Adam Michnik: A Hero of Our Time

Alan Pajer/isifa/Getty Images
Adam Michnik receiving the 2010 Hanno R. Ellenbogen Citizenship Award for public service from Václav Havel, Prague, Czech Republic, January 2011

When Adam Michnik was still a political prisoner following the crackdown on the Solidarity trade union in his native Poland in December 1981, Czesław Miłosz wrote a foreword to a volume of Michnik’s eloquent essays and letters from prison.1 In it, Miłosz invoked the example of Mahatma Gandhi and predicted that with his steadfast advocacy of nonviolent political change, Michnik might well “bring honor to the last two decades of the twentieth century, even though,” he added, “a film on his life will not be produced soon.”

Miłosz was referring obliquely to Richard Attenborough’s 1982 bio-epic, Gandhi, yet as far as I know, no one has picked up on his gentle hint that Michnik’s life might make a terrific movie, especially now that we know how accurate the rest of his prognostication turned out to be. The movie would tell the story of a bright Jewish boy from Warsaw with an idealistic belief in communism, a love of history and literature (two of his favorite books were Lord Jim and The Plague), a wicked (Groucho) Marxian sense of humor,2 and, despite a pronounced stammer, a love of debate and controversy that, in the aftermath of student unrest in 1968, got him expelled from university and ultimately earned him his first of many jail sentences.

After his release in 1969, he took a job as a welder in the Rosa Luxemburg lightbulb factory, where some of “the most beautiful girls in Warsaw” would temporarily distract him, although he would later quip that he never lost his way “on the path leading from eroticism to politics.” In the 1970s, having finally broken with communism, he went back to university to study history, and began working out a new, abiding vision of how his country might evolve toward democracy.

After years in and out of prison as a Solidarity activist, Michnik ended up a national hero of sorts, one of the main strategists in his country’s antitotalitarian opposition, and a principal participant in the first of the several roundtable negotiations that swept Soviet-style communism off the map of Europe. And then, when Poland was on its way to becoming a parliamentary democracy, he left politics to become the editor in chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, a newspaper he had helped establish in 1989 and that is now the largest independently owned daily in the region. From this vantage point, he would continue to report on the bumpy evolution of democracy, both in his own country and across Central Europe.

The recent release of two collections of interviews, essays, and letters, most of them originally published in Gazeta Wyborcza, will give English-speaking readers a taste of this most recent phase of Adam Michnik’s colorful life. In her…

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