A Pole Apart

A decade after the collapse of Communism, Steve Crawshaw travelled to Poland to meet Lech Walesa, and discovered a country that no longer has any need of heroes
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The Independent Culture
THE ORIGINAL miracle happened on a muggy Sunday afternoon in August 1980. I was living in Poland, teaching at the university in Krakow. First came the radio newsflash. A few minutes later we found ourselves gazing in awe at the man with twinkling eyes and walrus moustache on the television screen. His face was familiar to television audiences across the world, but millions of his countrymen were now seeing him for the first time. Grasping a comically large pen which was decorated with a picture of the Pope, Lech Walesa signed an agreement which legalised Solidarity, the newly created free trade union; and the political structure of the past 40 years was shaken to its foundations. A nation cheered and reeled in disbelief.

Those weeks in 1980 were truly extraordinary. After all, Brezhnev (who had sent tanks into Afghanistan two years earlier and into Prague 10 years before that) was still ruling the Kremlin. The Communists tried to stop the rot. In December 1981 the agreement was reversed and tanks were put on the streets in an attempt to arrest the change. But the restlessness continued through the Eighties, and the piece of paper that Walesa, the unemployed electrician, signed in the Gdansk shipyard on 31 August 1980 marked the beginning of the end. But the final and most extraordinary act of the drama unfolded - for Poland and, by extension, for the rest of Europe - more than eight years later. On 6 February 1989, Lech Walesa and other Solidarity leaders sat down for round-table talks with the Communist government in the Radz-iwill Palace in central Warsaw. Their brief: to agree the terms for legalising Solidarity again. Within weeks, the deal was done, and by August Poland had the first non-Communist leader in Eastern Europe since the war. Within months the Berlin Wall was down, and demo- nstrations in Wenceslas Square toppled the Communists in Prague. By Christmas, Ceausescu, the Romanian monster, was gone.The following year, in 1990, Lech Walesa became Poland's president.

A decade on, Walesa - plumper and more sedate than the agile figure who vaulted the shipyard fence to lead a revolution - notes the historic paradox of the Polish workers' revolution that pulled apart the alleged workers' state. "We finished off what Lenin promised to do, but never achieved. The working class caused the system to change, and ruled. We completed Lenin's revolution. The difference is that we were building capitalism."

Sitting in his spacious offices in central Gdansk, the 55-year-old revolutionary, Nobel prizewinner and former president looks cheerfully back on the past 10 years. "I am very happy that fate permitted me to be the captain of the ship and that I managed to steer that ship in the right direction." He is not, it must be said, a man for self-doubt. Walesa believes that he has been personally chosen to do God's bidding, which gives him an unchallengeable quality. On the wall hangs a crucifix; in his lapel he wears the badge of the famous Black Madonna of Czestochowa. Throughout our conversation he barks at his scurrying aides: on the desk lies a sheaf of newspapers which he impatiently leafs through in search of stories about himself. He can't find any, and he's cross. An adviser hastily reassures him that there are some reports about you, Mr President, truly there are.

Walesa rarely appears on the front pages these days, though he has by no means retired from politics. In 1995, he lost his bid to gain a second five-year term as president, but he has created a new party of his own, enabling him to shout from the sidelines. The coalition government consists of two groups which emerged from Solidarity, and which hate each other as much as they hate the opposition. President and parliament must co- habit uncomfortably: the president, Alexander Kwasniewski, represents the Democratic Left, actually the re-named Communist Party. Walesa praises and scolds the government by turns.

This political confusion can seem almost irrelevant to the bigger picture of Poland today. Under a clutch of successive governments since 1989 (liberal and conservative, ex-Communist and anti-Communist), Poland has moved in one direction with the steadiness of a supertanker, and next month will join Nato - an idea that would have seemed unthinkable a few years ago. More extra-ordinary, the country is likely to become a member of the European Union.

The transition has been painful for many. Those who work hardest to bring about change are often those who suffer most once change has been effected. Take the events in 1981 at the Wujek coalmine in Silesia, Poland's industrial heartland, when nine miners were shot dead in the most notorious act of repression during the years after martial law was signed. As one of the memorial plaques at the mine declares: "They died for freedom." But what kind of freedom? In Communist Poland, coal-miners were treated as a kind of arist-ocracy: they could buy ham and sausage when others could not; they received bonuses. But in the past few years 200,000 jobs have been lost, and this year at least six more pits are expected to close. There is little hope of reversing the tide. The unions are fragmented as never before. Ask for the Solidarity office at the Wujek mine, and you get the answer, "Which Solidarity?" You can take your pick from Solidarity-80, August-80, and a clutch of others - the plaques jostle for attention. What the quarrelling Solidarities share is an anxiety about the future. Marek Imjolczyk, a miner for 18 years, is dejected. "People are worried that Silesia will die. What's Silesia without coal?"

It is the same story at Nowa Huta (literally the New Steel Works) on the edge of Krakow. Nowa Huta was built in the Stalinist years as a proud monument to socialism. Songs were composed in its honour: Over the broad Vistula, the song of the builders was heard. This song is about Nowa Huta, yes it is. This tune is about Nowa Huta, yes it is. And there is no other future. This one brings us peace and prosperity. In the Eighties, it was an important centre of opposition, and tear gas hung in the air.

Today, huge areas of the plant, itself the size of a small city, have closed down. Rusting equipment lies abandoned. Thousands of jobs have already been lost, more seem certain to go. In the areas that still operate, you occasionally come across scenes of flickering drama reminiscent of the glory days. A small group of men stand bathed in light like heroes in some old socialist-realist movie. Workers prod nonchalantly into the orange heat as 20ft flames leap skywards. Several of the men here took part in the strikes that helped bring down the old regime. But there is little enthusiasm left for the new order. "I've been here for 15 years. But people are broken," says one man. The planned sale of the steel works to a foreign investor is supposed to bring stability, and the management boasts of its restructuring plan. For many, that just means more job losses.

Even the holiest shrine of the Polish democracy movement is not impervious. A few minutes' walk from Walesa's office in Gdansk is the legendary shipyard where he once addressed the crowds. Solidarity relics hang forlornly on the gate, and a nearby kiosk sells souvenirs: flags, photographs, T-shirts. But the shipyard itself is in a terrible state, hovering on the brink of liquidation. Stanislaw Bryndal, who has worked here for 25 years, sees little hope. "We started this, everything that happened in all the countries. But here nothing happens, and nobody knows what comes next." Walesa is indignant at what he regards as a betrayal of everything he and his colleagues fought for. "Nobody should have been allowed to treat the shipyard like that. This was our national monument. I will never forgive them for that."

Elsewhere, the paradox is obvious. Poland's farmers resisted collectivisation more fiercely than anybody else in the Soviet bloc. Private farmers survived and even prospered through the post-war decades: the state sector was so useless at providing what the market needed that smallholders could always sell their produce for a good price. With the free market, that changed.

The region of the Beskid hills is traditional horse-and-cart country, with wooden churches dotted across a landscape that has not altered in half a century. Plum orchards, woods and open meadows stretch across to Poland's own alpine wilderness, the Tatra mountains, on a distant horizon. The farmers here should have much to look forward to, with Poland's possible future accession to Europe. For the moment, however, the European Union seems like the farmers' worst nightmare. Brussels decreed last year that Polish dairies failed essential hygiene tests. Marjan Wolski owns 10 cows and a few hectares of land in the village of Jasienna. For him and his neighbours, the cost of buying the sophisticated cooling equipment necessary to meet EU standards is crippling. "In the West, farmers have bought their machinery over many years. We have to do it immediately. But how do we find the money?" Last month, Brussels finally gave a small group of Polish dairies the go-ahead to sell milk on the European market. But agricultural prices remain impossibly low.

At the Nowa Huta steel plant, a small note of optimism can be heard. Leszek Kochan, a Solidarity unionist, argues: "We're living in a different world. Statistics don't lie about colour TVs. And look outside the gates. Before, bikes stood there. Now it's cars." Some of the farmers, too, grudgingly accept that the world has changed. In the words of Marjan Wolski, "We're bearing the cost of democracy and freedom. It's painful but I wouldn't want to turn back."

Bronislaw Geremek, the Foreign Minister - a professor of medieval history and one of Walesa's key advisers in the round-table talks - speaks of the modernisation of agriculture and the problems of the industries as "a painful process". Soft-spoken and precise, Geremek argues that it is a question of perspective: "For a historian, 10 years of transformation is a short period of time. It's unbelievable that Poland, after half a century of this heavy economic system, is now a prosperous market economy. But for a person, 10 years means a large part of their life."

Many changes have been more positive than seemed thinkable a decade ago. Adam Michnik, another leading round-table player and now editor-in-chief of Poland's biggest-selling daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, believes that many of those who hark back to the past have forgotten what came before. "There is a disappointment that we do not get money for nothing and that water will not change into wine." The fate of Gazeta Wyborcza partly reflects the changes in the country at large. When the paper was created 10 years ago, like a clutch of other newspapers across the region, its offices received a free daily copy of the Independent. It would have been ludicrous at that time to contemplate the possibility that a Polish paper could afford a paid subscription to a Western paper, which would have cost a crippling $30 a month. Now the boot is on the other foot. Gazeta is so enviably profitable that it has launched an international architectural competition for a brand-new headquarters, complete with its own cafe and bookshop. In Russia, buying power in that way would come with all sorts of questions about dodgy money, mafia gangs and political control. In Poland, Gazeta's success raises no eyebrows. The paper has a large readership and is filled with lucrative advertising. In an economic system that more or less works, the paper's profitability is no more surprising than that of the Financial Times.

For Michnik, Poland's achievements in the past 10 years far outweigh the problems. "I spent a total of six years in jail. I was in the opposition for 25 years, all my adult life. Now, we have a normal, stable and well- developing country, which has problems. Do you know countries without problems, and where people do not complain?" The improv-ement is almost beyond belief, he says. "It feels like a bad American movie - one with a happy ending. I wake up in the morning and am afraid to open my eyes. I am afraid that it will turn out to be a dream, and they will come to handcuff me and take me to jail."

Outside Walesa's windows, Gdansk is undergoing an extraordinary renaissance after years of neglect. Gunter Grass wrote in The Tin Drum of this "venerable city of many towers, city of belfries and bells, still pervaded by the breath of the Middle Ages". Now the old Hanseatic trading port is keen to rejoin the outside world. Shops are crowded with customers; historic buildings have received expensive facelifts; new buildings are being constructed. It's the same story across the country. Krakow, Poland's medieval royal capital, always retained its charm, but there was greyness during Communism. Now the city is full of new shops selling clothes, books, computers. Courtyards off the market square have been restored; old vaulted cellars are converted into yet more cafes, restaurants, jazz clubs.

Perhaps as important is the psychological change. The creation of a civil society, it turns out, can mean just that. During the Communist era, rudeness in public was de rigueur, in Poland as across eastern Europe . Shop assistants and others felt vilely treated by the system; they needed the luxury of taking a brief revenge on others, too. No longer do shop assistants snarl as a matter of course. They inquire whether they can help. They offer advice. They smile. For the visitor who knew the Poland of old, it comes as a shock.

Poland has always had the tendency to rebel against unwanted authority: the doomed romance of cavalry against tanks. The Poles repeatedly rebelled when the country was partitioned between 1773 and 1918, when Poland's very existence was denied (the setting of Alfred Jarry's 1896 play Ubu Roi was "Poland - or precisely Nowhere"). In the defiant words of the Polish national anthem: "Poland is not yet dead, while we remain alive."

After 1945, too, Poles repeatedly wrongfooted their Communist rulers. The rebellions sometimes linked art and politics in a distinctly Polish way. In 1968, mass student unrest was triggered by a production of the play Forefathers, by the revered 19th- century poet Adam Mickiewicz. In 1981, steelworkers threatened to bring Nowa Huta to a standstill unless Andrzej Wajda's Man of Iron (which proceeded to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes) was shown in cinemas without the censor's demanded cuts. Now art is just art. No theatre production will trigger a revolution, nor will the workers of Nowa Huta strike for the right to see a film. Once-subversive cabaret perfomances at venues like the Cellar of the Rams in Krakow stick to nostalgia - sweet voices, plangent violins, golden oldies.

For the crowds at a popular Warsaw club, Ground Zero (built as a secret hideaway for the party bosses in a former underground nuclear shelter), the past is another country. Dariusz, a 20-year-old student, says that all he can remember is "empty shops - for me, Communism is just an abstrakcja, a concept". He believes that the sense of an altered reality has not been fully understood elsewhere. "My aunt brings us chocolate from England. You want to say: 'Auntie, we've got chocolate now!' But in her head, it's the same as it used to be."

Not that western Europe always seems enthusiastic. If Poles and others are to be part of the European Union, the financial burden on the West will be correspondingly greater, at least in the short-term, and many Western politicians are cautious about the prospect. For west European governments, the existence of the Iron Curtain was convenient: it was easy to sympathise with those who lived behind it without having to do anything to help. Now strangers are on the doorstep asking to be let in.

Last year's Russian crisis battered Polish markets. In recent months the markets bounced back, as investors decided that Poland was still open for business, after all. The story of Andrzej Rogulski, whose firm in Warsaw manufactures widgets (wall-plugs, hooks and screws) by the million, is typical. Eight years ago he was a one-man band. Two years ago he had 20 employees. Now he has 50. He is well off by west European standards, taking all of his holidays abroad - he and his wife are just back from New Zealand. And Rogulski is not alone in his optimism. A group of his younger employees differ on everything except their belief that opportunities exist in the new Poland. As 23-year-old Rafal Pietrzak says: "If somebody knows what he wants, he can get it."

A group of women working on Rogulski's assembly line are equally upbeat. "Before, things were done any old how. It didn't matter what you did. Now, if our firm does well, we'll earn well. That's the difference," says one. Genovefa Szczepanska, 47, singles out ham - which has unrivalled significance in the Polish diet - to illustrate the change in living standards. "Before, I could afford to buy a kilo but I'd have stood there for hours. Even then I probably wouldn't have got it. Now you buy less, but the stuff is fresh, it's good. And people can afford to eat ham daily. Don't let anybody tell you different. Some people say they want to go back, but they don't mean it." Danuta Zakrzewska chips in: "I never thought I'd live to see such changes happen so quickly. That's good, of course it is."

In Gdansk, Lech Walesa, living with his wife Danuta behind electronic gates at a guarded villa, fantasises about turning the clock back on his own life. "I would like to be 18 years old, and pick up girls. But I have to go for a walk with my grandchildren. What can I do about it? I must accept the situation."

He insists that he would happily leave politics behind. "I could say: 'All right, I have done my job, now it is your turn.' I could play a decorative role: take part in official banquets, get bonuses or rewards. But I'm not like that. I took on this work because I do not want our revolution to go astray. I must act, I am needed." In reality, you cannot help feeling that politics is a kind of life- support system for Walesa. He likes to be in charge - even in interviews. He rarely lets you finish a sentence. He likes to answer the questions that you haven't asked, and not answer the questions that you have asked. When he talks of wanting more time to go bicycling or fishing, it is difficult not to be sceptical.

Poles have not exactly turned their backs on him. But if he throws his hat into the presidential ring next year, as he looks likely to do, most commentators regard his chances as slim. While seeking to rid itself of Communism in 1989, Poland was fortunate to have Walesa - a man who took extraordinary risks and won unwinnable battles. But that was then and this is now. As Brecht wrote: "Unhappy the land that has need of heroes." After 200 years of battling with unwanted occupiers and dictators - with just 20 years of rocky independence between 1918 and 1939 - Poland is emerging from the political intensive-care ward. At last the country may no longer be in need of heroes.

Poland rarely appears on the front pages these days, not least because its crises are no longer dramatic or threatening. It is fast becoming a European country like any other. Miracles don't come more miraculous than that.