The Gift of Freedom


I don’’t remember much in detail from those days. I forget how much I had to pay for a tram ticket or how much bread used to cost. However, what I remember perfectly well is that, as staff member of Gdańsk University, I was earning more or less the equivalent of 17 US dollars. My wife, our young son and I shared one tiny room. Only after they went to bed did I turn on the TV to watch the Round Table negotiations – or rather, a summary of them. I remember committees, sub-committees, discussions. I remember faces – those of Adam Michnik and Andrzej Stelmachowski [representing the opposition], Czesław Kiszczak and Aleksandr Kwaśniewski [on the government side]. Unlike many of my friends, I did not choose to go into politics. I had already embarked on my own writer’’s path to which I have stayed faithful until this day. But I did support those changes ardently and wrote a few ad hoc articles wondering what future had in store for Poland, a country with no capital and a very poor society, as the burden of reforms – drastic and inevitable – was obvious even to a layman. In a word – how we would get through the next period with its many unknowns.

Looking back after 20 years it all appears quite different – our optimism of those days, our faith in the future and our joy may seem somewhat naïve and unsubstantiated. But as the time has come to sum up, I will try to do so unemotionally, in a dry, factual and analytical way.

So, first of all: what made the victory of Solidarity as an idea and a specific movement possible was primarily the fact that its resistance was based on the principle of non-violence. Despite communist propaganda claims in the first months of martial law (that a bloodbath was being prepared for the regime) not a single window or shop, not a single people’’s police headquarters were attacked or broken.  It was a revolution without violence that called for a respect of civil and political rights, reminiscent in essence of Gandhi’’s movement. Go ahead, attack us, beat us up, lock us up in prisons and detention centres – we won’’t fall for your provocations and we will not respond to violence by violence. Undoubtedly, the personality and authority of Pope John Paul II was of huge significance in this respect.  His ascendance to the throne of St. Peter in 1978 changed everything in Poland, giving the small group of people in opposition as well as millions of ordinary people courage and the sense that they could demand something more than organized holidays or subsidized milk.

The Church played an enormous and positive role in these changes. Today some in the Polish Catholic Church hierarchy cannot find a modus vivendi alongside full freedom of speech, market, politics, and customs, as if they were irritated by the fact that the crucible of transformation did not bring forth a 100% Catholic Poland, patriotic in a traditional style, coherent in its attitudes to religious education at school or to in vitro fertilization. I do not share this irritation and I am concerned by the occasional expressions of xenophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-European views in the Church. Yet – despite their loudness, as for example in Radio Maryja – these are not dominant views.

Secondly, during the first years of transformation we went through a painful Gründer period, so fascinatingly described in Ingo Schultze’’s piece on the transformation of the GDR. The side-effects of our great national effort of freedom building – the predatory privatization, shady careers, gross abuses – were a kind of anti-advertisement for democracy, showing off its weaknesses rather than its strengths. They revealed the dark side of freedom. Privileges were granted to big capital in order to attract it to a country that had no capital of its own, while neglecting the labour factor and the rights of former small property owners who never managed to regain their property that had been confiscated by the communists. E. Wedel, Poland’s best loved pre-war chocolate factory, nationalized back in 1945, was sold to PepsiCo with a total disregard for the rights of the heirs, just as if they had never existed. This example is only the tip of the iceberg of the speedy privatization that brought huge profits to middlemen and former state managers.

Thirdly, the demon of lustration has plagued us throughout the twenty years of our new reality. Sadly, Poland has not adopted the German or the Hungarian model of lustration, which allows everyone access to the communist police archives. In our country the files are accessible only to selected journalists and politicians, particularly those in power. The past, contained in and created by, the secret service archives, has become an instrument of political struggle. This is how Lech Wałęsa ended up being accused of having been an agent-collaborator, in spite of a court verdict that confirmed his innocence. As a prominent member of staff at the Institute of National Memory admitted: the investigation will never end. This means that despite independent court verdicts something can always be dug up against everyone. It is a well-known fact that in 1989 the team of the then Interior Minister Czesław Kiszczak burned, shredded and archived compromising documents for its own use. This has led to further confusion, opening the possibility that an accusation can be planted in the files at any time. Małgorzata Niezabitowska, the Tadeusz Mazowiecki government’’s spokesperson, had to spend several years proving she had not collaborated with the secret police. She provided evidence beyond any doubt, the accusations of her political enemies were proved to have been manufactured out of thin air, yet she had to spend several years under the pressure of this terrible slander. Instead of hundreds of kilometres of new motorways we have hundreds of kilometres of new court files.

Fourthly, the hidden criminals of the martial law era, such as the people who were behind the killing of Father Popiełuszko and many other kidnappings, secret beatings and arson, have not been found and indicted until this day. It is a paradox that, given the zeal for lustration mentioned earlier, these criminals are yet to be found.  And they are certain never to be found, even though this is precisely the kind of case where effective functioning of the Institute of National Memory would be more than desirable.

Fifthly, the pessimistic scenarios with regard to Polish democracy have fortunately not come true. It has had its peculiar twists and turns, moments when it was out of breath or in crisis, but over the past 20 years it has proved itself as a system of responsible governments – i.e. governments to whom the voters can and do issue a green or a red card.

Sixth, Poland’’s greatest success since 1989 has been its local government. I know what I’’m saying since I always vote for the candidate in my local elections who promises to and really does, build the greatest number of bicycle lanes. And since I ride my bike from spring to autumn I am in excellent contact with reality and thus have full control over the meeting of election promises. At the moment the number of bicycle lanes in Gdańsk is increasing at a pace incomparably faster than in any other Polish city, which makes me, simply and selfishly, happy. In 1989 I still had an old Ukraina bike dating back to the August strike [1980 in Gdansk]. It was good, sturdy although very heavy. But when I rode it, I had to sneak along pavements or, risking my health and even life, dodge traffic on the main road. These days, when I ride from Gdańsk-Oliwa to the Old Town, I can whiz along an uninterrupted bicycle lane all the way to the city centre. And ditto to the beaches in Jelitkowo, Brzeźno or Sopot, in a line straighter than any national (and non-existent) motorway. Is this an insignificant detail? I don’t think so. Quality of life is expressed precisely in such seemingly minor details, not just in great ideas, continuous discussions, demands, reckonings or accusations. I could go on and on about this. Yet, by singing the praises of bicycle lanes in my city I wish to stress that my vote, that of a potential voter interested in specific way of expending public monies, does count.

Seven, despite all its weaknesses and internal conflicts, I think Poland is generally a wonderful country that has undergone an unimaginable metamorphosis since 1989. And following years of deterioration, poverty and hopelessness it has started to awaken – thanks also in part to European help – into a new situation which is crucially different from that of 1989. Of course, here I have to contradict myself: isn’’t that optimism exaggerated? Meagre pensions, collapsing health system – all this is beginning to affect me more and more personally. Yet, can one expect a continuous stream of successes in one lifetime? I have learned a lot from my parents: they survived the hell of occupation, the hard years of Stalinism, the lean years of the Polish People’’s Republic. They have not acquired anything apart from illness and a scandalously low pension. Nevertheless, every time I talk to them they radiate the undeniable joy of a newly acquired freedom. They take part in every election – local and national. And they never ask me who they should vote for. Even though, I suspect, we sometimes vote for different candidates.

Eight, democracy is going through a crisis. It is turning more and more into a telecracy. It is undergoing a Berlusconi-ization. The democracy we dreamt of before 1989, uncritically gazing towards the West from a Soviet satellite’s perspective, has undergone a huge change over the past 20 years. The project of French philosophers, British pragmatists and American Founding Fathers that we used to discuss and read about endlessly has become worn and faded. Discussion of values and genuinely competing programmes have been replaced by the beauty contest, the TV studio, a wink at the voter, make-up, lighting, image specialists. To be informed, one no longer has to read: it’’s enough to watch the gleaming screen of a computer or a home TV set. Everything is getting fast and becoming even faster. I don’t think this is just a change of medium. It is a change of mentality and thus also a different way of gaining support and votes. Wałęsa lost a presidential election to Kwaśniewski not because his programme was less convincing but because of one stupid sentence he spoke in front of TV cameras, live, watched by millions of Poles. Perhaps the Vatican conclave may still be free of these problems but, then again, we are not that concerned about the rivalry among cardinals.

Nine and, finally ten – my friend Ingo Schultze has given a lot of attention to the situation in Germany after 1989, from the point of view of a former citizen and inhabitant of the former GDR. There is something to his criticism of the rushed unification, the Wessis’’ treatment of the Ossis and the whole issue of the West patronizing the East. Yet, my dear Ingo, let me offer you the following political and economic fantasy as a mental exercise: Imagine your country, suddenly liberated from communism, with a 40 billion debt in US dollars (and that in 1989!), shortages of food, electricity, medication, petrol etc, without the help of a Western cousin. Without his rapid investments, credits, institutions. Even if they were motivated by mercantile calculation and not civic and patriotic feelings. This was Poland in 1989. And that fact that we can discuss all this in Warsaw today is to me a good omen for the future.


Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Polish in the Gazeta Wyborcza on 25 May 2009.