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Letter from the Gdansk Prison

Traditional historical divisions obviously produced different sensibilities and shaped various styles of political thinking. Ancient debates originating from bygone times returned. They concerned issues such as the status of the Church, the appropriate extent of secularization, etc. Nevertheless, I think that in Poland the conflict between the right and the left belongs to the past. It used to divide society torn by struggles for bourgeois freedoms, universal voting rights, land reform, secularization, the eight-hour workday, welfare, universal schooling, or the democratization of culture. A different kind of distinction dominates in the era of totalitarian dictatorships: it lies between the proponents of open society and the advocates of closed society. In the former, social order is based on self-government and collective agreements; in the latter, order is achieved through repression and discipline. In a vision of open society, the state acts as the guardian of the citizens’ safety; in the model of closed society, the state is a master and overseer who determines all modes of society’s existence.

The inadequacy of traditional taxonomies was already pointed out by Vladimir Bukovsky15 a few years ago. Shortly after the famous exchange for Corvalan, Bukovsky was asked whether he belonged to the left-wing or the right-wing camp. His answer: “We are neither from the left camp, nor from the right camp, we are from the concentration camp.” And that is the truth.

I recall Bukovsky on purpose. His book was printed by several underground publishing houses and became a great success in Poland. This shows that Bukovsky’s ethos, remarkably expressed in his memoir, closely corresponds with the spiritual outlook of the Polish resistance movement. It also shows that the people of Solidarity see the future not as a chain of explosions of tribal hatred, but as a new system of relations between the nations which will be based on principles of freedom and equality. The current inside Solidarity that works for this vision is strong and clear-cut. As evidence, one may cite numerous publications in the independent circulation, i.e., books by Czech authors (particularly by the extremely popular Vaclav Havel), Hungarians, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians. The problem of future relations with our neighbors became a subject of reflection by such political writers as Poleski, Podlaski, and Jan Józef Lipski. Of course there are also other points of view, but this current, both here and in émigré writings, is impossible to ignore.

But ethos cannot substitute for a political program. We must therefore think about the future of Polish–Russian relations. Our thinking about this key question must be open; it should consider many different possibilities. Thus we must not rule out the chance of a change in Soviet foreign policy that would bring compromise within the realm of possibility. Let us remember that compromise between the Soviet Union and Finland was preceded by a war between these two countries.

The Soviet state has a new leader; he is a symbol of transition from one generation to the next within the Soviet elite. This change may offer a chance, since Mikhail Gorbachev has not yet become a prisoner of his own decisions. No one can exclude the possibility that an impulse for reform will spring from the top of the hierarchy of power. This is exactly what happened in the time of Alexander II and, a hundred years later, under Khrushchev. Reform is always possible, even in the face of resistance by the old apparat. Leaders of the Kremlin may wish to take on the challenge of modernity, they may begin searching for a new model of relations with Soviet satellites. Polish political thought must be prepared for this contingency. Phobias and anti-Russian emotions provide no substitute.

The popularity of Bukovsky’s book demonstrates that such phobias are not inevitable—the democratic camp in Russia has numerous friends in Poland and the Russian democratic movement is a natural ally of the freedom movement in Poland. Likewise with other national liberation movements within the Soviet empire, especially our Ukrainian neighbors, the most tragic nation in Europe. But these are general statements—even a rough outline of the future of our part of the world is still unclear. While sources of tension exist, it is uncertain how they may be resolved. This indefinability requires caution, the avoidance of risk involved in definitive formulations, and a reluctance to rush things. These are the reasons for the noticeable restraint in Polish programs, contrary to the claims by some critics of Solidarity who ascribe it to nationalistic blindness.

Nor is it correct to accuse Solidarity of political clericalism. Respect for the Church never involved political subordination of the union. Proposals to build a union movement based on the Catholic Church, which appeared in the last few years, were generally of a marginal character. They were rejected by the Temporary Coordinating Commission and by Lech Walesa as well.

The role of the Catholic Church in Poland, so spectacularly demonstrated during the pope’s visit two years ago, has provoked many comments, often unfavorable, from foreign observers. These gentlemen should hear the view of a person who has never been accused of following Church instructions in his writings: the Church is not, and should not be, a political institution. The bishops are not, and should not be the representatives of the Poles’ political aspirations. But the Catholic Church is the only institution in Poland that is simultaneously legal and authentic, independent of the totalitarian power structure and fully accepted by the people. The pope is for the Poles the greatest teacher of human values and obligations. This reality has obvious implications, among them the duty of the clergy to speak out on matters of greatest importance for the moral life of the people. The issue of violations of human rights cannot be excluded from this obligation. Thus, when the bishops criticize hate campaigns, condemn murders, or plead for dialogue instead of repression, they are expressing the aspirations, including political ones, of an overwhelming majority of Poles.

Some people who are widely thought to have close connections with the Episcopate have on occasion expressed the view that Solidarity does not really exist any more. This provoked understandable protests from Solidarity activists. Let us overlook arguments about the propriety or clumsiness of such statements, although they often seemed to me ill-timed and out of place. Let us note, however, that from a Catholic bishop’s point of view it is quite rational not to tie the long-term interests of the Church to the fate of even the noblest trade union or social movement. The Catholic Church existed in feudal monarchies and bourgeois republics, under foreign occupation and totalitarian dictatorships. In each situation it searched for a suitable modus vivendi with the surrounding reality. It seems that at present we are also witnessing such a quest.

If the above hypothesis is correct—and it seems to be confirmed by the concentrated attacks launched by the official propaganda machine against the Church—then one may surmise that the model of the Church’s role that was created by Cardinal Wyszynski must still guide the bishops. It is a model that brought Polish Catholicism to a spectacular triumph. Let us note that the essential element in this model—which is built on the dialectic between diplomacy and bearing witness, between compromise and resistance—has been the full identification of the Shepherd with his flock. The latter used to be conceived of as God’s people, and not as a subject of public life, both in reference to relations within the Church and to relations between the people and the Communist authorities. This was a correct premise in the Stalinist period because the reign of terror left no cracks for independent activity. Today, in the Solidarity era, this premise is completely false. Perhaps the origin of various rash comments about Solidarity, which ascribed para-Communist attitudes to some of its activists, should be sought in the imprecision of their authors’ diagnoses of the present situation.

But nothing can change the fact that the Catholic Church is a great asset for the Poles. And not only because churches serve as headquarters for various committees aiding victims of repression, or because chaplains speak up on behalf of the wronged and the persecuted; and not only because church buildings ring with the free words of Polish literature and the sounds of Polish music, and their walls are adorned with the works of Polish painters; not only because the Church has become an asylum for independent Polish culture. The Church is the most important institution in Poland because it teaches all of us that we may bow only before God.


What will happen next?

Even though it is a necessary question, I can only provide a partial answer. I maintain that the Poles do not expect any help from outside. They do not count on Reagan, or on Pershing missiles; they have no hopes hanging on the outcome of negotiations in Geneva. Although they are happy to receive every gesture of solidarity that comes in from the outside world, they are perfectly aware (and willing to say this to others) that they must, and will, count only on themselves. They know that no one can help them through their present ordeal.

No one can be a prophet in his own house. Rationally, it is only possible to say that no source of tensions has yet been eliminated, and that none of the critical problems has been solved. “Normalization,” in the sense of reaching an understanding, turned out to be an illusion. “Normalization” as pacification became an unmitigated disaster. So what can happen?

The “fundamentalists” say: no compromises. Talking about compromise, dialogue, or understanding demobilizes public opinion, pulls the wool over the public’s eyes, spreads illusions. Walesa’s declarations about readiness for dialogue were often severely criticized from this point of view.

I do not share the fundamentalist point of view. It is true that a compromise cannot be achieved by begging and that it is futile to explain to the Communists why a compromise would be a sensible solution. This is why the appeals by “neorealists” are so pitiful and empty; their authors should carefully watch out for the thin line dividing political speculation from collaboration. When Walesa declares the need for compromise he unmasks the intentions of the authorities; when the same is being said by a “neorealist” who avoids mentioning the word “Solidarity” like the plague, he is signaling to the authorities his own readiness to take part in murdering our union.

Still, the logic of “fundamentalism” precludes any attempt to find a compromise, even in the future. It harbors not only the belief that Communists are ineducable, but also a certainly that they are unable to behave rationally, even in critical situations, that, in other words, they are condemned to suicidal obstinacy.

This is not so obvious to me. Historical experience shows that Communists were sometimes forced by circumstances to behave rationally and to agree to compromises. Thus the strategy of understanding must not be cast aside. We should not assume that a bloody confrontation is inevitable and, consequently, rule out the possibility of evolutionary, bloodless change. All the more so since democracy is rarely born from bloody upheavals. Our minds should be clear about this: the continuing conflict may transform itself into a dialogue or an explosion. The Temporary Coordinating Commission and Walesa are doing everything in their power to make dialogue possible. The chances of their strategy will be greater if the level of self-organization within independent Polish society increases. For street lynchings, angry crowds are enough; compromise demands an organized society. In our activities we must also carefully watch the political map of the world. Poland’s fate, unfortunately, is entwined in the superpower conflict; we have already fallen victim to it on several occasions in the past.

President Roosevelt once called Poland the conscience and the inspiration of the world, but this statement had no effect on American decisions at Yalta. Today no special significance should be attached to merely verbal declarations. But if we nevertheless see some importance in such pronouncements it is because they seem to portend an important change in the direction of US policies. Communist propaganda accuses President Reagan of ideologizing foreign policy. Indeed. It looks as if the United States, beginning with President Carter, took up this ideological challenge. It was an expression of a belief that the outcome of conflict will be determined not only by the principle of force, but also by the force of principles. This is the reason for the American rejection of the Soviet interpretation of détente, which can be reduced to a simple philosophy: “When you are in power, I demand freedom for myself on the basis of your own principles; when I am in power, I take freedom away from you because such are my principles.”

What is taking place in Poland provides a classic illustration of the Communist philosophy of peaceful coexistence. In a way, ever since Yalta, Poland has been a testing ground, a precise litmus paper of Soviet foreign-policy intentions. Would you like to know what the Kremlin’s goals are? Do you want to decipher the meaning of its calls for peace? Look at Poland. Our generals speak as frequently about national accord and dialogue with society as their Soviet comrades do about détente and arms-limitation talks. The language of Communists has a certain peculiarity—its words are written one way and read quite another. In this language one writes “agreement” and reads “military coup d’état.” These truths, banal to the Poles, are slowly becoming obvious to Western Sovietologists as well. At any rate, it seems that this reasoning has been accepted by President Reagan and his staff. If this is correct, then our analysis, at bottom, is not based on faith in the conscience of Western politicians but on their wisdom and ability to analyze facts coolly and correctly. If they ignore Polish aspirations for autonomy they will commit not only a moral mistake, but a political one as well. This is my understanding of American policy toward Poland.

It is a policy that insists on linking economic ties with respect for human rights. This is what brings Communist propagandists to white-hot fury. They constantly repeat that no American moves can have any impact on their policy of imprisoning political opponents. They lie. Even Joseph Stalin was once forced to open the gates of his camps and release Polish prisoners. This is something worth reminding Jaruzelski, who would like to gain approval for his policy of repression in order to more easily break internal resistance. He wants to unfreeze relations with the West, but on his own terms. If he succeeds it will provide encouragement for the entire Communist bloc, for it would send this message: repression of freedom won’t cost you a penny. Vae victis!16

Jaruzelski is currently fighting to impose his version of normalization on the Poles, and to have it accepted by the Western governments. To the Poles he says: “You have no chance, we will break you with repression. Better accept my interpretation of conciliation. It means that every one of you, even Lech Walesa, will be free to adore and praise me.” To the West he says: “If you accept me as I am, maybe I will again declare amnesty.”

One should not be misled by appearances, however. Internal peace depends on political moves, not police repression. Periodic arrests and trials of Solidarity activists and Catholic priests, followed by amnesties, do not herald internal peace and dialogue. They are signs that citizens are treated as hostages in the continuing “civil cold war.” Nevertheless, the fight for amnesty is most easily explainable and, on a humane level, most understandable. Therefore it must continue.

Last July [when an amnesty for political prisoners was declared] our generals lost the amnesty battle. And they lost the civil cold war too. This doesn’t mean that they will stop warring against us, that they will no longer kidnap, beat, and kill us, that they won’t send us to prisons and sentence us as hooligans or subversives. I do not in the least exclude the possibility that General Jaruzelski with his touching military modesty and General Kiszczak in his charming simplicity won’t rob us of another few years of life. They have acquired a certain proficiency in this trade, and I don’t think that the image of people behind bars keeps them awake at night (well, with the possible exception of Colonel Pietruszka and Captain Piotrowski [i.e., the two men convicted in the Popieluszko murder trial]). To the contrary: each successive arrest warrant confirms their sense of duty well done. Every confiscated copy of a book by Milosz, Herbert, Kolakowski, Gombrowicz, Brandys, and Konwicki improves their appetite. Every person broken by prison is a leaf in their laurel wreaths. And they think that this can continue forever.

I would like to assure them that they are mistaken. They are much too confident. They forget that the sociology of surprise is hidden in the nature of the Leading System. Here, on a spring morning, one may wake up in a totally changed country. Here, and not once, Party buildings burned while the commissars escaped clad only in their underwear. Edward Gierek, so beloved by Brezhnev and Helmut Schmidt, so respected by Giscard d’Estaing and Carter, within a week traveled from the heights of power into oblivion. Sic transit gloria mundi….

Sitting in their comfortable offices, walking down the bureaucratic corridors, listening to denunciatory reports of their lackeys, the generals don’t know what the common people are thinking. But we, although prisoners, know very well. That’s why, from my perspective, I wish, for them, that the conflict in Poland is ultimately transformed into dialogue. If it transforms itself into explosion they will be reduced to looking for Lis or Frasyniuk to protect them from the reach of the flames.

I am not going to write about my own case. At the trial I hope to bare the whole structure of the police provocation prepared, bunglingly, by Captain Piotrowski’s chums in Gdansk. I would like, however, to conclude with some personal remarks.

For six months I couldn’t write a single word. My friends joked that I should be put back in prison. Jokingly, I conceded that they were right. And now it has happened: I was locked up, and I have written a political essay. It would be small-minded of me if I did not credit the man who inspired me, the general who ordered my arrest. I am in such good company, with Wladyslaw Frasyniuk and Bogdan Lis. Therefore, dear general, I owe you gratitude for your thoughtful watch over my steps and for providing proper direction for my meditations. I don’t know what I would do without your suggestions and fatherly support. So much for thanks.

What more can I say? We live in truly interesting times. We witness the barren twilight of the old world of totalitarian dictatorship. We, the people of Solidarity, have been put to a difficult trial. But even if it becomes an ordeal by fire, fire cleans and purifies what it cannot consume. I am not afraid of the generals’ fire. There is no greatness about them: lies and force are their weapons, their strength stems from their ability to release the darkest and basest instincts in ourselves. I am sure that we shall win. Sooner or later, but I think sooner, we shall leave the prisons and come out of the underground onto the bright square of freedom. But what will we be like then?

I am afraid not of what they will do to us, but of what they can make us into. For people who were outlaws for a long time feed on their own traumas and emotions which, in turn, strangle their reason and ability to recognize reality. Even the best people can be demoralized by years of persecution and the shock of regaining their lost stature. I pray that we do not return like ghosts who hate the world, cannot understand it, and are unable to live in it. I pray that we do not change from prisoners into prison guards.

We know that today we need efforts of many kinds. We need underground structures and we must strive for open activity. Our actions must be consistent and informed with patience. One cannot repeat this humble word too often—it is a declaration of ambitious and persistent people, a declaration of unbending hope.

We live in a strange state of suspension. Nothing has been sealed yet. The grand fate of the nation and the small fates of the people still hang in the balance. We are trapped by the humiliating feeling of helplessness and impotence. Is this right?

In 1942 Czeslaw Milosz wrote: “In an historical moment when nothing depends on man, everything depends on him—this paradoxical truth is revealed today with particular force.”

And also today….

translated by Jerzy B. Warman

  1. 15

    Vladimir Bukovsky, the scientist and author who spent many years in Soviet prisons and psychiatric institutions, was exchanged in 1976 for the imprisoned Chilean Communist party leader Luis Corvalan.

  2. 16

    Woe to the vanquished!”

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