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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. 

Well, I was born in Warsaw in 1948. I come from a family of assimilated Jewish intelligentsia. As a young man I had interests in several areas, but I was very active in the Boy Scout movement – this was, so to speak, my rebellion from the communist youth scene. The Union of Socialist Youth is what I am talking about. The Boy Scouts enjoyed relative autonomy although they were under the supervision of the regime.

So you could say that my birth as a political animal happened in March of 1968 – I was 20 years old and enrolled in my second year of Architecture School and, well, I participated in the March Events [students and intellectuals organized protests against Poland’s communist government in March 1968], as they were later called. And as a consequence I was visited by these so-called ‘sad gentlemen’ [agents of Poland’s secret police] who carefully looked over all the books in my home library.

I found myself in prison for the first time, which is the most radically significant education that a young man could receive in the communist system. Because you would have to orient yourself on which side you are able to collaborate with whom, [and] with whom you cannot [collaborate], what community means to you, what loyalty means, what brotherhood means; how you see the future of your country; whether you are inclined more to fear [them] or you would rather [simply] stand up to a certain situation.

So, I left jail after three and a half months, and the tactic that I adopted at that time, which I later consistently practiced in my subsequent, much longer jailings, was to simply keep complete silence. I did not say ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘I want to go to the toilet’ – whether I was [going to be there] three hours or eight hours. I would just stay perfectly silent. And you can find this from 1985 or 1986, which is a text called the Monologue in a Warsaw Prison, which was published in the New York Review of Books. And because I smuggled this out of jail, something I was very accomplished in, I smuggled this monologue out of jail, which was a record of things that those security men had said to me.

So things which they spoke to me, and to which I kept my silence. And this is quite funny, and was something which gave some amusement to many of my comrades on the outside. So then I had my [literary] debut in 1968. Now, as a political essayist, my debut happened in 1979, in the Paris-published Kultura, our émigré quarterly – well, actually a monthly that was operated by Jerzy Giedroyc [Polish writer and political activist], whom I count among the handful of the most illustrious Poles whom I was privileged to know. And so my debut was an essay titled Wolność w Obozie [Freedom in the Camp].

This was later published in the London Survey and this was a summation of a certain type of experience and which Mr. Jerzy Giedroyc, in his role as editor, talked me into. From my regular job as an engineer, a young architectural engineer working at a construction site. And this was a construction site at which I experienced the events of June 1976 [Polish worker strikes organized against rising prices]. And these were the strikes at Radom and Ursus [cities in Poland]. Which was perhaps the big event between the massacre of workers on the Baltic coast in 1970 on the one hand and 1979/1980 [period leading to the August 1980 Lenin Shipyard strike in Gdansk], being the swelling of the great wave of independence.

The first story which happened to me and which I put as a fantastic dialogue in my political fiction, The Screenwriter, I published three years ago, it was a scene when I was arrested and I realized I’m in an empty room in a police station. There are two people in uniforms. So ‘names and addresses’: a typical, typical, special political police – political police question. We know everything, but tell us names and addresses.

It was my first experience that silence is the best method and let them have their monologues. How do we connect in this situation when the balance between fear and terror was broken because after the death of [Joseph] Stalin [leader of the Soviet Union from 1924-1953], after ’56 and the Budapest insurrection [anti-communist uprising in Hungary put down by Soviet military power], practically we didn’t experience direct physical terror in Poland.

And because the communist totalitarian is based, as Nazi totalitarian is, on a physical terror, on the balance between terror and fear, when the society is quite convinced in millions of citizens that nothing can happen in the future, that we have no emergency exit – and that’s the situation which is transforming the regular civil society we know in the West into an atomized, dispersed community in which no one can trust to his co-citizen. That is a challenge. 

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: 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.”

Other videos 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.” More +