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July 6, 1923 – May 25, 2014

Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the last Communist leader of Poland, who sent tanks to crush Solidarity’s stirrings for democracy in 1981 and later went on to preside over the death of the system that nurtured him, died Sunday in Warsaw. He was 90.

He died at a military hospital where he was being treated after a stroke, a hospital spokeswoman told the Associated Press.

Jaruzelski led a government that was deeply unpopular in Poland through most of the 1980s. For decades before that, as a career officer and party official, he dutifully worked to entrench Soviet-directed Communism in Poland, an effort that even Josef Stalin, its instigator, recognized as futile, likening it to “putting a saddle on a cow.”

On Dec. 13, 1981, the dour general with the tinted glasses, weak jaw and ramrod posture set in motion events that would earn him a villainous place in history.

On that night, as most Poles slept, he declared martial law and ordered troops to suppress the powerful Solidarity trade union movement, whose demands for greater freedoms were alarming politburos from East Berlin to Moscow.

“Our country is on the edge of the abyss,” he proclaimed at 6 a.m. that Sunday in an address to the nation as soldiers fanned out. “Strikes, strike alerts, protests have become standard. Even students are dragged into it. There are more and more examples of terror, threats, mob trials and direct coercion. Crimes, robberies and break-ins are spreading like a wave through the country.”

Jaruzelski complained that his government had shown too much good will, tolerance and patience toward Solidarity.

“How long can one wait for a sobering up?” he asked.

He did not say at the time, as he would later, that he had been under great pressure from the Soviet general secretary, Leonid I. Brezhnev, to curb Solidarity and its threat to the Communist system, nor that Gen. Viktor G. Kulikov, the Russian commanding officer of the Warsaw Pact forces, was in Warsaw that very moment.

Under martial law, power was vested in a “military council for national salvation,” led by Jaruzelski. Solidarity’s operations were suspended and its leaders arrested. Public gatherings were forbidden, publications were subjected to censorship, thousands of people were detained, and many schools and universities were closed. A strict curfew was imposed and Poland’s borders sealed.

Three days later, Polish troops fired on strikers occupying the shafts of the Wujek coal mine in southwestern Poland, killing nine workers. Jaruzelski was reviled. In Western Europe, thousands turned out to protest, and President Ronald Reagan moved to impose international economic sanctions against Poland.

– New York Times