WARSAW — General Wojciech Jaruzelski, a survivor of a Siberian labor camp, was an unlikely servant to the Soviet Union and its communist ideology.
Poland’s last communist leader, the general in tinted glasses who was best known for his 1981 martial law crackdown on the political movement Solidarity, died Sunday at age 90 after a long struggle with cancer and a recent stroke.
Born into a patriotic and Catholic Polish milieu, General Jaruzelski and his family were deported to Siberia by the Red Army during World War II. That harsh land took his father’s life and inflicted snow blindness on General Jaruzel-ski, forcing him to wear the dark glasses.
Despite his suffering at Soviet hands, he faithfully imposed Moscow’s will on his subjugated nation until communism crumbled across the region in 1989.
The nation is still deeply divided over whether to view General Jaruzelski as a traitor who did Moscow’s dirty work or as a patriot who made an agonizing decision to spare the country the bloodshed of a Soviet invasion.
General Jaruzelski stirs up emotions for his defining act: the 1981 imposition of martial law, a harsh crackdown aimed at crushing the prodemocracy Solidarity movement founded months earlier by Lech Walesa.
One of his chief adversaries, communist-era dissident Adam Michnik, believes the general had no choice.
‘‘If you have to choose between a martial law and a [Soviet] military intervention, you should not hesitate,’’ Michnik said. ‘‘It’s clear that it was the lesser evil.’’
Commenting on his death, Walesa called him a ‘‘great man of the generation of betrayal.’’
‘‘Those times were complicated, I’m leaving the assessment to God,’’ Walesa said.
General Jaruzelski preferred to be remembered for negotiations he backed eight years later that helped dismantle the regime and set Poland on track to the thriving democracy it is today.
‘‘A tragic believer in communism who made a pact with the devil in good faith’’ is how the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic described General Jaruzelski.
The image of General Jaruzelski in his drab olive military uniform announcing martial law on state television remains iconic. Straight-backed and betraying no emotion, he read from documents that outlawed Solidarity, the first independent labor union in the communist bloc. For the next 18 months, Poles lived with curfews, dead phone lines, and armed troops and tanks on the streets. Nearly 100 people died during the crackdown, while tens of thousands of Solidarity activists were imprisoned, including Walesa and Lech Kaczynski.
The suppression of Solidarity resulted in an economic stagnation that contributed to the system’s eventual undoing.
General Jaruzelski, who headed the government from 1981-85 and the party from 1981 until the communist regime’s collapse in 1989, repeatedly defended his decision. ‘‘The greater evil would have been a [Soviet] intervention,’’ he said in a 2005 interview.
He sought historical vindication.
‘‘The structures of the state were paralyzed. . . . A general strike was imminent. We were staring hunger, cold, and blackout in the face,’’ General Jaruzelski said at Kansas State University in 1996. ‘‘I spent the week prior to taking the decision on martial law as in some horrible nightmare. I entertained thoughts of suicide. So what held me back? The sense of responsibility for my family, friends, and country.’’
General Jaruzelski claimed partial credit for negotiating the peaceful transition to democracy as Poland’s last communist leader. Many Poles recognized him for allowing the ‘‘Round Table’’ talks with Solidarity in 1989 that paved the way for a peaceful transition to democracy. For about a year, he served as the president.
‘‘Jaruzelski’s role was positive, during Round Table and after it.’’ Michnik said. ‘‘He was a very loyal president toward the democratic changes that were taking place. He did not disturb; he helped where he could help.’’
The Round Table talks came four years after Mikhail Gorbachev assumed leadership in the Soviet Union and launched his liberalization policies of glasnost and perestroika.
In his old age, General Jaruzelski battled legal charges over imposing the clampdown and for crushing a 1970 workers’ strike — when he was defense minister — that left dozens dead. As he underwent chemotherapy for cancer in 2011, a Warsaw court excused him from participating in the two trials.
General Jaruzelski was born July 6, 1923, in the eastern Polish village of Kurow. He attended an exclusive Catholic school.
When the Germans and Soviets carved up the country in 1939, he and his family were captured by the Red Army and deported to Siberia. During three years of forced labor cutting trees, General Jaruzelski suffered snow blindness and injured his back, giving him a permanently stiff posture.
He did not turn against the Soviet Union because, he said, he met caring people there and was attracted to an ideology that seemed to address the social injustices he witnessed in prewar Poland.
In 1943, General Jaruzelski entered a training school for Russian officers and fought the Nazis in a Soviet-backed Polish army. When Warsaw rose up against its Nazi occupiers in 1944, those Polish troops sat with the Soviet Army across Warsaw’s Vistula River, watching, while the Nazis killed more than 250,000 people and leveled the city.
Recently released documents suggest that he participated from 1945-1947 in the suppression of Poles resisting the imposition of Soviet-backed communism.
He joined the Communist Party and quickly rose through army ranks to become chief of the General Staff in 1965. As defense minister, General Jaruzelski was one of the Warsaw Pact generals who planned the invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the peaceful 1968 pro-democracy uprising. In 1970 he carried out orders to suppress workers’ revolts in Gdansk and other coastal cities, a campaign that left 44 people dead and hundreds injured.
In 1971 he was appointed to the policy-making Politburo that was involved in the purge of Jews from the Polish military.
His commitment to communism — an atheist ideology — was so firm that when his mother died he didn’t enter the church for her funeral service, standing outside instead.
A left wing-dominated parliamentary commission in 1996 spared him a trial before the State Tribunal over martial law. He battled heart problems, pneumonia and cancer that eventually led doctors to declare him unfit to stand trials.
He said he wanted his gravestone to read: Wojciech Jaruzel-ski — General.