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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. 

When I had a workshop in Boston at the end of last year [2012], discussing with freedom fighters from different countries in the world – it was the center for nonviolent struggle [Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict]. They were so serious that I told them, you gave me a paper to sign. I tell them, look, freedom is in – as oxygen. In big quantities, dangerous for you.

So first of all, raise your hand, whether you are healthy and you declare that you wouldn’t blame me when something would happen with you after my speech, OK? OK. They didn’t follow, so I told them, raise your hand, go out of the hall – I am serious. We are in America. I have to have a declaration. Secondly, I tell them, look, why you are so sad and serious? We understand and we passed through different stages. I am country champion in hunger strike. I resisted 11 months. I am now 100 [kilograms] – unfortunately – I want to be 90 [kilograms]. I was arrested as 90-kilogram guy; I am one meter 90 [centimeters]. And I decreased to 54 or 56 [kilograms]. So I lost 36 kilograms. And I survived. I survived. I took vitamins and water but nothing else. I survived 11 months. I resisted till the end of my third arrest. Eleven months.

So I tell them, look I was five or four times just crying from laughter in jail. Freedom is something we can enjoy. We had a lot of fun making conspiracies against the Reds. Don’t be so serious and pathetic. Think about the future. You have to take a certain distance from yourself. You can’t present yourself as a hero and ask other colleagues or comrades, be a hero. No. Be tough, resist. When you avoid something which is our secret, tell, first of all, your friends that, unfortunately, you falled victim of your own weakness.

Don’t be more discrete and more in tune with your persecutors than with us. Understand the spirit of brotherhood, the spirit of community. So being within a circle of a real community of fighters – it’s a pleasure. All the people who were participating in more bloody and more awful conditions than myself had a lot of joy. People who were taking part in Warsaw Uprising [The Warsaw Uprising was a 1944 campaign by the Polish Home Army against the Nazi occupation of Poland. The uprising was defeated by the Nazis, but is regarded as an example of Polish patriotism and bravery.]– a hopeless political initiative in which we are struggling with Soviets, with Germans, and Soviets were just waiting for our defeat, but still, those people had weddings, jokes, a special satire tradition.

They were enjoying freedom. So that’s a lesson of my generation: not to be too serious or more serious than the conditions are demanding us. Don’t exaggerate with this political or patriotic pathos. Take it as a chance for a fantastic, lovely life, because to win then is a satisfaction. When I survive some hard times, I am just more healthy. That’s a challenge for each of us to train ourselves – not how to hit someone, how to receive hits without being wounded spiritually, intellectually, morally. So I enjoy my past, because my past is helping me in my present. 

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 on this theme from Czeslaw Bielecki

Czeslaw Bielecki: Message to Dissidents “That’s a challenge for each of us – how to receive hits without being wounded spiritually, intellectually, or morally.”