The Disappointment of Fulfilled Dreams in Poland

05/12/2015 08:45 am ET | Updated May 12, 2016

"May your dreams come true," is purportedly an ancient Chinese curse. Although it is probably apocryphal -- just as the Chinese never say, "May you live in interesting times" -- the phrase does contain an element of truth. It is often the longing and anticipation that we crave, not the realization of our hopes. Nothing can possibly compare to the fulfillment we imagine.

Many Poles dreamed of the day when the Communist regime would fall. But even after the semi-free elections of June 4, 1989, in which Solidarity-affiliated candidates won nearly all the contested seats, few anticipated that their dreams would come true so quickly.

Jan Litynski was a longtime opposition activist. He was arrested in the 1960s for his involvement in the organizing at the University of Warsaw. He played a critical role in founding the Workers Defense Committee (KOR) in the 1970s. He was a major Solidarity activist, was arrested again under Martial Law, and then escaped to join the underground.

I first met him in early 1989, when the future of Solidarity remained in the balance. In 2013, I visited him at the office of the Polish president, where he served as an advisor to Bronislaw Komorowski. He confirmed that the rapidity of change in 1989 was a surprise to everyone.

"We did not expect the changes to happen that fast," he told me.

Most of the people did not realize that the economy was in such bad condition. That was still the period of Gorbachev, when glasnost and perestroika had already been introduced. After we won the election in 1989, we planned to call our party the Solidarity Opposition Club.

But then, after just two weeks, instead of being an opposition we gained power. Therefore when we constituted the majority in parliament, we called ourselves the Civil Parliamentary Club. Even Tadeusz Mazowiecki could not believe it.

Two weeks before he became prime minister he published an article stating that the Solidarity movement should not take power.

It's one thing to dream about taking the state out of the hands of the Communist Party. It was quite another thing to discover that part of the deal involved taking over a seriously ailing economy. The new Solidarity government cast around for different plans to save the Polish economy.

"Balcerowicz's plan was a part of the rescue plan," Litynski explained.

Jeffrey Sachs came to Poland and explained that it was the only possible option at that moment. This point of view was not entirely accepted at that time, but it was taken into consideration. After Tadeusz Mazowiecki became prime minister he was looking for a minister of the ministry of finance or the ministry of economy among more moderate, social-centered candidates.

Most of them refused. The Balcerowicz Plan was the ultimate resort. I believe that it was the only possible program that could rescue the Polish economy at that moment.

At a number of different levels, the plan worked. It "released an immeasurable energy. People started opening shops and engaging in trade, and thus the market began to fill out," Litynski remembered. But there were also drawbacks.

Balcerowicz was very optimistic when he estimated that at the end of 1990 the unemployment rate would reach 300-400,000 unemployed. Actually, it was between 800,000 and one million unemployed. He hoped that enterprises would automatically behave in a free-market way, but that did not happen that fast.

Although he supported the plan, Litynski believed that,

Our fascination with neoliberal economy lasted for too long. Not enough steps were made toward defusing the economic situation. Jacek Kuroń was a minister of labor and social policy in the first phase of the transformation. During his term the unemployment benefits were too high.

Nevertheless countries that did not go through this kind of changes incurred costs as well. We have to remember that the Polish economy was in a state of decay, with broken economic ties and inflation going up several percent every month.

The political party that Litynski joined in the aftermath of 1989, which also included Mazowiecki, Kuron and Adam Michnik, did not do very well at the polls, in part because of the economic consequences of the Balcerowicz reforms.

"The Democratic Union, my post-Solidarity political party, lost the elections," he concluded.

But we won the state. It is the best moment in our history. Of course we complain a lot, but it is definitely the best moment in our history. Therefore, although my party lost I believe that I am politically fulfilled. Nevertheless it is as it is. We are always disappointed when our dreams come true.

The Interview

How did you become opposition activist in Poland?

It was not an opposition movement yet. At the beginning of the 1960s, when I was at university, we established an unofficial discussion group. Later in 1964, Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski wrote their Manifesto. In March 1965, when they were arrested and sentenced to prison, our group's discussions revolved around their political program. We became popular just because we were participating in the meetings of the Polish Socialist Youth Union and tried to take an active part in the discussion. After Kuroń and Modzelewski were released, our political activity gained momentum. Although most of us were very critical toward their political program, they automatically became our leaders. What distinguished us was that we were mostly focusing on the issue of democracy while the core of their program was the problems of the working class. In 1968, when the government banned the theatre play Dziady at the National Theatre, we organized a demonstration in favor of the play. Later, we organized the signature campaign calling for the release of imprisoned political activists. This all led to the organization of a rally at the University of Warsaw, after which I was imprisoned. I spent one-and-half years in prison.

What did you think is going to happen in your country? A reform similar to the one in Hungary?

That was before the Hungarian reforms. The Hungarian reforms were introduced in 1969 or even a little bit later. We were all Marxists at that time, and it is difficult to tell whether we had any particular program. Nevertheless, we already knew that we were not in favor of the program of Kuroń and Modzelewski since we were focused mostly on the spreading of democracy. Taking into consideration the Warsaw Pact aggression in Czechoslovakia, the chances of introducing reforms were very low, and that is why we did not have any particular vision.

After the strike in Gdańsk in December 1970, the liberties were widened, and we gained some freedom. Part of our group emigrated after the anti-Semitic campaign in March 1968, and the position of our group weakened. Jacek Kuroń was sure that there would soon be another strike action, and we had to be prepared for that occasion. He had in mind a kind of psychological preparation for the strike of workers in 1976, which was a response to the significant increase in prices announced by government in March the same year. When the strikes in Ursus and Radom broke out, we were ready to help people.

The first trial of workers began in July or August 1976. We were not allowed to enter the court during their trial but we had at least a chance to get in touch with workers' families. That was the beginning of the relief action. We started searching for attorneys and collecting money. Unfortunately, it turned out that the information we gathered regarding sentenced workers, repressions, tortures and beatings were not confirmed by anyone. We needed someone who would confirm this information. For this reason the Workers Defense Committee (KOR) was formed. This group of several people was responsible for checking if the information that had been gathered was true and whether the money we collected was being well spent. Those were the main goals of the Workers Defense Committee.

A couple of years later the Solidarity movement was formed. What was your role in the movement?

The first strike broke out in Ursus on July 2,1980. It was organized by people with whom we had been cooperating for several months - Zbyszek Bujak and Zbyszek Janas. Strikes were breaking out during the entire summer of 1980. Earlier, in 1977 we started publishing a biweekly for the working class, Worker, which became quite popular in 1979. Thanks to its popularity we had an entire network of distributors who were also gathering information about most of the strike activities. The information was passed over the phone to the activists living in Western countries and then passed back to Poland. That's how the information was spreading. It all stopped after the strike in Gdańsk, which was characterized by the existence of the strong trade unions led by Lech Wałęsa, Anna Walentynowicz, and Bogdan Borusewicz. During the strike I got arrested. I was released only on September 1 or 2. Immediately after being released from prison, I went to Wałbrzych where I stayed for one-and-a-half years helping to establish the local trade unions.

Then came martial law. This was obviously a difficult time in Poland. Did you think that Solidarity would continue to play a vital role, or did you think it would simply disappear?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.