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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520269231
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/23/2011
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Adam Michnik was a leader of the dissident movement in Poland. He is editor in chief of Poland’s largest newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, and is the author of Letters from Prison and Letters from Freedom, both from UC Press.

Read an Excerpt

In Search of Lost Meaning

The New Eastern Europe

By Adam Michnik, Irena Grudzinska Gross, Roman S. Czarny


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94947-8


Poland at the Turning Point

Fifteen Years of Transformation, Fifteen Years of Gazeta Wyborcza

We are the witnesses of a miracle. Let us consider what the Polish prayer sounded like twenty years ago.

Dear Lord, make Poland have freedom instead of dictatorship; dear Lord, make Poland have a democratically elected parliament; make television and radio, the press and publishing houses free of censorship; open our borders and give us a free market economy; dear Lord, make Poland stop being a satellite country, make the Soviet army leave Poland, and allow Poles to become members of NATO and the European Union by their own choice.

We, however, when we were penniless and starting to publish Gazeta Wyborcza, could only pray that our attempt did not end in complete humiliation. And that our paper—the first daily published by the people of the democratic opposition and by those who traced their roots to the Solidarity underground, who had come back from banishment or simply from prison—would win the struggle for readers' hearts and manage to survive at least those most difficult years of transformation.

And the good Lord granted us those unrealistic wishes. He gave Poles what they dreamed of.

Then why, after fifteen years of freedom, are we Poles so furious? And why are we, the staff of Gazeta Wyborcza, who registered such an unbelievable success, we, the beneficiaries of the Polish transformation, the darlings of fortune, also so furious?

This will be a personal account, as I feel partially responsible for the fury of my compatriots as well as that of my friends from Gazeta.


As early as 1980, at the time of the first Solidarity, when Providence seemed to start smoothing out Poland's rocky destiny, we were asking ourselves, following the lead of the poet Juliusz Slowacki: "Poland, but what sort of Poland?" And we answered, full of uncertainty: a self-governing Poland, a multicolored one, grounded in Christian tradition, socially just; a Poland friendly to her neighbors; a Poland able to accept compromise and moderation, realism and loyal partnership, but unwilling to accept slavery or to be spiritually tamed; a Poland with the conflicts that are normal in a modern society but permeated with the spirit of solidarity; a Poland where intellectuals defend persecuted workers, and workers' strikes demand cultural freedom; a Poland that treats herself with pathos and irony, so often attacked, but never subjugated, so many times crushed but never defeated; a Poland that has now regained her identity, her language, and her face.

Today we ask ourselves the very same question: What is left of that dream of Poland? We are still asking, and that is why we are so furious.


We believed in the myth of the emancipation of labor, and we believed that those who worked in the big factories would take them over. That dream proved to be an illusion. The logic of emancipation was simply replaced with the hard laws of the free market. The strikers who brought us freedom—the workers in the mines and the steel industry and in the shipyards and the refineries—were the first victims. It was not their fault, but they have paid the biggest price. Their work was as good as before, but still they faced the specter of unemployment. We had no idea how to reconcile the pursuit of real economy with care for the people who, through no fault of their own, fell victim to that market.

It is not a situation specific to Poland, but nowhere was the opposition so deeply rooted in big factories as in Solidarity. Those people have every right to feel they were betrayed, even though the major "shock therapy" economic reform under Leszek Balcerowicz was the only way to break the cursed chain of backwardness.


We believed in Solidarity. It was the only instrument able to force the Communist authorities to negotiate Poland's way out of dictatorship. But Solidarity, this wonderful federation of people united in opposition to the Communist regime, was not able to come into its own in the new reality. What was worse, it vacillated between replicating the behaviors learned in the years of dictatorship and taking the place of the former leading power. Strikes and demonstrations clashed with the demands to take over the workplace. At one time it was the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) that decided who would enter the power structure. Then Solidarity wished to do exactly that. It wanted to decide who was going to be the governor, the director, the head of the post office or registry, the president of a university, or the administrator of a hospital. At the same time, Solidarity did not have a clue about how to be a trade union in a country that had just undergone such a great democratic transformation. These sorts of difficulties are understandable—such a transformation had no precedent whatsoever.

In free Poland, Solidarity was gradually more and more marginalized, and many Solidarity supporters felt cheated.


Solidarity had a wonderful asset: Lech Walesa, who personified the dreams of millions about freedom, justice, and solidarity. This electrician with the Virgin Mary lapel pin was able to fascinate great crowds and make them enthusiastic about him, but the very same Walesa destroyed his own heroic and grand image by his ruthless and relentless pursuit of the presidency, in which he destroyed the government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki and publicly offended Jerzy Turowicz. It was Walesa, the national hero of our history, who first employed the rhetoric of boorishness that found so many followers later on.

Walesa was an unpredictable and incompetent president, although we will always remember that he consistently stood for the free market economy and for a Polish orientation to the West. And nothing will ever erase the fact that Walesa changed the history of Poland from worse to better.


For many years we believed in the Catholic Church as a great protector of freedom. We shall never forget the wise heroism of the primate Stefan Cardinal Wyszyski, who was able to combine Christian witness with the sense of the common good. In those years, to us, Tygodnik Powszechny, edited by Jerzy Turowicz, the monthly Znak, edited by Hanna Malewska, and the monthly Wiez, edited by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, were the faces of the Church. The elevation of Karol Wojtyla to the papal throne solidified our conviction that the Catholic Church, which always has been a symbol of protest, would never become a symbol of compulsion. The martyrdom of the priest Jerzy Popieluszko solidified our feelings that the Church represented everything that was best in Polish spirituality.

And that was a mistake. After 1989, it became apparent that the Catholic Church represents both what is best and what is worst in Poland. The ghosts of triumphalism, intolerance, and xenophobia once again raised their ugly heads. A substantial part of the Church chose to use the language of contempt and hatred toward dissenting thinkers. From the pulpits came calls to vote for the extremist parties that advocated destruction. True, this period lasted only a short time, but it was long enough to plant the seed of fear of what the clergy is capable of.

Today, thank God, the Church speaks in a different voice. Today, the Church talks about pluralism, dialogue, and tolerance. It declares openly that the European Union (EU) is not a disaster for Poland but a great opportunity. And that is very good. But do not be surprised that we still remember that the Polish bishops once took a different tone.


Solidarity was formed in August 1980, when a great wave of strikes ended in an agreement. The idea of a compromise and the idea of a "common Poland" became a fundamental component of the Solidarity ethos. We said at that time that this conflict would not produce winners or losers; that August, we claimed that Poland was the winner. And in spite of what followed—martial law, the tragedy at the Wujek mine, and the casualties of Lubin—this ethos of a Poland constituted by a grand historic compromise was retained as we entered the new epoch in 1989. Our banners bore statements of honesty, courage, and work for Poland rather than for entrenched interests. We believed we would build a magnificent, just Poland.

Soon enough, a different language surfaced among us. There came a time of demands for reckoning, although there was more talk about settling accounts, more fear of settling accounts, than there was any real reckoning.

Questions about historical justice are always sensible. Those victimized and degraded by dictatorship have a right to be angry, especially when people who were part of the overthrown dictatorship splendidly arranged their lives in the new reality. Such is the natural law of every revolution. And it applies both to the people of the democratic opposition and to Solidarity, as well as to the people of the Catholic Church. The former had a moral right to declare after years of oppression "It's our fucking turn now!" while the latter could declare "Until now it was the Communists, set in place by Moscow, who ruled; now Catholic Poland will be ruled by Catholics." I understood and shared that emotion, and I was also among those who believed that the former dictators should be punished while the victimized and degraded should somehow be rewarded, and that the latter deserved to feel that justice had been done and their virtue rewarded. If I took a stand against lustration and decommunization, I did it in spite of my own feelings and sentiments. I was fully convinced that a revolution that seeks historical justice consistently and wishes to execute it properly nevertheless ends up with the execution of a monarch, as in Britain; with the guillotine, as under the Jacobins; or with simple terror, as under the Bolsheviks. In a nutshell, begotten of freedom, it ends in dictatorship.

I can understand the psychological need for revenge on the participants in the former regime. However, I am not capable of understanding the politicians who exploited that need and started a cold civil war that only resulted in pathetic accusations against two former presidents as well as against others who served Poland well and now stood accused of having been agents of secret police.

I have opposed these ideas many times, often going far overboard. I regret the overkill of some of my gestures and statements. Many of my friends hold it against me. Many others never understood it, and many simply condemn it. I will try to explain now, because I feel guilty.

Let us take the example of General Czeslaw Kiszczak, who was chief of the security apparatus at the time of martial law and is humanly and morally responsible for the excesses wrought by the functionaries of his department. And we know that they did terrible things: they shot workers, fomented plots, broke people's characters (and forced them to violate their principles), and trod on their consciences. I tried to include all of that in the open letter I wrote to General Kiszczak from Warsaw prison in December 1983. But this is not the end of General Kiszczak's biography. Later on, he became one of the architects of the Round Table agreements and was loyal to the Polish democracy as minister of internal affairs in the government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Since he was the head of the security apparatus, he could have caused the Round Table talks to devolve into a fiasco by ordering any provocation by his agents at any given time. But he did not, and he saved the compromise struck at the Round Table. I think we should not forget that. That is exactly why, when asked by two excellent journalists during an interview with General Kiszczak and me if he was a man of honor, I said yes.

That answer was nonsense. It is not up to me to judge who is and who is not a man of honor. I should have said: "General Kiszczak played a negative role at the time of martial law, but his role at the time of the Round Table negotiations was very positive." After all, it must be easier to be the head of a repressive agency in a Communist country than to transcend the horizon of one's own biography and cooperate at the disassembly of a dictatorship.

I also should have added that the people who ruled Poland in 1981 (and who introduced martial law) had a right to make their own decisions based on the fear of Soviet intervention. They were even obligated to remember the burning of Budapest in 1956, the occupation of Prague of 1968, and, finally, Afghanistan.

Had I said that, perhaps I could have avoided much criticism, for which my friends and colleagues from Gazeta Wyborcza paid dearly. Today I am saying I am sorry.


Many of my friends reproach me for my overly kindhearted attitude toward post-Communists, that is, to the Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland (SdRP), led by Aleksander Kwaniewski, and the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), led by Leszek Miller. I would like to explain my point of view.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the France of a hundred and fifty years ago that both conservatives and their opponents have a predilection for public office because they desire to live off taxes, and that this hidden illness undermines all governments. I maintained that if the philosophy of opportunity for everyone were the principle governing a free Poland, then that opportunity should also be available to post-Communists. After all, ordinary opportunists were members of the Communist Party, but the party also had members who wanted to change things for the better. I did not think the proper attitude toward people who wanted to participate in and build a democratic Poland should be a total boycott and ostracism. On the contrary, I perceived many SLD politicians as sometimes inconsistent allies of the process of modernization. I thought that the post-Communist formation should be treated just like all the others, and that we should remember what divides us but also seek that which unites us.

Where the SLD had once been invested in a reasonable post-Communism that aimed toward Western social democracy, it finally became just another party in power, distributing privileges and benefits. Today, the SLD leaves the public sphere in a welter of infamy, corruption scandals, and ineffective unnecessary reforms (and the lack of necessary ones). Leszek Miller himself admitted that he dismissed Ewa Milewicz's warning that the SLD was "the party with less leeway." The SLD was a party of people who thought they were allowed to do anything, and it was a party open to "capable people; regrettably, capable of anything."

The SLD revived the Polish People's Republic's greed and its custom of contempt for the law, as well as its corrupt cronyism. Established in the climate of the PZPR's defeat and uniting many valuable people from the previous regime, the SLD was taken over by the immortal Comrade Weasel, who is cowardly toward the powerful and arrogant toward the weak and who is merciless and cynical.

Many people today criticize me for liking President Aleksander Kwaniewski. And I want to say to them, I do not regret my gestures; I have no doubt that he was a very good president. Kwaniewski kept Poland on the road to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the EU; he consistently protected the principles of parliamentary democracy and, simultaneously, tried to stitch together post-Communist Poland with post-Solidarity Poland.

Many people hold it against me that I publicly declared my liking of Leszek Miller and my conviction of his honesty. Miller himself defined our relations as "close familiarity." He spoke the truth; such was the case. I have never lobbied on his behalf at Gazeta Wyborcza or with Agora (the publisher of Gazeta Wyborcza), and he never pressed me to gain media support for his government. I have never tried to "go easy" on Miller, although I have often been accused of it, even at editorial meetings. I treated him just as I did other prime ministers—with respect but also with criticism. We at Gazeta Wyborcza criticized harshly anything he did that we saw as a mistake. We criticized the dismal reform of the national health care system; we criticized the senseless conflict with the National Bank of Poland and the Monetary Policy Council; we criticized his government's incomprehensible personnel decisions, and, finally, we criticized the draft of the bill on mass media. In the end, we supported every single government whenever it was doing something good for the Polish state.


Excerpted from In Search of Lost Meaning by Adam Michnik, Irena Grudzinska Gross, Roman S. Czarny. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword: About Michnik Václav Havel vii

Editor's Note ix

Introduction John Darnton xv

Part I Anniversaries

1 Poland at the Turning Point: Fifteen Years of Transformation, Fifteen Years of Gazeta Wyborcza 3

2 In Search of Lost Meaning: The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Solidarity Movement 22

3 Rage and Shame, Sadness and Pride: The Twenty-Fourth Anniversary of the Imposition of Martial Law 37

4 The Bitter Memory of Budapest: The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Budapest Uprising 59

Part II The Work of Hatred

5 The Sadness of the Gutter 75

6 Accusers and Traitors 98

7 The Accusers and the Noncivic Acts 114

8 A Wound upon Adam Mickiewicz's Brow 134

Part III The Complex Polish-Jewish Matters

9 The Kielce Pogrom: Two Examinations of Conscience 173

10 The Shock of Jedwabne 204

Glossary: Guide to Events and People 213

Index 217

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A powerful collection of essays."—The Economist

"In special cases, one closes a book with the mind churning, stirred by the arguments within.
In still rarer cases, one sets down the book and is moved by the spirit and character of its author. This is one such book."—Foreign Affairs

"[Michnik] is the finest champion of everything that has been achieved [in Poland], an eloquent expositor of the moral issues that underlie the conflicts of his lifetime. His latest collection of essays,
In Search of Lost Meaning, does not disappoint."—New York Review of Books

"This profoundly important book throws light not only on recent events, but also on the thinking of one of their most important protagonists."—Foreword

"Serious inquiry supports civility in public life, inquisition damages it, and whatever reservations some might have about his positions on particular issues, these essays show Michnik to be very much a mainstay of that civility."—First Things

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