Sunday, August 28, 2016

Solidarity/ Poland In The Season Of Its PassionSolidarity/ Poland In The Season Of Its Passion by Lawrence Weschler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"What you have to remember about this country [...] is that the whole society hates the authorities, the society wants to overthrow the authorities, the society has the power to overthrow the authorities - and the society cannot overthrow the authorities. "

I reached for this book prompted by the recent events in Poland, my native country. The KOR/Solidarity revolutionary social and labor movement of the 1970s and 1980s, one of the most important mass movements of the 20th century, contributed decisively to the collapse of the Soviet ideology. The demolition of Berlin Wall in 1989 and freeing the Eastern European nations from the Soviet domination would not have been possible without Solidarity. Politicians who are now in power in Poland, scoundrels like Jarosław Kaczyński, are attempting to rewrite history and appropriate for themselves the achievements of Solidarity. Like the Stalinists who in 1930s - 1950s used to erase people from photographs, Mr. Kaczyński and his pack of thugs are now trying to erase from the official history the very people who led the KOR/Solidarity movement, Wałęsa, Kuroń, Bujak, Michnik, and scores of others. Indeed, "revolution devours its own," but it is supremely ironic that in this case the devouring is being conducted by people who had nothing or very little to do with the Solidarity revolution.

Lawrence Weschler, a celebrated journalist and popular non-fiction author, wrote Solidarity: Poland in the Season of Its Passion (1982) based on his reflections from two visits to Poland in the politically hot times of 1981. He explains the factors that contributed to the emergence of the massively popular Solidarity movement that was joined by over 10 million people: the pervasive absurdity of socialist economy and bureaucracy, the extreme shortages of food and products of all types, the influence of the Catholic Church which - despite Poland being at that time completely subject to Soviet ideology - was the institution most trusted by the Polish people. The author also mentions the role of the Polish Pope's visit in 1979, the visit that might have provided the final impulse to the birth of Solidarity.

The best aspect of the book is the author's skill in showing the marked contrast between the mood prevalent in Poland during the author's first visit in May of 1981, and the atmosphere in October. Despite the March events in Bydgoszcz, when the police violently broke the Rural Solidarity sit-in hurting dozens of people, in May there was still some optimism, albeit muted and cautious, among the Polish people. Nothing like the euphoria of the fall of 1980, when most everything seemed possible, but many people still hoped for the best. However in October things looked much gloomier. "[T]he vitality has gone out of life in Poland this sorry autumn," notices Mr. Weschler and adds "[s]poradic shortages have given way to pervasive insufficiencies in almost every sector of the economy." I was living in Warsaw through all those events, and I am able to confirm that the author's observations are to the point.

Mr. Weschler offers quite a depressing portrait of the country at the time of the two-phase Solidarity congress, September 5 - October 3, 1981. The congress wasted the participants' effort on the internal struggles, recriminations, and bickering over political phraseology rather than proposing concrete steps to save the country. Contrasting Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive, the most popular song in Poland that autumn, with the people's mood the author worries:
"How the hell is this country going to make it at all through the coming winter?
We know what happened. On December 13, 1981 a group of generals, led by Wojciech Jaruzelski, imposed martial law in Poland (the so-called "state of war"), arresting civil leaders and intellectuals, cutting all forms of communication between people, suspending basic civil rights, imposing strict curfew, etc. With a surprising power of prediction Mr. Weschler foretells the future:
"In the long run, Poland may only be sprung from its ongoing stalemate once things begin to move inside the Soviet Union."
Indeed, it took Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms to allow the dormant Solidarity movement, active only in the so-called "underground", to eventually triumph and provide the decisive contribution to the fall of the Communist ideology in Eastern Europe.

Good book, alas incomplete, which is not really the author's fault as he was not present in Poland during the crucial last two months of the 1981 freedom.

Three and a half stars.

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