How did it come to this, I wondered as I surveyed the menu – house speciality, tripe – of the Hotel Solec in Warsaw in 1988. I had been working on Wall Street, amid all the fizz and bustle of New York City in its maddest late Bonfire of the Vanities phase. Now I was helping to run a philosophy conference in communist Poland. Something, somewhere, seemed to have gone horribly wrong.
I had visited the USSR in 1981 at the height of the Cold War, working – if you can believe it – as boot-packer and assistant courier on a magic bus going the long way to Kathmandu. The bleakness, control and suppression of basic human freedoms I saw there were utterly dismaying. But I hadn’t paid much attention to Poland, to the extraordinary emergence of the Solidarity trade union in the Gdańsk shipyards in 1980, the flowering of civic society it engendered, and the vicious imposition of martial law that followed.
Now, eight years later, I was at the Solec, where the Solidarity delegation had stayed for its negotiations with the communist regime. Martial law had been lifted, but communist control was still everywhere, with periodic food shortages and flourishing black markets.
It was then that I read Tim Garton Ash’s extraordinary The Polish Revolution (1983). The book tells the story of modern Poland through Solidarity – from the partition of 1795, via the author’s reportage from inside the shipyards, to the final crackdown. It shows how the Poles have been vigorously, ingeniously, wittily resistant to Russian attempts at control for 200 years. In 1989, without warning, the Berlin Wall fell: they had won.
But by then I had left Wall Street to run a charitable project in Boston shipping free new medical books to doctors across Poland. It was a life-changing decision – and The Polish Revolution was at the heart of it.
Jesse Norman MP’s novel “The Winding Stair” (Biteback) has been shortlisted for a Parliamentary Book Award
This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge