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The Twins’ New Poland

Poland’s normal condition seemed to be that of occupation, backwardness, frustration, and alienation from the foreign-controlled state. The virtues for which it became famous were endurance, cultural vitality, and heroic but doomed resistance. Pierced by foreign arrows, its white eagle bled to produce the national colors of red and white. Its heroes were martyrs. Even a historian as sympathetic to the Polish cause as Norman Davies could write in 1983 that “Poland is back in its usual condition of political defeat and economic chaos.”1

Anyone looking at Poland today must conclude that the country’s basic situation has been transformed. Poland is now a free country. As sovereign as any other European state on a close-knit continent, it has enjoyed unprecedented security in NATO since 1999 and been a full member of the European Union since May 1, 2004. Some analysts already identify Poland as one of the “big six” inside the EU of twenty-five member states, along with Germany, France, Britain, Italy, and Spain. Its gross domestic product has grown by some 50 percent since it recovered independence in 1990. Young Poles—and more than 40 percent of the population is under thirty—travel freely throughout the world. Hundreds of thousands of them are now seizing their new opportunities to work in EU states such as Britain. If I step out of my door in Oxford, I am more than likely to meet a Polish student, either studying here or working in a local café.2

When I first traveled to Poland in 1979, the memories of Nazi occupation and Stalinist persecution still haunted the country. I came out of a restaurant in Warsaw one evening to find that someone had deliberately let the air out of the front tires of my car. “Oh, they must think you’re a German,” said my host. Among today’s teenage Poles, those memories weigh so lightly that the slang phrase for requesting an SMS text message on your cell phone is “Send me an SS man.”3

1.

If you ask when Poland’s historic turn for the better began, one answer would be mid-morning on Thursday, August 14, 1980, when a young, unemployed electrician called Lech Walesa jumped over the wall of the Lenin Shipyard in the Baltic port of Gdansk, and seized the leadership of an occupation strike that gave birth to a movement called Solidarnosc. Walesa himself gives a different answer: October 1978, when Karol Wojtyla, the cardinal archbishop of Kraków, was elected Pope John Paul II, and the spirit of resistance was strengthened not only in Poland but throughout central Europe. Infuriating Mikhail Gorbachev, Walesa attributes the historical credit for the end of communist rule in Europe as follows: 50 percent, the Polish pope; 30 percent, Solidarity and other central European liberation movements; 20 percent, Gorbachev and perestroika.

Kurcze, panie!” (politely translatable as “bloody hell, mister!”), he tells me, “I see in those events the hand of God!”4 If he’d tried to get to the shipyard a few hours earlier on that morning of August 14, 1980, at 6 AM, as he and his mates had originally planned, the secret police would probably have arrested him, but he was late. He can’t remember why. Then the strike nearly collapsed, but that was good too, since they ended up with a much better strike committee. He gestures energetically with his whole arm, while emitting his characteristic explosive sigh of wonder. “And later, in the struggle, what scrapes there were…. Who on earth could have fixed it like that?… Only the hand of God!”

Vigorous, thick-set, ruddy-faced, and still sporting his famous walrus mustache, Walesa at the age of sixty-two increasingly resembles one of those portly, saber-wielding eighteenth-century Polish noblemen you see on antique paintings of the country’s first experiment in democracy. The former Solidarity leader and former president of Poland still talks nonstop, and his language is, as it ever was, vivid, inimitable, and almost untranslatable. Amid the flow there are not just wonderfully comic passages but also flashes of down-to-earth wisdom and shrewd political judgment. They remind you that, at his best, Lech Walesa has been a popular leader of rare natural genius.

Whatever the just apportionment of historical credit for the end of communism in Europe, the pioneering contribution of Solidarity in August 1980 was significant enough that twenty-five years later, in August 2005, planeloads of past and present political leaders disembarked at Lech Walesa International Airport in Gdansk to celebrate the anniversary. Those who came to pay tribute included Václav Havel, Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, James Baker III (on behalf of two presidents Bush), Zbigniew Brzezinski, the German president, the Serbian president, and the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso.

They spoke in front of a large photo-montage which showed a domino covered with a photo of Lech Walesa held aloft by his fellow workers in 1980, knocking down dominoes representing Poland in 1989 (the inauguration of the first non-communist government in the Soviet bloc), the Velvet Revolution in Prague (Václav Havel shaking his keys on Wenceslas Square), the orange revolution in Ukraine (Yushchenko), and, finally, a largely concealed domino depicting another revolutionary crowd whose national identity I could not quite make out but may have represented Belarus. Many speakers expressed their solidarity with the oppressed people of Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship, and the hope of a comparable change there.

This “domino theory” version of the last quarter-century had more than a touch of Polish messianism, as did the accompanying slogan, “Today was born in Gdansk.” In truth, the series of successes had many fathers, as Gorbachev and others would point out. Yet with hindsight, we can justifiably say that the Polish revolution of 1980 to 1981 was the first velvet revolution. Despite the martial law imposed by General Wojciech Jaruzelski in December 1981, Solidarity survived—though only just, with many of its leaders arrested—and then revived through a further wave of strikes in 1988, to give Poland the first of the peaceful, negotiated central European revolutions of 1989, with their accompanying round tables, at which communist rulers and opposition leaders negotiated a peaceful transition to democracy. Saakashvili and Yushchenko acknowledge the importance of the 1989 example in inspiring the latest wave of what are sometimes called “color revolutions,” from the toppling of Milosevic in Serbia in 2000, through Georgia’s “rose revolution” in 2003, to Ukraine’s “orange revolution” in 2004.

So there was much to celebrate in Gdansk in August 2005. But behind and beyond the celebration, the new Poland has mixed feelings about its recent past, and fears about the future. Wandering away from a triumphal mass near the Gdansk (no longer Lenin) Shipyard, I made my way back to Gate Number 2, from the top of which Walesa used to make his funny, inspiring speeches to the crowd. The blue-gray gate was again decorated with images of John Paul II and the black madonna of Czestochowa, red-and-white flags, and flowers, much as I remember it when I arrived in August 1980 to witness the historic strike. But three things were different. To the right of the entrance there was now an ATM machine. Behind the gate there was a vista of decaying buildings, rubble, and weeds—for less than three thousand workers are still at work in a shipyard (now owned by a company called EVIP) which in its communist heyday employed more than 15,000. And in front of the gate there stood a large wooden stocks, of the kind used in past times to pillory criminals. Its three head-holes contained straw men wearing dark suits, white shirts, and photos as faces. Underneath was written “Marek Roman, Chairman of the EVIP firm—thief,” “Janusz Szlanta, former chairman—thief,” “Jerzy Lewandowski, current chairman—swindler.” In the background, the choir sang of peace, forgiveness, and love.

2.

During the two months following the Solidarity anniversary, the Poles elected a new parliament and a new president. In September 2005, with an electoral turnout barely exceeding 40 percent, they gave most votes to a center-right party called Law and Justice, with the more libertarian Civic Platform party coming in second. The Left Democratic Alliance, led mainly by former members of the communist party—known as “post-communists” since 1989—had been the dominant party for over ten years; in the September vote its representation in parliament was slashed from 217 MPs to 55. A month later, in the second round of separate elections for president, electoral turnout was just above 50 percent. A majority of those who did bother to vote chose the candidate of Law and Justice, Lech Kaczynski, over the leader of Civic Platform, Donald Tusk.

These two large parties of the center- right, Civic Platform and Law and Justice, then failed to agree on a coalition government, which both had previously said they would form. Instead, Law and Justice created a minority government, which will rely for parliamentary support on two parties of the more extreme, populist, Catholic right, the so-called Self-Defense movement and the League of Polish Families, which oppose both economic and social liberalism, and are deeply suspicious of the European Union. The prime minister is a rather sepulchral former schoolteacher called Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, but everyone knows that the power behind the prime ministerial throne is the leader of Law and Justice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski—the twin brother of Lech Kaczynski, the new president.

We therefore have the unusual spectacle of a major European country effectively run by twin brothers who look so nearly identical that it’s easy to mistake one for the other. (Lech has a distinguishing mole on one side of his nose.) They were born in 1949. Their parents had fought in the anti-Nazi and anti-communist resistance during and immediately after World War II, and passed that potent heritage of patriotic struggle to their sons. When they were twelve years old, the blond twins starred in a children’s film called Two Who Stole the Moon. The DVD version has become a best seller in Poland. I bought a copy when I was in Warsaw, and Jacek and Placek, as they are called in the film, are indeed a charming pair of naughty boys.

Both brothers became seriously engaged in Poland’s anti-communist opposition from the 1970s onward. Jaroslaw, who stayed in Warsaw, participated in one of the leading groups of the democratic opposition, the Committee for the Defense of the Workers, KOR. Lech moved to Gdansk, where he studied law and became involved with helping workers on the Baltic coast to organize independent trade unions against the communist state. Some friends called him Leszek, to distinguish him from the other Lech in their group—the electrician Lech Walesa.

Lech Kaczynski took a doctorate in law, was a Gdansk activist of Solidarity, and remained active during the years of underground resistance after martial law was imposed in December 1981. I remember him from the strike that took over the Gdansk shipyard in 1988. This prepared the way for the round table talks of 1989, in which he also participated. After the end of communism, he supported Lech Walesa’s successful bid for the presidency in 1990, but then split with him in an acrimonious dispute over personalities and positions. Ever since, he and his twin brother have been active on the post-Solidarity right wing of Polish politics, trying to put together a party that could win. “All their lives they have been working to gain power!” exclaims Walesa, with a snort. Now they have succeeded.

  1. 1

    Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland (Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 462.

  2. 2

    Britain has been especially welcoming to workers coming from the so-called “new accession countries” of central and eastern Europe. Of the more than 290,000 people who have formally applied to work in Britain since their countries joined the EU on May 1, 2004, some 170,000 come from Poland. See the report in The Guardian, November 23, 2005. If all 290,000 are actually working in the UK, that would be equivalent to 1 percent of the country’s total workforce.

  3. 3

    This was told to me by friends in Warsaw, talking of their own teenage children. It is confirmed in a fascinating guide to the new slang used by young Poles: Bartek Chacinski, Wypasiony: Slownik Najmlodze Polszczyzny (Kraków: Znak, 2005), p. 36, using the Polish phonetic spelling “esesman.”

  4. 4

    Conversation in London, November 10, 2005. Subsequent quotations from Walesa are also from that conversation.

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