In Interview, Walesa Reflects on 25 Years Ago

Daily News Article   —   Posted on September 28, 2005

(by Alex Storozynski, Sept. 28, 2005, – For decades, Poland tried to overthrow the communist system that Soviet troops had imposed on Eastern Europe after World War II. And then 25 years ago, out of nowhere, an electrician at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk jumped up on a wall and turned the “workers of the world unite” slogan on its head by calling for “solidarity” and starting a union.

After pulling the thread that eventually unraveled the Iron Curtain, Lech Walesa went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 before becoming the first democratically elected president in postwar Poland.

Today, President Walesa (pronounced Vah-WHEN-sah) will be joined by Mayor Bloomberg at 11 a.m. in unveiling a special outdoor photo exhibit, “Poland on the Front Page.” Later in the day, at the Polish Consulate, Mr. Walesa will give out special medals to American journalists who covered the Solidarity movement, Mayor Koch, and Irena Kirkland, the wife of the late AFL-CIO president, Lane Kirkland, who helped the Polish workers organize the Solidarity trade union.

In an interview yesterday with The New York Sun, Mr. Walesa said: “For me, it was weird that communism existed as long as it did. For a hundred years people will be writing: How is it possible that communism was able to function? Everybody was against it privately, yet somehow it was able to continue and was hard to break up.”

When asked if it was because of the Soviet tanks and troops, he replied with a wink and a grin, “I’ll leave that up to you.”

During the early 1980s, some solidarity activists said that they had studied the movements of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to learn about passive resistance.

Yesterday, Mr. Walesa said that all of these monumental shifts in history were peaceful battles that had a common link. During the heyday of his movement, he said that the best way to stop communism was through evolution, rather than revolution.

“We had no chance for a revolution,” Mr. Walesa said. “Besides, they had better revolutionaries, starting with Lenin onward. And they had 200,000 Soviet soldiers in Poland as well as nuclear weapons. How can you win a revolution against a power like that? There’s no chance.”

These days, it’s the breakaway states of the former Soviet Union that are trying to challenge Moscow for their independence. The Russian bear is still ferocious toward nations trying to leave its sphere of influence.

Last fall, the Kremlin was infuriated when the opposition candidate for president in the Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, appeared headed for victory in the presidential race. The world was shocked when his face was disfigured after he was poisoned and his opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, won a fraudulent election. Suddenly, Ukrainians were taking to the streets of Kiev in protest and a violent showdown seemed imminent.

On November 24, Mr. Walesa showed up in Kiev during the height of the Orange Revolution to try to calm things down. After discussions with both sides, he learned that Mr. Yanukovych and his allies had told the police to use their weapons against the protesters.

“They made the decision to shoot on the crowds. I told him [Mr. Yanukovych] that if you do that, you’re dead. You don’t have a chance,” Mr. Walesa said yesterday. “If you draw blood, you will lose any chance you have of winning. And then they will hang you. So he lost the election, but he lived.”

Mr. Walesa has also warned Belarus about gaining its independence from Russia too quickly because Moscow will “turn off the taps and cut off its oil and electricity.” He should know, because after a tiff with the government in Warsaw last year, Moscow threatened to do just that to Poland.

As for America, Mr. Walesa also pulled no punches, saying that while Poland is this country’s “greatest ally,” Washington “slights us” in this friendship. He said an example of this was the visa requirement for Polish citizens who want to visit America.

However, Mr. Walesa is very thankful for the help he received from America when he was trying to establish the Solidarity trade union. He said the president of the AFL-CIO, Lane Kirkland, was “a great politician and a great activist. … His experience made him a walking encyclopedia.”

Yet a quarter of a century after it helped Poles found their own trade union, the AFL-CIO is suffering from its own problems. Mr. Walesa said that in the age of globalization and the Internet, unions will have to find new strategies to protect workers.

“We have a chance to come up with new programs. The American unions have many old programs and rules. It’s time for new ideas, programs, and new structures. The structures in place have to be updated to deal with globalization. And that’s the problem unions are having in the United States, Poland, and elsewhere,” Mr. Walesa said.

“I would be happy to meet with American unions and exchange ideas on these matters,” Mr. Walesa said. “But I can’t give them the advice on how to do it.”

With his white hair and his trade mark gray handlebar mustache trimmed back, the one-time electrician from Gdansk laughed when asked about who deserved credit for overthrowing communism in Poland. But when pressed, he said he would have to give Pope John Paul II 50% and solidarity 30%, with 20% going to the rest, such as President Reagan and the AFL-CIO.

While his country has seen many horrors over the past, such as invasions by totalitarian forces and the Holocaust, Mr. Walesa also spoke about the importance of the museum commemorating 800 years of Polish Jewry that is being built in Warsaw’s former Jewish quarter, which was destroyed by the Nazis during World War II.

Mr. Walesa said, “The Jews were a great nation within Poland before the war. It’s important for us to remember them. They also took part in the Warsaw uprising, and now they’re missing and we have to remember what they meant to the culture and history of Poland.”

These days, Mr. Walesa is a bigger hero abroad than in his homeland. Last week, he visited the University of Kansas, where he received the Dole Leadership Prize, awarded by the institute named for the former senator from Kansas, Robert Dole. And on Sunday, Mr. Walesa will march up Fifth Avenue as the honorary grand marshal of the Pulaski Day Parade.

Reprinted here with permission from the New York Sun.  Visit the website at