I can set a time and place for my realization that the events I witnessed as The Washington Post's correspondent in Warsaw over the past 30 months amounted to yet another abortive national uprising in the grand Polish tradition.
It was last Nov. 1, All Saints' Day, the day Poles flock to the cemeteries to pay tribute to their ancestors in accordance with the old Catholic tradition. I was wandering around the Powazki Cemetery in Warsaw, a place steeped in historical associations. Buried here, for example, are the men who died in the great 19th century insurrections against czarist rule, the heroes of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski's 1920 campaign against Bolshevik Russia and the victims of the 1944 Warsaw uprising against the Nazis.
Night had fallen, but the graveyard was lit by tens of thousands of flickering votive candles. They formed a shimmering carpet of light and smoke that was reflected upward by human faces and silver birch trees.
At each memorial, groups would gather and sing the national anthem -- "Poland has not perished as long as we live" -- and other patriotic songs. Then they would stare silently at the graves of dead heroes, which were covered with red and white Polish flags.
The biggest crowd collected around a symbolic shrine to several thousand Polish officers killed at Katyn in World War II -- a massacre attributed in the official history books to the Nazis but blamed by most Poles on the Russians. Attached to nearby trees were posters proclaiming support for the outlawed Solidarity trade union, with slogans like: "Solidarity hasn't been crushed, it lives on in our hearts."
Looking up from those graves to the solemn faces of the people gathered around them was like watching the wheel of Polish history spin before my eyes. Like their forebears, these men and women had felt the exhileration of taking part in a great movement of national rebirth. But these people, too, had lived to see their hopes dashed by the overpowering imperatives of geography, national character and big-power politics.
What happened in Poland between August 1980 and December 1981 was, I am convinced, as much a national uprising as the storming of Warsaw's Belweder Palace, the residence of the Russian governor, by patriotic Polish army officers in November 1830. It assumed its own unique character because it took place under 20th century conditions, which rule out all hope of an armed insurrection succeeding. But the dynamics of its rise and fall were similar to past revolts against foreign domination. The aftermath, too, which I watched unfold throughout 1982, is depressingly familiar.
Polish society is now divided along political lines almost identical to those that followed the collapse of the insurrections in 1830 and 1863. There are "the collaborators" or governing class. There are "the insurrectionaries" in the form of the Solidarity underground. And there are "the conciliators," represented today, as in the past, by the Roman Catholic church.
After Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's military takeover in December 1981, a question frequently posed in the West was whether he should be regarded as a Soviet puppet or a Polish patriot. From the Polish perspective, the debate seemed futile. As the mirror images of their 19th century counterparts, all the principal actors in the Polish drama see themselves as patriots acting for patriotic motives -- and consider their opponents puppets of one sort or another. Each group has plausible arguments to prove its case.
A better analogy for what is happening in Poland is that of the Greek tragedy. The actors are all puppets in the sense that they are being manipulated by forces that are bigger than they are and beyond their control. The Polish tragedy has a sense of inevitability about it. The role of fate is played not by the gods, but by Poland's misfortune in finding itself squeezed between the colossuses of Russia and Germany.
Part of the excitement that all of us -- Poles and foreign observers alike -- felt in August 1980 was due to this conflict between individuals and historical forces. For a brief, almost magical period, it seemed as if the actors had sacked their tyrannical director and taken over the play themselves. Workers, intellectuals and Communist Party officials alike discarded the tired old lines they had been mouthing dutifully for years and began writing scripts of their own.
The effect on a society cramped by 35 years of totalitarian ideology was exhilerating. Suddenly people began to discuss politics with strangers in the street. Long lines formed for official newspapers that had been practically unsaleable just a few days before.
I remember vividly the negotiating sessions at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk between the government commission and the strike committee led by Lech Walesa. At first the government spokesmen attempted to befuddle the other side with meaningless newsspeak and vague promises, but they were simply laughed at by the workers, who insisted that they speak in plain language. This was the strikers' first, and perhaps most important, victory.
A lifelong Communist Party member who witnessed the Gdansk negotiations described them to me later as a kind of intellectual liberation. "What made us happiest about August was that we were able to throw away the mask of duplicity that we had worn for so long that it had almost become part of us. As a result of martial law, we -- or at least some of us -- have been made to put the mask back on again," he said.
The mood of the workers was reflected in the happy faces at the shipyard gates, which were covered with flowers and messages of support from the local population. One scrap of paper attached to the shipyard wall seemed to capture the optimism that everbody felt at the start of yet another insurrection. It was a verse by Lord Byron:
For freedom's battle once begun
Bequeathed by bleeding sire to son
Though baffled off is ever won.
The miracle of August 1980 was that, for a brief time, it appeared as if it might be possible to reconcile the conflicting wishes of the Polish people and their communist rulers. A new social contract was born under which the party retained political power but agreed to be controlled and supervised by independent workers' organizations. As a senior adviser to Solidarity, Bronislaw Geremek, later remarked, the experiment represented a chance not only for the Polish people but also for the authorities. Had it worked out, it would have resulted in the creation of a pluralist society unique in the communist world.
Unseen by most of us at the time, however, the powerful forces of history were continuing to operate behind the scenes. The monolithic state could not absorb the new, independent institutions. Solidarity could not remain within the limits it had originally set for itself. It had to challenge them in order to survive -- but, in challenging them, Solidarity laid the seeds for its eventual collapse.
The Polish uprising of 1980-81 succeeded at first because practically all sections of society -- including, crucially, Communist Party members disillusioned with Edward Gierek -- had an interest in it. It was put down through a combination of intrigue and force after Solidarity became divided and the authorities, under Soviet pressure, became united and determined.
It is difficult to say precisely when I first began to understand that Solidarity was more than just a trade union. Elements of national reawakening were evident from the outset: in the Polish flags proudly displayed at the scene of every strike, in the constant singing of the national anthem, and in Walesa's references to "Poles speaking to Poles." But it took time for the national liberation theme to take shape.
It came out into the open eventually in the song that became Solidarity's unofficial anthem, "Let Poland be Poland." At the sfoame time, Poles insisted on learning the truth about such taboo episodes in their history as the Katyn massacre. People began celebrating the prewar nationalist anniversaries rather than the official communist holidays. And there were demands for the crown, the symbol of the old Polish kingdom, to be restored to the head of the eagle, Poland's national emblem.
It is also difficult to say exactly when I realized that the party apparatus would seek to crush the revolution. The ruling class suffered such a defeat in August 1980 that it needed a long time to pull itself together again. Its initial attempts, in the winter of 1980-81, to reassert its authority were so ineffectual that they lulled Solidarity into a false sense of security.
The suddeness of Jaruzelski's coup in December 1981 came as a surprise -- even though signs of an approaching confrontation had been visible for months. Now, however, I remember the final scene in Andrzej Wajda's film "The Man of Iron," in which a high party official reacts to the signing of the Gdansk agreement. "Don't worry," he reassures a shocked colleague, "we'll find a way of reversing this."
In October 1982, that prediction came true when Solidarity was formally de-legalized under a new trade union bill passed by the Sejm, Poland's national legislature. I watched from the reporters' gallery as relieved communist deputies surged around a beaming Jaruzelski, congratulating him on a delayed triumph.
Shortly before the Gdansk agreement was negotiated in August 1980, I visited Jacek Kuron, the brains behind the Workers' Defense Committee. At that time, he was organizing a strike information service, providing Western journalists with details of the escalating protests around Poland. During our conversation he showed me a picture, which he kept on his desk, of a group of men and women who had led a strike in the shipyards at Szczecin 10 years earlier.
Kuron explained that not one of the dozen or so people in the portrait was still employed at the shipyard. Once the strike had ended, the authorities began reasserting their control. The members of the strike committee were gradually dispersed to other factories, blackmailed or psychologically destroyed. One strike leader emigrated, another was said to have committed suicide, and a third was prosecuted for the rape of a prostitute.
The same techniques are now being used on a much wider scale against Solidarity and its activists. Kuron himself will soon go on trial on charges of "attempting to overthrow the state by force." Other dissidents and union leaders face similar charges. Thousands of workers have been imprisoned or fired from their jobs, while others have been forced to emigrate.
Of the signatories of the Gdansk agreement, several are still in prison. Walesa himself is free, but he is deprived of contact with his fellow workers and has been prevented from getting his old job back at the Lenin Shipyard.
On the other side, the government's chief negotiator, former Deputy Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Jagielski, has been removed from positions of influence. The reform-minded Communist Party boss in Gdansk, Tadeusz Fiszbach, has been sent into political exile as Polish commercial attache in Helsinki.
All this has helped create the beginnings of a new cycle of repression, frustration and popular anger that many people believe will result in another upheaval sooner or later. Just as the memory of the killings and harassment of workers in 1970 helped fuel the unrest of 1980, so is it possible to observe today's repressions fueling the next explosion.
Already the divisions within Polish society seem wider than ever. This Christmas I attended a party, given by one of my colleagues, to which many Poles on both sides of the political divide had been invited. It soon became evident that half the Polish guests were reFusing to talk to the other half -- even though they knew each other very well. When I mentioned this, I got replies like, "We don't have anything to talk abothe sfout any more."
The differences have become so acute that the very words "Solidarity" and "socialism" trigger passionate tirades. For communist officials, Solidarity is synonymous with hopeless romanticism, anarchy and counter-revolution. For Solidarity supporters, socialism means an unreformable bureaucratic system imposed on Poland at the behest of the Soviet Union.
Jaruzelski seems to regard himself as a realist who has come to terms with Poland's geographical position and is trying to convince his fellow countrymen to do the same. Born in a part of Poland that has since been incorporated into the Soviet Union, he lost many in his family during World War II. This personal tragedy persuaded him that it is useless tampering with the rules of geopolitics.
The drama of modern Poland is that precisely the same experience has taught other Poles to regard the Russians as their bitter enemies. For them, Jaruzelski is a traitor and a stooge, since the only hope of preserving Poland's national identity is continued resitance.
In part, the present social divisions reflect a difference in outlook between the generations. Solidarity was overwhelmingly a young people's movement, while government supporters tend to be old or at least middle-aged. An informal survey among Polish teachers led to the startling conclusion that 90 percent of high school students do not believe that socialism is even a goal worth pursuing.
This massive disillusionment with communism as an ideology contrasts with the situation just a few years ago, when a majority of Polish students professed left-wing ideals, even if they were opposed to the existing Polish regime.
The arguments frequently divide families. A young intellectual, brought up as a communist but now strongly opposed to all that Jaruzelski stands for, described a bitter dispute he had had with his father about underground resistance to military rule. After the old man expressed satisfaction at the underground's failure to organize effective protests, the son shouted: "We may not be able to win this battle, but at least we can prevent you from winning it. You'll never be able to get Poles to accept you as legitimate."
"And where does that get you?" said the father.
"Well, at least it gives us the satisfaction of retaining our dignity. All these insurrections could be the reason why we now speak Polish rather than Russian."
Shortly before I left Poland last month, I talked to Walesa at his home in Gdansk. For me at least, the occasion had a kind of symbolic symmetry about it. Our first meeting had taken place on Aug. 15, 1980, the second day of the two-week strike at the Lenin Shipyard. At that time, so far as the rest of the world was concerned, Walesa was an unknown and unemployed electrician dreaming about forming a free trade union in a totalitarian state.
As we talked now in Walesa's living room, which is dominated by a picture of Pope John Paul, I reflected on his astounding rise to become the acknowledged leader of 10 million Polish workers -- and his equally rapid fall. With Solidarity outlawed and the one-party state firmly back in place, he was again unemployed and again thinking up ways to pursue his goal for independent unions.
But, as he said, Walesa and his fellow Poles are "no longer the same people" they were before August. When I asked him to describe how they had changed, he replied: "Many of us have reflected on things, understood what's happening in this country. Many people know what they want and won't allow anybody to do things to them that will return the situation to the way it was before August 1980. These are things that it is difficult to notice, but they exist nonetheless."
Then he broke into one of his wide, mischievous grins at the thought of the revolution of the mind begun in Poland by Solidarity and still continuing despite everything. "Oh, how we have changed . . . " And he shook his head from side to side in mock disbelief.
Walesa's gut feeling about these psychological changes is articulated by the intellectuals who used to serve as advisers to Solidarity. Andrzej Szypiorski, a writer who was interned briefly in the early days of martial law, compares Poland's national consciousness to a battery that recharges itself in periods of adversity. The battery gradually ran down during the materially prosperous but spiritually empty years of Edward Gierek's rule. Right now it is fully charged.
I got a similar opinion from Geremek, whom I interviewed soon after his release from internment in December. A mild-mannered medieval historian, he felt certain that the Solidarity experience would endure.
"From August on, every day of Solidarity's existence represented a lasting gain for society. In the Seventies, people became obedient tools of the government. Thanks to Solidarity, that kind of mental passivity does not exist anymore. This provides us with a moral capital for the future -- even if at present it's difficult to say when we will be able to draw on it," he said.
Since December 1981, more than 10,000 Poles have passed through internment camps, and several thousand more have been imprisoned for political offenses against martial law. Inevitably, some have become cynical and disillusioned. Others have been given up what seemed like an unequal fight and emigrated. But, Geremek insists, most have become stronger and more determined.
"In the camps there was a feeling of complete freedom, a feeling of community. The experience of internment gave us a chance to think freely. It hardened us, made us more mature and more realistic."
The Polish August went much deeper than previous revolts against communist rule. Unlike the workers' riots along the Baltic coast in December 1970, it touched every corner of the country -- rather than one specific region. And unlike the 1956 upheavals, which brought Wadyslaw Gomulka to power, it could not be resolved by the substitution of one Communist Party leader for another. It was a crisis of the system, not merely of the regime.
As a Polish journalist, who asked not to be quoted by name, remarked: "If 1970 formed a nucleus of activists, then the Solidarity period turned that nucleus into a mass movement. Kuron and the other dissidents may be in prison, but there are hundreds of thousands of people outside who think exactly like them."
The paradox is that, in physical terms, the authorities hold the upper hand. Walesa may remain a national symbol but, without communications and without an organisation, there is little effective he can do to mobilise his supporters.
"Before August, we were mad because we could not be ourselves. But there was always a faint hope of something changing for the better. Now it's a different kind of madness that has taken hold of us as a nation. We know what we want, but we are impotent. We are not so much angry as simply paralyzed," the journalist said.
The present Polish leaders are intelligent men. They realize that, without sweeping changes, the system will break down yet again and they will go the same way as their predecessors. Jaruzelski has a personal interest in the reforms he proposes: decentralization of the economy and democratization of public life. His own political survival is at stake.
The problem is that, whether Jaruzelski likes it or not, his government seems locked into a mechanism of repression. To stay in power, it is forced back into the old methods of ruling. The law is used as a political instrument. Officials are promoted on the basis of loyalty rather than competence. Privileged groups of workers are bribed with pay increases, a policy that defuses social unrest in the short term but undermines serious economic reform.
Visit a small Polish town and you will find that the politicians and bureaucrats who were forced out of office during the Solidarity period are prospering under the new order.
The Patriotic Movement for National Salvation, which was launched in order to drum up support for the military, is made up largely of discredited figures from th is articue past. Independent social organizations, on the other hand, are gradually being suppressed.
If economic reform is to mean anything, it has to be accompanied by a freeing of individual initiative. But this the present regime fears as a threat to its own political control. The impasse seems irresolvable.
As I leave Poland, I have a strong sense of history in the process of repeating itself. It could take five years. Perhaps more, perhaps less. And the next revolution will certainly take a different form from the last. But the wheel will surely turn again.