Milestone: Where the Curtain Began Its Fall

By Anna Porter
The Globe and Mail, February 28, 2009

Lech’s legacy: 20 years later, Poland is free but struggling

Gdansk, Poland — Breathless, jubilant Germans dancing on top of the Berlin Wall – that’s what everyone remembers about the end of the Cold War.

That iconic dividing line between East and West, between the land of shiny cars and fancy shops and the land of rusted toilets and bad teeth, came down on Nov. 9, 1989.

But the beginning of the end took place nine months earlier here in Gdansk, the historic trading town on the Baltic (my local guide compares it to Venice) that evolved into a shipbuilding centre but never lost its independent spirit.

In February, 1989, a delegation from Solidarity, the opposition movement led by Lech Walesa that rose from the Gdansk shipyards, met representatives of Poland’s beleaguered communist regime to discuss the creation of a new parliamentary system.

The invitation marked an end to the suppression of Solidarity and, before long, to the regime as well. The forces of democracy had won.

Yet today the famed ship- yards are all but gone. What little remains occupies just a portion of the sprawling site and is owned by a conglomerate in Ukraine. In the 1970s, about 22,000 worked there; today’s number isn’t much more than one-10th of that.

I am here to research a book on how Central Europe is enjoying the democracy it fought so hard to win and how, two decades down the road, it is dealing with free markets and the turbulent transition from socialism to capitalism.

The midst of a global financial crisis isn’t the best time to be asking such questions.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk recently announced measures to prop up Poland’s flagging economy, saying there is a desperate need to assist jobless families. In two months, the country will mark the fifth anniversary of the day it joined the European Union amid great jubilation, but now, as the crisis deepens, the West seems to be turning inward.

“The European ship is rocking,” Mr. Tusk observed, with some alarm, “and they may start throwing the weaker passengers overboard.”

Some EU members are demanding restrictions on work permits, and there have been protests against foreign workers in Britain, where almost a million Polish citizens have gone to find work. The meltdown has provided a rallying cry to those who see the EU as a threat to Poles’ individuality, even independence.

“The problem,” says Adam Michnik, a co-founder of Solidarity, “is that no one has figured out how to deal with this crisis.” And there is no sense in turning to countries that have been models of democracy, adds the editor-in-chief of Poland’s biggest daily newspaper and arguably the country’s most influential intellectual. “The United States,” he tells me, “has no better ideas than the rest of us.”

When asked whether, with the benefit of hindsight, he now thinks Poland should have been like Britain under Tony Blair and tried a third way, one that is neither socialism nor capitalism, he smiles. “The third way,” he says, “leads to the Third World.”

Not into bondage

The change that swept Eastern Europe and caused the Soviet empire to collapse began in Poland, but well before that meeting in February, 1989.

The Poles have never worn bondage well. They resisted being partitioned in the 18th century, and fought both the Germans and the Russians in the 20th century. The Yalta agreements signed by Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt made them subjects of the Soviet empire after the Second World War, but having fought on the side of the Allies, they were recalcitrant.

The resistance to totalitarianism grew steadily over the years, from sporadic strikes in 1956 and student protests in 1968 to mass job action by miners and industrial workers during the 1970s. All were brutally put down by the regime.

Then, in 1980, Solidarity emerged from the Lenin Shipyards as the Soviet Bloc’s first independent trade union, starting with a series of strikes and in the end challenging the communist leadership.

The first step in any attempt to retrace Poland’s path to democracy is to visit Roads to Freedom, a Gdansk museum located in a wartime bunker with an entrance hemmed in by two free-standing brick walls and a massive, menacing armoured car. One wall is made from the brick that used to surround the shipyard, the other is a piece of the Berlin Wall presented by that city’s mayor in homage to those who fought communism and won. The armoured car is one of the many that authorities in Poland once used against unarmed protesters.

The first two exhibits remind me of my Hungarian childhood: a nasty-looking, rusty toilet with wipes made from newspaper and a grocery-store counter without groceries. The first anti-government riots were over food stamps and the rising price of bread and meat that could be purchased only on specific days. Long lines would form before dawn and often there would be nothing left for half the people waiting. My guide tells me the average wait for new shoes was a year and a half, even for growing children. People were crowded into miserable flats with water that ran sporadically.

The strikes in 1956, 1968, 1970 were put down by the Zomo, the government’s much-loathed riot police, who used rubber truncheons to beat demonstrators, some of whom died of their injuries. One room in the museum depicts a menacing lineup of Zomo, clad in black with hard plastic face guards and shields proudly displaying the word milicja. They represent a force that killed hundreds and jailed thousands. One victim was a 15-year-old boy on his way home from school.

But when Solidarity surfaced a decade later, the strikes not only spread across the country, for the first time, intellectuals openly supported the workers. Bogdan Borusewicz, now a senator but back then a fugitive from the law, tells me that KOR, the Workers’ Defence Committee, which represented academics who turned into resistance members, wanted Lech Walesa to be the leader.

Mr. Walesa was a 37-year-old electrician who had been fired by management for being too free with his opinions. He had little education but a great voice, and great ideas for providing a better world for his eight children. Short and stocky with thick hands and a wide face, he was also energetic, quick-witted, a brilliant speaker who could inspire crowds with his straight-from-the-heart delivery, and his apparent lack of pretensions.

Solidarity’s initial demands were simple enough: higher wages, improved working conditions, restitution of workers fired after the earlier strikes and the release of political prisoners. It added the right to organize workers, the right to strike and some loosening of the government’s hold on the news media.

In all, there were 21 demands written on a wooden plank in red and black ink. They are on display in the museum, together with the pen Mr. Walesa used to sign the final agreement with the government and the shipyard.

That agreement included the right to raise a monument to the victims of the 1970 strike demonstrations who had been massacred by the militia.

The imposing steel structure was erected outside one of the shipyard’s gates. Its three crosses stand 42 metres tall, gigantic towers that Mr. Walesa compared to harpoons driven into the indifferent body of the communist whale, behind them a series of plaques in memory of the dead. The largest, near the gate, dedicates the site to “the remembrance of those slaughtered. A warning to rulers that no social conflict in our country can be resolved by force. A sign of hope for fellow citizens that evil need not prevail.”

Before long Solidarity had more than 10 million members. By the time the government agreed to make it legal, the union’s power was undisputed. Even people in the Communist Party could line up for their Solidarity membership cards.

The government had always claimed to speak for the proletariat, but clearly the proletariat wanted new representation.

When, at the end of October, 1981, Solidarity held its first national congress in Gdansk, Anna Maria Mydlarska was there, with her two young children, interpreting for foreign journalists. She recalls the sea of people outside the hall. “It was a giant celebration – we thought we had won.”

Today, she still lives in the Gdansk area, but admits to being disappointed by the past 20 years. “There is a sense of social injustice. I do not think most people were rewarded for their sacrifices.”

Many of the sacrifices came when the regime fought back.

On the night of Dec. 12, 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s government cut off all phones, radio and television. The next day, it declared martial law, banned Solidarity, imprisoned its leadership and imposed a nationwide curfew at 8 p.m.

Three days later, Solidarity-linked coal miners went on strike in Katowice, and the militia responded with firepower, killing nine and wounding 25 – a massacre that would come back to haunt its perpetrators.

Like the Polish army during the war, Solidarity went underground and continued to fight. As the months passed, Mr. Walesa graced the covers of Time, Newsweek and The Economist, as well as front pages around the world. In 1983, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At the same time, food shortages continued, the price of bread shot up and soon no amount of propaganda could convince the population that the system would recover.

Publisher Zbigniew Garwacki remembers driving to Gdansk to join the strike committee. He helped to put out underground newspapers and books. People kept being arrested, some disappeared, some drowned – apparent suicides. “I may have risked my life, but at the time there seemed to be no choice,” he says, smiling. But his partner in the publishing company sighs. “I am tired of history,” she tells me.

Today, a Dominican priest named Maciej Zieba is in charge of the Solidarity centre that is located inside the main gates of the shipyard and shares a low-slung red brick building with a development company. He splits his time between the centre and his duties at St. Nicholas Church.

As a student member of KOR, he was followed and interrogated by state agents for more than 10 years. The police, he says, had the right to deal with people as they wished.

“Every day,” he says, “I asked myself whether I could continue, and every day I had to tell myself why I did continue: I needed to live without lies.”

Under martial law, he worked with Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who was to become Poland’s first non-communist prime minister, printing a half-million clandestine copies of Solidarity’s weekly. St. Brygida Church was the movement’s meeting place – even under martial law, the authorities wouldn’t risk invading its sanctuary and once Mr. Walesa had been released from prison, he had an office next to the sacristy.

When I visited the church on a cold Monday morning last month, it was empty and dark except for candles lit for the Virgin Mary and the memorial to Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko, the priest killed by the security police in 1984. The altar is a spectacular cascade of glitter and bronze that my guide says will be completely covered in amber by 2010, and a brass sculpture celebrates significant dates in the Poles’ history from 966, when they accepted Christianity, to 1989.

Eventually, Solidarity re-emerged with strikes to protest against totalitarianism’s inability to deal with food shortages. Shops were empty and people were starving. The national debt had soared, the large industrial complexes were running at a loss, and there were long lines for food for anyone not lucky enough to resort to the black market.

By late 1988, the regime decided that, with strikes and protests in all corners of the country, it could no longer rule. Adam Michnik remembers climbing the steps of Warsaw’s Viceroy Palace toward the outstretched hand of Gen. Czeszlaw Kiszczak, who had invited Solidarity to the meeting. At he time, he was a KOR adviser to Mr. Walesa, and he remembers looking at the man he had learned to hate while in prison and wondering what he would do when they were finally face to face. After all, he had been expelled from Warsaw University and jailed for criticizing Poland’s political leadership, his last term cut short by a general amnesty granted in 1986.

What they did was shake hands. The government had conceded defeat.

But there was still a long way to go before the transition to democracy. The very notion of human rights, civil rights, a multiparty system, representative government had to be introduced. There would have to be a new constitution, new election rules and a quick fix for the economy.

The appointment of Mr. Mazowiecki as Central Europe’s first post-communist prime minister was handled by Gen. Jaruzelski, the very man who had had him imprisoned only eight years earlier.

The scion of an old Polish family with strong ties to the Catholic Church and another of Solidarity’s advisers, Mr. Mazowiecki was Mr. Walesa’s choice, but he announced that the new government would be too busy with the problems of the present to deal with the crimes of the past.

In reality, there was a fear that the Zomo and tanks could reappear at any moment, backed by Soviet troops. “Two days after he became prime minister, Mazowiecki invited me to his office,” Maciej Zieba of the Solidarity centre tells me. “I waited while he finished a meeting with Kackov, the head of the KGB in Poland. No, I never asked what they were talking about.”

But he does remember praying that, if he were sent to Siberia, he would be wearing his white Dominican cassock, not his civilian clothes.

Elections were held in June, 1989, and it was a foregone conclusion that Solidarity would win. But the old guard didn’t anticipated that it would be a clean sweep. The Zomo didn’t come back. It had taken 45 years, but the Poles had shaken off communism, something that many people now take for granted – even now that capitalism’s flaws are readily apparent.

Shop where they dropped

At one time, Gazeta Wyborcza – Adam Michnik’s newspaper – was a banned publication. Now, it is a highly profitable enterprise with spacious, modern offices in midtown Warsaw, just one example of how Poland has made a miraculous recovery from the drabness of communist rule.

Anybody who doubts this should walk around the city and see the glittering shop windows, the high-rise hotels, the new construction sites, all of which speak to the benefits of joining the Western world.

And in Gdansk, during the drive from the modern airport to my new hotel, I spotted a massive IKEA outlet and a vast shopping mall.

Even the storied shipyards aren’t immune to the makeover. Next year, the Roads to Freedom museum will move out of its bunker, allowing the muddy grounds to be cleaned up. Before long, near the gates where riot police once shot demonstrators fighting for democracy, another big shopping mall will appear, along with a conference centre.

Despite the financial downturn, the development is expected to attract thousands of visitors who will be looking for bargains – rather than a close encounter with history.

But not all Poles are like Zbigniew Garwacki’s partner – “tired of history.” For example, my guide was an interpreter for Lech Walesa, and cannot disguise her disgust at the prospect of having his shipyards invaded by shopaholics and conventioneers.

“This is a place where people died,” she says. To her, we’re treading on holy ground.