Why We Won
October 31, 2013
Speaker of the Senate, the upper house of Poland’s parliament, who was a leading democratic opposition figure during the communist era, talks to Andrzej Jonas and Witold Żygulski.
The showdown between the communist authorities and the Solidarity movement in the 1980s could have culminated in massive bloodshed. That never happened. Why?
We were careful all the time to make sure that didn’t happen. I realized that would be the worst thing that could happen to us.
When we asked Lech Wałęsa—the Solidarity leader at the time—about this, he said it was you who persuaded him that resorting to force would prove disastrous...
I managed to convince him very quickly. He realized that the communists were strong, and had the Soviet Union behind them, that we could only change the situation by peaceful means, step by step. Those were our tactics; we wanted to create alternative organizations, an alternative society, you could say.
Back in the ‘70s we were not saying that we wanted to overthrow the communist government; such declarations would have only scared those who wanted to live their lives in peace. We were mindful of what happened in Hungary in 1956 [where an attempt to overthrow communism ended with a Soviet military intervention that cost about 2,500 lives; Hungary was then subjected to harsh communist repression that drove more than 200,000 people out of the country], and we also remembered how the Prague Spring was crushed in 1968; we knew that confrontation would entail enormous sacrifice. We learned our lessons from the experience of other countries, and that can be seen in how the strike at the Gdańsk shipyard in August 1980 unfolded.
Would you say that this strike proved to be a turning point in Poland’s modern history?
I believe that the August strike was the most important step on Poland’s road to freedom. Everything that followed was just a natural consequence of it. The strike was not some miracle that happened because Pope John Paul II had visited Poland a year earlier—because he sprinkled things with blessed water and worked wonders. If that had been the case, we could have sat around doing nothing. The August strikes broke out in completely different places than those visited by the pope.
Why was the Gdańsk strike crucial, and why did it break out?
There were two important reasons. The first reason was the lingering memory of the events of December 1970 [when worker protests in northern Poland were suppressed by the military and left 42 people dead and nearly 1,200 injured]. The public learned a harsh lesson then. Everyone knew that people were being shot at in the streets. Ten years later, the memory of that tragedy was still very much alive.
The other reason was that, during two years of working in the underground opposition movement, I managed to get together a group of people who were aware of what was going on and who were ready to fight in the opposition and had full confidence in one another. This was not a large group; it consisted of a few dozen people. But without them, the strike, once it took place, would have been on a completely different scale and with a different ending. This group actually managed the activities of the newly established Solidarity trade union from Gdańsk until January 1981.
What were the main objectives of the organizers of the August strike?
In no way did we want an all-out strike to take place—because the rail system would then grind to a halt and supplies would be cut off to the western contingent of Soviet troops stationed in East Germany. Such a situation would’ve certainly led to a violent backlash from the communist authorities and to bloodshed. The authorities would then have used much greater force than in December 1970. Nor did we intend to send out any messages that could make it difficult for Moscow to accept a potential agreement between the Polish authorities and the strikers. I paid special attention to that, keeping in mind what had happened in Hungary. No one was demanding, for example, that Poland leave the Warsaw Pact or that Soviet troops leave Poland. In turn, the Czechoslovak experience taught us not to demand the abolition of censorship, but only that censorship should be limited. When a call for free elections was added to the list of demands that were flowing into the Gdańsk shipyard from workplaces across the country, I had that item immediately removed from the list—because such a demand would in fact mean that we were pressing the communists to surrender power.
The best we could hope to achieve back then was to create a separate structure, alongside the communist state apparatus. We managed to do just that. You can say that, in what sounds like a historical joke, we were pursuing a Leninist scenario providing for the existence of informed masses and a small group of revolutionaries. In this way, by implementing a Leninist theory at the Gdańsk shipyard, which was named after Lenin himself, we dealt a deadly blow to Leninist ideology in Poland.
I learned later that we had been isolated in the communist bloc and did not have much chance. I had no doubt that the communist government would attack us, it’s just that it wasn’t clear when. I knew that we needed to make the most of the time he had on our hands—by publishing, holding meetings, and organizing ourselves. With each week we became stronger and better organized. This enabled us to survive.
Why were we able to go further than that in 1989? Because the virus that we planted in the system a decade earlier had spread to neighboring countries as well as to the Soviet Union itself by then. Poland could no longer be kept isolated.
Do you think the communist authorities were also deliberately avoiding using force?
At the beginning that wasn’t clear to us. But the next stage of the confrontation, marked by martial law, resulted in the banning of Solidarity, the removal of dissidents from work, massive arrests and internment of opposition activists. At the same time, those were no longer the ‘70s, when no more than several thousand people were active in the anti-communist opposition in Poland. In its heyday, during the “festival of freedom” period in 1980 and 1981, Solidarity had some 10 million members. Even if only 5 or so percent of these people later became part of the underground movement, it still means that we were dealing with a half a million-strong crowd.
We knew we had to organize resistance, but we had to steer clear of an all-out showdown because that could mean disaster. As a result, even during our biggest demonstrations, such as those on Aug. 31, 1982, the worst kind of weapon used against the ZOMO riot police were stones thrown at them. The other side, I noticed, also opted for moderation and had no desire for confrontation. I think by mid-1982 it was already widely known that the authorities would not open fire on people—something that was not at all certain at the beginning of martial law, especially after the tragedy at the Wujek mine in Katowice [on Dec. 16, 1981], where riot police bullets killed nine miners and injured 21.
Later the authorities relaxed their stance even further, as evidenced by several amnesties for political prisoners.
Let’s fast-forward a few years to the autumn of 1988 and the Round Table talks, the first dialogue between the communist government and the democratic opposition in Poland. How did you feel about that milestone event?
Around 1985, anti-communist resistance in the country began to weaken considerably. People were simply tired and wanted to live a normal life. The underground movement was disorganized due to repression—by 1986 all the underground leaders of Solidarity were detained and imprisoned. I was arrested in January of that year. Earlier I was in hiding and worked clandestinely for more than four years.
But the other side [the communist authorities] were also getting weaker. They did not want repression to escalate. After half a year in jail all the members of Solidarity’s Interim Coordinating Commission were released under an amnesty. This was a signal that the communists were losing ground. But it took two more years before the crisis afflicting the communist regime became a visible fact. This was determined by two great waves of strikes in 1988, especially those in May in the Lenin Steelworks in Cracow and in the Gdańsk shipyard. Compared with August ’80, those strikes were weak, but the authorities nonetheless did not decide to break them up using force and crack down on the protesters.
Throughout this time we appealed for talks. We knew that if we held on, such talks would have to take place sooner or later. At the same time, we knew that we had no chance of overthrowing the regime by an uprising that resorted to force or an all-out strike. It was also clear that [communist leader Gen. Wojciech] Jaruzelski’s attempt to follow in the footsteps of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet had been unsuccessful. He wanted to grab people by the throat, crack down on the opposition, and improve the economy. This scenario failed, the economy was growing weaker with each year, everything was falling to pieces, prices kept on rising, inflation was spiraling out of control. Therefore the authorities were no longer strong or determined enough to crack down on us in May 1988; we were allowed to withdraw from the strikes without losing face.
Three months later, in August 1988, there was another, even larger, wave of strikes. It was then that Lech Wałęsa received a proposal of sitting down with the government for talks. I was very much against that because I believed that we were too weak to undertake successful negotiations. I suggested that we should wait for the third wave of strikes in the fall. The discussion took place in the [Gdańsk] shipyard, on the last day, just before the end of the strike. I was one of the few opponents of starting talks. Everyone supported Wałęsa, while I was only backed by Alina Pienkowska. I didn’t believe that anything productive would come of this. I thought we would lose out in these negotiations.
On the other hand, I watched the strike unfold at the time with satisfaction, appreciating the fact that a new generation of workers had arrived—new people who were leading that protest. I could see only three or four people from the old group of shipyard conspirators.
Actually, that strike was not at all something that we planned, even though all the underground structures of the opposition were still in operation, dissident publications continued to be distributed, and so on. The strike arose spontaneously, after being organized by people 15 to 20 years younger than us, the veterans of August ‘80.
Then the talks finally got under way…
Before the Round Table talks, there was Magdalenka [a Warsaw suburb where there was a government center]—in other words preliminary negotiations between narrow groups of opposition and communist leaders, with the participation of Roman Catholic Church officials. This was something completely different than talks with the strikers in the shipyard. The negotiations were being held in a villa owned by the communist intelligence service, stuffed full of tapping devices and other spying apparatus. In these conditions, we came to face the communists. I myself did not take part in that; I was not invited by Wałęsa, but of course I was being kept informed in detail about what was going on by Lech Kaczyński [who went on to become Polish president in 2005 and died in the plane crash near Smolensk, Russia, April 10, 2010], who participated in the talks. He kept me informed because I was head of Solidarity’s Gdańsk chapter. Most of the time I was briefed by phone on an ongoing basis.
Later I was offered to take part in the Round Table talks, but I refused. I thought we would not get much under those conditions. I also did not like the fact that the center of gravity of our struggle had been moved from Gdańsk to Warsaw. I had the impression that the Warsaw opposition leaders had too close ties with the communist authorities. I had observed these contacts during the strikes in May and August 1988, when [Władysław] Siła-Nowicki [a lawyer and anti-communist opposition activist] regularly visited Interior Minister Gen. Czesław Kiszczak, and [Andrzej] Stelmachowski kept in touch with Józef Czyrek, a member of the Politburo [of the communist party]. So my attitude to the Round Table talks was clearly negative at the time. I did not have high hopes, and it turned out that I was wrong.
After the Round Table agreement was signed between the communist government and the democratic opposition, work to dismantle the communist system got under way in Poland—an unprecedented event in the Eastern bloc...
We changed the political system surprisingly quickly. Just a few months after the June 4, 1989 elections, the first noncommunist government, led by Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, was formed. In May 1990 the communist Security Service was disbanded. This happened a lot faster and more smoothly than I thought. Of course, it was much harder to turn around the economy and introduce free-market rules after more than four decades of central planning.
Today, when I meet with visitors from North African countries, where there is a process of gradual democratization in post-totalitarian societies, they often ask me about the course of the Polish transition, and what needs to be done first. I always answer that they need to do everything at once, because later it will be very difficult to change anything, and failure to press ahead with reforms immediately produces negative consequences and affects the country years later. In the case of Poland, this includes the issue of vetting [checking whether senior officials and prominent public figures collaborated with the communist regime], which has been dragging on for years, as well as reform of the health service.
Let’s talk about Poland today. After shaking off communism and moving to a free-market economy 25 years ago, what shape is the country in now, in your opinion?
I think that my generation, the generation of people who built the foundations of a free Poland, [have done their job and] can sleep easy. By entering NATO and the European Union, we closed a chapter of fighting for Poland and for regaining our rightful place in the community of free nations in Europe and the world. We ensured that Poland has democracy, a free market economy, and internal and external security for decades to come. Poland today is a stable country, and no one and nothing can derail it.
Why did we achieve such a great historical success? We won independence and democracy without bloody uprisings or insurrections. Poland is the only country where a noncommunist elite that does not originate from the old communist nomenklatura has emerged. This is largely due to the nine years of tough struggle from 1980 to 1989. The [new] elite had enough time and the right conditions to emerge. In part, it hails from those several hundred thousand people who were active in the opposition underground movement. Some of these people quickly left politics and went into business—they began to start and develop their own businesses. That’s why, unlike in most neighboring countries, which also discarded communism, not all of the new business class in Poland in the early 1990s hailed from the ranks of the old communist party.
Other former oppositionists today work in various nongovernmental organizations, foundations, and associations. I meet them regularly throughout the country.
To sum up, many former underground activists are no longer involved in politics in today’s free Poland, but this does not mean they are no longer active or that they have decided that active citizens are no longer needed. On the contrary, they are involved in many areas of public life and encourage others, younger people, to work for the common good.
Factfile: Bogdan Borusewicz
Born in 1949 in Lidzbark Warmiński, Warmia-Mazuria province. A historian by education, he graduated from the Faculty of the Humanities at the Catholic University of Lublin in 1975. As a 19-year-old high-school student, he was handed his first sentence for his involvement in the democratic opposition movement—for distributing anti-communist flyers.
In 1976, he joined the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR), the first underground organization in a communist country to be established by intellectuals to help oppressed workers.
In 1977-1978, he helped found the Free Trade Unions of the Coast, Poland’s first (illegal) trade union to be independent of the communist authorities. Two years later, the organization turned into the Solidarity Independent Self-Governing Trade Union.
Borusewicz was one of the main organizers of the strike at the Gdańsk Shipyard in August 1980. A founding member of the Solidarity trade union, he helped compile a list of 21 demands to the communist authorities calling for political, social and economic reforms in the country.
After martial law was imposed in Poland Dec. 13, 1981, Borusewicz, one of the leaders of the then-banned Solidarity union, went into hiding and worked underground until he was arrested in January 1986. Released following an amnesty in 1988, he remained an opposition activist.
A member of the lower house of parliament from 1991 to 2001. A senator since 2005, first unaffiliated and then reelected on the Civic Platform (PO) party’s ticket. He has been Speaker of the Senate since 2005.
A member of the Civic Platform since 2011.