Diplomatic Pouch / December 20, 2013
By Larry Luxner
On Nov. 15, 1989, Polish trade-union leader Lech Walesa made history when he became only the second foreign private citizen to address a joint session of Congress — and the first since the Marquis de Lafayette did so in 1824.
Earlier this month, Walesa was back on Capitol Hill — this time as a 70-year-old senior statesman — to thank all the lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, who supported Poland during its darkest days as a Soviet satellite struggling to break free of communism. The occasion: the screening of a new documentary by prominent Polish film director Andrzej Wajda.
Some 400 people attended the Dec. 4 event, held at the Congressional Auditorium and organized by the Polish Embassy. In addition to Walesa, dignitaries included Ryszard Schnepf, Poland’s ambassador to the United States; former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski; Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and former Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), who’s now CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America.
“I’m honored to welcome Lech Walesa back to the Capitol, where he gave his famous speech to Congress,” said Mikulski, the great-granddaughter of Polish immigrants. “When Lech Walesa jumped over the wall at the Gdansk Shipyard, he took the whole world with him. The Solidarity movement brought hope and democracy to Poland, and inspired so many more around the globe, including Polish-Americans in my hometown of Baltimore. The United States and Poland are united by our beliefs — in freedom, in people and in speaking truth to power. Today, we are strong democracies, true allies and steadfast friends.”
Also in the audience was actor Robert Wieckiewicz, who stars as Walesa in Wajda’s film and bears a striking resemblance to the Solidarity hero. So were dozens of Americans who knew Walesa before he won a Nobel Peace Prize and went on to become president of Poland.
“In those days I didn’t have any Ph.Ds, but today I have three, and about 100 honorary professorships,” Walesa said, eliciting laughter for his biting sarcasm. “And as far as medals and orders, I have 50 times more than Leonid Brezhnev, and he had enough to cover his entire chest. So from that perspective, it was worth fighting for.”
Coincidentally, the event took place one day before the death of another freedom fighter, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, who — like Walesa — overcame improbable odds in the 1990s to win a Nobel Peace Prize, then served one five-year term as president of the country that had once imprisoned him.
“I spoke at every public high school in Connecticut over the years … and I’d always be asked, ‘Can one person change the world?’” said Dodd, who met Walesa in the summer of 1983. “I used to constantly cite Lech Walesa, Eunice Shriver and Nelson Mandela as people who clearly changed the world.”
“Walesa: Man of Hope” — which also stars Agnieszka Grochowska as Danuta, Lech Walesa’s long-suffering wife and Maria Rosaria Omaggio as abrasive Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci — is interspersed with black-and-white footage of the 1970 labor riots and Solidarity’s meteoric rise in the 1980s. It is Poland’s candidate to be nominated for the 2014 Academy Award for best foreign-language film.
Before Wajda’s 127-minute movie was shown in its entirety, Walesa joined Dodd on the stage for an impromptu discussion about current events. In the background was a huge blowup of a black-and-white photo of the two men taken right after the end of the imposition of martial law in Poland.
“A 10 million-people movement has many heroes, and some are among us tonight,” said Ambassador Schnepf. “We know that Poland’s freedom, sovereignty and prosperity would not have been possible without the steadfast support of our friends around the world, particularly our American friends who stood by us in our greatest hour of need.”
Schnepf singled out the “unbreakable support of American unions which allowed the Solidarity movement to survive,” as well as the millions of ordinary people from California to Maine who lit candles in the windows of their homes on the night of Dec. 13, 1981, when martial law was declared in Poland.
Mikulski recalled her visit to Warsaw in 1989, when — as the first woman Democrat elected to the Senate — she shook hands with Walesa, the first democratically elected president of Poland.
“We want to make sure that in the 21st century Poland not only remains free, but also that we continue to support the participation of Poland in all of America’s activities, that it stays prosperous, is a key part of NATO and that we finally pass that visa waiver program,” Mikulski said to thunderous applause.
Walesa himself said his priority now is to speed up European integration in the face of naysayers who warn that the EU will ultimately fail.
“The older ones among us will remember that in those days, we had about 200,000 Soviet soldiers permanently stationed on Polish territory, and outside of Poland another one million Soviet soldiers — and there were silos holding nuclear weapons all around us,” he recalled. “None of the great leaders at the time gave us any chance of breaking away from communism — just like today they’re saying we will never build European unity. I say we will.”
He added: “It’s not about rockets or tanks, it’s about the spirit. The election of the Holy Father reminded people about values. People used to laugh at us, and ask ‘how many of you are there?’ But when the pope came, we saw how many of us were out there. He said change the face of the earth and the opposition groups then took over that spirit.”
Asked by Dodd for his take on the current violent protests that have erupted in neighboring Ukraine over proposed EU membership, the former Polish president suggested that Brussels keep a close eye on Moscow.
“Ukraine, its energy supply and its entire economy are subjugated to Russia. If Ukraine offends Russia, then the world will not be able to make up for the problem Russia would create for Ukraine,” he said, explaining that the 28-member EU was so certain Ukraine would join the club that it neglected “certain practical aspects” like its tenuous relationship with the Kremlin — which is what’s led to the current situation.
“Sooner or later, Ukraine will be in the EU, but we have to be ready for Russia’s ill will,” Walesa said. “We have to convince Russia that a prosperous, well-functioning Ukraine is a good thing for them, not a bad thing.”