Saturday, January 14, 2012

The shipyard where it all began.

Gdańsk- always a special one among our cities, always with something loud, something different going on. While it always had a particularly interesting and rebellious history, the modern world recognises it first of all as the backdrop for the Solidarity movement's stand against the Soviet Union.

You could say it all started in the shipyards.

The Stocznia Gdańska- Gdańsk shipyard.

First came the illegal strikes in August 1970- illegal, because under communist law, neither strikes nor the forming of independent trade unions were allowed without government approval and the endorsement of the only political Party- the communist party.

So the government responded with open fire, killing dozens and wounding more than a thousand. The years that followed brough repression and arrests for union leaders and activists- among them, shipyard electrician Lech Wałęsa.

"Wałęsa" film set
The gate to the famous Gdańsk Lenin Shipyard, with militia (police forces during martial law) parked
in front. Luckily, they're only actors! A film about Lech Wałęsa is being shot there right now.

But in 1980, the strike that ended communism in Poland began at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk. In a move that was notably symbolic, Wałęsa, who had been fired from the shipyard four years earlier for his criticism of the union laws, leapt back over the wall and joined the strike. He was quickly appointed its leader.

The wave swept across Poland, unstoppable. Eventually, even the government-approved and party-controlled unions joined in.

The first victory was achieved quickly: the communist government signed an agreement which granted workers the right to strike, and allowed the formation of independent trade unions.

This is how Solidarity was born- post-war Poland's first legal independent trade union and mass movement. With ten million members all across the country, it was a force the communist government had no choice but to reckon with. Even so, its steady fight for freedom lasted ten years.

There were hurdles along the way; compromises, negotiations, hard choices, controversies, invigilations, murders, prison sentences. During the 1981 martial law (which I wrote briefly about this december), Solidarity activists were arrested and detained en masse. In 1982, Solidarity was outlawed again, and had to move to the underground for four years. In 1983, Wałęsa received the Nobel Peace prize for his efforts to resolve the conflict without resorting to violence. He always strove first and foremost to negotiate with the communists- a path which some will say was not radical enough. He could not even leave the country to receive the Prize, fearing that he would not be allowed back across the border.

History will judge us, they say. But the fact is that thanks to Solidarity's work, today, I live in a free country. I can speak my mind without being detained. I can challenge the laws and government if I find them unjust. I can purchase whatever goods I wish without needing permission from the government; I can own property, posess foreign currency, and travel abroad without restrictions. I can vote in an election and know that my vote will be counted fairly.

These and many other freedoms were denied to my parents for the majority of their lives. I myself was born into a country which did not guarantee me basic human rights. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had those rights restored while I was still a child.

There is more to be said about Gdańsk- much more to be said about Wałęsa, who eventually became our first non-communist President, about the work of Solidarity, and Poland's struggle to sever its communist bond with the USSR. I don't dare to try and explain it all on this fluffy blog ;). But there are many books and films which you can turn to. As we speak, Oscar-winner Andrzej Wajda is filming a biopic about Wałęsa at the same Gdańsk Shipyard (my photo of the shoot at the beginning of this post). I expect it will be a good primer to the subject.

So, if you're in Gdańsk, take a stroll away from the picturesque medieval part of town. Go West, past the train station, to the three crosses memorial for the fallen shipyard workers, the looming cranes, and the famous Second Gate. History was made here.

Shipyard wall and cranes, as seen from Ulica Robotnicza- 'Worker's Street'

Meta Information

Wikipedia entry about the Gdańsk shipyard:

Wikipedia entry about Lech Wałęsa:

Wikipedia entry about Solidarity:

Solidarity logo is copyrighted to Solidarity and used under the terms of fair use with the intent of identifying the organisation:

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