny stamp to it is too much of a bother, remember that the most fundamental things are at stake here, that we want independence for our country, freedom for our compatriots kept in Soviet prisons, the whole truth about Katyn." At the same time, the editors appealed for contributions to the Foreign Awareness Fund “Liberation.” The petition in English first appeared in the Saturday edition of “Dziennik Polski” of 24 March. By late April, it was reprinted almost 30 times.
“Dziennik Polski” call drew immediate response from the UK’s Poles. Just two days later, on Monday, over 600 letters with some 1,500 signatures and first payments came in. During the first five days the petition received 10,000 signatures and a total of 60,000 by the campaign’s end. Some letters to “Dziennik Polski” contained several dozen or a hundred or so signatures. They were sent mostly by Poles living in the United Kingdom, but also elsewhere. Many British people joined in, as well as emigrants émigrés from Central and Eastern Europe.
Successive issues of “Dziennik Polski” featured such headlines as: Are you Polish? Don’t wait to sign the petition!; Your signature is not enough. Get others to sign!; Do your civic duty. Sign the petition now!; Each signature on the petition is a slap for Moscow agents. The reluctant were to be mobilised by the news of VIPs who supported the campaign. The newspaper’s cover read that the petition had already been signed by General Władysław Anders, Marshal Pilsudski’s wife Aleksandra, General Marian Kukiel, former ambassador in London Edward Raczyński, and the head of the National Alliance Executive, the socialist Adam Ciołkosz.
On the eve of the Bulganin and Khrushchev visit, “Dziennik Polski”, which from the very start was engaged in publicizing the protest, also published a special four-page supplement in English.
With a sceptical eye
The planned demonstration had already provoked ridicule from Stanisław Mackiewicz, a former prime minister in exile and a well-known columnist. He thought the demonstration was utterly pointless and of no benefit to Poland: “A resolution will be simply passed, people will scream and clap, or boo at most, but little else. Daft, childish, little snots’ play." A few months later, he broke off his emigration ties and returned to Poland.
Also President August Zaleski and Prime Minister Antoni Pająk shared scepticism about the planned protests. The march was organised by their political opponents from the Alliance, backed by a vast majority of emigrants and émigré political elites. Even before Bulganin and Khrushchev came to London, the Polish government in exile dispatched a note to the British authorities, demanding the inclusion in the agenda of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal to the 1939 borders, restoration of sovereignty for Central and Eastern Europe, and release of all Polish citizens imprisoned in Soviet labour camps. The murder of Polish officers in Katyn and in other sites was also brought up, as well as the treacherous arrest of 16 leaders of the Polish Underground State. The demands made by the Polish authorities spoke of their steadfast resolve, but the UK government could hardly be expected to fulfil them.
From the émigré perspective, the very act of submitting the note was a success, even though it failed to mention the subject of free elections, which was given prominence in the “Dziennik Polski” petition. “Castle” politicians (supporters of Zaleski’s presidency), issuing a warning against the 1947 “free” elections revisited, claimed that those could only be held in a free Poland. The small snag was, they did not present any plan of how to win this freedom back. Animosity between the rival power centres in exile (“Castle” and “Alliance”) ran so deep that the two sides were not only unable to act together but also deprecated each other’s actions.
Massive march, symbolic effect
The protest against the Bulganin and Khrushchev visit culminated in a silent march which set off on Sunday afternoon of 22 April from the Brompton Oratory Church. Earlier on, during a Mass for the murdered in Katyn and other victims of Soviet terror, Archbishop Józef Gawlina, an émigré chaplain who had arrived from Rome specially for the occasion, called on emigrants to seek unity: “Settle feuds, choose unity, shake hands and make up.” Once again, it all ended in empty words.
Scouts with a wreath and six standard-bearers with national flags were at the rally’s head. They were followed by figures from the world of politics and community life. In the first line, next to General Anders, were Ambassador Raczyński, Muggeridge, Ciołkosz and Zbigniew Stypułkowski, one of the 16 underground leaders abducted in 1945 by the NKVD and put on trial in Moscow. Delegations of the nations from behind the Iron Curtain were up next, with the Czech delegation of around 300 people as the biggest. The demonstration also brought together Estonians, Yugoslavs, Bulgarians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Hungarians. English women married to Polish men comprised another group. Former Home Army soldiers followed close behind, led by their commander, Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski; regional delegations were close behind, led by a large group of Polish miners from Wales and uniformed combatants, rank-and-file emigrants brought up the rear.
Demonstrators carried banners bearing slogans in English: FREE POLES, SET CARDINAL WYSZYŃSKI FREE, RUSSIANS NOT WELCOME IN POLAND, FREEDOM FOR POLISH POLITICAL PRISONERS. Parishioners from the Polish church on Devonia Rd., London, held up a large banner with an image of a gagged Christ in the crown of thorns, which symbolised the Church in Poland. The protesters marched three miles through central London. The march ended at the symbolic tomb of the Unknown Warrior at Whitehall, where General Anders laid a wreath. The Polish wreath was placed opposite the Soviet one, laid three days earlier by Bulganin and Khrushchev. Although the memorial was guarded by a policeman on duty, the Polish wreath was stolen by unknown perpetrators in the early hours of Tuesday. A few days later, Ambassador Raczyński laid another wreath in the same place.
After national anthems of Poland, Great Britain and all countries represented in the march were sung during the Sunday rally, Leszek Kirkien of “Dziennik Polski” and its editor-in-chief Tadeusz Horko together with Stanisław Lis of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain and Malcolm Muggeridge delivered ten volumes of petitions to the nearby office of the British prime minister at Downing Street. On behalf of the absent Prime Minister Anthony Eden, the delegation was received by a civil servant from his office.
The march brought together 20,000 people. It was the largest political manifestation in the emigration’s history. It was not matched even by a protest against martial law in Poland. The march proved to be a huge success for the emigration because of its numbers. Crowds of émigrés were a meaningful testimony to their engagement, solidarity and the ability to act. The emigrants showed their willpower to fight to regain Poland’s freedom and independence. The silent march impressed Londoners, who would often stop to applaud, especially at the sight of uniformed combatants. That night the march appeared on British television and in the press, which published warm commentaries about the Polish freedom demonstration.
On the following day, Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd received General Anders and Ambassador Raczyński, who outlined to him the Polish position on Sunday’s demonstration and the petition to the British government. It had been the first official meeting between that cabinet and leaders of the Polish political émigré community since the recognition of the Polish government was revoked in July 1945.
As a matter of fact, the protest did not produce any meaningful effects, which spoke volumes of the emigration’s political weakness or plain impotence. Despite the hopes and pleas of the Polish émigré community, the British-Soviet talks mentioned the Polish issue only in passing. The expectations formulated in the petition were too excessive and failed to gain the British authorities’ support. In their talks with Bulganin and Khrushchev, British diplomacy failed to raise any important issues (such as free elections, Katyn, let alone liberating Poland from Soviet domination) nor were they going to. No one in London had any illusions about the Kremlin’s response. However, the emigrants were able to protest publicly and present their demands.
Author: Krzysztof Tarka