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Interviews : Bogdan Borusewicz

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Bogdan Borusewicz is the Speaker (Marshal) of the Polish Senate. He was born in 1949 and studied history at the Catholic University of Lublin.

Under communism, Borusewicz was an ardent democracy activist. His career as a dissident started in high school, when he was arrested in 1968 for engaging with the opposition movement. In the 1970s, Borusewicz became involved with the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) and the Free Trade Unions of the Coast, workers’ advocacy organizations that preceded the Solidarity independent trade union.

Borusewicz rose to prominence as the principal organizer of Gdansk’s Lenin Shipyard strike in August 1980, which led to the formation of Solidarity. When martial law was declared in 1981, Borusewicz went into hiding for four years. During this time, he married fellow freedom activist Alina Pienkowska in secret. When Alina gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Kinga, Borusewicz attended her baptism in disguise for fear of being arrested by authorities. He was later arrested in 1986 and imprisoned for two years. After receiving amnesty, Borusewicz renewed his activism, serving as deputy leader of Solidarity in 1990 and 1991. He was elected to the lower house of parliament in 1990, where he served until 2001.

In 2005, he was elected to the Senate, where he was chosen by his colleagues to serve as Speaker (Marshal). In 2010, he served briefly as the interim Polish President after President Lech Kaczynski died.

http://www.b-borusewicz.pl/ 

But at the same time I was striving to live a normal life in this abnormal time [Mr. Borusewicz went into hiding during Poland’s period of martial law from 1981 - 1983]. I had dates with my fiancée, Alina Pienkowska, who was also an activist in the democratic underground. She was arrested in my apartment, incidentally, she had come over to warn me; I was able to make my way out, she got nabbed, but after she got out she helped me, supported me, organized apartments and people, so I met with her often.

So in this underground movement in this abnormal situation, we still tried to live normal lives, we had a daughter. A daughter was born to us, and we decided to marry, to legalize this relationship. You could only do it at a Catholic church, so I made that decision, so that my girlfriend would feel more secure. So we were married before one priest who gave us a clandestine marriage ceremony. And later, many, many years later, we went over to a civil registrar’s bureau to legalize it – this was in liberated Poland already. But what I am saying is that I made an effort to live a normal life, and just like many of my male friends who were in hiding – just to have that sliver of normalcy around them. But alas, of course gradually many were arrested in turn. I was able to stay in hiding for a rather long time.

There was one story, illustrating the powerlessness of the Security Service. One morning, a group of political police stormed in to search Alina’s apartment – and this was just one room with a kind of kitchenette. They had heard that there were male voices talking there at night, and thought that I might be visiting her. I wasn’t there. These were some friends from the Documentary Film Studios, who used to come when they were busy with something. They were the ones who made the film Robotnicy 80 [Workers 1980] about the strike. But, anyway, the bug [microphone] in the apartment picked up some male visitors … and so the political police barged in during the morning, searched the apartment, and then all six of these Security Police surrounded the crib of my daughter, Kinga. Because she was really a spitting image of me.

So they just stood and watched, and watched some more – because here was proof of their powerlessness and their defeat - since they knew Alina was my girlfriend, of course they had been monitoring her, and here they see my daughter, who is my offspring, so clearly to everyone. So they stood there for a half hour or more, contemplating their own powerlessness. 

Poland is a central European country bordered by the Baltic Sea, Belarus, Ukraine, Germany, Russia, Lithuania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Poland has a population of 38 million people; nearly 90 percent are Roman Catholic.

Poles struggled against foreign dominance from the 14th century and the modern Polish state is less than one hundred years old. Polish borders expanded and contracted through a series of partitions in the 18th century. After a brief period of independence and parliamentary democracy from 1918 to 1939, World War II brought occupation by Nazi Germany and the near annihilation of the Jewish population. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Poland’s Jewish population went from over 3 million in 1933 to 45,000 in 1950.

After the war, Poland became a Soviet satellite state and a communist system was imposed. Farms were collectivized, basic freedoms curtailed, and a culture of fear developed under a Stalinist regime. The 1960s brought greater prosperity and some liberalization. Labor protests in the early 1970s tested the communist government’s resolve and prompted modest reforms.

In 1978, Polish Archbishop and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian to hold the position since the 16th century. The pope’s triumphant return to Poland in 1979 saw massive outpourings of public support, shaking the foundations of the government and inspiring the opposition to press for peaceful change.

In 1980, shipbuilders in the seaport city of Gdansk united to confront the government. Their calls for greater political liberties and improved working conditions developed into the Solidarity movement. Solidarity’s leader, Lech Walesa, became the movement’s voice. Protests and unrest spread throughout the country and the communists replaced their leadership. General Wojciech Jaruzelski became prime minister and declared martial law on December 13, 1981. Solidarity was outlawed and Walesa and other Solidarity leaders were imprisoned.

While martial law was lifted in 1983, Poland continued to stagnate. Mikhail Gorbachev’s elevation to leadership of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985 brought new pressures for reform in Poland. A failing economy and continued repression incited workers to a new wave of strikes in 1988. A desperate regime agreed to legalize Solidarity and conduct semi-free elections. In the 1989 parliamentary elections, Solidarity won 99 of the 100 Senate seats and 160 of the 161 lower house seats they were allowed to contest. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Solidarity leader, became Poland’s first non-communist prime minister in over four decades. In 1990, Lech Walesa was elected president with 74 percent of the vote. While Solidarity splintered as Poland democratized, a coalition government of anti-communist parties won fully free parliamentary elections in 1991.

Poland transitioned to a market economy and applied for integration into western institutions. Economic dislocation returned the former communists, now social democrats, to power in 1993. Free elections and peaceful transitions in the following decades solidified Poland’s multi-party democratic system. Reforms eventually led to a more robust economy and Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.

In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2013, Poland earned the status “Free,” (as it has since 1990) receiving the best possible rankings in the categories Political Rights and Civil Liberties. 

More from Bogdan Borusewicz

Bogdan Borusewicz: A Normal Life in an Abnormal Time “So they stood there for a half hour or more, contemplating their own powerlessness.” Bogdan Borusewicz: Pope John Paul II's Impact “His election affected Poland and buoyed the Polish people.” Bogdan Borusewicz: Surviving Martial Law “I was the first one on their arrest list.” More + Bogdan Borusewicz: Making Demands of the Communists “This was not only a game with the Communist Party in Warsaw, but also with Moscow.” Bogdan Borusewicz: The Lenin Shipyard Strike “So he became the steam engine of sorts, pulling the strike.” Bogdan Borusewicz: A Global Desire for Freedom “The desire for freedom and democracy is a contagious thing.” Bogdan Borusewicz: Roots of Poland's Opposition Movement Borusewicz discusses opposition movements that preceded Solidarity. Bogdan Borusewicz: Overcoming Fear “We were afraid that the authorities would use force, the tanks would roll out, and then we would die.” Bogdan Borusewicz: Background “The first time I was arrested was in ’68. I was a secondary school student at the time.”