We are obliged to help people waging a struggle

“By knocking the teeth out of the Soviet bear, we helped other nations win their freedom,” Lech Wałęsa, ex-President of Poland, legendary leader of the Solidarity movement and Nobel Peace Prize winner tells Polska.pl on the 35th anniversary of the Solidarność (Solidarity) Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union.

Magdalena Majewska, Polska.pl: The Lech Wałęsa Solidarity Prize goes to people who embody the idea of solidarity and who look up to you for inspiration and guidance. What is the significance of awarding the Lech Wałęsa Solidarity Prize to Zhanna Nemtsova?

Lech Wałęsa*: Solidarity is about helping others. If you cannot do something, then you ask others for help and together you organise yourselves. Solidarity also needs the right time and place. The world is different now from what it was 35 years ago. Naturally some things never change because we still organise ourselves, unite, but the burden is different.  Then it was the communist regime and the Soviet Union. Today the burden has shifted to other places. In a sense, the message behind the Solidarity Prize is similar to my Nobel Peace Prize’s. We express our gratitude to people for their peaceful struggle – beautiful and classic - and at the same time we encourage them to continue their struggle. We are also thankful for the fact that there is opposition in Russia and that this opposition is upholding the right line vis-à-vis the authorities. But difficulties are so great that we want to encourage them to continue in their efforts.

Why did Poland establish this prize?

We have our experiences and distinctions. We received assistance when we struggled. Now is the time to help others who are in a similar situation and Russia is a country that we care for in a special way. We would like Russia – a country with great potential - to be together with us in Europe and the world. Not the Russia that opts for military solutions, for tanks and gun fire, so out of place in the 21th century, but a Russia that, like us, embraces methods that have been tested and proven around the world. Not the ones that our civilisation has cast away.

In 2015 we will celebrate the 35th anniversary of Solidarity. From where did Solidarity draw its strength?

Right after WWII, when Poland came under a communist regime, we tried to shoulder our burden. First, we waged a military struggle . Take Łupaszka, for example [Zygmunt Edward Szendzielarz, a.k.a. “Łupaszka”, a Polish Army and Home Army mayor, sentenced and shot in 1951 by Poland’s communist authorities  – editor’s note]. He could not do it. Then came 1956, 1970, 1976 – where we had different groups: workers, students who tried to regain freedom, putting their lives on the line and sometimes paying the full price, but they could not do it, either. By trial and error we came up with the idea that we have to bear this burden together: youth, workers, intellectuals – all of us, together. But the communist authorities knew that, too. The authorities disrupted each and every attempt at forming an independent organisation, at lifting that burden. 

III pielgrzymka do Polski - 1987 (3).jpg It would probably have taken much longer if luck had not smiled on us . A Pole, Karol Wojtyła was elected Pope. As John Paul II, he organized us, not to fight, but to pray. At that moment we realised that what the authorities kept telling us : “You do not exist, whom do you represent? What is this strike about?” was not true. We were derided so much that we began to have self-doubts that no such thing as “we” exists that there are only individual people. The Pope, in turn, organized us to pray together. We saw that there are so many of us praying together, professing the same values. The scattered remnants that did exist at the time, like Free Trade Unions (WZZ) or Social Self-Defence Committee (KOR) and many others were able to take over the masses organised in prayer and lead them to fight. The Pope inspired us with his words and we turned his words into actions. Without the Pope, we would not have been able to assemble together, count our numbers and gain self-confidence. Before then, for twenty years I had been recruiting people to fight. I succeeded in signing up 10 persons.  After the first pilgrimage to Poland by Karol Wojtyła as Pope in 1979 , I enlisted 10 million in one year. I was no more smarter or richer, but people came, believed us and let themselves be organised and led.

What was it Gdańsk, not another city, that become the city of freedom?

First, Gdańsk was the destination of people, like myself, who did not fit elsewhere. They were driven and in search of their own place under the sun. For people on the move, like me, Gdańsk was such a place. Second, thanks to its seaside location and the shipbuilding industry which gave jobs to people arriving from all over Poland, it was a gateway to the world. So all this taken together created favourable conditions for us to organise ourselves and to protest.

What was the mood before and during the signing of the 1980 August Accords? What emotions did these events stir?

I was one of the organisers and leaders, so I saw it differently than people on the outside. I had to act like a coach and place weights that were not too heavy for them to handle so that they wouldn’t get scared, so that they would show up at the next training session. If I placed too heavy a weight on them, too big a challenge, they would have bolted and given up. 

Lech Wałęsa na bramie Stoczni Gdańskiej pokazuje podpisane w sierpniu 1980  porozumienie z rządem / Lech Walesa at the gate of the Gdansk Shipyard shows the agreement signed in August 1980 with the government First, we fought only for wage increases, for reinstating Anna Walentynowicz [a Free Trade Union activist and Gdańsk Shipyard worker. On 8 August 1980 she was fired from her job and that triggered the strike in the shipyard. She fought for workers’ workers and became a legend of the Solidarity movement – editor’s note].  Later, as we grew in strength,  we tabled a motion to create free trade unions, to gain the right to strike, to abolish censorship. But not too prematurely  – I didn’t want to scare them off, I wanted to win. We had to grow in  strength and prepare resources.

You should also remember that there were agents, instigators, different sort of people among us. We had to make all of them feel noticed and useful, but at the same time we had to be careful not to let them provoke or use us. It was a very difficult situation, but we managed.

What was the most difficult thing for you?

The most difficult thing is what tomorrow will bring, and once it has happened, it means it wasn’t so difficult after all.

What price did you have to pay when it comes to your private life?

The leader must commit himself to the hilt. He has to leave his home, family, everything. Nothing can be more important – the only thing that matters is his commitment and quest for victory, but all the time trying  to pay the lowest possible price. At the time, we had to commit ourselves to the cause without limits.

What was the significance of the Nobel Peace Prize when it was awarded to you in 1983?

At the time, after the strong blow of marshal law [imposed by the communist authorities of Poland on 13 December 1981 and officially lifted on 22 July 1983 – editor’s note], after many people were driven abroad, the ship I commanded went slower and slower. The Nobel Prize was as an additional gust of wind into the sails. We rose once again, we saw that the world took note of us. I turned from an electrician into a Nobel Prize winner. There are many electricians around the world, but only one electrician who won the Nobel Prize. I knew that they could forget an electrician, but not an electrician and Nobel prize winner. So I could head in the desired direction with more courage, wisdom, and certainty. Without the Nobel Prize, the success of Solidarity would have been difficult to imagine.

Tablice 21 Postulatów Gdańskich, sierpień 1980 / The 21 Demands of Gdańsk, August 1980

A lot of people out there in the West supported Solidarity. There were parcels. In 1981, at the Cannes Festival, Jack Nicholson pinned a Solidarity badge in his jacket lapel, and cherished it like a holy relic during martial law. Did you feel the support of the West?

Almost the whole free world knew that the communist system had run its course, that it was hampering the development of countries. We saw the advent of modern technologies in those days, such as video, mobile phones, and satellite television, and the communist authorities would not let them in. To install a television antenna at your home, you had to get a permit of the interior minister. It was absurd. This is why people in the West also wanted communism to end, because it slowed down the half of the world closed off behind the Iron Curtain; it simply couldn’t keep up. For these reasons, seeing their interests and sympathies, they joined our struggle in different ways.

How did changes in Poland influence changes in the region? What did international cooperation of the opposition movement look like?

As you know, communism started out very murderous, but the longer it lasted, the more civilized it got. They would do the same thing – only in white gloves. You can clearly see it in East Germany. After the war, they were so scared, so frightened, virtually of everything. But seeing that Poland kept on fighting, and that this guy Wałęsa was alive and kicking, they found courage. At some point, while we were fighting in Poland, a Western journalist asked an East German party secretary in a programme broadcast live all over the world: “Listen, what are you going to do, more and more Germans are fleeing from East Germany via Czech Republic and Hungary, to the West. Soon, everybody will run away from you. What will you do then?” And the answer was: “Well, we’ll have to open the Berlin Wall.” Encouraged, the journalist pressed on: “But When?” The secretary said: “As soon as possible.” Hearing this, the Germans went to see what was going on with the wall, because “as soon as possible” means “immediately”. Seeing the crowds and thinking that people were marching on them, the soldiers who guarded the wall disperesed. Really. This is how the Berlin Wall fell. No organisation, nothing. All because of an unhappy statement made by a secretary under pressure. So, our fight encouraged others. They found more courage to fight communism. To cut a long story short: our struggle knocked the teeth out of the Soviet bear, and when that bear could no longer bite, other nations won back their freedom. But had the Poles not knocked out the teeth of that bear, the bear would have bitten when the Czech or others made their dash for freedom.

Why did you establish the Lech Wałęsa Institute? What does it do?

After my lost presidential bid [in 1995 Lech Wałęsa sought a second term in office – editor’s note], and the victory of Aleksander Kwaśniewski from the Democratic Left Alliance party, I didn’t want the direction of the changes I started to be disrupted. I wanted to control it, so I gathered some people and created the Lech Wałęsa Institute. After years of control the Institute is now concerned with globalisation and European unity, and these are its main tasks today. We will build the state of Europe. 

What do you like about Poland?

It’s here that I was born, it’s here that I grew up, and it’s here that I won.

Interview by Magdalena Majewska    


*Lech Wałęsa - the first leader and co-founder of the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarity”, Nobel Peace Prize winner, participant of the Round Table talks, and from 1990 to 1995 the first president of the Republic of Poland following the 1989 political transformation.

Born in 1943 in Popowo. Married to Danuta, with whom he has eight children – four sons and four daughters.

In 1967, he took up the job of a ship electrician at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. In 1970, as one of the leaders of a strike in the shipyard and member of the Strike Committee, he took part in talks with the government. Fired from the shipyard in 1976 for publicly criticising state-approved trade unions, he remained active in the opposition movement. In the Free Trade Unions of the Coast since 1978, he was editorial board member of the Robotnik Wybrzeża paper, and associate of the KOR Social Self-Defence Committee. In 1981, he took charge of the Interfactory Strike Committee. The strike, which swept up all companies along the Polish coast and scores in the cities of Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz and Rzeszow, ended with the signing of the August Agreements in Gdansk. Wałęsa signed the document with a big pen bearing the portrait of John Paul II. In 1981, he was elected the first chairman of Solidarity, a trade union of 10 million members.

Interned on the day martial law was imposed (13 December 1981), in 1983 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. The award was presented in Stockholm to his wife Danuta, and their son. In 1988, he co-organised a strike at the Gdansk Shipyard, where he was officially employed as an electrician in 1983-90. The 1989 protests ended with the Round Table talks, which led to an agreement with the communist government. In 1989, Wałęsa was instrumental in forming post-WW2 Poland’s first non-communist government, headed by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, and in December 1990 he was elected President of the Republic of Poland. In 1995, he established the Lech Wałęsa Institute Foundation.