Solidarity Adam Mazur

I / Third versus Fourth Republic

According to some right-wing politicians such as the leaders of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS (Polish: “Law and Justice”), the collapse of communism was a hoax. The erstwhile communist elite not only escaped punishment for communist crimes, but also adapted very well to the new free-market economy rules, pilfering profits from untold privatizations of public sector entities in the process. The communists, helped by the liberal leaders of the Solidarity opposition movement, took over economic and political power. Having set up the rules of the postcommunist order, they formed the Polish Third Republic, a common scapegoat for all who were unsatisfied with the transformation. Finally, the right wing Law and Justice Party won the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2005, having promised its electorate that it would cure all the postcommunist pathologies and establish a Fourth Republic by changing the Polish constitution. For its opponents, the new Republic turned out to be an ultraconservative, paranoid nightmare in which all political dissenters were accused of being communist secret agents (including Lech Wałęsa) and eliminated from public life. The Fourth Republic became embodied in the twin Kaczyński brothers. The dream/nightmare came true when Jarosław Kaczyński became prime minister and Lech Kaczyński became president of Poland. At this moment, the so-called “conservative modernization” of Poland had begun. Left-wing, postcommunist parties disappeared from the political scene for the first time since 1989.

II / Turbo Capitalism (the Balcerowicz Plan)

In 1990 the Polish government was forced to pass a series of acts aimed at stopping the postcommunist economic crisis. Leszek Balcerowicz, a young liberal economist aided by Jeffrey Sachs—another admirer of deregulated, free markets—had prepared a rescue plan that was to change the communist economy into a capitalist one in 100 days. The so-called “shock therapy” reduced skyrocketing inflation (650% in 1990), led to the creation of around 600,000 private companies and caused state-owned firms to go bankrupt en masse, which in turn quickly resulted in an unemployment rate of around 16% and rising. Up to 30% of the country’s economy was in a gray zone. The Polish path toward capitalism was adapted to other postcommunist countries, with varying results. A recent book by Naomi Klein titled The Shock Doctrine shows well how Polish politicians betrayed the legacy of Solidarity and established one of the most unfettered of capitalistic economies, against the will of the legendary labor union’s regular members.

III / Round Table Negotiations

For most Poles, the Round Table Negotiations of 1989 were a symbol of successful change and the collapse of communism. However, the communists talking to dissidents so as to dismantle the system and establish a new set of rules without bloodshed has also been perceived as a scandalous moment of betrayal. How could the dissidents have sat down with communist party leaders such as General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who had been responsible for imposing martial law, with all its victims? Should we not have been thinking of revolution and public hangings of communists from trees instead? Or should we not have at least put them all in jail? Speculations about why such scenarios did not take place and what should have happened instead of peaceful negotiations is a hot topic on the Polish political scene to this day.

IV / Great Change

The sociological definition of transformation in Poland. Great Change is neither revolution nor stagnation. Most experts agree that the transformation from communism to capitalism was necessary, but they also agree that the costs of that transformation could have been lower and paid for not by the poorest, but by the middle and upper classes of society. “Great Change” may also be used with reference to the arts in Poland. In general, the system for financing the cultural sector remains unchanged. The Ministry of Culture and National Heritage is obliged to finance academies of fine arts, major museums, and other cultural institutions. At the same time, Polish culture is being increasingly shaped by private initiatives (galleries) and a wide variety of foundations/associations. Great change also involves the departure from official communist art toward new phenomena in Polish Art (e.g., body art, public art, and critical art).

V / Lech Wałęsa (“Secret Agent Bolek”)

Probably the most famous Pole in the world. His mustache, smiling face and his fingers making a “V for Victory” have become a symbol of anticommunist resistance. Wałęsa, having worked for years as an electrician at the Gdańsk Shipyard, became a labor union activist and the leader of the movement known as Solidarity, which eventually broke the communist party’s monopoly on power. Wałęsa’s resistance, despite the hardships he and his family suffered, made him more than an icon. In the 1980s Wałęsa was transformed from an electrician and a dissident to Nobel Prize winner and, in the 1990s, the first president of free Poland (and a symbol of the Third Republic). However, his stringent character, his inability to negotiate and his ruthless push for power would soon turn him into one of most unpopular of politicians. When Wałęsa lost the second elections, he became a marginal figure on the political scene. For the majority a symbol of the anticommunist fight but for others a symbol of postcommunist pathologies, Wałęsa was accused by right-wing radicals of being a communist secret agent. To this day, the legendary Solidarity leader is still struggling to refute the conspiracy theories, charging his opponents with blackmail and winning courts cases against them.

VI / Historical Politics

Under the communist regime, Polish history was overtly manipulated to prove how leftist the nation had been, how eagerly the peasants and workers had wanted communism, and so on. Anticommunist resistance and Soviet crimes in Poland were censored by officialdom. This changed, of course, in 1989 when official censorship was abandoned. Professional historians started to write new histories of modern Poland. Quite soon, politicians realized how important the past was in the present-day forums of public opinion. In 2000 history began to be used as a kind of weapon in everyday political wrangling. Issues such as collaboration with the communist secret services, the Poles’ entanglement in the Holocaust and memories of the Warsaw Uprising proved to be something like political barometers. Gradually, history also became more and more important for artists such as Piotr Uklański, Artur Żmijewski, Wilhelm Sasnal, Tomasz Kozak, Mirosław Bałka, Anna Baumgart, and many others. Artists took an active part in formulating alternatives to counter the manipulations of political discourse and showed that a reasonable historical discourse was possible.

VII / Culture Wars

The fall of communism in Poland meant a triumph for the Roman Catholic Church. The small, yet highly significant icon of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa Wałęsa wore on his jacket as well as his audiences with the Polish Pope John Paul II clearly showed that the vast majority of the anticommunist resistance in Poland had strong ties to the institutional church. For religious people in Poland, the fight against communism was literally a fight between good and evil. However, in 1989 communism vanished and the position of the church became dominant. Its influence on daily politics grew steadily. A harsh antiabortion law was introduced. Religion began to be taught in schools. A new concordat was ratified between the Holy See and Poland. Catholic media spread throughout the country (including the ultraconservative, anti-Semitic Rasio Maryja). The church found a new enemy: the liberal, Westernized lifestyle and the so-called “civilization of death” which was dominant the EU countries. Not only pro-choice feminists and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender/transsexual activists, but also contemporary artists found themselves involved in the culture wars overnight. The fall of the postcommunist left pushed young activists to establish new institutions and think tanks. One of the most efficient in developing new political and social agendas is Krytyka Polityczna, KP (Polish: “The Political Critique,”), led by Sławomir Sierakowski. KP also cooperates closely with many Polish artists, including Wilhelm Sasnal and Artur Żmijewski.

VIII / Dorota Nieznalska

A young artist of the new generation who exhibited an installation titled Passion in one of Gdańsk’s “off” galleries in 2001. Soon after the exhibition, Nieznalska has been charged with “insulting religious feeling.” Passion included a Greek cross with a photo of a penis on it. A lawsuit was filed against the artist and for the first time in free Poland a court accepted such a case. Nieznalska was convicted and sentenced to community service in a Catholic organization. Nieznalska contested the verdict and is still fighting in the courts to prove both her innocence and the absurdity of such attacks. The trial and the verdict became a landmark case for the Polish art world (Nieznalska has been supported by artists, critics, and curators from the very beginning) as well as a point of reference for the sphere of culture as a whole. The case is not only a symbol of the new, conservative atmosphere reigning in Poland, but a dangerous example of moral censorship backed by the public authorities.