Posts Tagged ‘Mikhail Gorbachev’

Tadeusz Mazowiecki, father of Poland’s democracy: “listen to other people, even if you don’t agree with them”

Sunday, November 10th, 2013
jane curry


Robert Wessling introduced me to Jane Leftwich Curry at a Stanford Christmas party several years ago.  He thought we’d have a lot to talk about, although it wasn’t apparently obvious when I met the tall (6’+), lanky scholar with a lingering Texas drawl.  But he was right, and we’ve been talking ever since.  She’s one of the leading scholars on Poland and a professor at Santa Clara University, author of Poland’s Journalists: Professionalism and Politics, The Black Book of Polish Censorship. and the forthcoming Together We Are Strong: The Story of the People in the People’s Revolutions (I wrote about her at the Vaclav Havel celebration here). When it comes to Polish public life, she seems to know everyone.

So I was interested and pleased to see that she wrote a a thoughtful retrospective on Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the former prime minister of Poland who has been called the father of Polish democracy over at America Magazine here.  He died October 28 at 86. Janey says that he left a democratic Poland with one of Europe’s most vibrant economies and a model for political leadership in times of change. But more importantly, she traces the internal dynamics of the man.

“Mazowiecki was not dramatic or charismatic,” she writes.  “With sagging face and slumped shoulders, he always looked like a rumpled academic with worn jacket and coat. His words came slowly as he thought and smoked yet another cigarette. He stood his ground but he also heard the other side whether he was having a one-on-one meeting in 1989 with Mikhail Gorbachev, whose staff had to hunt for an ashtray for him, or sitting folded on the floor of the Gdansk Shipyards with striking workers talking about what they wanted to demand and how.”


“words came slowly as he thought and smoked yet another cigarette”

A few excerpts about the unassuming man who “talked, listened and worked with all sides, even when that was not popular”:

… as his grandchildren noted in their eulogy to him, what he taught them and those who worked with him—in the anti-communist opposition, in the Roundtable negotiations over sharing power in 1989, as Prime Minister, and when he headed the UN delegation to report on human rights abuses in Bosnia—was to “listen to the other people, even if you don’t agree with them. Really hearing leads to compromises.” …

In spite of being held in internment for more than a year [during martial law], longer than most others, he was not silenced or bitter. He returned to editing his monthly journal. Then, seven years later, the unimaginable happened: the government sought out negotiations with the very men they had interned and shunned. Mazowiecki stepped in and negotiated with, among others, General Jaruzielski, who imposed martial law, and the head of the Security Services.

With the Catholic leadership as a mediator, he drew others in but took the lead, without seeming to, in both secret and not-so-secret preparations for the historic Roundtable Accords that changed history: elections that led to a Solidarity rout of the communists, the first democratic government since 1920 for Poland, and, ultimately, the fall of the Berlin Wall and communist rule in Europe.


(Photo: Creative Commons)

In the negotiations, he was clear that the change had to be real. Solidarity had to be legalized. There had to be more authentic elections. And Solidarity and the rest of the opposition had to be central in deciding how to change the system. He also listened and helped find compromises; after all, Soviet troops were still stationed in Poland, the country was making changes not even mentionable in the rest of the Bloc initially, and Communists had run the government and the economy for more than forty years. …

Mazowiecki did not gloat. In his first speech as Poland’s Prime Minister and in all his retrospectives, he was clear that victory was not about doing to others what they had done to you. It was about bringing all sides together and doing what was right. He committed himself then to “drawing a thick line” between the past and present and going on, without looking back and settling accounts with the past. …

As prime minister, he continued to work with with President Jaruzielski. Was this forced Catholic-Communist collaboration difficult? “Well, what was hard was, every time I met him, he apologized for martial law and interning me. I kept telling him it was not important now.” Vintage Mazowiecki.

Read the whole thing here.

Christmas present for everyone: “This is the story of how culture saved a nation.”

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

Can culture save a people from annihilation? It did.  (Photos from the film.)

Can culture make a difference?  It did once upon a time…

In a Christmas season where war is all around us, I have a gift recommendation that celebrates the power of non-violence – a Gandhian update for the 21st century.

I’ve become friends with Estonia, thanks to the savvy and sophisticated Estonians I’ve met in the course of my work, the Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves‘s witty Twitter spat with Paul Krugman (I wrote about it here), and my article on the Estonia’s Museum of Occupations – though I’ve only been as close as neighboring Lithuania and had a quick drive through Latvia.

Nevertheless, I attended a recent Stanford screening of The Singing Revolution, a 2007 documentary film by James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty, from a sense of solidarity and duty, rather than any real enthusiasm. I thought it was going to be, well, a bit drippy.  I was wrong.

It was sensational – powerful, moving, uplifting, with an absolutely gripping storyline.  And the music is downright addictive.

Estonia, a nation of about 1.3 million people, is one of mankind’s oldest residences, yet has lived under almost continuous occupation in modern times, with the Swedes, the Poles, the Danes, the Russians, and others taking turns.  In the 20th century, the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again, swallowed the small nation that had enjoyed a brief, interwar independence.

What did the Estonians have to resist such a brutal and murderous totalitarian power?  Their weapon of choice was song.  Estonians like to sing.  Obviously, not everyone is a singer, but training in choral music is pretty much nationwide, and everyone is at least exposed to it.  And after all, most people can sing, even if badly.  It’s better than baseball.

Even the New York Times was impressed:

Under the Soviets, especially, Estonian culture was brutishly suppressed, but it welled up every five years in July, when Estonians gathered in Tallinn for the Estonian song festival, which often drew upward of 25,000 people. The images of these festivals are moving already; the force of the singers and the precision of their conductors are stunning to behold.

But the emotion swells further when Estonians defy their occupiers by singing nationalist songs. This bold act reclaimed Estonian identity and set the stage for a series of increasingly daring rebellions under the Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who advocated glasnost and got more than he bargained for.

“If 20,000 people start to sing the same song, then you cannot shut them up. It’s impossible,” said one participant in the uprising.  The New York Times again:  “Imagine the scene in Casablanca in which the French patrons sing “La Marseillaise” in defiance of the Germans, then multiply its power by a factor of thousands, and you’ve only begun to imagine the force of The Singing Revolution.”

The DVDs are available here (and if you recognize a familiar voice in the narration, it’s Linda Hunt).

Meanwhile, please do yourself a favor.  Watch this video. It will make you happy.  Promise.

New poems, old stories: Robert Conquest balances “the inhuman reign of the lie” with naughty verse

Monday, December 26th, 2011

Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

When Christopher Hitchens died this month, I thought immediately of Robert Conquest and his wife, Elizabeth, who were close friends of the renowned journalist and author. Believe it or not, Hitchens used to spend a good deal of time in Palo Alto – his wife’s family, as I recall.

No, Bob did not have anything he wanted to share publicly in memoriam; he is not of the “sharing” generation who tweets his thoughts.  But there’s plenty else that is public.

Britain’s Standpoint is printing ten poems from Bob’s new book of light verse: Blokesongs and Blokelore from Old Fred, which will be out from the U.K.’s Waywiser Press in May.  You can read them here.

Here’s the nasty truth: I’ve never been attracted to “light verse.” Limericks are lost on me.  I’ve never, really, seen the point.  But Bob Conquest has devoted years to them, and it occurred to me that the silly poems are a necessary release from his groundbreaking historical work on the effects of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe – the work that earned him an Order of Merit from Poland in 2009.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that, at almost the same moment Standpoint published the new poems, the Daily Beast published Bob’s analysis of the current crisis with the Russian anti-Putin protests following the Dec. 4 elections.

The upshot of the article: “The present regime may have abandoned the compulsive economic ideologies of the Communist past, but it has not developed anything like an open society.”  It comes down to a peculiar relationship to truth:

Honored in 2009

After the disaster of collectivization [1929–33], the leadership had two options: either to admit failure and change policy—perhaps even to relinquish total power—or to pretend that success had been achieved. Falsification took place on a barely credible scale, in every sphere. Real facts, honest statistics, disappeared. History, especially that of the Communist Party, was rewritten. Unpersons vanished from the official record. A spurious past and a fictitious present were imposed on the captive minds of the Soviet people. To focus solely on the physical manifestations of the Communist terror—the killings, the deportations, the people who were driven to suicide—would be to overlook the larger context: what Boris Pasternak called “the inhuman reign of the lie.” Until Gorbachev came to power, the country lived a double existence—an official world of fantasy, grand achievements, wonderful statistics, liberty, democracy, all juxtaposed with a reality of gloom, suffering, terror, denunciation, and apparatchik degeneration.

When lies become part of the national fabric, the result was a thoroughly corrupted society:

Sakharov nailed it. (Photo: RIA Novosti)

Sakharov described the problem in the late 1970s: “A deeply cynical caste has come into being, one which I consider dangerous (to itself as well as to all mankind)—a sick society ruled by two principles: blat [a little slang word meaning ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’], and the popular saw: ‘No use banging your head against the wall.’ But beneath the petrified surface of our society exist cruelty on a mass scale, lawlessness, the absence of civil rights protecting the average man against the authorities, and the latter’s total unaccountability toward their own people or the whole world.”

The Soviet bureaucracy’s reaction to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster demonstrated what Sakharov had been talking about. As David Remnick later noted in The New Yorker, it was typical of the regime that plant director Viktor Bryukhanov, on being told that the reactor’s radiation was millions of times higher than normal, replied that the meter was obviously defective and must be thrown away. Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina rejected a suggestion to order a mass evacuation. “Panic is worse than radiation,” he said.

So what’s changed in 2011?  As everywhere, technology makes certain lies untenable:

Russians are used to electoral fraud. There were never any expectations that the Dec. 4 elections would be carried out with complete honesty, any more than Russia’s past votes were. But this time, instances of ballot irregularity were recorded by mobile devices and then posted on the Internet, to which more than 40 percent of Russians now have access. Outrage—and calls to protest—flashed from computer to computer. Political discourse is thriving in blogs, tweets, posts to Facebook, uploads to YouTube—challenging the regime’s old-media monopoly on news and opinion.

Read it all here.