I arrived in Warsaw with my wife, Nina, and our two young daughters in August, 1979, and we left exactly three years later, in August, 1982. There was a remarkable, three-way symmetry to our time in Poland. It's almost as if we lived in three different countries and now, as I think back over our times there, I realized that we actually did live in three countries.
First was the Poland of so-called normal communism and Edward Gierek, the hatchet-faced miner who presided over the people's sinking economic fortunes with a kind of stoic denial. The country was like an old, once glories manor house; viewed from the outside, to all intents and purposes, it was still standing and looked sturdy enough, but inside, in the basement, the foundation was rotting.
The came the Poland of Solidarnosz and Lech Walesa, the electrician with a Pancho Villa mustaches, who was a natural activist, up from the streets, if not a great strategist of geopolitical thinker. For 16 unbelievable months, while the world watched and held its breath, all that energy and inspiration poured out of the building, breaking open windows, smashing down walls, drawing up new blueprints, a cacophony of hammering and sawing and yelling.
` And finally came the Poland of martial law and General Jaruszelski, with his stiff back and tinted glasses, when the hopes and dreams of so many came to an inglorious end one snowy December night. Many of the people in the building were locked up and the windows were boarded over and the fence around it was padlocked.
Three years, three separate countries. And a 360-degree voyage that seemed to circle the globe and ended back where it began, a journey from oppression to liberation and back to oppression. Except, of course, that as we now know, it didn't really end there.
Because I moved The New York Times bureau from Belgrade to Warsaw in 1979, people used to ask me if the paper or I had an inkling of the political convulsions that would begin at the Lenin shipyard and sweep through every nook and cranny of the country. I have to be honest and admit that no, certainly not, we didn't know anything. Nor to my knowledge did any Western diplomat, aside from one perspicacious Spanish embassy official who said he felt there was a level of social anger building up that would require an outlet. I once encountered that anger directly, when I covered a mining disaster in the south in early 1980 and was taken aback at how freely and bitterly miners criticized the government. They clearly loathed it. But I put that down to the heat of the moment, when fellow miners were trapped hundreds of feet beneath the earth, and did not see it as the sign of impending revolt. When the price of meat was raised July 1, precipitating wildcat strikes that were never acknowledged by the government but seemed to spread like underground brush fires, I began to sense the rising tide of universal rage. And I was impressed by how closely involved was KOR, the small group of politically active dissident intellectuals. But still, on the day that Walesa vaulted the wall into the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, I was an ocean away in America. I quickly boarded a plane and jumped on the story that then didn't stop moving for two years.
Memories, big and little, come crowding back. Joining the strikers at their headquarters, with the announcement over the public address system - "the New York Times has joined our strike!" - loudly applauded. Poor Deputy Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Jagielski signing the Aug. 31 agreement, sweating under the camera lights like a novice actor and being one-upped by Walesa who pulled out a foot-long pen with a picture of Pope John Paul on it. Endless discussions, strike votes, a glut of democracy, speeches that went on long past deadline, the whole country like a debating society in a coffee house. At one meeting, at the Ursus tractor factory, Adam Michnick, hinting at the dangers of a Soviet invasion, shouting: "We don't live on the moon." At another danger point, Walesa walking down the aisle, asking both me and the man from Pravda whether the union should strike (We both said no.) Then marital law coming down like a door shutting. Arrests, curfews, roadblocks, no phones or telexes, smuggling stories out of the country. An elderly Polish writer, opening his door only a peep, explaining that we could no longer be friends, it was too dangerous. Other friends, twenty of them, bucking their fears and coming to our house for a New Year's Eve party in which people hoping to emigrate clinked glasses and wished each other: "Happy New York." Our daughter, removing a Solidarnosz button from an outdoor Christmas wreath, being upbraided by a handyman who said: "Just because it's not allowed, you don't like it anymore." And finally, leaving Poland, with my daughter wiping away tears and the Polish customs official so moved by the sight that she picked her up, hugged her and wave us right through.
What happened in Poland in 1980 and 1981 constituted a revolution - one of those magical moments in history when a majority of a society is seized with the inspiration to overturn the exiting order. In Solidarnosz, unarmed workers could confront the potentially brutal power of an armed and resourceful state, because they all stood up together, all at the same time, and they could see each other standing there. Martial law worked, in terms of stamping out an immediate mutiny, not because it put the whole country into a prison, as some wrote at the time, but because it seemed to put every single person inside a solitary jail cell, thereby making each one afraid, and so cutting to the heart of what Solidarnosz was all about. Everyone felt, once again, alone and vulnerable.
The events in Poland helped bring about the collapse of communism in less than a decade, not just in Eastern Europe but in the Soviet Union as well. The Polish workers broke the myth that the communist party spoke for the working class and proved the power of united opposition. Ultimately, martial law failed. Because the events changed those who lived thought them, as revolutions are apt to do, the mass movement could be suppressed for a while but not eliminated.
I'm sometimes asked if I could have predicted the momentous changes that would come at the end of the 80's. I can honestly say that I did not know when things would change but I did know that they would change. And that knowledge came in part from the realization that the three different Polands I had experienced were really very much the same - because of the spirit and resilience of the people and their unstoppable desire for freedom.