Lech Walesa’s Starring Role

Commentary | September 17, 2013

As the 25th anniversary of the seismic upheavals of 1989 approaches, EWI’s Andrew Nagorski writes about his experiences covering Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement for the Polish magazine Focus Historia.

In 1981, when I was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief, my wife Krysia and our children spent most of August visiting her family in Czestochowa. I joined them for a week, and was immediately infected by the sense of excitement that was evident everywhere. Poles reveled in their rediscovered freedoms, with Solidarity openly challenging Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski’s regime at every turn. While many people worried about the possibility of a government clampdown and in the West there was increasing talk about a possible Soviet invasion, the general mood was one of defiance and hope—banishing the sense of pervasive fear that was characteristic of countries in the Soviet bloc.

Which is exactly why back in Moscow the leadership was increasingly alarmed by Solidarity’s rise. On a daily basis, I monitored the Soviet media’s ominous pronouncements about the dangers that this labor movement represented. At the end of August, Krysia arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport at almost midnight on a flight that had been delayed several hours. Coming to meet her, I watched as she maneuvered our children and the luggage through a long customs line. To my relief, the customs officer, a young woman, saw how exhausted our children were and started waving through her luggage without inspecting them.

But at the last minute, she told Krysia to open her purse and plucked out a key chain. It bore no inscription, only a picture of Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II. Suddenly furious, she demanded all the luggage back and spent the next three hours combing through everything. It didn’t matter that Solidarity was an officially recognized trade union in Poland at the time. To her, Walesa and the pope represented a mortal threat to the Soviet system.

As it turns out, she was absolutely right. In fact, I’d argue that in the history books that will be written outside of Poland about the broad sweep of the twentieth century, only two Poles will be inevitably mentioned: the men pictured on Krysia’s key chain. They will be hailed as the prime movers of the events that led not only to the round table accords and the first semi-free elections of 1989 but also to the chain reaction of tumbling communist regimes throughout the old Soviet bloc—and the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself.

For those of us from the Western press who were fortunate enough to chronicle these seismic events, Walesa’s central role was never in doubt. That is not to say that we knew what the outcome would be any earlier than anyone else did. We were not prophets and, like many Solidarity activists, we assumed that there was a long struggle ahead. Most of us would never have predicted in those early days that the Soviet system would crumble as quickly as it did. And those of us who reported from Poland understood that Walesa, his advisors and followers were often at odds with each other. But Solidarity garnered its strength from a remarkable coalition of workers and intellectuals who dedicated themselves to a common cause even as personal rivalries, tensions and jealousies were all too evident.

Nonetheless, in the emerging narrative of Solidarity Walesa was always front and center. One reason is that every narrative needs its central character, and Walesa fitted the part perfectly. His very imperfections—his quirky, often amusing, sometimes prickly personality, along with his sometimes peculiar utterances that were hard to deconstruct in Polish and even more so to translate into English or any other language (“I am for and even against…”)—made him a complex hero. But as the electrician who scrambled over the wall of the Gdansk shipyard, he embodied the story of the workers challenging and exposing the myth of the workers’ state.

The fact that Walesa was as capable of directing his jokes at himself as at his opponents endeared him to the journalists all the more. Writers like self-awareness, they like irony. But what they really like most is someone who has a sense of mission, who is willing to risk everything to win everything. And a character who can truly inspire at those critical moments which later are seen as history’s turning points. The narrative arc of Walesa’s story in the 1980s basically wrote itself.

While now most people recall Walesa and Solidarity’s highs and lows—the triumphant agreement on August 31, 1980 legalizing the union, the imposition of martial law on December 13, 1981 and the elections on June 4, 1989—certain moments in between are most vividly etched in my memory.

On a warm day in August 1985, when the Jaruzelski regime was boasting that the country was “normalized” and that Solidarity was “broken,” I returned to Gdansk to observe how Walesa and others were marking the approaching fifth anniversary of the accords that had led to the initial flurry of hope for the now banned movement. At 2 p.m., the end of the first shift at the shipyard, Walesa walked out of the gate wearing a “Man of Iron” t-shirt and holding a bouquet of flowers. He placed the flowers at the foot of the memorial to the workers who died in the protests of 1970, as a small group of supporters, no more than 150 in all, clustered around him. Raising their hands in the V-for-victory sign, they joined Walesa in singing “Poland is not yet lost.”                                     

The mood was hardly triumphant. Later that day, about 3,000 people gathered for an emotional mass at St. Brigid’s Church nearby, with Walesa and Home Army veterans in front of the altar. As the faithful spilled out of the church, some began to chant Solidarity slogans. But spotting a cordon of police, the crowd quietly dispersed.

Back in his apartment, Walesa was philosophical about the palpable lack of energy or optimism of the movement’s followers that day. “You have to wait for the right moment,” he told me. When I had parked my car in front of his apartment building, secret policemen pulled out their cameras with long lenses and openly shot photos of me. The message was clear: we’re watching everyone who has anything to do with Walesa and Solidarity, especially you foreign correspondents.

But, of course, even then Walesa’s international reputation accounted for the fact that he was able to live above ground and operate in the open, while someone like Zbigniew Bujak, the leader of Underground Solidarity, was the country’s most wanted fugitive. During that same period, I was able to interview Bujak—but only after activists organized an elaborate chain of people to convey me to our rendezvous point in a way to throw off anyone trying to tail us. I was escorted through crumbling courtyards and switched cars three or four times.

It was readily apparent that there were tensions between the underground and Walesa, with Bujak issuing strike calls at times that were immediately countermanded by Walesa. In some ways, the tensions within Solidarity could rebound to the movement’s benefit: Walesa could argue that the government needed to ease up because otherwise the militants would be hard to control. But as with everything Walesa did there was a strong element of personal ambition.

After 1989, I asked Bujak about that period and how much he was aware of Walesa’s motives. The former underground leader shook his head. “I underestimated to what extent Lech was worried about my standing and how far he was willing to go to lower it,” he said.

As Andrzej Celinski, who was part of the Solidarity leader’s circle of intellectual advisors in the early days, told me later: “He was fighting not only for victory, he was fighting for his position after the victory over the communists. And that was during the worst period, when no one dreamed of victory.”

Most of us who were covering the events in Poland were hardly surprised by Walesa’s personal behavior that so often mixed personal ambition with his ambitions for Solidarity. He could think large—for his country and for himself. After the 1989 elections when he decided that Solidarity had to take charge of the government and the country’s catastrophic economy, many of his own followers thought he was committing a huge mistake. He was willing to gamble otherwise.

It’s only when history airbrushes national heroes that people forget that most of them had very complex, often difficult personalities—and, with rare exceptions, were never completely selfless—even as they performed seemingly miraculously feats, defying incredible odds. In fact, their personal ambitions were a key ingredient in their victories.

Walesa wore both his personal strengths and weaknesses on his sleeve, not bothering to disguise his mercurial emotions as more polished leaders do. In his case, normal rules didn’t necessarily apply. Many Western journalists made the mistake of starting an interview with Walesa the same way they would with any contentious leader: by asking him a vague, broad question, thinking that would put him at ease, before asking anything more pointed. Nothing irritated Walesa more. He considered such questions a waste of his time—and often would cut the interview short.

I remember one colleague returning from Gdansk completely frustrated and angry, having been cut off after about three minutes, despite the fact that he had traveled a long way to get there. My advice to any colleagues who asked: start Walesa off right away with a challenging question. He would almost always then become emotionally engaged.

But Walesa also could easily charm Western journalists. When he stayed in Buckingham Palace and joked that he couldn’t find Danuta in their huge bed, many Poles back home cringed. The journalists in London loved it.

More significantly, he knew how to rise to a historic occasion. Stepping up to the podium to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Nov. 15, 1989, he intoned “We the People,” echoing the opening words of the U.S. Constitution. From that moment on he had every member of the Congress standing and applauding wildly. From that moment, he represented not just Poland; he represented the drive for freedom everywhere.

Yes, Walesa’s reputation faded a bit as he offered a far less impressive performance as president. And as a former president, he continues to let slip more than the occasional off-the-cuff remark that comes back to haunt him. But much of the world hasn’t followed that saga. Poland and its struggles is no longer the center of international attention that it once was, precisely because it is now seen largely as a post-communist success story. And the man who is still most associated with the struggle to give Poland the opportunity for that success is Lech Walesa.

Click here to read the published report in Focus Historia, in Polish.