I accidentally stumbled across the ‘Roads to Freedom’ exhibition in Gdansk while on my way to the Monument to the Shipyard Workers. Along the footpath was painted ‘Roads to Freedom’ in multiple languages, and then there was a sign for the exhibition. I assumed it would be small, and that maybe half an hour would be reasonable. Was I wrong!
As you enter the exhibition – it’s underground and pretty much beneath the road – there’s a quote painted on the wall of the stairs. It says ‘Many generations to come will remember the extraordinary thing that happened in Poland, there appeared a social force able to control those in power.’
The exhibition explores the Solidarność movement and the impact this has had on both the transition to democracy in Poland and the national consciousness. Solidarność started as a trade union for shipyard workers in a time when trade unions were illegal in the Polish People’s Republic [ie. Communist Poland]. Here’s an outline of the Solidarność movement:
Non-governmental trade unions were illegal in Poland. In mid 1980, the Communist government, facing an economic crisis, decides to drastically raise prices of basic necessities such as food, while halting or at least severely curtailing the growth of wages. Understandably, this wasn’t received well by many people and resulted in strikes across the country. Strikes began in Lublin, and the workers at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk, who started Solidarność, didn’t strike until a popular activist and crane operator there was fired. An ex-worker from the Lenin Shipyards, Lech Wałęsa, arrived at the shipyards on 14 August 1980 [he was fired four years earlier] and the strike there began. The workers were demanding the reinstatement of both Wałęsa and the crane operator Anna Walentynowicz, as well as recognition of workers’ rights, the addressing of widespread social discontent, the raising of a monument to the shipyard workers killed in 1970, when a strike was brutally repressed by the regime and finally the legalisation of trade unions independent of Communist government control.
Here’s a few of the demands made and painted on the board at the Shipyards:
3. Compliance with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech, the press and publication, including freedom for independent publishers, and the availability of the mass media to representatives of all faiths.
4. A return of former rights to: 1) People dismissed from work after the 1970 and 1976 strikes. 2) Students expelled because of their views. The release of all political prisoners, among them Edward Zadrozynski, Jan Kozlowski, and Marek Kozlowski. A halt in repression of the individual because of personal conviction.
10. A full supply of food products for the domestic market, with exports limited to surpluses
12. The selection of management personnel on the basis of qualifications, not party membership. Privileges of the secret police, regular police and party apparatus to be eliminated.
17. Assurances of a reasonable number of places in day-care centers and kindergartens for the children of working mothers.
They don’t seem unreasonable, do they? Most of the demands made are things that we take for granted.
Further strikes swept the country as workers across Poland held strikes in solidarity with the growing movement. Manufacture around the country halted as more than two hundred factories, shipyards and mines joined the strike, and strike committees from across Poland met in Gdansk to expand the demands to include things like a relaxation of censorship, the freeing of political prisoners, more rights for the Church and so on. Priests performed mass outside the shipyard gates.
What is interesting about Solidarność is that the strike at Lenin Shipyards and subsequent nationwide support for the movement resulted in the first negotiations between an activist organisation and the government. Due to widespread pressure both domestic and international, the Communist government was forced to ratify a number of their demands, and on 21 August 1980 signed the Gdansk Agreement. This was the first step in enabling citizens to influence and introduce democratic change. However, this was just the beginning of Solidarność, which quickly became a social movement rather than simply a trade union. Despite legalising Solidarność in 1980, in 1981 the government instituted martial law and arrested the Solidarność leaders, as well as more than 5000 members. The resulting strikes were met with bullets and brute force as riot police and the army opened fire on demonstrators. Solidarność was banned in 1982.
This wasn’t going to stop the movement, and Solidarność went underground. The leader, Lech Wałęsa, was imprisoned but released and in 1983 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1984, the popular priest of Solidarność, Jerzy Popiełuszko, was brutally murdered by the Ministry of Internal Security, and tens of thousands turned up for his funeral. The government released thousands of political prisoners in an attempt to smooth relations, unsuccessfully.
In February 1988, further hikes in food prices without relative increases in wages caused another outbreak of strikes across Poland. By August, the government agreed to negotiate and a representative met with Wałęsa. Talks continued through early 1989, when Solidarność was again legalised and allowed to put forward candidates for the upcoming election – a pretty big deal in a Soviet republic. While they were allowed to contest a maximum of 35% of seats in the Sejm [lower house of parliament], there was no restriction on the senate. Solidarność won 160 of 161 allowed seats in the Sejm, and 99 of 100 total seats in the Senate – quite a victory and essentially marking the defeat of Communism in Poland.
The exhibition itself was brilliant. It had a 1970s shopfront – virtually empty – and in another room there were computers where you could research Polish history, particularly the ‘Polish Months’, each of which relate to a different strike or rebellion and subsequent repression. It includes actual film footage of the government reactions to some of these, which show the army or security forces shooting and killing demonstrators. IT shows the development of the Solidarność logo, posters from the election campaign, the original board listing the demands before the Gdansk Agreement, a printing house, and information on the involvement and assistance of the Catholic Church – in particular Jerzy Popiełuszko, who was recognised by the Church as a martyr and beatified in 2010.
I’ve been continually surprised by the museums I’ve come across in Eastern Europe, and Poland certainly has some amazing ones. I’d have to say that if you ever visit Gdansk, the Roads to Freedom exhibition is essential and you’ll need a few hours to really appreciate it. It was enlightening, depressing, frustrating and inspirational, and truly shows the resolve and the resilience of the people of Poland in the face of overwhelming repression and adversity. It’s nice to know that it is possible to achieve democracy and freedom through non-violent means.
I visited the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers after the museum. It was erected in 1980 – it was one of the demands that was accepted.