Liking Walesa

Tim Sebastian

  • The Book of Lech Walesa by Lech Badkowski, introduction by Neal Ascherson et al
    Penguin, 203 pp, £8.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 14 006376 5
  • The Polish Challenge by Kevin Ruane
    BBC, 328 pp, £9.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 563 20054 5

For nearly eighteen months Lech Walesa walked on quicksand, buoyant and for all the world supremely confident. In the summer of 1981 I asked him whether he was worried about the Soviet tanks massing on the border. ‘I don’t see any tanks,’ he replied curtly. Vintage Walesa, or a bad day: with Walesa you never knew. There were times, though, when the confidence evaporated and the two-handed victory salutes were traded in for some fireside modesty. ‘In the years to come,’ he said once, ‘people may decide that we went about things in the worst possible way, that we got it all wrong. We’ll just have to see.’ But with Walesa there was always the likelihood of a flip retort, a quick get-out for a man who had spent his life trying to avoid the people’s police. ‘What do you think is your biggest failing?’ ‘I simply haven’t got enough time.’

Inevitably Walesa was different things for different people. And a collection of portraits such as this one is the fairest way of looking at him. For almost everyone who came across him he was a novelty. He filled a gap in Poland’s public life. For one thing, he was the antithesis of the Communist politician. He refused to wear a tie, except when he went to the Vatican. He spoke poor Polish, cut off inflections, jumbled his words: a sin in culture-conscious modern Poland. Only once did he read from a script, and it was a disaster. He used a four-letter word at the Union’s Gdansk congress: at least it made people sit up and think. He was a symbol of change – young, brash, apparently unstoppable. Apparently.

There is evidence that Walesa himself saw the end coming. Why else did the Union’s national executive choose to hold its final meeting in the Lenin Shipyard – behind the gates? Why did Walesa tell the delegates he had written proof that the Government wanted confrontation? Why did they discuss reports of tanks on the move? More important, why did they dismiss those reports and go off that Saturday night, unconcerned, to sleep?

In the event, they didn’t get much sleep. Some time before midnight – Walesa’s wife isn’t quite sure of the time – the local party boss and the mayor came to his flat in the typical Eastern European housing estate and gave him a rather untypical Eastern European message. The General, Poland’s leader, prime minister, defence minister, party chief – and that night chairman of the Military Council of National Redemption – wanted to see him. It was 13 December, snowing, and the last time Walesa’s wife saw him at liberty.

She visits him now by complicated sleight of foot. She drives first to the Interior Ministry in Warsaw and then changes cars several times along the way. It throws off the press, who don’t follow anyway – and it unsettles her. ‘My husband,’ she says, ‘told me everything will be all right.’ That’s Walesa straight off the shelf: a hustler, foot-in-the-door merchant, smiler, pleader, amateur dramatist. All that – but not a pessimist. In any case, what else was he supposed to tell his wife? For the moment, the family is all right. Walesa’s assistant – Mietek – hangs around the flat in green cords, sports jacket and tie. Helping out. He isn’t liked by some of the Solidarity people. They call him ‘Zero’ – the ultimate nonentity. Walesa’s wife Miroslawa says the girls are well enough, but the boys need their father’s hand. Outside the flat there are only one or two people who studiously don’t look at you. Not a heavy police presence. The family was offered the chance to leave the country, but turned it down. Like the whole labour problem, the Solidarity movement, the push for change, the Walesa family will not go away.

There’s one question which is seldom asked about Lech Walesa. Did people like him? Many hated him. Many more were captivated by him. In his essay ‘The Man of What’, Lech Badkowski comes closest to saying he didn’t like Walesa. Badkowski is a kindly, softhearted intellectual, and Walesa may not have liked him either. But I did. Badkowski was in a good position to watch the infant Solidarity crawl and then walk. He ran the press department in Gdansk. Ran it from a hutch on the top floor where he used to sit in a finely-tailored suit, sometimes a bow tie with a pearl, and a walking-stick at his side. Such a contrast with; the younger Solidarity men who tried to look as though they didn’t have a uniform either. Badkowski was often infuriated by Walesa. Sometimes he even hesitated to turn up at Union meetings. One night, in the darkness outside the Lenin Shipyard, Badkowski confessed: ‘There’s such terrible chaos in these meetings. I didn’t want to come at all – but they would have called me a traitor.’ Surprisingly, Walesa chose Badkowski to be the Union’s national press spokesman, but the appointment was overruled by others on the national executive. It was part of a growing effort to vote down candidates proposed by Walesa: the electrician had to be isolated for the good of the Union – Walesa was too erratic.

Like his Union, Walesa was born out of conflict. He never had a peacetime identity. ‘Sometimes,’ he used to reflect, ‘I think of just going fishing and picking mushrooms. I won’t do this for ever.’ Certainly it’s difficult to know what drove him on. He hated bureaucracy, hated commitments that tied him down. The signs were that he didn’t enjoy the Union meetings much either. In his dealings with the workers his tongue was often rather sharp. ‘Don’t mess about,’ he told one of them. ‘Just give us your name and tell us your problem.’ ‘If you want to work – let’s work,’ he said to his national executive after hours of seemingly pointless sparring. ‘If you want to go home – go home. I want a vote – and I want it now.’ Walesa got his vote. Once again he was in the home straight running ahead. The Book of Lech Walesa looks at the man as a success story. Few of those who have written about him seem to have acknowledged that he could fail. Perhaps, like all of us in Poland at the time, they took Walesa too much at face value. Perhaps they forgot the context in, which he operated, the limitations of Eastern Europe in 1982, under Brezhnev, the complicated patterns of Communist behaviour. Walesa, after all, was highly believable. His message was the same to everyone: ‘I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.’

Sometimes he gave the impression of being less than honest; in order to beat the system he had to play it as well. That meant covering his cards, perhaps obsessively. That’s why he created such a variety of different impressions. And why the authorities found him so difficult to deal with. They tried threatening, flattering, manipulating, even ignoring him. But they failed to make him ‘their’ man and they never got the measure of him. The state paid him its greatest compliment by admitting, tacitly, how emotive his name had become. During the early weeks of martial law, the Andrzej Wajda film about Solidarity – Man of Iron – was playing in Paris. A Polish émigré who saw the film sent a postcard to his friends in Warsaw telling them of his reaction. The card contained the phrase, ‘Bravo, Lech Walesa.’ The military censor crossed that out in black ink.

Some of the things let through by the Polish censors were no less extraordinary. A number are featured in Kevin Ruane’s book, which pulls together reports from the state-controlled radio and news agencies – little-known fruits of the BBC’s Monitoring Service. How many people remember that the catalyst for the Solidarity revolution was an increase in meat prices, announced under the absurd and uniquely East European euphemism ‘some changes in the meat trade’? Not only was the announcement itself ridiculous: it came some forty-eight hours after the new regulations went into force. A government spokesman, in a blinding display of perception, called this ‘an unfortunate oversight’. What the book points up is the extraordinary transformation that overtook the Polish media during the rise of Solidarity. Their virginal hesitation in talking about ‘work stoppages’ or ‘interruptions in the rhythm of work’ and the big breath before mentioning the word ‘strike’. Adopting the principle that lost innocence can never be regained, Poland’s journalists – or some of them, at least – determined never to look back. Until 13 December 1981, that is. Like everything in Poland, the changes in the media were not uniform and not uniformly popular. Some papers – the organ of the Defence Ministry, for example – made a point of thumping out all the old values and of treating Solidarity activists either as misguided intellectual pansies or terrorists inspired by Western Security. This newspaper was, of course, rewarded for its consistency when martial law was introduced. Elsewhere the military take-over cut a swathe through the journalistic community.

One of the most vivid aspects of the Polish crisis is the way ‘unthinkable’ statements and incidents turned out to be ‘thinkable’ and then again ‘unthinkable’. In August 1980, when the strikes were in full flood, the head of the Communist Party’s information agency, Interpress, called foreign journalists to a meeting and told them that free, independent trade unions were unacceptable in a Communist – he called it Socialist – society. Well, the state did go through 16 months of ructions and somersaults, but the man was eventually proved right. Edward Gierek, the first of the leaders kicked out in the crisis, said: ‘We cannot agree to demands which strike at the foundations of the existence of the nation and the state.’ Again, they did agree, for a time. But in the end it all went too far and they changed their minds.

The Solidarity period gave the Eastern bloc allies the chance for an unusually public and vitriolic bash at each other. Journalists from such stalwart neighbours as East Germany and Czechoslovakia were called to the Polish Foreign Ministry in Warsaw and warned that they had ‘wrongly assessed’ the situation. A variety of incidents had prompted this action: the harassment of Polish tourists, the confiscation and forced disappearance of Polish newspapers in the other fraternal countries, and some glaring examples of propaganda that cut right across the universal commandment: ‘Don’t get found out.’ In particular, the Soviet agency Tass had run slightly ahead of the events themselves – difficult to do when things were moving so swiftly. It reported the take-over of a factory by counter-revolutionaries, the disarming of the factory guards and the dismissal of the management. In Warsaw officials said they had no such information. Warsaw Radio rebutted the allegations totally. The factory, it said, was working well.

In normal times the study of the media in Eastern Europe is a thankless task. You wade through endless, repetitive, dogmatic tracts – sometimes you miss the one nugget you were looking for. But Solidarity brought the end of normal times to Poland. Newspapers actually contradicted each other. There were even contradictions in the space of one article. All they were doing, in fact, was reflecting the very conflicts, the factions and the in-fighting, that Eastern bloc censors are employed to mask. In Poland that part of the elaborate safety mechanism had cracked wide open. Surprisingly, Polish newspapers haven’t quite returned to their traditional dullness even now. Contained in a sizeable economic treatise in the Party newspaper some weeks ago was a statement that could point to another revolution. It said simply that the entire policy of leaving most of Polish agriculture in private hands was anti-socialist. There was no explanation, no repetition, no context was offered. Someone with strong feelings had pulled a string. Under the surface hard-line opinion had stirred.

The Polish Challenge sets out to piece together part of this jigsaw puzzle in the media, but it also throws an interesting spotlight on some of the main personalities in the drama and, in particular, on one of the Deputy Prime Ministers, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, a man remarkable for his ability to survive when so many others didn’t. As the records of his speeches prove, Rakowski’s survival may have largely depended on a talent for changing skins. He was very good at warning, not bad at appealing, even knew how to encourage. And when he thought it really mattered he was quite capable of losing his temper. On one occasion he told Solidarity that the door to negotiations had been all but closed. For days Warsaw talked about nothing else except how hysterical Rakowski had become.

There are those who believe that events in Poland are ultimately decided somewhere quite different. Certainly, the other Eastern bloc countries were not slow to offer advice. The Bulgarians, the Czechs and the East Germans probably had most to say. Socialism, they sought to point out, was not simply the achievement of one country, but the common achievement of all of them – which, of course, entitled them to be vitally concerned with what took place in Poland. Opinions vary about the extent to which Moscow fed them their scripts: it is doubtful whether they needed much encouragement. Poland was all around them – they would all have to live with the consequences. These countries felt the Polish ‘challenge’ just as much as the Polish Government itself. A challenge that existed even before Solidarity. Had Polish dissidents not acted as a focus for opposition groups from the other countries? Had they not actually trained their counterparts from Hungary and East Germany in the techniques of underground printing? Polish dissident literature had even found its way into the Baltic republics of the Soviet Union. Then there was the power of the Catholic Church, the influence of the private, non-collectivised farmers, and the strength of private enterprise. The Polish challenge will be around for a long time to come.