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Bitter Hope in a Cold Climate | The Nation

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Bitter Hope in a Cold Climate

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In August 1980, Polish strikers astonished the world by winning the right to set up free trade unions. In December 1981, the tanks of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski brought this extraordinary experiment to a tragic end. Four years later, Daniel Singer went back to Poland to find out whether the mood of the people has been more influenced by the hopes aroused by Solidarity or the despair provoked by the military coup. --The Editors

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

Friday, February 15. It's getting dark. My wife, Jeanne, and I land at Okiecie, the Warsaw airport. The temperature is 19 degrees below freezing. We go through passport and customs control more quickly than on previous visits. Then it's more like in the past. Standing in line outside the terminal and speaking a foreign language, we are picked up by a "private," a driver , making money on the side. "How are things compared with 1981? " I ask. He answers in economic terms: "Different. Fewer lines, but goods are more expensive." He moves on to the topic of the day, the proposed increase in retail prices. "They will abolish ration books--that's good--but wages won't keep up." Yet will they put prices up across the board? Between 1970 and 1980 such a rise was a signal for the working class to down its tools ind show its muscle.

Warsaw is beautiful--all dressed in white. The snow conceals the squalor of decaying buildings. Even the notorious Palace of Culture, a pastrycook's nightmare, blends into the landscape. The carefully restored three-story houses on the fashionable Krakowskie Przedmiescie (Krakow Suburbs) look like the setting for a romantic play. Only few actors are onstage. The new palaces for tourists, the-Forum and the Victoria, are like Hiltons. We have chosen to stay at the Europejski, which was built in the nineteenth century and was popular between the wars.

Once in our room, we switch on the television set to get the latest news about the political prisoners. Seven Solidarity leaders had met with Lech Walesa in Gdansk to discuss several matters, particularly the possibility of a fifteen- minute token strike in response to the trial of Father Jerzy Popieluszko's accused murderers, the projected price hike and so on. The police arrested them all except Walesa, then released four, leaving Wladyslaw Frasyniuk from Wroclaw, Bogdan Lis from Gdansk and Adam Michnik from Warsaw under provisional arrest. That was two days ago, and according to Polish law they should now be either released or indicted. But the case is not mentioned in the news. Warsaw friends I telephone are following the reports of foreign radio stations. The three are kept in jail, accused of endangering peace, order and whatnot. [The verdict in their trial was pending as we went to press--Eds.]

Saturday, February 16. I awake to the sight of snow blanketing the city. It reminds me of my childhood. We can't see Victory Square next to the hotel because it is surrounded by a wooden fence. Construction? No. This is where demonstrators used to gather and lay cross-shaped wreaths. Suppressing symbols is significant in Poland.

The first person I ask about the mood of the people is a poet. "Undoubtedly, weariness. To some extent, apathy. Despair, certainly not," he says. "Imagine a crab that got out of its shell, stretched in the sun, relaxed. You will never get it back into its carapace." The divorce between the rulers and the majority of the population, he explains, is deeper even than it was right after the military coup. Some people then had illusions about the material benefits of a return to "normalcy. " The regime might have gained some sympathy from the amnesty for political prisoners--it proclaimed last year had that been handled differently, or from the trial and conviction of the policemen who murdered Father Popieluszko. After all, it is unusual for any regime to undermine one of its pillars. Yet the way in which the trial was conducted, with the victim appearing at least as guilty as the murderers, had the opposite effect.

While talking about the trial, the poet told me a joke too deliciously surreal not to be repeated here. A Polish dissident is arrested and charged with attempting to integrate Soviet Kazakhstan into Poland. "You're crazy. Look at the map, it's utterly impossible," he objects. The prosecutor proceeds unperturbed: "I didn't claim it was possible, merely that you tried to achieve it. "

Another joke may help you to follow me along this journey, the story of a Pole coming back from a trip in the United States and telling his friends that things there are exactly the same as at home. "With the zloty you can't buy a thing, and with the dollar you can buy everything.'' As long as the Pewex shops exist, which sell otherwise unavailable goods for foreign currency, the joke possesses a bitter truth.

The official rate of exchange is 139 zlotys to the dollar. This is rather favorable to the visitor, yet the black-market rate is more than four times higher, over 600 zlotys to the dollar. Crazy. At that rate you can have a three-course meal in the medieval surroundings of the Bazyliszek restaurant in Warsaw--the equivalent of, say, the Edwardian Room at the Plaza Hotel in New York City--for less than you would pay for a snack at a cheap breakfast joint in the States. The high black-market rate reflects distrust of the national currency, a desire for travel abroad and the demand for goods in Pewex shops. The authorities tolerate such an anomaly because it brings in hard currency. The amount of dollars hoarded in Polish stockings or suitcases is loosely estimated to be between $1 billion and $3 billion. In 1981 there was an argument on this score in Solidarity between economists, who were in favor of keeping. the system on financial grounds, and workers, who were against it on moral ones. How distant that controversy seems now.

Krysia Litynska joins us for a meal at the bar of the Europejski. I am very fond of her. When I am speaking in New York and somebody says at question time, "Those Poles are all anti-Semites. Let them stew in their own juice, " I stress the absurdity of lumping all Poles together, often with Krysia's image before my eyes: curly blond hair, blue eyes and a Mickey Mouse impishness. So soft and tender, she has proved unyielding when important principles are at stake. But she is not spoiling for a fight. When tensions rose within the press services of Solidarity, she tiptoed back to her job as a psychologist in a Warsaw welfare clinic, where she still works time and a half to make ends meet (10,000 zlotys monthly salary, plus 5,000 in overtime).

That very morning she had discussed my question about the mood of the people with a colleague, who tended to equate opposition to Jaruzelski with support for Solidarity. Krysia told him, "You can't expect all of the people to be heroic all of the time. They have wives, small children and must survive in really tough conditions. So they will shut up when they shouldn't and not take risks when they should. They are not very proud of it. They may take to drink. They may even end up as my patients." When she echoes the classic complaint of psychoanalysts--Why should I help them fit into that sort of society?"--I am with her. When she goes on to contrast her easy life with the hardships of her patients, I object. Krysia is the wife of Janek Litynski, a mathematician turned dissident and one of the co-founders of KOR, the Committee for the Defense of Workers. Since the military coup, Janek has moved from jail to a clandestine life, acting now as the closest collaborator with Zbigniew Bujak, the Warsaw underground leader. All this can hardly be conducive to an easy life. "Right, but I've chosen my fate, " Krysia says.

Sunday, February 17. No day of rest. We get up very early and take a cab waiting outside the hotel. While public transport in Warsaw is better than it was three and a half years ago, taxis are fewer and privates have almost vanished. The reason is strict gasoline rationing. Ordinary motorists get enough to drive only about 185 miles a month, and cabbies claim their workweek has been roughly halved. We are going to Zoliborz, to the Church of St. Stanislaw. Street vendors sell candles in cups, and people throng in greater numbers than for a regular mass. The modern church building is plain; the extraordinary is around it in the wreaths, posters, banners and flags of Solidarity surrounding the tombs. This is Father Popieluszko's church, to which coachloads of pilgrims are coming from all over Poland.

That this church should replace the Lenin Shipyards as a popular shrine is symbolic. Popieluszko was no ordinary priest. The ecclesiastical authorities had wanted to silence him. Jozef Cardinal Glemp didn't wish him buried here. His funeral, attended by half a million People, was hailed as a triumph for Solidarity. But with this move from factory to church, the emphasis shifts provisionally from social struggle to moral resistance, a trend encouraged by the government's refusal to debate with an independent labor movement. A point to ponder.

One of the real forces of the movement, Jacek Kuron, lives almost next door to the church. Though just over 50, he has a long, militant past. He was jailed more than twenty years ago; together with an even younger Karol Modzelewski, for writing a pamphlet called "Open Letter to the Party,'' in which they contrasted Polish reality with socialist principles. Nine years ago he was a moving spirit in KOR. In 1980, his modest three-room flat in a big housing project was a crucial clearinghouse for news from factories, helping the national strike reach its climax in Gdansk. Jacek used to be a tower of strength. He now looks thin and rather weary. Thirty-one additional months in jail after the coup could not have done that. While he was in prison, he lost Grazyna, his wife, whom he once described to us as his indispensable anchor. Maybe seeing Jeanne with me accounts for his weariness. He shares the flat with his son's family and proudly'shows us his bouncing grandson. Must we wait till his generation?

Kuron livens up when we talk about politics. "I can't make heads or tails of what the government's after," he says. "They've messed up the apparatchiks and are now trying to meet them halfway. In the process they're endangering their relations with the church. They're really losing both ways. It's been suggested that what was at stake in the internal debate over the Popieluszko affair was the power of decision-making. Who defines the enemy, the general or the lowest security officer supervising a block of flats? If that's so, the government is in a sorry state.

"The rulers were once frightened of what might happen if workers' blood was shed, and they watched the big factories apprehensively. This gave us scope for maneuvering and political bargaining. After the military coup, they got rid of this taboo. The organized pressure from society is stronger than ever, but the authorities are less sensitive to that pressure. Under the circumstances, we should start anew, progressively taking over the factory councils, the local authorities and proceeding upward step by-step. But such a strategy requires time. There is no guarantee that the economy will hold up for that long. The whole thing may explode or the Vistula may stop flowing.

Before World War 11, a section of Zoliborz near where Kuron lives was a stronghold of the socialists and communists. In one of the nine "colonies," as these blocks were called, lives Janek Strzelecki, a distinguished sociologist and a former adviser to the strikers. He tackles my question from another angle, the disappearance of the center in Polish politics. "The men within Solidarity who pressed for a compromise with the authorities or those within the party who pleaded. in favor of coming to terms with the labor movement haven't a leg to stand on, at least for the time being," he says. "The government can only talk with itself. The search for compromise is pure make-believe. Still, I wouldn't talk of despair--except possibly among the very young who hoped for everything here and now, many of whom contract out of politics. Otherwise, most people hang on, trying to preserve some form of moral dignity until another ray of hope."

We have just time to eat something in a popular restaurant, cheap by our standards, though not when set against official Polish salaries. Reminded of the Polish puzzle: Workers earn 18,000 zlotys a month and spend 22,000. How do they live?

That evening we have dinner at a private home. Among those present are Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a progressive Catholic who, during the 1980 strike in Gdansk, presided over the "commission of experts'' (intellectuals helping the strikers) and later edited Solidarity's main newspaper; and his companion during that time, Bronek Geremek, an internationally known medievalist. They were called the Christian Castor and agnostic Pollux. [Geremek was recently fired from his job at the Academy of Sciences--Eds.] Tadeusz--slim, sad-eyed, soft-spoken--refused to simplify: "After the amnesty, released activists would come and ask me whether we had any contacts with the authorities, any prospect for negotiation. Five minutes later in the same conversation, the same people would swear that talks with the Reds were now ruIed out forever." He is not mocking them, just pointing out the contradiction in their minds between the necessity for and the impossibility of a dialogue. Tempers, he adds, are now increasingly difficult to control. He was at St. Stanislaw's Church the evening the dead priest's body was found. "The church was packed," he says. "We had a dilemma--should.we tell or not? Finally, the priest came out, announced the terrible news and immediately began to pray: 'Forgive us our sins as we forgive those of our enemies,' And they accuse us of preaching violence and spreading hatred."

Geremek picks up the thread, asking, "What is the government trying to do? Destroy Solidarity and exhaust society until it becomes entirely passive? It could have sought this aim through prosperity or through fear. After six years of declining living standards, the first solution--the Hungarian road--is out. Terror was a possibility. The regime could have tried to revive a Stalinist system minus the ideology. Instead, for all sorts of reasons, it opted for an eclectic approach. ')

"Long live eclecticism, which saved our skins," laughs Mazowiecki. (I take his remark seriously, because in December 1981 there were persistent rumors that he had been executed.) Geremek concludes gloomily, "I am frightened by the mortgaging of the future, by massive divestment, by the prospect of ecological catastrophe. We must prepare, particularly in the factories, for the next, inevitable crisis."

Monday, February 18. On the street, people look well-dressed in sheepskin coats. There are more goods in the shop windows and on the shelves than when I was last here. Lines are no longer the rule, though you can see them, for example, outside Wedel, which sells candy, or wherever the rumor mill reports the arrival of an interesting shipment. We may be more sensitive to the improvement because in 1981 the whole nation seemed to be standing in line. Poles emphasize the shortage of meat, the prohibitive price of coffee, oranges and lemons, and the generally high cost of all goods.

We go to KIK, the Catholic Intellectuals Club, to meet Prof. Zdzislaw Szpakowski, a youthful face under a white mane; with whom I have become friendly discussing problems of worker self-management. This was one of the most encouraging developments during the sixteen months of freedom. In early 1980, Poles would not hear of "workers' councils" running factories; they. were not going to be fooled a second time. The following summer, samorzad ("self-management") was being discussed everywhere. In a country where the means of production are nationalized, the progressive idea that power should be exercised at all levels by the working people was thrust on the movement. Szpakowski was one of those trying to see how this theory could be turned into practice. He tells me that, shattered by the military coup, Solidarity has not pursued the idea since.

One of the great achievements of the underground is the proliferation of its press. It is a pity that some of the space wasted on whitewashing 1930s reactionary leaders or on translations of shallow Western anti-Communist tracts is not more profitably devoted to a debate on how to give social content to Solidarity's slogan of a "self-governing republic.'' More's the pity because the absence of a clear alternative was, in my opinion, the union's main weakness.

Tuesday, February 19. We are back where it all started--in Gdansk, near the Lenin Shipyards. Our favorite banner, which read, "Long Live the Polish Working Class, the Leading Force of the Nation,'' has been taken down. Put up for a Communist Party festival, this empty slogan acquired new meaning in 1980, when the workers of Gdansk proclaimed that their interests were the superior interests of society. Hanging throughout the reign of Solidarity, the sign probably was removed after Jaruzelski's tanks went into action. No one could pretend that Poland was ruled by its proletariat.

Our usual hotel has no heat, so we move to the more expensive and cosmopolitan Heweliusz (where many scenes from Andrzej Wajda's film Man of Iron were shot). From the fourteenth floor we look out on the whole city: the cranes of the shipyards on one side, the Gothic churches and Renaissance buildings on the other. Gdansk, too, finds white very becoming, and the old town has been restored with the same loving care as Warsaw has. We barely have time to glance at the ancient town hall because Joanna--whom, as they would say here, I met "before the war," that is, before December 1981--has, with proverbial Polish hospitality, put all available food on the table and invited many friends. I am particularly pleased to meet Andrzej Kolodziej, the youngest of the 1980 strike leaders. Revolutions give opportunities to youth. Walesa, 36 at the time of the strike, was "old" and, in a sense, he still belonged to the generation of peasants turned workers. The rising leaders--Bujak,Frasyniuk, Lis--were ten years younger. Kolodziej was the "baby"--only 20 when he headed the strike at the Gdynia Shipyards, near Gdansk.

The past is not our subject. Andrzej, a tall, bearded fellow, claims that while discontent is widespread and the price hike very unpopular, many people feel you just can't do much against the "Commies"--meaning the government. (The Polish word is "Komuna," as in the Commune of Paris, and this always grates on my nerves. When they say "Reds," the other term used, I have to remind myself they mean rulers, not rebels.) He then draws a distinction between the fully committed activists, who are few, and those who read the literature or attend protest masses, who are many. Mariusz Wilk, who takes up the conversation, is slender and five years older than Andrzej, though he doesn't look it. He was one of the Solidarity delegates arrested and released the previous week. He is also co-author of the samizdat best seller Kompira, a collection of tape-recorded interviews with underground leaders. "There may be no more than 50,000 professional revolutionaries in Andrzej's narrow sense of the term," Wilk says. "Bujak claims there are about 300,000 union militants and around 1.2 million active sympathizers. The snag is that the workers can easily be downgraded, isolated, kicked out. The decision to stage a fifteen-minute strike was not unanimous because critics pointed out that the risks involved in a token strike were as great as in a more serious trial of strength." Bujak later discusses a broader strategy: "We must get entrenched in the factories, consolidate our position through everyday union activity. We must show the workers all over again that together we can defend our interests and get concrete results."

That evening we are impressed by the number of police patrols on the streets checking papers. I haven't seen so many since Paris 1968. Here, too, young people are the main targets. In the dimly lit, medieval center of the city, the atmosphere is strange, as if on the eve of battle.

Wednesday, February 20. Some confusion about the timing of our meeting with Lech Walesa. We check with Father Henryk Jankowski at St. Brigyda's Church. He rings Lech, who expects us. "Grab a cab and hurry over," Lech says. Easier said than done in the snowbound city. Finally, we get into a taxi which takes us to a huge housing project in a distant suburb. We stop at the corner of the block of flats where Walesa lives. Jeanne draws my attention to a red car with two plainclothesmen in it, parked opposite the stairway to the apartment. I am looking for the floor, when Henryk, ex-sailor and Lech's bodyguard, recognizes me and invites us in. It is the modest flat of a workingman, not a dignitary. The dining room has been turned into an office. Walesa, back from the shipyards, walks in wearing blue jeans, a tartan shirt. He is slightly heavier than three and a half years ago.

"It takes two to tango," I begin the interview. "How will you force Jaruzelski to cooperate? "

"Nowhere does anybody get anything for nothing. We probably won't get much or, to be more precise, society will get something thanks to our stubbornness. But another development is also possible--a new, wiser and better version of August 1980. "

"In the meantime, can one take over and make use of the 'self-governing' factory councils?"

"You can enter existing bodies and do things within them or you can stay out, prepare for the inevitable confrontation and then impose solutions you had worked out in advance, " Walesa replies. "You can take one road or the other, only you must know where you are heading."

"People abroad are impressed by the role labor has played in the struggle in Poland," I remark.

"It's not just a labor movement-even though within it, one is particularly impressed by the power of the workers: sharp, precise, determined. The conflict is an old one. It is more spectacular here because our economy is more inefficient and the conflict comes to the surface when the workers say no in a decisive way.... This system won't get better until society feels it is its own master, whereas now it feels that it cannot manage, that it won't be allowed to do so. And the rulers can make promises, pressure us, shoot us, but they won't get anywhere. The rulers have no chance of extricating themselves by simply tightening the reins, because this society can fight; it was born to fight. To get it to act differently, you would have to show it results. Now it can't see them....

"People have no hope of an immediate solution, " he continues. "They are looking forward to favorable circumstances and to the time they can once again say no, can move toward the solutions proposed by Solidarity, or even beyond.... All the recent events have been an accelerated course in democracy.... I think we have gone through it particularly fast.''

He then outlines for me the difference between labor movements in Poland, where there is only one employer, the state, and in the Western world: "Here you can't just say 'workers,' because the whole working society has a common denominator of losses and limitations. For the worker it means that he earns little and is cheated: for the writer, that he is not allowed to write or told to write as he doesn't wish to; for the teacher, that he must say things that are untrue, that he does not believe in. Thus all are in some way oppressed by the system."

"I understand. What I meant was simply that the labor movement is the main force expressing the interests of society."

"It was, it is and it always will be, because it is a powerful force. When it puts down its tools, the production of goods. At our first meeting, in 1980, I asked him how he kept his cool in the heat of the strike, and he replied dead seriously, "Because the Virgin Mary stood by me." I have been puzzled by the man. But also full of admiration for his gift for dealing with the media, his uncanny feel for the mood of the workers. My respect has been heightened by his conduct since the military coup--he has almost never made a wrong move.

In the tense confrontation between church and state there appeared the possibility of a compromise at the expense of Solidarity, and Cardinal Glemp gave the impression that he was tempted. Such a deal, however, required Walesa's blessing for what would have meant a split in the labor movement. He refused and went out of his way to identify with the men fighting underground and those thrown, into jail. His only weakness results from the government's determination to have nothing to do with an independent labor movement. The general is ready to dance with the Pope, not with the proletariat.

As we walk to the railway station along the footpath Walesa takes every day on his way to work, I am thinking of the ease with with the Nobel Prize winner has gone back to his job as an electrician in the shipyards. There among his co-workers or here at a housing project he is in his element. For all his Catholicism, he is the symbol of the crucial proletarian strand in Solidarity.

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