Richard Wolin: The Links in the Chain from Poland's Solidairty Movement to the Orange Revolution

Roundup: Historians' Take

Richard Wolin, in the Chronicle of hgher Education (2-7-05):

[Richard Wolin is a professor of history, comparative literature, and political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.]

In November a sea of billowing orange banners waved defiantly amid the subzero temperatures of Kiev's Independence Square. Orange was the color of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party. Yushchenko's supporters, whose numbers were estimated to be more than 100,000, had flooded the streets to protest egregious electoral irregularities in the November 21 runoff between their standard-bearer and the pro-Moscow candidate, Viktor Yanukovich. In two consecutive elections, corrupt and autocratic practices -- one of the hallmarks of Ukraine's ancien r’egime -- had deprived the rightful Viktor of his triumph.

For enthusiasts of democracy around the globe, it must have seemed like déjà vu. The setting and players were different. But the victorious political strategy -- peaceful, mass democratic protest, combined with timely acts of civil disobedience -- had been previously employed with ever-greater success.

The model of "self-limiting revolution" had been conceived during the 1970s by Eastern European activists in the aftermath of two cataclysmic failures: the 1956 Hungarian uprising from below and the 1968 "Prague Spring," a paradigmatic (if ill-fated) instance of enlightened reform from above. Both revolutions were brutally crushed by the might of Warsaw Pact tanks. An alternative strategy was desperately needed: a political approach that, under conditions of unremitting despotism, would carve out and preserve burgeoning "spaces of freedom." Activists and citizens would thereby succeed in creating (to employ Czech dissident Vaclav Benda's apt phrase) a parallel polis. Ideally, were these "spaces" sufficiently expanded, a revitalized civil society would slough off communist rule the way a mollusk sheds an unwanted shell.

The new strategy was memorably employed by Solidarity in 1980. The plucky independent trade-union movement succeeded in driving the first nail into the coffin of a tottering communist system. It rapidly assumed the character of a global political event -- the whole world was, quite literally, watching. Within a matter of days, Lech Walesa and his followers had managed to win the hearts and minds of freedom-loving peoples everywhere. Chairman Mao once confidently proclaimed that the "revolution would not be televised." On this, as well as many other counts, his thinking has proved distinctly shortsighted.

Solidarity brilliantly managed to exploit one of the glaring ideological weaknesses at the heart of the communist system. The so-called workers' states of Eastern Europe were unique in denying those same workers the basic right to organize, a right they still enjoyed in the "capitalist West." The dissident movement also forced Westerners to re-evaluate the importance of basic political liberties and civic freedoms they had begun to take for granted.

Solidarity's initial run was tragically short-lived: The following year Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski (who in 2003 was indicted by a Polish court for his role in the 1970 massacre of 44 Polish shipyard workers) did Moscow's dirty work by declaring martial law and interning Solidarity's leaders. Nevertheless, an important seed had been planted, and the communist system's legitimacy had been irrevocably tarnished. The democratic sentiments of the global public sphere -- which has become an increasingly decisive dimension of modern politics -- had been permanently won over by the dissident camp....

As far back as Herodotus there have been those who argued that history is devoid of intelligibility and meaning -- a congeries of senseless events. But last fall Clio, history's muse, must have been smiling. The Polish Solidarity movement may have fallen short of its goal 25 years ago. But it bequeathed a rich and portentous political legacy. And it was that legacy that came to fruition last fall in Ukraine.

Thus, at the high point of the Ukrainian crisis, in a serendipitous instance of political symbolism, ex-Solidarity leader Lech Walesa appeared in Kiev to bolster the democratic opposition's spirits. One of his professed goals was to ensure a nonviolent, peaceful resolution of the crisis. But there could be no doubt about which side the Polish ex-president had chosen to back, as he made several rousing public appearances at Yushchenko's side.

"I have been fighting for these ideals all my life," Walesa declared. "You can rely on the support of Poland and Walesa,'' he continued. "But we cannot do it for you. You have to do it yourselves." Spontaneously, tens of thousands of orange-bedecked Yushchenko supporters began chanting in unison "Poland, Poland." The Nobel prize winner was emotionally overcome and broke down in tears.

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