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Andrzej Gwiazda, born in 1935 in Pinczow, Poland, and his wife, Joanna Duda-Gwiazda, born in 1939 in Krzemieniec, Poland, were prominent anticommunist opposition leaders in the 1970s and 1980s.

Andrzej studied electronics at Gdansk University of Technology and graduated in 1966. Joanna Duda graduated from the Gdansk University of Technology in 1963 with a degree in engineering and shipbuilding.

After marrying in 1961, Andrzej and Joanna became more active in opposition movements. Andrzej participated in the student protests against the Polish government in 1968; he also took part in the December 1970 demonstrations that were sparked by sudden increases in food prices. In 1976, the Gwiazdas wrote a letter to the Polish Parliament expressing their support for the Workers’ Defense Committee, an anticommunist underground civil society organization in the 1970s, formed to provide assistance to laborers and others persecuted by the government. Soon after, the Gwiazdas were officially banned from leaving Poland and were placed under surveillance.

In 1978, Andrzej helped to found the Free Trade Unions of the Coast and began publishing and delivering its bulletin, Worker of the Coast. Joanna worked as the bulletin’s editor. Andrzej was a member of the Presiding Committee of the Strike at Gdansk’s Lenin Shipyard in August 1980, a workers strike that attracted nationwide, popular support and forced the communists to the negotiating table. Joanna also participated in the Lenin Shipyard strike and, along with her husband, co-authored the 21 demands issued by the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee to the communist authorities advocating for the establishment of an independent trade union and other workers’ rights. The government accepted these demands in what became known as the Gdansk Agreement.

In 1980, Andrzej became the Vice President of the Founding Committee of Solidarity, and served as the Vice President of Solidarity, the first independent labor union in the communist world that transformed into a nationwide freedom movement. Joanna was a member of the Regional Board of Solidarity in Gdansk until December 1981, when the Gwiazdas were imprisoned after the government declared martial law in an effort to crackdown on political opposition. Joanna was released in July 1982 and Andrzej was held in prison until May 1985.

While the Gwiazdas opposed the Round Table Talks that led to semi-free elections in 1989, believing that Solidarity shouldn’t meet the demands of a weakening Communist Party, they remained active in their opposition to communism until its collapse. They have since retired to Gdansk. 

JOANNA DUDA-GWIAZDA: What I believe is that there is not a single method, there is not a single path, a path toward freedom, toward prosperity, toward independence, whenever that is the case, for countries that have different situations. So it is hard to say what, for instance, North Koreans could be doing. But I think that an absolute basis is that people should abandon the fear of a mutual conversation [talking to one another]. That they should disseminate all possible information, they should be building societal communication, as the learned phrase goes, you know, at the very basic level.

Because, when we reflected on what the core difference was between, say, Poland and the Soviet Union, then the difference was that in the Soviet Union, if someone was sent to a labor camp, then his family would disown him [meaning their fear of state repression led them to disown an imprisoned family member]. On the other hand, with Poland, they were never able to achieve that mindset. The Poles would always tell jokes amongst themselves, and this is a basic way to push back against, so to speak, this – this oppression. You cannot even start on your way without this.

ANDRZEJ GWIAZDA: For my part, I would like to add one important thing: that if [your] totalitarian system collapses, do not sink into euphoria: now we have toppled the system, because the toppling of a totalitarian system is only the beginning of a difficult path of building a new system. And so if I were to give advice, then the system [you are building] should be designed for the country for which it is being made. 

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. 

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Andrzej Gwiazda and Joanna Duda-Gwiazda: Message to Dissidents “The toppling of a totalitarian system is only the beginning of a difficult path.”