Ever since the imposition of martial law in December 1981, the Sovietization of Poland has been a predominant theme in the Western press. But arriving in Copenhagen in mid-September after a three-month stay in Warsaw, I did not experience that relieved exhilaration I invariably do on returning from the Soviet Union.
This was not the feeling of having left an oppressive and oppressed country and reentered the free world. I left Poland convinced that the Poles act and hence are like a free people. This human factor - the independent variable - plays a crucial role in the Polish situation.
What prevents the Sovietization of Poland?
Foremost it is the Poles' psychology and demeanor, richly nurtured by a secure national self-image that comes from a distinct and cherished historical experience.
The self-perception of the Poles is rooted in the long tradition of Western political values. That in turn makes Soviet-style institutions and thinking alien and untransplantable on Polish soil. Not surprisingly, Poland is the only Soviet satellite where 80 percent of farming remains in private hands.
Similarly, years of indoctrination have not convinced the Poles that the communist principles of economic and social equality are more basic than those of individual liberty.
When arguing with a foundry worker whose children received higher education and moved on to white-collar jobs, I suggested that such social opportunity had not existed before World War II.
His response was quick and unmistakable. ''Yes,'' he agreed, ''the communists may have given us equality, but we do not have freedom.''
That simple, basic fact makes the postwar social gains only half-real.
National independence is as much a part of the Polish identity as is personal liberty. And the experience of 130 years of resistance to foreign rule following the country's partition in the late 18th century is etched in the collective and individual memory.
Poland's present-day relationship to the Soviet Union is seen as nothing but a replay of czarist Russia's domination. All the post-1944 efforts to dull the edge of resentment toward the Soviet Union have had no effect, even among the communists.
This reporter was not surprised when a high Communist Party functionary in the Ministry of Education commented that, sure, the October Revolution was important for the rebirth of Poland in 1918, but not because the Bolsheviks proclaimed the right to national self-determination (as all the school textbooks intone). It was crucial because their civil war kept the Soviets from interfering in Poland.
During the 16 months of Solidarity's existence, Poland's separate identity reasserted itself and flourished. The creation of the independent labor movement was only a part of the renovation.
Renewal consisted just as much in steps to emancipate all civil society from other Soviet-type institutions. Poles have tasted independence on various levels , and this experience sustains their resistance to the military regime, their determination not ''to give in,'' not to ''become another Kazakhstan.''
The crowds' response to the Pope's visit in June was a demonstration of that resolve. In the weeks that followed, I had a chance to observe how all-pervasive that spirit is. It is conveyed in everyday behavior no less than in open political dissent.
The Polish People's Republic may officially be a workers' state. But the population at large is guided by the social forms and graces of the pre-World War II upper class whose political ascendancy is irrevocably over.
'Madame' and 'Monsieur,' not 'Comrade'
Hand-kissing has become universal. So is the presenting of flowers to make almost any occasion from casual visits to name-day parties. As forms of address, ''Comrade'' and ''Citizen'' are rarely used - and then only in party offices. Elsewhere it is the Polish equivalent of ''Monsieur'' and ''Madame.''
All these little flourishes, plus of course the determination to keep up with the latest Western fashions, confirm the Poles' resolve not to lapse into the drab proletarianism of their Eastern neighbor.
No one seems afraid to act out his or her opposition in more explicit ways. The conviction that resistance is a just cause is so widespread that it makes a shambles of the security system.
Persons active in underground publishing talk of their plans in a normal voice in public places. It was I who was apprehensive and looked around to see who might be eavesdropping. What struck me was their cheerful self-assurance, which is rooted in the knowledge they are working for a large, like-minded audience.
By contrast, the dissidents I have met in Moscow were a gloomy and fearful lot, reflecting their isolation from the rest of society, the efficiency of the secret police, and the ubiquity of informers.
Ordinary citizens in Poland are no less uninhibited in expressing their criticism of, contempt for, and opposition to the regime than are the dissidents. On the train, once passengers settle in their compartments, conversation turns to politics. No one holds back biting comments on the latest idiocy or malfeasance of the government.
Thus emboldened, I did not hesitate to read an underground pamphlet - easily identifiable by its small format and print - while sitting in the narrow corridor of an overcrowded train, with everyone stepping over my knees during a long ride back to Warsaw.
Poles act like a free nation in other ways as well. Several public exhibits I saw were outspoken political statements, despite the pre-opening censorship prescribed by law. One - of abstract art - displayed sculptures of barbed wire and knouts, drip paintings simulating the pro-Solidarity graffiti smudged over by the police, a carved altar representing the sacrifice of national sovereignty , and numerous other symbolic renderings of dashed hopes, police brutalities, and violated independence.
The walls of another exhibit - a centenary commemoration of the death of the poet Cyprian Norwid - were decorated with aptly chosen quotations denouncing the abuse of political power or the consequences of an unfree press.
In July, the regime passed an amended censorship law which affects whatever is deemed ''harmful'' to the security of the state. The day after the law was enacted, Warsaw's shop windows were plastered with large posters soliciting donations for a monument to honor the 1944 Warsaw uprising. They were printed in the same bold, jagged, white-and-red calligraphy as Solidarity's posters.
The scene revived images of the desperate attempt of the pro-Western underground to liberate Warsaw before the Soviet troops arrived. That was but the first act in the unending struggle to keep Poland independent.
The message was unmistakable, and the posters remained undisturbed.
This past August, the public demonstrations called for by the Solidarity underground to mark the signing of the Gdansk agreements in 1980 were observed on a much smaller scale than a year earlier.
But this does not mean the Poles have come to terms with the regime. They do not accept the regime's contention that it was the extremists in the free labor movement, misguided by intellectual advisers, who violated the spirit and the letter of the agreements - thus forcing the military rule and the liquidation of Solidarity.The Solidarity legacy
Unflagging support for the basic principles of Solidarity as a national and democratic movement was amply demonstrated in other ways. Many masses were dedicated to the ''fate of the fatherland,'' at which priests and lay participants spoke of the basic human rights spelled out in the Gdansk agreements. The crowds in attendance overflowed into the courtyards and adjoining streets.
And as is the rule nowadays, all the services ended with singing the pre-1918 version of the national hymn that concludes: ''Fatherland and freedom return to us, Oh Lord.'' As they sing, the congregation holds up their hands in the V sign , the symbol of Solidarity.
Solidarity faces a bleak future in only one respect: It cannot be revived as a single, organized force in public life. But the way people act shows that it has survived undaunted as a conviction that the nation and society have inalienable rights.
It would be misleading, however, to say that Poles are agreed on how to translate opposition into effective action. Roughly speaking, three general attitudes are discernible.
* Intransigence. Many who take this approach are engaged in illegal activities: the clandestine radio, the myriad underground publications, the organizational network. Others simply disdain reading the official press, listen only to foreign broadcasts, and await the demise of the system. (But some of these passive intransigents donate as much as 10 percent of their salary to Solidarity and the underground.)
The former stance is fairly typical of people in their teens and early 20s, who admittedly face a bleak economic future. The latter attitude prevails among retired professionals, whose state pensions often enable them to live reasonably well but have not transformed them into supporters of the system.
* Legal and ''organic'' approach. People who adopt this tack, mainly the established middle-generation professionals, take a realistic, long-range view and pursue either a more prudent or a legal course.
The prudent ones, often former communists who became disillusioned with trying to democratize the party, maintain contact with the underground. But their aim is to combat the romantic, conspiratorial-insurrectionist mentality of the intransigents with appeals for patient, preparatory ''organic'' work. Merely plotting to take over the factories is neither wise nor sufficient. There must be well-trained specialists - in technology and management - who can run an industrial plant properly.
The proponents of legal work predominate in the academic community. Professors are determined to instill habits of independent thinking and to preserve the plurality of views, so basic to a free society.
After the imposition of martial law, the regime did not abolish university autonomy, which was legalized in May 1982 and only provisionally amended in July. Moreover, the government has asked social scientists to write new textbooks to replace those discarded during Solidarity's heyday. Both of these developments offer considerable scope for solid educational effort.
Furthermore, teachers remain in close touch with a growing network of self-education groups, local history or ecology clubs, and mutual assistance circles. All these are intent on preserving and developing some aspect of personal, societal, or national autonomy.
The Roman Catholic Church, in favoring the educational and organic approach, broadens its appeal immensely. It is no accident that during his June visit, the Pope beatified two monks who, after having fought in the failed 1863 armed uprising against Russia, switched to promoting this nonviolent path to independence.
Church buildings are host to lectures and discussions on this particular trend in 19th-century Polish history and literature. And the independent lay Catholic press prints articles arguing that the slow, patient policy of reconstruction from below offers the only reasonable hope for a better future.
* Cautious resistance. The third approach is taken by the superrealists. In part, they are opportunists, more interested in good careers and a comfortable life than in changing the system.
But these people are not outright collaborationists or Moscow's puppets. They have come to accept Poland's geographic position, which makes inevitable its membership in the Eastern bloc. But they are also nationalists and do not want to see their country Sovietized.
Their reaction to the Soviet diatribes against events in Poland was most revealing: ''How can the Russians expect us to imitate them!'' The USSR is no model even to those Poles who do not actively oppose the regime of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski.
Journalists who did not quit their posts in December 1981 make up an influential proportion of that grouping. When appropriate and possible (because of censorship), they protest violations of legality. This was the case with the recent law empowering the government to assign jobs to persons it considered improperly employed. Several articles in the press criticized this law as violating the basic right to choose one's work, which Poles had always enjoyed in times of peace - a clear reference to the Nazi occupation, if not to the Soviet gulag.
Many officials in the Jaruzelski regime realize only too well that their state structure is a hollow entity without the nation behind it. The hard-liners among those in power do not see the need to seek the legitimacy denied by the population through accommodation.
But the moderates do. Many argue that Poland's periodic crises since 1956 were caused by the party's methods of rule, its disregard for the Polish national tradition - and not by Western subversion, as the intractable dogmatists would have it.
The party commission appointed to dissect the reasons for the 1980 upheaval has produced a report pointing out that the regime cannot treat its citizens as mere objects, cavalierly ignoring the Poles' devotion to their experience and habit of acting as subjects in their polity.
The report remains unpublished. But the accounts of various ideological conferences held by the party and the military this past summer contain many references to the need to adjust to the ''national consciousness.''
Some restrictions eased
Obviously, the regime is not about to start sharing power with the opposition. But it has to establish some links, some sort of modus vivendi, to bridge the gulf that separates it from the citizenry, in order to overcome the standoff that offers no prospects other than stagnation.
Some moves indicate that the authorities want to build on national instincts and habits by going beyond their rhetoric of patriotic appeals for national unity. These moves do not touch on the central position of power, but do create some areas where the Polish love of freedom and individual initiative could reassert itself.
Censorship remains despite the ending of martial law, but the severe restrictions on travel abroad since December 1981 were eased in August.
Although the free labor movement has been abolished, the 1982 labor law does permit workers to form and register plurality trade unions. Under the law, each factory may form its own labor union, but without the kinds of national connections that existed during the Solidarity period. Nonetheless, the reforms do allow some room for social initiative, new trade union organization, and self-management.
Given the pervasive determination not to ''give in,'' to keep pressing for liberalization and liberation, these organizational loopholes create opportunities for effective lower-level action by the civil society.
It may not accord with the romantic image of a frontal attack leading to total victory (or defeat) cherished by the intransigents. But it offers a more realistic, though admittedly pedestrian, program for the ''long haul'' through institution-building.
As it happens, this approach accords with the ''organic'' approach of an important segment of the opposition-minded population.