• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Letter from the Gdansk Prison

Let us defer consideration of this point for the moment, noting only that our generals’ idea of normalization differs substantially from Kádár’s or Husák’s “normalizations” which, in essence, meant total destruction of all independent institutions. Forty months after the Soviet invasion Hungary resembled a political cemetery; forty months of normalization in Czechoslovakia transformed it, in Aragon’s apt phrase, into the cultural Biafra of Europe. But in Poland, even after official liquidation of independent public institutions (trade unions, artists’ associations, youth organizations, editorial boards of various journals, etc.), after forty months of repression and provocation, the independent civil society, although pushed outside the official sphere, has not been annihilated. Under the Leading System this is an unprecedented phenomenon. More than a Communist system after victorious pacification, this situation resembles a democracy after a military coup d’état. The Poles have traveled a great distance on their journey from totalitarianism to democracy.

I am writing soon after the trial of the murderers of Father Jerzy Popieluszko. For some Western observers it provided a proof of our generals’ liberal tendencies. Indeed, the trial was an unprecedented event in the history of the Leading System. Never before have the provocations of the security apparatus been revealed to such an extent, albeit inadvertently; never before has the villainy of those who are lords over the life and death of common people been laid so bare. That was without precedent. But in the last ten years everything in Poland has been without precedent. The independent information network. Solidarity. The authority and influence of the Church. The Torun trial was also unprecedented in its attack on the Church. The vile slander of the murdered priest, the charge of collaboration with the Gestapo cast against the widely respected bishop of the Przemysl diocese, Ignacy Tokarczuk, the accusations of other bishops that they destroyed marriages and embezzled money—this is the other side of the Torun trial. Its main element is blackmail: “Look, we will continue doing this unless you cease to resist!” Our generals know perfectly well that they will not break the resistance of society unless they succeed in driving the Church back to the catacombs or refashion it into a collaborationist institution on the pattern of the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union.

The Popieluszko murder was an integral part of this scenario because Father Jerzy personified the connection between the Church and Solidarity. His “Holy Masses for the Fatherland” provided extraordinary, heartening moments of hope for the people of Warsaw. The police could never forgive the shepherd of the Zolibórz church the moments of relief he offered to the tormented, persecuted city.

The abduction of Father Jerzy Popieluszko5 was but one case in a long series of kidnappings. The kidnappers freely walk the streets of Polish cities; they need not worry about any criminal proceedings against them. Despite widespread demands, there was no resumption of any proceedings against the murderers of Grzegorz Przemyk.6 Instead, police captain Piotrowski, the murderer who organized the abduction of Popieluszko and who was later permitted to switch his role from defendant to the accuser of the Church, became an idol for his pals in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. I heard enough about this during my own detention and interrogations. Moments after saying goodbye to Lech Walesa, when I was being put into the police car, I heard them say: “We still have free space in the trunk for Mr. Michnik. Just like for Popieluszko.” A marvelous little joke…. They didn’t even try to pretend.

With the generals it’s a different matter. They do care about appearances. Evidence to the contrary, they do not want to be held responsible for this cruel killing. This is why the Torun trial had to take place, and why the defendants tried to outdo each other in declaring that there was no one “issuing orders from the top,” that the abduction and murder were merely a guerrilla action undertaken wholly on their own initiative. The only point of contention concerned whether the idea was Captain Piotrowski’s or Colonel Pietruszka’s, either of whom must have been inspired by goblins from the CIA. The Torun trial had to take place for the stigma of crime to be lifted from the generals’ epaulettes. The trial served as a useful smoke screen but it did not signify any political about-face. Efforts to destroy the autonomy of society are an essential element of the generals’ political course. So they reach for an old, discredited instrument: lawlessness in the guise of law. It is used to detain and sentence Solidarity activists on even the most absurd charges. No sooner had the charge of treason against Bogdan Lis been withdrawn than Andrzej Gwiazda was accused of hooliganism. I was promoted to membership in the Temporary Coordinating Commission of Solidarity (TKK)7—a genuine honor were it not for the fact that I had been nominated by the Gdansk secret police.

The list of political prisoners has rapidly become longer. On it are such people as Michal Luty, the organizer of educational courses for Silesian workers, and Józef Sreniowski, a sociologist from Lódz and an old friend of mine from KOR. However, if my arrest, together with those of Lis and Frasyniuk, will at least darken the liberal image which the generals have tried to cultivate, and if it illuminates the fate of other political prisoners, then our stay in prison will not be for nothing.

The prison machine has been put in motion. It could not have been otherwise. In the face of economic breakdown (once again a severe winter surprised the rulers of my country), at a time of yet another blow against the standard of living and the rights of the working people (an eight-hour day and free Saturdays), with rising social tensions portending the next explosion, fear is the only remaining hope of our rulers. Although the abductions have ceased for the moment—this genre of political polemics is temporarily inconvenient—our lot has been to exchange our homes for prison. But no elements in the Polish equation have thereby changed. Poland continues to be what it was: a country where the nation strives for freedom and autonomy, and the authorities try to force it back into a totalitarian corset.

The immediate reason for our arrest lay in the fact that the authorities were scared of the strike set for February 28 in protest against the announced price increases. We were detained on February 13, during a meeting with Lech Walesa. On February 14 Polish cities were blanketed with leaflets calling for the strike. On February 15 we were issued a prosecutor’s arrest order. The decision to strike was made by leaders of Solidarity [in January 1985] in the belief that it was the union’s duty to stand up against increasing poverty, to say no to the policy of substituting additional bites into family budgets for a structural reform of the economy.

I am not sufficiently familiar with the events that followed our arrest, but the facts speak for themselves. Official “neounions” were told to reject all versions of the proposed price hikes while the government announced that it was going to put them in effect on a staggered schedule. This provides the best proof that Solidarity’s leadership had good judgment, correctly read the mood of the country, and chose the best moment for the protest. It was not an easy decision, however. The discussions that I witnessed illustrated two dangers facing Solidarity. On the one hand the decision to call for a brief strike was criticized for not going far enough: fifteen minutes would be too short, the authorities would not even feel a pinprick. A stronger blow was needed, even a general strike.

This is what the radicals wanted. I think that their position contained a substantial element of wishful thinking. To go for a confrontation on such a scale implied not only a willingness to risk the existence of underground institutions, it also ignored reality. And the reality was this: in January 1985, when Solidarity’s Temporary Coordinating Commission made its decision to call for a strike, people in the factories had neither the strength nor the will to go through with this confrontation. Radical thinking is peculiarly vulnerable to paper designs and to emotions that block sight of reality. It is an experience familiar to generations of conspirators and émigrés. My opposition to the radicals’ ideas did not spring from pessimism; on the contrary, my friends accused me of excess enthusiasm. Nevertheless, I tried to constrain my optimism, aware that it tends to generate hopes on which it then feeds itself.

I also noticed that the Temporary Coordinating Commission’s decision drew considerable criticism from regional activists. They stubbornly repeated: “This cannot succeed, people don’t want strikes because they are afraid of reprisals, they are tired, they don’t believe a strike will have any impact.” I understood the reasons for their view, but at the same time I also perceived a paralyzing fear of a set-back, an apprehension that factories would not follow the Temporary Coordinating Commission’s appeal. I did not share this fear. I did not think that an unsuccessful fifteen-minute strike against price increases would mean an apocalyptic defeat. At worst it would demonstrate that workers are not at present strong enough to defend their interests by striking. However, had the Temporary Coordinating Commission not called for a strike it would indeed have been a real defeat because it would indicate that Solidarity had ceased to be an independent trade union ready to fight for workers’ interests. A merely verbal protest would not be much different from the declaration by the official “neo-unions.”

The fear of defeat, I think, may often paralyze more effectively than a defeat itself. I believe that the underground society, constantly improvising, created its own mechanisms of institutional ossification, its own routine, and the concomitant aversion to change. This is as understandable as it is dangerous. The thinking of underground activists and all members of Solidarity must be geared to dealing with surprises; they must be prepared for situations when the popular mood drastically changes. This happened, for example, immediately after the abduction of Father Popieluszko. Some conservatism in attitudes or institutions is valuable because it preserves continuity. But it may become a harmful restraint, a set of blinders, if it prevents one from being in touch with a changing reality. Far be it from me to exaggerate these dangers, but one should be well aware of them. Those who say that the struggle for freedom exacts a price are indeed right, as are those who insist on carefully counting the costs in order to minimize losses. It is fortunate that Solidarity makes room for both of these predispositions.

I spent almost three years in prison. The officials in the Ministry of Internal Affairs who offered me a choice between emigrating or declaring my loyalty to the regime—the temptation of freedom for a loathsome price—always tried to convince me that Solidarity had long ago ceased to exist and that I, cut off, continued to live with illusions. Sometimes I even asked myself: “Perhaps they are right after all?”

  1. 5

    On October 18, 1984.

  2. 6

    Nineteen-year-old Warsaw student Grzegorz Przemyk died on May 14, 1983, from injuries suffered during his detention by the police. In the trial the emergency ambulance staff was convicted and the policemen acquitted of all charges.

  3. 7

    TKK [Tymczasowa Komisja Koordynacyjna NSZZ “Solidarnosć”] is the leadership group of underground Solidarity. Established in the spring of 1982, it includes representatives from the main regional centers of the underground. Its best-known figure is Zbigniew Bujak from the Ursus tractor factory in Warsaw who escaped the police dragnet on December 13, 1981, and has been in hiding ever since.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print