Poland July-August 1990

Gdańsk Shipyard, July 30, 1990.

As part of Students for Solidarity and Democracy in Eastern Europe (SSDEE) at The George Washington University starting in 1989, I followed the transition from communism in Eastern European countries with great interest.  After decades living under repressive communist governments, people in these countries were developing new ways of thinking and new institutions and holding elections.  There was a lot of discussion about whether there was a "third way" between the communist and capitalist systems.  The West, including many American NGOs and businesses, provided assistance and expertise—some of which was useful and some less so.
In July and August 1990 I traveled with a small group of students on a trip to Poland led by SSDEE founder Marcin Żmudzki.  Poland was very much at a turning point.  The Marriott in Warsaw was humming with business dealmaking. In Gdańsk we visited the shipyard, formerly known as the Lenin Shipyard, where Lech Wałęsa had worked as an electrician.  In 1980 he was involved in a strike there, and in August the government agreed to workers' 21 demands [hence the "21 x tak" (yes) sign in the above photo]—including approval for creation of trade unions independent of the communist government.  Eventually this served as the catalyst for the fall of communism in Poland and across Eastern Europe.  Wałęsa served as chairman of the Solidarność (Solidarity) trade union; he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.  By 1989 he was involved in the Round Table negotiations, which led to the first semi-free parliamentary elections in June.  Our group met briefly with Wałęsa in his office in Gdańsk; four months later on December 9 he was elected president of Poland. 

There were many other highlights on the trip including a moving visit to Auschwitz
where, for example, a huge pile of shoes testified to the horrors that had gone on there.  In addition to the concentration camp, we saw at the train station a train with Soviet troops leaving the country.  Unfortunately, I had run out of film, and the other person there with camera would not take photos for fear of getting in trouble.  We also ventured down a coal mine in Krakow.  In addition to traveling around Poland, we made a brief visit to what was then Czechoslovakia, and some of the group also traveled to Hungary.

Looking back on the experience after more than three decades, one wonders which of the many efforts to aid and assist Poland through the transition period were most effective, and which had little or no effect?  Further, looking at the region as a whole, which countries have been most successful in making the transition from communism and which are lagging?  Most obviously, Russia is country which could have made the transition to a more democratic system after the fall of communism, but instead ended up with the brutal dictator Putin.  Could U.S. and international aid efforts to Russia at that time have been more effective, or would it not have made a difference?

Marcin Żmudzki provided me with some Polish posters and leaflets from 1989 and the early 1990s which I photographed several decades ago.  Unfortunately I used inappropriate B&W film and didn't have the best lighting so they are not great images.  Still they are interesting; I hope to post these as well (>). 

Key Dates in Several Eastern European Countries
  • In Poland on June 4, 1989, in the first open parliamentary elections in more than forty years, Solidarity candidates swept almost all contested seats.
  • On November 9, 1989, Germans celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Four months later, in March 1990, East Germans voted in the first free elections since 1932 and supported parties favoring rapid reunification with West Germany.
  • In Czechoslovakia, following the Velvet Revolution, playwright Vaclav Havel was elected president by the Federal Assembly on December 29, 1989; parliamentary elections followed in June 1990. 
  • In Hungary in March and April 1990, the Hungarian Democratic Forum and its allies secured almost 60-percent of seats in the first free parliamentary elections since 1945.
  • By Christmas Day of 1991, the Evil Empire itself was consigned to the history books, as the Soviet Union dissolved following the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev as President.