Walk down Long Market Street, past the shops selling amber beads and cavalry swords, through the medieval gates of the city of Gdansk, Poland. Cross the highway, head toward the shipyard and look up. When I did so a few days ago, I saw an enormous billboard featuring a list of cities: “Gdansk. Budapest. Prague. Berlin. Bucharest. Sofia. Kiev.” The list makes it clear that the 1980 Gdansk shipyard strikes, which broke the state’s monopoly of power in the Soviet bloc and created the independent Solidarity trade union, set the pattern for the democratic revolutions that rolled across Eastern Europe in 1989 and that continue to roll across the nations of the former Soviet Union today.
Walk a little farther and you’ll come to the shipyard itself. To mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of Solidarity, a small exhibit has been installed. Somewhat oddly, the entrance leads through the hull of a ship, festooned with a not entirely comprehensible “multimedia” exhibit. More evocative are the black-and-white photographs. Some feature the strike leader Lech Walesa, signing the Solidarity agreement with Poland’s communist leaders. Most show crowd scenes: thousands of shipyard workers praying, talking or sprawled out on the ground, passing the time during the two-week strike.
But what is most interesting about the billboard and the exhibit, along with the multiple conferences, concerts and celebrity speeches taking place in Gdansk this week, is the fact that they are happening at all. Until recently, it wasn’t easy to find public displays of pride in Poland’s democratic revolution. Five years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the founding of Solidarity, giant screens set up to relay celebratory speeches to the citizens of Gdansk attracted no more than 50 or 60. Far from seeing themselves as part of a peaceful revolution that stretched from Gdansk in 1980 to Kiev in 2004, most Poles associated the collapse of communism with corrupt politics and personal hardship.
This persistent pessimism has been one of the biggest surprises of political and economic reform. Back in 1980, or, indeed, 1989, no one imagined that the most difficult transition from communism to democracy would be psychological, not economic, or that the post-totalitarian moral hangover would linger 15 years past the first free elections. Even now, as economic problems are gradually solved, as once-shabby cities are rebuilt and repainted, and as Eastern Europeans join Western institutions, the perception of failure, personal and national, has remained. A survey of “happiness” recently quoted in the Economist revealed that despite their rising incomes, Poles still say they feel gloomier than they used to.
In part, this is because the adjustment to a new system itself was traumatic. Even if they make more money, people now have to work harder and longer than before. Even if standards of living are rising across the board, some people’s standards of living are rising a lot faster. In the communist era, everyone seemed equal on the surface: Privileges, such as access to foreign goods and travel, were mostly invisible. When your neighbor buys a Mercedes, on the other hand, it’s hard not to notice. It is also true that democracy, if you aren’t used to it, isn’t always a pretty sight. In Warsaw recently, a friend described to me a new TV talk show, in which (sound familiar?) participants of various political convictions all shout at each other. He rather liked it, he said, but most of his friends don’t: “They think it’s ‘uncultured’ when politicians disagree.”
There were also ways in which the transition was genuinely unjust. Many of the early beneficiaries of economic change were not striking shipyard workers but their communist bosses, who converted political influence into private property and then used their money to win back political influence. A series of seemingly endless scandals over the past several years has reminded people that not everyone is in politics because they want to improve the lot of ordinary people. Because their official representatives — the government, the cabinet ministers, the members of parliament — hardly seemed worth admiring, many Poles didn’t think much of their country either, whatever its economic growth statistics.
The festivities in Gdansk may not mark the end of this post-transition gloom, or of the resentment of politicians. But they do show that some kind of corner has been turned — or at least that some Poles have found some blessings to count at last. To mark the anniversary, 100,000 people turned out for a pop concert on the grounds of the shipyard. Across town, dissidents from Burma to Belarus converged to discuss how they might foment their own peaceful revolutions at home. However much they disparage it, the generation that witnessed their country’s transformation is finding that it’s become a source of pride for their children and a symbol of hope around the world. It’s been a long time coming — take note, Iraq-watchers — but despite themselves, Poles are starting to feel that Poland is a success.