1989 Activist Speaks on Opposition to Tyranny
As a UC Regents Lecturer, Adam Michnik, a key figure in the fall of Communism in Poland, talked to campus audiences about resistance to tyranny, the outcomes of revolution, the path of political reconciliation and the guises that opposition to totalitarian rule has to take.
Published: Monday, March 01, 2010
At that time, silence was opposition; silence was screaming.
Before participating in negotiations that opened the way for Poland in 1989 to become the first Soviet bloc country to throw off Communism peacefully, Adam Michnik, editor-in-chief of Poland's largest-circulation daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, spent six years as a political prisoner.
Incarceration didn’t silence his criticism of Poland’s military dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski, who ruled the country until Communism was overturned. Michnik later became an adviser to the Solidarity movement led by union leader Lech Walesa and one of the architects of nonviolent resistance in Poland.
But while in prison, he wrote politically charged historical essays under a pen name. In order to see one essay published legally inside of Poland, he developed a ruse and wrote not about martial law, but about German novelist Thomas Mann and his attitude toward the Nazis.
"I wrote it in such a way that every reader, even an idiot, knew that I was writing about General Jaruzelski," said Michnik during one of three lectures he delivered on campus through an interpreter late last month. The events were sponsored by the UCLA Center for European and Eurasian Studies, with participation from the Schools of Law and of Public Affairs.
As a UC Regents Lecturer, Michnik, a key figure in the fall of Communism in Poland, talked to campus audiences about resistance to tyranny, the outcomes of revolution, the path of political reconciliation and the guises that opposition to totalitarian rule has to take – all to avoid, if possible, "a prison, a cemetery or a concentration camp."
In Poland, he said, "opposition came from the conviction that even the densest of nets has holes." These holes were exploited by the Catholic Church, trade unionists, scientists, intellectuals and villagers who did not want collectivized agriculture.
In Stalin's time, when only conformity with the regime was safe, writers of conscience would simply stop publishing, he said. "At that time, silence was opposition; silence was screaming."
But writers like him also discovered alternatives to silence, including literary dodges involving historical analogies and still subtler kinds of disguises. Instead of writing about Stalin, one Russian historian wrote about Ivan the Terrible. Instead of "the structure of authority," sociologists discussed "the structure of alcoholism."
Then there was always science fiction, with its built-in analogies, said Michnik. And in the hands of certain literary critics, Dostoevsky, Kafka and other writers, including Shakespeare, became allies of resistance and contemporaries.
"There is no more interesting essay-writing than the Soviet essay-writing on the regime of Mao Zedong in China, because actually they were writing about themselves," Michnik said.
Polish democrats adopted peaceful means in part because they had learned well the lessons of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. "We saw very clearly that revolutionary violence breeds violence,” he said. “It also breeds hatred."
Today, pursuant to his vision of a more united Poland, Michnik finds himself opposing the ongoing trial of Jaruzelski. Poland's peaceful transformation would have been impossible without Jaruzelski, Michnik said. The charges against the general have more political than legal justification, he said.
"There are two ideas of rebuilding Poland that are clashing here: the idea of reconciliation and the idea of retribution — whether it is to be a Poland for all citizens or a Poland for the camp that won," Michnik said. "And this dispute has not found a final resolution in Poland or in any other post-Communist country."