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Poland and Prague Journal Series: Part II

The+large+letters+read%2C+%22SHIPYARD%2C%22+in+Polish.++It+hangs+over+the+entrance+to+the+Gda%C5%84sk+Shipyard.++Also%2C+behind+the+letters+lies+the+European+Solidarity+Centre+building.
The large letters read,

The large letters read, "SHIPYARD," in Polish. It hangs over the entrance to the Gdańsk Shipyard. Also, behind the letters lies the European Solidarity Centre building.

Brian Demo

Brian Demo

The large letters read, "SHIPYARD," in Polish. It hangs over the entrance to the Gdańsk Shipyard. Also, behind the letters lies the European Solidarity Centre building.

Brian Demo '17, Staff Writer

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Freedom rarely comes easy.  Before a government grants it, the task arrives in the hands of citizens.  The process may involve friction.  It may be a peaceful one.  However, in all cases, it demands both the will and strength to act.  My classmates and I visited the cold shores along the Gdańsk Shipyard in Poland; followed by the hot pavement tops in Prague, Czech Republic.  At these sites, we found people who sought to turn freedom into reality.

Gdańsk served as the first destination of our trip, whereas a few days stay in Prague concluded our journey.  The Gdańsk Shipyard once held the name of Lenin instead of its city; yet, it remains next to the Baltic Sea.  The European Solidarity Centre sits adjacent to it.  Prior to our visit, we met with a guide named Malgorzata Popis – a Gdańsk resident and former college student when Poland was a Soviet state under the Warsaw Pact.  She handed us radio sets to listen to her clearly and we began the tour through the facility.

Popis described the economically strained life in Soviet Poland. She recalled moments from the 1960’s and 70’s when she owned only “two pairs of shoes: one for summer, and one for winter.”  Food shortages became ordinary.  One walked into the grocery market and found near vacancy – a handful of loafs, vegetables, and meat in scarce amounts.  Due to budgeting problems, the Soviet Union made direct adjustments to the economy as “solutions.”  However, these command-style tactics made matters worse.  Currency manipulation led to inflation fluctuations.  Price hikes meant more food shortages.

Citizens occasionally turned to currencies from other countries.  Popis joyfully recalled when her “cousin from the United States used to bring a few dollars.”  Workers outside of East Germany could obtain money from the west.  Popis and others could choose to trade other currencies on the “black market.”  There, a U.S. dollar held virtually “ten times” the worth of Soviet money.  However, this trading process remained illegal and highly dangerous.  The government sought to combat citizens’ urges.  It created a system where individuals could exchange their foreign money for coupons.  These coupons offered discounts to consumer goods that occasionally fell strained.  However, critics debated whether the coupon system truly helped.  The government’s option offered a single advantage, in that it simply served as a safer method.

Criticism spiked.  After an announcement of mass-increases in food prices, the societal tea kettle nearly fumed.  In 1970, workers took to the streets to strike.  People peered from their apartments and dorm room windows.  Through the blanket of smoke, they found workers motioning down streets and avenues.  Soon after, these strikers met riot police and tear gas.  The official casualty-count remains at forty-eight people.

The Solidarity Centre held an exhibit with mugshots and regular photographs of workers who risked either arrests or their very lives.  Young and old men posed with black eyes, loose jaws, and everything in between.  In the exhibit’s back-right corner, we found photos covered by wooden squares.  We lifted them and looked upon the causalities.  Blood ran down heads and eyes froze wide-open.  Some faces stood blank into the distance, as if a higher being neared arrival to take them.  Though less violent after learning from the previous instance, another protest broke out in 1976, largely headed by co-founder of the Worker’s Defense Committee (KOR), Jacek Kuroń.

The year 1980 brought both optimism and hard realities.  The KOR and the Movement for Defense of Human and Civic Rights (ROPCIO) went underground.  A shipyard worker named Anna Walentynowicz followed this trend.  For participation in these illegal groups, employment fired her in August.  The Solidarity strike arose soon after.  The Polish government signed the Gdańsk Agreement, which notably included the “Acceptance of free trade unions independent of the Communist Party and of enterprises,” as well as “the guarantee of the right to strike and of the security of strikers.”  Yet, Moscow took offense to this.  Soviet General, Wojciech Jaruzelski, received temporary control of the Polish government and instituted Marshall Law in 1981.  Police officers made arrests and citizens needed to return home by 11:00PM daily.  Any act of protest by students or workers meant loss of schooling or jobs.

We then arrived at an exhibit that displayed Pole, Pope John Paul II.  Popis recalled his journey in 1983 to meet with her and approximately four thousand other students.  Her eyes shined as she described the experience.  She told us that he never spoke poorly of the Soviet government.  Yet, he encouraged her and others to act with “courage.”  Moscow lifted Martial Law in that same year.

The Round-table talks occurred in 1989, taking place with the following parties: Solidarity (a conglomerate of over a dozen once-underground trade unions), the Communist regime, and the Catholic Church.  Partially free elections transpired, which enabled Solidarity to achieve future successes.  In 1990, the Polish people elected Lech Walesa – Solidarity’s charismatic chairperson – president of the country.  Economic reforms developed.  Large-scale privatization stimulated job growth and basic goods became affordable to citizens, setting the tone for further social and political transformations.

The Czech Republic – once Czechoslovakia – experienced profound events as well.  In 1968, Moscow removed hardline leader, Antonín Novotný, from office.  A known kind-hearted man named Alexander Dubček assumed leadership as first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.  Immediately in office, he sought to deliver socialism “with a human face.”  He launched a series of reforms during his first year in office.  The government notably drafted the Action Programme, which called for “Freedom of speech/press, formation of interest organizations, greater democratic decision-making, and the establishment of two federal and equal states.”  Liberties such as radio stations sprung from the concrete and people enjoyed dialogues from all walks of the globe.

The Soviet government caught word and launched Operation Danube – an invasion to suppress the democratic events taking place.  With the help of surrounding Warsaw Pact states, they sent approximately half a million troops and six thousand tanks into Czechoslovakia.  Moscow successfully pushed the reforms aside and replaced Dubček with Gustáv Husák – another hardliner – to oversee the reforms’ reversals and clear the party of officials with liberal sentiments.

However, a uniquely peaceful protest transpired on November 17, 1989.  Young people conducted a march to commemorate Jan Opletal – a student who died while resisting the Nazis in 1939.  However, the event also developed into a demonstration to demand democratic reforms.  In the mixt of their protest, they met riot police.  Though, rather than fight, they held flowers as a sign of both peace and mourning.  The policemen subsequently clubbed and injured one hundred and sixty-seven people.  Rumors spread regarding a single death.  Yet, this later proved not to be the case.  The no-causality nature served as the signature of what became known as the “Velvet Revolution.”

Citizens mobilized.  Meetings and protests extended into Prague, Bratislava, and beyond.  Political organizations, such as the Civic Forum (OF) and Public Against Violence (PAV), formed to provide unified political voices.  On November 25, seven hundred and fifty thousand people gathered at Letna Park in Prague.  Over the next four days, the communist parliament approved proposed amendments, such as the elimination of the current government’s leading role in affairs and the removal of mandated Marxist-Leninist education.

Husák announced his resignation and a new Czechoslovakian government formed, consisting of many members from the OF and PAV.  Dubček became the Federal Assembly Speaker and Václav Havel, a former playwright—whom the Communist party banned from seeing his works shown abroad—and leader within the OF, became president.  In 1990, after the revolution, Czechoslovakia dissolved into two states: the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  Each street or avenue that we passed in Prague likely provided setting for protest.  Squares—now occupied by relatively content residents and tourists—once filled with people by the thousands.

Solidarity and the Velvet Revolution both encompassed the will to achieve greater liberties and the strength to pursue them.  People risked school, work, and other assets or necessities that the communist government either directly or indirectly controlled.  Yet, they held hope close to their chests.  Like Rome, the Soviet Union slowly dissolved from within.  Before reforms could fully take shape, the Warsaw Pact found itself pulling astray at all angles.  As one citizen mentioned to us, “poverty and life are all relative.”  Hardship proved widespread.  People worked to make due, and extensive budgeting evolved into a norm.  However, new fruits – freedom of the press and competitive currencies – created new tastes.  People peered behind the Iron Curtain.  With each glance came more interest.

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Poland and Prague Journal Series: Part II