In the crucible of feverish debate, speeches and daily prayer that marked the birth of the independent trade union Solidarity at the Lenin Shipyard in August 1980, poetry was a weapon for unarmed workers-- 19th-century romantic poetry and 1968 protest poetry, poetry about democracy, about the pope, even about vodka and sausage.

Maciej Prus brought his Coastland theater company to the Gdansk shipyard that summer to read classic Polish literature to striking workers occupying the shipyard in Gdansk on Poland's Baltic coast. He was a little nervous. How would these hard-headed men, many a generation off the farm, respond to the 150-year-old verse of Adam Mickiewicz, the patriarch of the Polish canon?

"Mickiewicz's 'Books of the Polish Pilgrimage' had an effect on the listeners as if it had just come hot from the author's pen," Prus recalled, according to an article a year later in a Polish magazine. "In the auditorium where we had to perform there was a constant clatter of typewriters and telex machines. But during 'Father Peter's Vision' everything fell silent. People openly wept."

In communist Central Europe, words--written, spoken, read or sung--became the rhapsody of resistance.

"This was an exceptional moment in the history of literature, every feeling and every key idea was expressed through literature," said Hungarian novelist George Konrad in an interview at the Hotel Budapest.

And it seems all the more extraordinary today--10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall--because across Central Europe the idea of the artist as tribune withered with such speed in the first bloom of democracy. What 40 years of communist oppression did not erase was quickly silenced by its own success: the achievement of freedom. Under communism, a whisper of defiance echoed like a gunshot; under capitalism, a whisper is just a whisper.

The vast sponging up of Western popular culture--music, movies, television, fashion, advertising, gambling--is the most visible change in Central Europe over the last decade. Not only have an unrestricted press and free speech taken root, but also some of its more corrosive or absurd expressions: sex shops nestled in street arcades in Warsaw; naked men and women providing the weather forecast on Czech television; Playboy bunnies handing out flyers outside casinos on the streets of Budapest.

"We have a new God," said the Czech novelist Ivan Klima. "The new God is called Entertainment."

With speed few believed possible, the insurgent, resilient national cultures that triumphed in a communist-created vacuum have fallen from the heights in the sudden exposure to global culture.

"The consumerism and the commercial qualities we see today are the problems of the entire civilization on this planet," Czech President Vaclav Havel, a former leading dissident writer, said in an interview. "It would be rather strange if these problems avoided our country or if we could avoid them."

But, he acknowledged, consumerism "seems more apparent in the post-communist countries, even worse than countries that have had continuous democratic processes."

"Literature created a kind of religion, a second national religion along with the church, that helped us remember who we were," said Polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki. "We think we are free now so national texts, national voices don't count that much anymore. This sudden, unexpected Americanization arises naturally from the past complex of slavery [under communism]. America was the synonym for rescue, it was the dream of Poland. And we accepted it uncritically. We have been smothered by the one we loved."

A 'Most Successful Revolution'

The overall achievements of 1989 for the Central European countries of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic--created in the division of Czechoslovakia into two nations--remain extravagant and deep.

Polish writer Adam Michnik, who spent years in communist prisons for his views, recited the transformations: "From dictatorship to democracy, from monopoly to pluralism, from the status of a satellite country to a sovereign country, from the Warsaw Pact to NATO, from economy of scarcity and planned economy to a market economy and economic growth, from censorship to freedom, from closed borders to open borders, from state ownership to privatization."

"Nineteen eighty-nine was the most successful revolution since the American revolution," said Michnik, now editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's leading daily newspaper.

But expectations that the culture that engaged and helped defeat communism would continue to galvanize the population have fallen short. Writing in 1989, the revolution's leading Western chronicler, British writer Timothy Garton Ash, noted that in witnessing the fight against communism he had "found treasures . . . time and space for serious conversation, music, literature, not disturbed by the perpetual noise of our media-driven and obsessively telecommunicative world."

"And for me," he went on to write in "The Magic Lantern," "the question of questions after 1989 is: What if any of these good things will survive liberation."

Last month, at a forum in Prague, Garton Ash was unsparing in his disappointment: "In a way, Central Europe is a mirror, held up to ourselves in the West, a mirror in a very bright or a cruel light, a mirror you are looking in at 7 o'clock in the morning when you have a particularly bad hangover, a mirror in which we see ourselves in a rather unflattering light."

He cited the example of the Czech Republic's TV Nova, which is watched by up to 86 percent of the population and soaks up 75 percent of the country's advertising dollars. Nova's formula is simple: a steady diet of sex, soap and violence. The news is dominated by grisly accounts of murders and car crashes; decapitations are enthusiastically detailed. Public service programming involves placing a politician in a ring surrounded by a hostile, abusive crowd. The channel's latest innovation is weather forecasters who appear naked on screen and then dress appropriately for tomorrow's weather.

Nova is run by a former dissident intellectual, Vladimir Zelezny, a man with a 9,000-book library, a passion for classical music and a doctorate in social science. In another era, he helped keep Czech television on the air when Russian tanks invaded the streets of Prague in 1968, crushing the Prague Spring, the idyllic few months when democratic debate flooded the airwaves.

Skipping to the Sex Scenes

Zelezny makes no apologies for his new calling.

"How is it possible that this beautiful population, the best-educated population in the world, probably the universe, is suddenly the same as people in Bavaria and there and there?" asked Zelezny. "How? Because they were never any different. Mass culture is the culture of ordinary people. They like 'Baywatch' so I provide it to them. It is not for me to elevate them. The intellectuals may be outraged, but this is life in a normal, functioning Western society."

Images from the past, such as Prague residents lining up for a mile outside the Czechoslovak Writers bookstore to buy a copy of a tolerated foreign novelist such as William Styron or John Updike, hold no romance for Zelezny. "That was a strange, sterile time, and if suddenly there is a book that seems exotic, people want it," he said. "But I wonder: How many people actually read [Stryon's] 'Sophie's Choice,' and how many skipped from one sex scene in the book to the next?"

Even Havel, the most celebrated and successful of the individual transformations from dissident writer to politician, seems wearied by the new order. And it with him: As his popularity has plummeted, the Czech president is the subject of ridicule on the streets of Prague.

Once Havel was the conscience of the entire region, transfixing workers and intellectuals alike with his essays on the human condition under communism and the "Power of the Powerless." A country away, Zbigniew Bujak, then a worker at the Ursus factory outside Warsaw and today a member of the Polish parliament, remembers being mesmerized by Havel's words when first reading them in an underground publication.

But asked in an interview at Prague Castle about the intellectual excitement of his heyday, Havel replies languidly that, "this might be an optical illusion."

Nineteen eighty-nine--a single year as potent historically as 1776, 1789, 1848 or 1917--seemed as much a revolution of poets, novelists, essayists, actors, film directors and even comedians as it did the culmination of a global military and economic struggle. Culture became the popular insurrection, challenging a system at its roots and giving life to the idea of liberty. A short story could indict the system with the moral force of a thousand diplomatic notes. A poem could rekindle the censored historical past. A cabaret sketch could expose the bloated absurdity of ideological correctness.

In their full, most spectacular flowerings, like Solidarity's rise in 1980, the arts enjoyed an electric vitality and a rare communion between creator and audience--samizdat publications furtively passed hand to hand; an underground university turning apartments into lecture halls; the wickedly funny satire of the communist system by cabaret troupes; poetry in the shipyards.

"We were aristocrats," said Michnik. "Even in prison we were aristocrats. Perhaps I don't read as much now because I read everything back then. It was not a normal time."

A Gray, Half-Freedom

Sometimes it was a ludicrous time.

Jan Pietrzak led Pod Egida [Under the Aegis], Poland's most popular and daring cabaret in the communist years. Each sketch had to be submitted to censors and many of his routines were simply cut by the authorities without comment. The secret police attended the last dress rehearsal of each new show, making comments on staging, gestures, facial expressions. And on the night of a performance--confined to smoky venues with no more than 100 seats, making it the hottest ticket in town--the secret police had a reserved table at the front, sometimes ending a show if Pietrzak and other comedians strayed from the agreed script.

"The trick," said Pietrzak, "was to figure out where the line was, how much they would tolerate or, even better, maybe they just wouldn't get a joke until they saw the audience laughing." An example: Pietrzak in a famous sketch simply recited a plausible communist title: "First Chairman of the Great Supreme Council of the Paltic United Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Organization in Alliance with the Working Intelligentsia."

Deliciously, Pietrzak operated in a gray, half-freedom. His shows were recorded, and bootleg cassette tapes were sold across Poland.

"Sometimes, the police laughed. They couldn't help themselves," said Pietrzak, who is still doing stand-up routines. But now, he said, he is pushed by audiences in the new Poland to tell Benny Hill-style jokes, referring to the bawdy British comedian. He resists, and the crowds dwindle.

"It was a different era back then," he said.

Culture mattered to communism, and the system longed, in a manner, for the legitimacy it could bestow. Like nuclear missiles or production figures, artists were counterpoints to any achievement or failing in the West, and engineers, in the Stalinist phrase, for the construction of a new socialist reality.

Some artists, in the first years of Communist rule after World War II, were smitten with the idea of a classless society and educating the masses. But the relationship soon soured as history was rewritten, books censored and theatrical productions suppressed in a general climate of terror.

A Cacophony of Sounds

Unwittingly, the Communist authorities by banning certain artistic works imbued them with the taste of forbidden fruit, which--no matter how difficult the prose, how encoded the stanza or how obscure the image--transformed high culture into the only viable substitute for a mass, popular culture. The great names of 20th century Central European writing--Havel, Konrad, Michnik, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Czeslaw Milosz--suffered this unusual fate. They were often read only because they shouldn't be read.

And, consequently, the queues formed outside places like the Czechoslovak Writers bookstore.

"People were hungry for books, for ideas, for art," said Konwicki, the Polish novelist. "There was nothing else. You couldn't travel. You couldn't start a business. Nothing."

That nothing has today been filled with a cacophony of sounds, similar or even more dissonant to those heard in Berlin or London or New York. The once-gray streets are bright with billboards, and neon lights the Stalinist architecture. A hundred cable channels have replaced the bland two-channel state system. The movies are American.

Today, the Writers bookstore in Prague has been turned into a bank.

"Now people have other joys," said Konrad, whose books are now freely available, but sell only about 5,000 copies in Hungary, a small percentage of the 70,000 sold by his first freely published book in 1989. "People are greedy for new experiences and new sensations. Writers have returned to their proper place. Why should I regret that?"

But some former dissidents, such as the Czech writer Ludvik Vaculik, rail against the noise. "We have ushered in an era of great stupidity," he said in an interview, slamming the table in a Prague cafe with his palm. "And democracy has made me a very poor democrat."

For Michnik, however, this period is simply a seismic, still-unfinished shift of generations and thinking. Western culture in all its forms is an unavoidable import, but he said it can be complemented and mediated by indigenous artists once they absorb and deflect its power. National cultures in Central Europe, he believes, will again assert themselves, not with the same power as his generation enjoyed, but as searching beacons for succeeding generations discovering the sweetness of their own voices.

Michnik sees it already, albeit haltingly: In the warm reception for the recent translation to film of the national poem, "Pan Tadeusz"; in the recent success of the Polish singer, Kayah, who enjoyed her biggest hit with an adaptation of Polish folk songs, not the imitative soul-funk she had previously performed.

And although he or she has not emerged yet, Michnik predicted that the post-communist transition, and its relationship to the communist past, will also find "its Tolstoy."

"Others may be disappointed," he said, but "I am very happy in Warsaw."

CAPTION: In August 1988, Warsaw students carry a banner in support of Solidarity.

CAPTION: From left, Vaclav Havel, Ivan Klima and Milan Kundera. Below, Adam Michnik, Czeslaw Milosz and Berlin wall.