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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.