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Interviews : Czeslaw Bielecki

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Born in Warsaw in 1948, Czeslaw Bielecki is an architect who graduated from the Warsaw University of Technology in 1973 and received his Ph.D. from the Krakow University of Technology in 1997.

Under Communist rule in Poland, Bielecki was a freedom activist who joined the 1968 pro-democracy demonstrations. Despite harassment and imprisonment, Bielecki remained committed to nonviolent struggle throughout the 1970s. He joined the Solidarity independent trade union in 1980. Bielecki was a key figure in Solidarity’s clandestine publishing efforts, including the Solidarity Weekly newspaper. Bielecki also applied his experience and professional artistic background to the development and management of and independent underground publishing house, challenging official censorship and offering Poles alternative news to that offered by the regime. He was twice arrested for his anti-government activities and was held in prison for two years.

From 1997 to 2001, Bielecki was a member of parliament, during which time he served as the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He also served as an advisor to President Lech Walesa between 1990 and 1995.

Bielecki has authored and coauthored a variety of publications describing strategies and experiences from Poland’s freedom movement including The Little Conspirator and Freedom: A Do-It-Yourself Manual. His writings offer advice on how dissidents can organize more effectively and maintain their resilience against tyranny. 

I guess in ’83, we published with Jan Krzysztof Kelus and Urszula Sikorska, he’s [Jan Krzysztof Kelus] a fantastic bard of the Polish opposition with fantastic songs. And we wrote together with this couple the bestseller of the underground, The Little Conspirator. That’s a collection of writing made by people temporarily at liberty. That’s the beginning of the book. I wrote in this book the main chapter: “How to Plot” – “How to Plot,” the first chapter. The second is “Citizen Versus Secret Police” and the third, which is a masterpiece made by Kelus, it’s “Interrogation Game.”

And let me make a jump. After the death of my wife, Maria Twardowska, it was six years ago, I guess, I made two trips to Cuba. I was asked to go by the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, directed by Irena Lasota and Eric Chenoweth in Washington [D.C]. And they organized this trip. I went there as an architect looking for some opportunities to make an exhibition, OK? I just interviewed the opposition. So after that, I wrote my manual, Freedom: A Do-It-Yourself Manual. And that’s a small booklet. You can put it into your pocket.

So it’s smaller than a Moleskin [notebook]. But it’s always covered with the regime newspaper. So that’s Daily Worker [a publication of the Communist Party USA] in English, that’s Pravda in Russian [a publication of the Communist Party in Russia]. That’s Trybuna Ludu in Polish [a publication of the Polish United Workers’ Party in Poland under communism], that’s Granma in Spanish [the official newspaper of the Communist Party in Cuba]. Because it was a long, long days tradition of ’60s and ’70s, when someone was reading an illegal booklet in the public transportation, in the train or in the bus, I don’t know why but people were covering it with a regular, a bit dirty regime newspaper. So when I have seen someone in the train reading a book of a format I knew in regular daily newspaper, daily paper, I was quite sure that’s Parisian Kultura [a defunct Polish publication in Rome and Paris] or Dziennik Polski from London [a Polish language publication in London] or something which is not legal or half legal, OK?

So we repeated this trick and we covered our booklet with this regime newspaper and with the recommendation of Lech Walesa [leader of the Solidarity freedom movement and President of Poland 1990-1995], which was inserted within this – it was kind of collage in this newspaper. So in this patriotic business, for instance, you will find a scheme of Palace of Culture, because when we were arrested in with a relatively large group from our city and firm, my successor, Tomasz Krawczyk, who was a mathematician, was working in the Palace of Culture [an enormous building in Warsaw that was constructed in 1955 by the Soviets as a gift to the people of Poland]. And the Palace of Culture is a fantastic labyrinth for people who know this building.

So they were tricking the pursuing police, hiding in some rooms. And this chain of command was designed as an illustration of this, how the system was working when in ’85, ’86, the police knew relatively a lot about us but didn’t know the structure. So in this book you will find, for instance, the files, police files, how they imagined our structure. For instance, in this scheme, it was something like an embassy. They didn’t mention U.S., Israeli Embassy, you know. But they – it was quite sure that they have an image which was completely false, how the chain of command is working within the firm. But those experiences from a real underground enterprise were used in an enigmatic way, not touching specific details, in The Little Conspirator.

But psychologically, what was a very, very nice and unique experience in my life as a political writer, that because I was anonymous and we were three anonymous authors; the book, it was anonymous – it was printed in different publishing editions in more than 100,000 copies, for sure. We published in CDN [To Be Continued, an underground publishing house in communist Poland] more than 40,000 copies, this small booklet. What made this book so popular – because I was using sometimes some expressions, very personal, which became our lingua franca [a language systematically used to make communication possible between people not sharing a mother tongue] within the firm.

For instance, I refurbished or renewed the word “to plot,” jak knuc [Polish translation of ‘plot’], which has a pejorative sense in Polish, but instead to say we will conspire, which means something very serious – how we will plot, how we will plot against the Reds. We called communists “Reds” or more – with less dignity, “the Red,” as one Red, which is signalizing the system. So when people started to read this booklet, they took it not as my personal language but our language. And that’s made, from my viewpoint, this book so popular.

So the principle of The Little Conspirator – be more intelligent, more creative, more systematic, more workaholic. Don’t be lazy. Don’t leave your door open when you are plotting, because your flat can be opened only for your friends, but when it’s too open, it’s open for the secret police as well. So it was a kind of permanent self-education of each of us, which made the firm efficient and stabilized and sustainable. For me, the biggest satisfaction was that after our mass arrests in ’86, the firm, under the direction of Tomasz Krawczyk and my colleagues, was still producing books, leaflets and as well my essays from jail. I smuggled. So it was for me the sense of the work, of a political work, political job. 

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 Czeslaw Bielecki

Czeslaw Bielecki: The Little Conspirator “Don’t leave your door open when you are plotting.” Czeslaw Bielecki: A Monument to Communism “Each falsification of the word, of the image, of the name, of the tradition is the real danger for freedom.” Czeslaw Bielecki: Message to Dissidents “That’s a challenge for each of us – how to receive hits without being wounded spiritually, intellectually, or morally.” More + Czeslaw Bielecki: Background “I found myself in prison, which is the most significant education a young man can receive in a communist system.” Czeslaw Bielecki: Matthew Poleski “It was a very small circle who knew that Czeslaw Bielecki is Maciej Poleski.” Czeslaw Bielecki: Foundations of a Freedom Movement “And without the spirit of independence, nothing can happen.” Czeslaw Bielecki: Conspiracy Circles “We knew that we were just a small group, but from this small group, we started a movement.” Czeslaw Bielecki: Underground Publications “The fight has to be continued”