Tag Archives: Lech Wałęsa

The Struggle Against Communist Oppression in Poland

Solidarity Gary Cooper

In my previous post I wrote about oppression in Poland after World-War-Two and the struggle for freedom and this reminded me of a visit to the capital city of Warsaw the year before.

Walking in the city centre we approached the heavily guarded Presidential Palace and on the pavement outside there was a display commemorating some previous uprising or other and as a backdrop there was a huge canvas poster of Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane in the film High Noon.

I had no idea why until I looked it up later:

In 1989 there were some partially free elections in Poland and this was the official poster of the Solidarity movement and it shows Cooper armed not with a pistol in his right hand but with a folded ballot saying ‘Wybory’ (elections)  while the Solidarity logo is pinned to his vest above the sheriff’s badge. The message at the bottom of the poster reads: “W samo południe: 4 czerwca 1989,” which translates to “High Noon: 4 June 1989.”

Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa  explained it later:

“It was a simple but effective gimmick that at the time was misunderstood by the Communists. They tried to ridicule the freedom movement in Poland as an invention of the ‘Wild’ West, especially the U.S. But the poster had the opposite impact: Cowboys had become a powerful symbol for Poles. Cowboys fight for justice, fight against evil, and fight for freedom. ”

In 1953 Gary Cooper won the Best Actor Oscar for High Noon and in 1990 Lech Wałęsa became President of Poland.  The Soviet Force of Occupation (The Northern Group of Forces) did not leave Poland until 1993.

After the popular uprising in 1989 which overthrew Communist rule and following independence Poland planned to demolish around five hundred Soviet-era monuments and a mass demolition of reminders that are relics of the country’s Communist past which are seen as reminders of Soviet Russia’s invasion and subsequent decades-long political dominance of the eastern European nation until.  Thirty-five statues of Lenin and two of Josef Stalin were removed from towns and cities across Poland.

Sadly, Russia being an authoritarian,  militaristic state seems unable to understand a desire for independence and to be free of strutting jack boots from the East!

The picture above is ‘Stalin’s Boots’ a symbolic statue that stands in Budapest in Hungary.  Before it was torn down in 1956 it stood eighty foot tall and was clearly too big for its boots!

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union hundreds of statues of Lenin have been removed and demolished but there are still some to be found in more remote locations.  See this web post for details of Lenin Statue Spotting – Lenining

Most are in old Soviet Russia and its previously oppressed territories of course but there is a statue of Lenin in Montpellier in France, Potsdam in Germany (how bizarre), Athens in Greece and most surprising of all, Seattle in the USA.

Read another post about statues of Lenin.

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Wroclaw, Communism, Martial Law and Freedom

“When Pope John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw airport he began the process by which Communism in Poland – and ultimately elsewhere in Europe – would come to an end.”  – John Lewis Gaddis, U.S. Cold War Historian

On a recent visit to Iceland  we learnt about the elves and trolls that live there in the mountains and the valleys but we didn’t see any because they are invisible but here in Wroclaw we very soon came across the dwarfs because they are not nearly so shy and can be found posing outside buildings and along the footpaths all over the city.

Dwarfs have long held a place in Polish folklore and their current iconic status as symbols of Wrocław  has political and subversive origins. Under communism they became the rather unlikely symbol of the Orange Alternative – an underground protest movement that used absurdity and nonsense to stage peaceful protests. Armed with paint cans the group specifically ridiculed the establishment’s attempts to censor public space.

During the communist era any anti-establishment graffiti or troublesome public art was quickly painted over by the authorities but upon seeing fresh censorship the Orange Alternative quickly painted over them yet again…with dwarfs.  The first in its modern statuette form was placed on a busy crossroads near a subway where Orange Alternative demonstrations often took place in 2001.

We began in the Market Square and at first it all seemed incredibly easy and within a few minutes we had spotted at least twenty or so using our guide pamphlet as a sort of I Spy Book’ that we used to have when we were children but then the going got tougher as we were forced into the adjacent streets to go in search of our quest.

To the south of the Market Square we walked as far as the old city moat and then back to the centre via the Four Temples District and then we went north again back towards the University searching high and low for the little fellows.

We walked to the river and then walked east but there was a chill wind blowing down the river valley so we abandoned the route almost as soon as we had started and headed back to the centre and along the way came across ‘Jatki’ which is the only preserved medieval street in Wroclaw and has a corner of bronze sculptures of animals, a pig, piglet, goose, duck, rooster and a rabbit at the entrance to the street.

As well as the dwarfs we were looking for a sculpture called ‘The Anonymous Pedestrians’ and found them at a busy road junction where there are fourteen statues of ordinary people going about their daily business but on one side of the road they are sinking into grey obscurity into the pavement and on the other  are rising back out into the sunshine in a form of social resurrection.

It is a wonderful piece of street art and I am prepared to say that for me it was one of the highlights of Wroclaw.

The statues are a reminder of the introduction of martial law in Poland on December 13th 1981 and a memorial to the thousands of people who disappeared (‘went underground’) in the middle of the night courtesy of the militia. In a symbolic statement the fourteen statues were erected in the middle of the night in 2005 on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the introduction of martial law.

In 1981 the Polish Communist Government was having a hard time, there was a troublesome Polish Pope who had visited the country two years earlier and given people hope of liberation, there was a severe economic crisis, workers were striking and there was the growing influence of the workers movement Solidarity, and under pressure from the USSR, General Jaruzelski decided on a brutal and violent solution.

Early in the morning Martial Law was declared, several thousand opposition campaigners were interned, it is estimated that approximately one hundred people were murdered and strikes were crushed with the help of the army and special riot police units. Many members of the opposition and underground trade-unionists were sentenced to prison terms, others were forced to emigrate.  Normal life was severely restricted with curfews and rationing, the independent trade union Solidarity was banned and its leader Lech Walesa was imprisoned.

Although martial law was lifted in 1983, many of the political prisoners were not released until the general amnesty in 1986.

Jaruzelski and the other instigators of the martial law argued that the army crackdown rescued Poland from a possibly disastrous military intervention of the Soviet Union, East Germany, and other Warsaw Pact countries similar to the earlier ‘fraternal aid’ interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 but history generally disagrees with this defensive interpretation and even today some of the leaders of the action await formal trial and punishment.

This is probably the most striking and powerful memorial depicting ordinary people that I have ever seen that perfectly captures the moment and visually records the suffering and the inhumanity, the desperation and the hope of the time and the military regime.

Humbled by this memorial and growing tired of looking for dwarfs it was just about now that we abandoned our search and returned to the Market Square to find a bar with tables in the sunshine and to settle down with a beer.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Victory

Solidarity Gary Cooper

Victory for Democracy

On a visit to Warsaw I came across this interesting piece of street art – a huge canvas poster of Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane in the film High Noon.

I had no idea why until I looked it up later:

In 1989 there were some partially free elections in Poland and this was the official poster of the Solidarity movement and it shows Cooper armed not with a pistol in his right hand but with a folded ballot saying ‘Wybory’ (elections)  while the Solidarity logo is pinned to his vest above the sheriff’s badge. The message at the bottom of the poster reads: “W samo południe: 4 czerwca 1989,” which translates to “High Noon: 4 June 1989.”

Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa  explained it later:

“It was a simple but effective gimmick that at the time was misunderstood by the Communists. They tried to ridicule the freedom movement in Poland as an invention of the ‘Wild’ West, especially the U.S. But the poster had the opposite impact: Cowboys had become a powerful symbol for Poles. Cowboys fight for justice, fight against evil, and fight for freedom. ”

Victory?  In High Noon Will Kane kills the bad guys in a shoot out, in 1953 Gary Cooper won the Best Actor Oscar for his part in the film and in 1990 Lech Wałęsa became President of Poland.

Read the full story…

Weekly Photo Challenge: Symbol – High Noon and Solidarity

Solidarity Gary Cooper

In 1989 there were some partially free elections in Poland and this was the official poster of the Solidarity movement and it shows Cooper armed not with a pistol in his right hand but with a folded ballot saying ‘Wybory’ (elections)  while the Solidarity logo is pinned to his vest above the sheriff’s badge. The message at the bottom of the poster reads: “W samo południe: 4 czerwca 1989,” which translates to “High Noon: 4 June 1989.”

Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa  explained it later:

“It was a simple but effective gimmick that at the time was misunderstood by the Communists. They tried to ridicule the freedom movement in Poland as an invention of the ‘Wild’ West, especially the U.S. But the poster had the opposite impact: Cowboys had become a powerful symbol for Poles. Cowboys fight for justice, fight against evil, and fight for freedom. ”

In 1953 Gary Cooper won the Best Actor Oscar for High Noon and in 1990 Lech Wałęsa became President of Poland.

Read the full story…

Warsaw, The River Vistula, Gary Cooper and some Film Trivia

Warsaw and the Vistula

I’ll tell you how cold it was this morning, so cold that it stopped Kim from stopping every few metres and window shopping, so cold that my face was stinging and my eyes were watering.  It probably wasn’t such a great idea then to take a route to the old town along the banks of the River Vistula.

It was quite a long walk to even get there along a busy boulevard called Jerusalem Avenue on account of the fact that there was once a Jewish town around here and to mark the spot there is a curious fifteen metre high artificial palm tree which supposes symbolises the natural vegetation of Jerusalem.  To be honest I thought it just looked odd!

Eventually we reached the river and I knew straight away that I had made a mistake.  After all the hard work repairing the damage of the Valentine’s night evening meal fiasco I almost immediately flushed away any bonus points earned.

I had imagined the riverside walk to be a similar experience to strolling alongside the Danube in Budapest but it was immediately obvious that no one was going to write a dainty waltz and call it the Blue Vistula!  It was grey and ugly and there were no embankments just muddy no-man’s-land where the water met the silt and the river debris.

Kim wasn’t at all happy about this and to be honest neither was I. There was no one else around, just a busy road running adjacent to the path and we had to pass under several bridges where I imagined danger to be lurking in every shadow.  The bridges too were ugly, in complete contrast to those in Budapest.  In fact they were so ugly there were no love locks attached to any of them, which is of course a good thing, in fact they were so ugly that I imagine that the only lock someone would attach here would be a hate lock!

We walked quickly and as we got closer to the Old Town the environment became less threatening, there were more people and soon we were climbing steps and making our way to the restored streets and squares.  On reflection I am certain that there was no danger down by the river, it was just so unattractive and didn’t feel good.

Solidarity Gary Cooper

As we approached we passed the heavily guarded Presidential Palace and on the pavement outside there was a display commemorating some previous uprising or other and as a backdrop there was a huge canvas poster of Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane in the film High Noon.

I had no idea why until I looked it up later:

In 1989 there were some partially free elections in Poland and this was the official poster of the Solidarity movement and it shows Cooper armed not with a pistol in his right hand but with a folded ballot saying ‘Wybory’ (elections)  while the Solidarity logo is pinned to his vest above the sheriff’s badge. The message at the bottom of the poster reads: “W samo południe: 4 czerwca 1989,” which translates to “High Noon: 4 June 1989.”

Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa  explained it later:

“It was a simple but effective gimmick that at the time was misunderstood by the Communists. They tried to ridicule the freedom movement in Poland as an invention of the ‘Wild’ West, especially the U.S. But the poster had the opposite impact: Cowboys had become a powerful symbol for Poles. Cowboys fight for justice, fight against evil, and fight for freedom. ”

In 1953 Gary Cooper won the Best Actor Oscar for High Noon* and in 1990 Lech Wałęsa became President of Poland.

I digress for a moment.  Gary Cooper wasn’t present at the ceremony because of filming commitments and the award was accepted on his behalf by John Wayne.  In the speech Wayne said he liked the film so much he was going to try and find out why he hadn’t been offered the part.  This was rather hypocritical, he hated the film so much that he called it “… the most un-American thing I’ve seen in my whole life.”  With a town full of cowards and a scared Marshall (Cooper) he didn’t think it captured the true spirit of the old west as he personally preferred to represent it.  Soon after he collaborated with the film director Howard Hawkes to make the film Rio Bravo which presents a similar story line in a completely alternative way.  Wayne and Hawkes liked their own film so much that they remade it twice – El Dorado and Rio Lobo.

It was still quite busy today but nothing like as crowded and vibrant as the previous day so we walked around the remaining restored red brick walls of the Old Town which didn’t take very long and then at a previous fortress gate we made our way inside and really did nothing more than repeat the circuitous walk that we negotiated the day previously. In the Old Town square, the statue of Syrena, the mermaid symbol of the city, seemed hopelessly marooned in the middle of an artificial skating rink which looked cold, empty and uninviting.  It was raw and bleak, the stubborn mist hung low and the wind cut through our clothes like a sabre.

We needed to find somewhere warm, and this is how cold it was, Kim didn’t object for even a moment when I suggested that we make our way to the Royal Castle and take a look at the Museum inside.

Royal Castle Warsaw

I took this picture the following day when the mist had cleared and the sun came back out!

* Best Actor for a western is quite rare.  Warner Baxter won  for In Old Arizona (1929), Lee Marvin for Cat Ballou (1965), and John Wayne for True Grit (1969). The most recent nominations for actors in a Western include Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves (1990), Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven (1992) and Jeff Bridges in True Grit (2010).