Some sources suggest that Lech Walesa first grew his famous bushy moustache when he served his military service in 1963. The Polish Nobel Prize winner and former President dismisses this idea. It was simply the case that when he was running the trade union Solidarity and fighting martial law, he didn’t always have the time to trim it. “I grew it in the strikes because I didn’t have a razor. Then I couldn’t change it.”
Walesa is in London this month for the UK premiere of Andrzej Wajda’s new film about him that is released today – Walesa, Man Of Hope – and the moustache is still there, albeit now silver and far tidier and sleeker than it was at the time his leadership of the strikes in the Gdansk shipyards made him a worldwide celebrity.
“I’ve got a very rich life and you could do 20 films out of it,” Walesa declares, speaking through an interpreter at a Mayfair Hotel. “You could write a criminal story, a romance story and an adventure story of my life. The director has selected just a very small snapshot of my life and has decided to tell the story himself. He has done it from his perspective but he has made a beautiful film.”
He adds: “In future, I know there will be different films about me and there will be some different perspectives and the truth will unfold over time.”
The 71-year-old is dressed in a dark suit and looks more like a former head of state than the shipyard electrician persecuted by the communist authorities that he once was. Walesa is very aware of his own place in history and of his part in bringing about the end of communism in the former Soviet bloc. He is also conscious of the ambivalent attitude that the Polish people currently have toward him.
The former President still has a knack for making headlines. In recent months, he has made jaw-dropping remarks about such subjects as gay rights or where Poland’s political future should lie. Earlier this year, he said on television that gay people were a minority with no right to sit on the frontbenches in Parliament. If there at all, he suggested, they should sit at the back, “even behind a wall”.
Walesa denies that he is homophobic and says his remarks have been taken out of context. “My words were twisted by my enemies,” he says. “I was explaining how they [gays] only make up a small percentage of the population so... in a political forum, they wouldn’t have that much power.”
As for his reported remarks that Poland should unite with Germany to create a single country, that was a case of his having “half a sentence cut off”. No, he isn’t advocating a formal union. “What I was actually saying was that we should be building a European identity. If you’ve only got half a sentence, it sounds like it’s just Poland and Germany together.”
Ask him about Margaret Thatcher, who notoriously championed Solidarity while dismantling trade unions in her own country, and Walesa admits that he liked her. She was “decisive”, a quality he shares.
“She had problems with the viability of certain industries and it was a painful process. You can’t really categorise her. She was a product of a free market economy and she didn’t want to keep supporting the miners. That was painful for workers but, in terms of economics, that was what she had to do. I liked the fact that she could make a decision. If she believed in something, she did it, even if people didn’t like her.”
In Poland, Walesa points out, factories are being closed. His own popularity has waned since the heyday of Solidarity.“I was born and raised an anti-communist. I see myself as a link in a chain of events. Just to comment on that time would break that chain for me,” Walesa says when asked whether he’s nostalgic for the days when Solidarity was founded in the Gdansk shipyard in 1980.
“The way I remember it is that at first the fight (against communism) was a very weak fight but then it grew stronger and stronger. At the time, I was like a trainer with a weightlifter who was constantly taking on more and more power and strength. At the beginning of the fight, things didn’t always go to plan. In the 1970s, when communism was at its strongest, there was very little opposition. If people spoke out, they just would have been shot.”
Walesa was arrested many times, fired from his job, harassed by the state security forces. He never backed down. Ask him where his courage came from and he suggests that he was born stubborn. “If I see that there is injustice, I always speak up. My background was very much religious with very strict morals. Those morals are what I try to live by.” His Catholic faith – “a higher strength” – gave him the strength to persevere in his fight.
“Some very painful decisions are being made in Poland,” Walesa says. “Sometimes in politics, you have to do painful things. By overturning the USSR and communism, Poland lost 70 per cent of industry. My decision as leader was do we stay with the USSR and save 70 per cent of our industry or do we break away. I chose to break off... the result was unemployment.”
Andrzej Wajda’s film captures its subject’s bravery and the folksy charisma that turned him briefly into such a remarkable leader. It features an extraordinary performance from Robert Wieckiewicz, who looks and sounds uncannily like Walesa in his prime. Even the walrus moustache seems just right. This means that when Wajda introduces archive footage of the real Walesa, there is a seamless transition. It doesn’t feel as if we’re watching an actor play someone he only vaguely resembles.
Walesa and Wajda go back a long way. The Solidarity leader partly inspired Mr Wajda’s 1981 film, Man Of Iron, in which Walesa appeared as himself. The Polish politician isn’t deferential to many people but his reverence for Wajda is obvious. “I already knew his reputation for being an excellent director. He is a Pole who lives in Poland and so he understands... if anyone is going to make a good Polish film, it would be Wajda.”
He had seen Wajda’s films before they met in 1980. He admired the way that the director dealt with the plight of Polish workers in his 1976 feature Man Of Marble in spite of the censorship that was then in place. “He was fighting communism. He was very careful and clever. He kept putting on pressure slowly, slowly so he didn’t cross the boundary and get thrown out of Poland.”
Ask Walesa about Wieckiewicz’s uncanny impersonation of him and he parries the question. “I’ve decided not to comment because I don’t want to influence viewers. I want people to make their own minds up. You can’t push people into certain opinions. They need to watch it first,” he says.
Walesa remains as stubborn as ever, refusing to pose for photographs he hasn’t been told about in advance. Two days after my interview, he was stopped and searched at Heathrow airport and was so infuriated by the treatment that he has reportedly vowed never to return to London.
It’s more than 30 years since the Gdansk shipyard strikes and close to two decades since he finished his five-year term as Poland’s second President.
He is a controversial and marginalised figure now. His legacy is now a matter of fierce debate. Wajda’s film about him at least reminds us of the time when he really did shake up the world.