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Letter from the Gdansk Prison

Adam Michnik, one of the best-known leaders of the opposition in Poland, was sentenced on June 14 to two and a half years in prison. Two other Solidarity leaders, Bogdan Lis and Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, were sentenced along with him. The three men were arrested in February after attending a meeting of Solidarity leaders, including Lech Walesa, which was called to discuss the possibility of a fifteen-minute general strike in protest against price increases. This essay was written in prison while the author was awaiting trial.

Jerzy Urban, the government press spokesman, contends that I wanted very much to be arrested. My imprisonment would be useful to my Pentagon principals who would like to spread a false picture of Jaruzelski and his group. My American bosses fervently desire the world to believe, falsely, that Jaruzelski’s government maintains internal peace by imprisoning its political opponents. Urban’s dialectical reasoning leads one to the irrefutable conclusion that Poland is a perfectly calm place, that its government enjoys great moral authority and the support of an overwhelming majority of society. Only a few extremist groups, incited by Ronald Reagan, storm the prison gates begging to be arrested.

This incisive analysis conceals Urban’s inherent inability to understand that there are people who won’t be deterred by the threat of imprisonment from doing what they believe is right. Still, in my conversations with myself, held during long prison nights, I often wondered why Bogdan Lis, Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, and I had been arrested. I saw in this a proof that the government is afraid of rising social tensions caused by the deteriorating standard of living. I also think that our arrest was motivated by a desire to appease the frustrations of the security apparatus in connection with the Torun trial.1 Our arrest, and the show trial that is now being prepared, are an expression of boundless faith in a social order built on lies and police repression. But they also prove that repression leads the government into a blind alley, at least in today’s Poland.

Yes, it is possible to govern in this way. So long as geopolitics is favorable, this system may last for quite some time. But it cannot rid itself of the stigma of an alien, imposed garrison. Repression has lost its effectiveness. Our imprisonment does not frighten anyone, nor will anyone be enslaved by it. This has been the case for the past five years.

But it wasn’t always like this. Radicals and exiles typically delude themselves that dictatorships are based exclusively on coercion. This is not true. Long-lived dictatorships engender their own characteristic subculture and peculiar normalcy. They create a type of man unused to freedom and truth, ignorant of dignity and autonomy. Rebels are a tiny minority in such dictatorships; they are seen as a handful of desperate men who live like a band of heretics. For every dictatorship, the critical moment arrives with the reappearance of human autonomy and the emergence of social bonds that do not enjoy official sanction. As a rule, such moments are short—temporary tremors marking a crisis in the dictatorial power structure.

In the Leading Social System [i.e., the Communist system] such loss of balance never lasted longer than a few months. But in Poland the structures of independent civil society have been functioning for several years—a veritable miracle on the Vistula. So long as these structures exist side by side with totalitarian power which attempts to destroy all independent institutions, the stream of people flowing to prisons will not cease. Poles will stop going behind bars only when they succeed in their struggle for democratic reform of public life. But if they let their independent institutions be destroyed, the whole country will become a prison.

In Poland, “miracle on the Vistula” refers to an event sixty-five years ago when the young Polish army, organized in the first days of regained independence, successfully defended Poland, and European democracy with it, against an offensive by the young Bolshevik revolution.2 The present image of that battle was shaped by Soviet propaganda, which claimed that a feudal-bourgeois Poland attempted to strangle the first state of workers and peasants. One does not need an extraordinary imagination to visualize the consequences of Poland’s defeat in that battle. If Budenny’s Red Army had been able to water its horses in the Seine, not much would be left of European democracy….

Poland was led in those days by Józef Pilsudski, one of the greatest and most complex figures in its modern history. Pilsudski once wrote a memorable sentence: “In Poland prison is a constant, everyday companion of human thought. It is a part of consciousness, political culture, and everyday life.”

One must remember these thoughts of the builder of Polish independence in order to understand contemporary Poland with all its hopes, prospects, and dangers. Foreign observers, even friendly ones, often lack the knowledge and conceptual framework to comprehend the whole unconventionality of Polish fate. With few exceptions, such as Timothy Garton Ash or Martin Malia, Poland appears to them as a country of incomprehensible reactions and unfathomable conflicts. This is not surprising; after all, Polish observers understand little of the Irish or Chilean predicament. Yet I think that this lack of understanding may have costly consequences, and not only for the Poles. Hence this essay.


For Western observers the Polish miracle began in August 1980 and ended [with the imposition of martial law] on December 13, 1981. I disagree. I see its beginnings earlier, and I think that the Polish experience acquired a truly universal dimension only after December 13.

It will soon be ten years since fifty-nine intellectuals signed a petition demanding that the scope of freedom in Poland be broadened. The petition also spoke of workers’ rights to independent trade union. The letter of the fifty-nine became a warning. “You cannot govern like this any longer,” was its message to Gierek.3 The authorities’ only answer was to carry out reprisals against the people who signed it. A few months later Poland was shaken by another, incomparably more dramatic signal of crisis. In June 1976 workers in Random and Ursus went on strike, demonstrating in the streets against an enormous price increase. The reaction of the government was typical: the price increase was withdrawn and participants in the protests were forced to walk through gauntlets of truncheon-swinging police (so-called paths of health). They were tried, slandered, and made targets of hate propaganda. A spontaneous movement to help these workers emerged among the intelligentsia, giving birth to the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) and the democratic opposition movement—the first links in the long chain of the new “miracle on the Vistula.”

The ensuing events may be described as a dramatic wrestling match between the totalitarian power and the society searching for a way to attain autonomy. The period between August 1980 and December 1981 was merely a phase in this struggle. It ended with a setback for the independent society and a disaster for the totalitarian state. For disaster is an appropriate name for a situation where workers are confronted by tanks instead of debates. This is not the place for a detailed recounting of struggles that have taken place since then. Other people will take up this task; some, like Jan Józef Lipski in his book about KOR and Jerzy Holzer in Solidarnosć, have already made a beginning.4 I just want to stress two principal traits of the democratic opposition that were later adopted by Solidarity, namely the renunciation of violence and the politics of truth.

What were the sources of the power, the scope, the numbers, the patience and perseverence of this movement? Some explain them by pointing to a tradition of struggle for national independence, others detect the influence of the Catholic Church, still others praise the maturity of the Polish freedom strategy designed by the underground leaders. They are all right. But the principal reason can be found in the very essence of the totalitarian system which has long ago become a blocking factor in the development of creative forces, promoting sterility, destroying creativity and the spirit of society. The system exists only to protect the interests and the power of the ruling nomenklatura [i.e., high Party and state officials appointed by the top leadership or with its consent]. Since the Soviet Union regards the rule of the nomenklatura as a guarantee of its ideological and political stake in Poland, the Polish striving for autonomy threatens not only the power of the generals but also Soviet interests. Is it possible to change this particular definition of Soviet interests in Poland? The future of Polish independence depends on this question. The answer will also determine the nature of peaceful coexistence, because it will demonstrate whether Soviet leaders are willing to accept a new political reality.

Polish political reality is such that forty months after the imposition of martial law there exists a large opposition movement and an even more widespread front of refusal to cooperate with the generals. At the same time, Solidarity did not resort to terror, assassinations, or kidnappings. These methods belong exclusively to the repertory of the authorities. How can we explain this peculiar contradiction, which the official propagandists call “normalization”? What can we call this unusual situation where repression, provocations, and sheer exhaustion (the best ally of any dictatorship) have failed to annihilate Solidarity, the main organization of the civil-disobedience movement, or to push it into the blind alley of terrorism? How come our nation has been able to transcend the dilemma so typical of defeated societies, the hopeless choice between servility and despair?

It seems that the Polish nation does not think it has been defeated. The answer to the questions we posed can be found in Lenin’s old adage, well known to the Communists: the regime cannot rule any longer according to the old ways, but it does not know how to change them; the people do not want to live according to the old ways, and they are no longer afraid to try new ones.

What does it mean that they “do not want to live according to the old ways”? It means that people don’t want to be like objects, silently accepting their own enslavement; they reject their status as subjects, they wish to be masters of their own fate. And they are not afraid to do so.

But what does it mean “to rule according to the old ways”? It means to hope that the society is or will soon become completely terrorized and thus wholly molded by the state. Changing this sort of rule means to accept the autonomy of society not as a passing inconvenience but as an integral part of social reality. This is the road to dialogue and compromise.

Is this realistic? Is a compromise between the persecutor and his victim possible? Aren’t our “fundamentalists” correct in maintaining that no democratic evolution is possible without a prior, total destruction of the Communist system and, therefore, the only sensible program of action must reject hopes for a future compromise with the ruling group and opt instead for the integral idea of independence, i.e., full independence from the Soviet Union and complete removal of Communists from power? This is the central dilemma of the Polish opposition movement.

  1. 1

    The trial of four policemen convicted in the murder case of Father Jerzy Popieluszko. (All footnotes and comments in brackets have been supplied by the translator.)

  2. 2

    This is a reference to the Polish victory in the battle of Warsaw in August 1920, during the Polish–Russian war.

  3. 3

    Edward Gierek was first secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party from December 1970 to September 1980.

  4. 4

    See Jan Józef Lipski, KOR: A History of the Workers’ Defense Committee in Poland, 1975–1981 (to be published by the University of California Press in November); and Jerzy Holzer, Solidarnosć (Paris: Kultura, 1984).

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