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Wladyslaw Gomulka, Polish leader

Wladyslaw Gomulka etched himself into Polish history when he stood up to the Russian bear.

Gomulka, who died today after a long bout with cancer, rode Eastern Europe's post-war political rollercoaster from triumph to disgrace to even bigger heights, only to fall in the end to the same worker unrest that once brought him to power.

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But in 1956, all Poland looked on Gomulka as a national hero when he prevented a bloodbath by convincing Nikita Khrushchev to halt Russian troops converging on Warsaw.

Popular acclaim virtually vanished in the next 14 years during which Gomulka reigned as first secretary of the Polish Communist Party and ruler of the country.

By the time he was deposed in the aftermath of bloody food riots in December 1970, the one-time locksmith had developed into one of Eastern Europe's most rigid and thoroughly disliked leaders, a cantankerous country preacher who stolidly pronounced the twin virtues of hard work and Marx.

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'Among top-level communists in this part of the world, Gomulka had become holier than the pope,' a prominent party official once said.

Yet despite his shortcomings, Gomulka remained a devout nationalist who secured from the Soviet Union a measure of internal freedom for his people. To the end, most Poles respected him for this, and he may be remembered as the dominant political figure in post-war Poland.

His prominence wasn't due to personal charisma, however. Of medium height, with slightly stooping shoulders and a limp, he cut an uninspiring figure for a man who ruled his country longer than anyone else in 200 years.

He was brooding and dour, his face lean, his brows usually knit in thoughtful furrows. He had a sharp temper and reportedly threw ashtrays at subordinates in moments of anger. Gomulka had few close friends. He avoided receptions and public functions.

Wladyslaw Gomulka was born Feb. 5, 1905, in Krosno, a village in poverty-stricken southern Poland. His father was a farmer and a socialist and the family was poor.

His formal schooling ended at 14 and he earned a locksmith's diploma at night school. Soon he was caught up in Poland's political turmoil after World War I.

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The Treaty of Versailles restored nationhood to Poland after more than a century of German, Russian and Austrian occupation. Gomulka reached manhood in a turbulent period of weak government, high inflation and industrial unrest.

His commitment was always to the left. First a socialist, then a communist, he was widely known as a union agitator and strike organizer by the time he was 25.

Police arrested him often and at one violent demonstration shot him in the leg. The wound took six months to heal and plagued him for life.

A tough and merciless underground fighter during World War II, Gomulka emerged as leader of the Polish Communist Party. As such he was named vice-premier and minister of territories recovered from Germany in the coalition government.

It was then that Gomulka's nationalist streak began to show and his fortunes waned.

He particularly opposed forced collectivization of farm land and harsh measures against the Roman Catholic Church, measures advocated by Moscow-trained comrades.

Other party officials on Sept. 1, 1948, charged Gomulka with 'rightist deviationism' and 'Titoism.' Five months later he lost both his party and government posts.

Although at least one other top Polish leader was executed at that time on similar charges, Gomulka was not arrested until 1951. He was never tried, but spent almost four years in confinement in a walled villa outside Warsaw.

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But he was not forgotten. By 1955, Eastern Europe was in political chaos overMoscow's de-Stalinization moves. Poland was no exception.

Early in 1956, Boleslaw Bierut, the Polish party leader who had engineered Gomulka's downfall eight years before, died in Moscow. Censorship was eased and officials arrested during the years of terror were rehabilitated. In June, workers in Poznan staged explosive and bloody demonstrations for 'bread and freedom.'

Gomulka, brought back into public eye after what the party officially declared an illegal arrest and detention, became a symbol of hope against the police terror and daily bleakness of Polish life.

But the Soviets were fearful of the rapid changes in Poland, and - reeling from the Hungarian uprising -- began troop maneuvers around Warsaw. On the very day in October 1956 that Gomulka resumed his high party posts, a top Soviet delegation led by Khrushchev arrived in the Polish capital.

In a stormy and tense day-long meeting, Gomulka persuaded Khrushchev not only to halt the troop movements but also to stop the Soviet Union's internal domination and economic milking of Poland.

It was a masterful first act. Gomulka was hard put to follow it.

Re-elected as party first secretary, he made a pact with the church, allowed collective farms to disintegrate, reduced secret police power and permitted freer publication of books and newspapers.

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But Polish intellectuals who believed the 'Polish October' signaled a start toward traditional middle class social democracy soon learned they had misinterpreted Gomulka's pet phrase, 'Polish road to socialism.'

Gomulka made it increasingly clear there had been no October Revolution in Poland, only a change in party leadership to achieve greater independence from Russian-imposed methods.

The excitement of 1956 waned. Censorship was tightened again. Gomulka's flirtation with 'liberal communists' ended. His association with Khrushchev, after its rocky start, settled into a firm friendship.

In the 1960s, Gomulka tinkered with economic reform, but his conservative outlook scotched all serious efforts and Poland's economy fell into stagnation.

His relations with the church hit bottom in 1966, the year of the Polish millenium, when the regime refused a visa to Pope Paul.

But Gomulka's darkest year was 1968, which saw student riots, anti-Semitic purges and Polish participation in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Ironically, he fell from power at one of the diplomatic high points of his career. Only a week before violence broke out in several Polish cities in December 1970, in response to government plans to raise food prices, Poland finally had signed a long-awaited treaty with West Germany in which Bonn recognized Polish sovereignty over former German territories taken after World War II.

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Relegated to communist 'non-existence' after his downfall, Gomulka lived his usual quiet existence, splitting his time between a Warsaw apartment and a villa south of the city.

He could frequently be seen on the streets of the capital, looking tanned and healthy. He also enjoyed the perquisites of office despite his fall from power, and had an official car and driver.

But he never seemed to adjust to the rapid changes in Polish society that swept him from office and later ousted his successor as well.

'He just doesn't understand what's going on in Poland these days,' a foreign ministry official said three years after his downfall.

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