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
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.