A simple impulse of compassion
Adam Michnik is a legend in the history of Solidarity movement in Poland, and though we had corresponded a few years back, we’d never actually met (we had a close call in Kraków, here).
Hence, I made the hectic rush-hour trek to Berkeley to hear him speak at the cozy, wood-paneled Morrison Reading Room of the university’s Doe Library last week. The venue has warm associations for me – it was the site of the last public appearance of Czesław Miłosz in America in 2000, and the place where I met the Nobel poet before our first interview a few days later. It was a fitting association for Michnik, too: he told me later that Miłosz is his “guru,” as well as the man he considered the greatest Polish poet of the 20th century.
I arrived at a few minutes late for the gathering (parking at Berkeley is worse than Stanford, which takes some doing nowadays), but I caught most of historian John Connelly‘s opening remarks, which were excellent – more on that later.
Freedom in 1989 was the miracle that no one expected to happen so soon, said Michnik, speaking through a translator. It was also the year when “the fridge broke and everything began to stink. Bad spirits and good spirits were released,” he said, recalling the challenges with lustration and various ethnic and social disputes.
He didn’t stick to script, which was officially titled “25 Years of Democracy in Poland: Accomplishments and New Challenges.” No wonder, given events in Eastern and Central Europe right now. He called Putin “a gangster” who led “a bandits’ regime.”
“Russian propaganda today resembles the Moscow propaganda of 1937,” he said. It was “very effective – effective because it divided opinion in Europe.” He recounted the complicated and long history of moving borders, which left open a situation where any boundary can be challenged as inauthentic and provisional, and used to legitimize land grabs. “There are no ‘just’ borders in Central and Eastern Europe,” he said. “The easiest way to destabilize is to encourage disputes among ethnic or social groups.”
He said his Russian friends are pessimistic about the future. However, “I am an optimist. I think Putin is going to break his neck with his reckless policy, and the people around him may be the ones to break his neck. I won’t cry over him.”
“Democracy needs ordinary heroes.”
Now, the introduction: Connelly described Michnik in the days before Solidarity, the Polish trade union that became a national non-violent movement to oust Communism. It’s a history worth recounting, because American politics has become so parochial and blinkered that most folks don’t seem to know much of any history before George W. Bush, or the backstory of any place even farther away than Texas or Iowa.
Connelly explained that, as a young student at Warsaw University, Michnik was suspended from his studies several times, once for organizing a historic meeting and talk by Leszek Kołakowski in 1966. Michnik was also a major figure in the 1968 events in Poland in which students demonstrated for greater freedom and were suppressed. In 1969, he was sentenced to three years in prison for “hooligan-like” behavior. In 1976, he helped found KOR , the Committee to Protect Workers, “one of the most important civil society organizations ever founded, in Eastern Europe or elsewhere,” said Connelly. Michnik was, of course, a major figure in Solidarity, in its legal and underground incarnations.
In 1989, he founded what has become Poland’s most important daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza – he’s still the editor-in-chief of Poland’s version of the New York Times. “Michnik is not only a historian, but a leading public intellectual , author of many books of political commentary, and some of the most influential essays ever written, for example ‘A New Evolutionism,” said Connelly.
“What I have just given you is a skeleton biography,” he said. Then he offered a few vignettes “to give you a sense of Adam Michnik body and soul, flesh and blood.”
The first was poet and translator Stanisław Barańczak, a member of KOR, who recalled one scene “with particular vividness,” said Connelly. “I always read this anecdote to students who think that change is impossible and that one person can make no difference.” Here goes:
Stanisław Barańczak with wife Anna (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)
“We stood—Adam and a group of friends—in a corridor of a Warsaw court where the participants of the June strikes in the city of Ursus were being tried. No one was admitted into the courtroom except close relatives of defendants, mostly the workers’ wives. We did not know what was going on inside the courtroom but after an hour or so we heard a sudden outburst of women’s crying piercing the walls. And a while later those weeping, wailing cursing women left the courtroom and made their way through the crowd—each of them stupefied by the fact that as a result of this sham of a trial she would not see her husband for the next two, three, five years and that nothing, nothing could be done about it. I stood next to Adam at that moment. His eyes were dry but I knew him well enough to know that he had just hit upon one of those ideas of his—ideas that at first seemed foolish even to his friends but then somehow always turned out to be right. The same afternoon he started collecting signatures for another letter of protest. KOR, the Workers Defense Committee, was formally founded a few months later, but for me that July afternoon will always remain the actualy beginning of KOR and everything that happened in Poland afterward. It began not with anyone’s political program or ideological statement. It began with a simple impulse of compassion.”
In the second passage, Connelly recalled that Miłosz likened Michnik’s “unbending commitment to non-violence” to Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha, in a 1985 essay otherwise permeated with the “gloom of the late cold war of the cynicism and despair.” And so Miłosz wondered:
“What is the efficacy of nonviolence elevated to the level of principle, and applied to the conditions of our contemporary life?…Purely peaceful movements – the Prague Spring of 1968 and Solidarity of 1980-81—have been smashed…What is then the use of nonviolence and what would Mahatma Gandhi have to say on that topic if he were still alive?
“It seems to me that habitual notions of links between causes and effects enclose us in simplistic, mechanistic, and desperate dilemmas. The history of the century provides us with a number of proofs to vindicate the role of actions that appear insignificant and likely to fail, yet are potentially fecund.”
Connelly concluded with a few reflections from Berkeley colleague Ken Jowitt: “Without heroism, public virtues cannot be sustained; they gradually deteriorate into egotistical calculi of social, economic, and political self-interests. … And yet … the charismatic hero abhors, is incapable of, democratically appreciating the deficiencies of average people.”
The cozy Morrison Reading Room in Berkeley
Said Connelly: “Michnik responds to this dilemma in a Weberian spirit. All historical experience, says [Max] Weber, “confirms the truth that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word.’”
“In short, democracy needs ‘ordinary heroes.’ Adam Michnik is an ordinary hero, a genuine man whose contributions to the culture of democratic individualism and toleration in Poland and the world are fallible and invaluable.”
Michnik seemed to be overwhelmed by the kudos, remarking that they were the kind of remarks usually heard only at funerals. “When you know me better, I lose a lot,” he told the audience.
After the talk, an equally intimate venue – dinner in a private room in Berkeley’s Cafe Liaison. Though the menu was French, the jovial mood was pure Polonia. Wonderful food, great conversation (mostly in Polish), and plenty of French wine – the label was “Ventoux,” which has all those Petrarch associations. Then I headed off into the night to find my car, somewhere in a dark hillside parking lot in Berkeley…