Just a few minutes from the city centre of Gdańsk, the railway megaphone announces the following station – Następny przystanek – next stop, it says with a somewhat distorted voice. The rattling of the lemon and navy blue convoy of these high-speed trains between cities on Poland’s Baltic coast – or SKM for short – is gradually slowing down. A huge emerald crane imposes itself majestically as soon as one sets foot on the platform, while the visitor’s eyes turn to the elevated bridge that connects the station to this seemingly inhospitable place.
A large esplanade of dirt, some poorly parked cars, single-storey buildings with broken glass and dusty appearance, communist propaganda that still survives, … a desolate scenario if it weren’t for the sounds of drums and guitars coming from a nearby location. On the left, an impressive building crowned with white capital letters welcomes the visitor: ‘Stocznia Gdańska‘ (Gdańsk shipyard). In this same space, 30 years ago, took place one of the events that marked the course of the history of the twentieth century. The wick that put an end to communism in Poland and Eastern Europe originated in the shipyard of Gdańsk, better known as the Lenin shipyard.
The shipyard: symbol of the struggle
The Polish city of Gdańsk, capital of the Pomerania voivodship and main port of the country, is currently the head of a metropolitan area which, together with the localities of Gdynia and Sopot, exceeds one million inhabitants. Formerly Danzig – by its German name – hosted what is considered the first battle of the Second World War, when on September 1, 1939 the German army invaded Poland through the peninsula of Westerplatte, just in front of the city. It was 90 percent destroyed and integrated into Poland after the Allied victory, which led to the expulsion of its German inhabitants.
Decades later, and after thirty-five years of Soviet power, the first pockets of opposition to the communist regime emerged in the city. According to the Deia.eus portal, in 1970, the workers of the Lenin shipyard demonstrated against the rise in prices; strong protests that ended with some of the dead and with the government trying to apply economic reforms to the country that appeased the spirits. Ten years later, another rise in prices led to demands all over Poland. It was on August 14, 1980 when the strike broke out in the Shipyard of Gdańsk, as stated in the document “Two days of freedom“, published by the Ministry of Tourism of the same city. The strikers demanded that the activists of the Free Trade Unions of Pomerania -Wolne Związki Zawodowe Wybrzeża- be given their jobs back, that a monument be erected in memory of those who died during the strike in December 1970, that it be guaranteed that they would not suffer reprisals and that they be granted a salary increase. At the head of the Strike Committee – Międzyzakładowy Komitet Strajkowy – was Lech Wałęsa, and the demands of those demonstrating were written in 21 postulates collected on two wooden boards. First and foremost, it was intended that free trade unions independent of government and employers should be recognized. This was the origin of the union Solidarność (Solidarity), which became the protagonist of the protests.
After several periods of clandestinity and resistance of the union, and with the Soviet bloc in an unsustainable economic and political situation, on June 4, 1989, the Poles attended the first democratic elections after forty years of communist monopoly, the result of which meant the beginning of the end of the People’s Republic of Poland. The vote gave victory to the Solidarity trade union, whose leader, Nobel Peace Prize lech Wałęsa, became in 1990 the first democratically elected president since 1939. Events at the Gdańsk shipyard triggered a series of events culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
Culture opens the way
Today, at this very point, the sound of the cranes is blurred by the Caribbean rhythms of a nearby bar. 100cznia, a play on words to commemorate this place (“100” is written “Sto” in Polish), is one of many outdoor venues that have been formed around the shipyard and that have their roots in the ‘Protokultura’ current, an artistic network that organizes concerts and exhibitions, among other events; a mixture of industrial environment – with abandoned containers and prominent facades that recall the purpose of these buildings, – next to palm trees, sand, wooden seats and neon lights, which are more reminiscent of a tropical paradise.
During this month of June, Gedanians, Poles from all over the country and a host of media participated in the celebrations of the ‘Festival of Freedom and Solidarity’ (Święto and Solidarności); 130 activities organised to commemorate the anniversary of the first partially free elections in Poland, as well as to remember the importance of the shipyard. In the European Solidarity Centre – Europejskie Centrum Solidarności, ECS – is the place where the most important events were held. Founded in 2008 by the former mayor of the city, Paweł Adamowicz, who was stabbed at a public event in January this year, the ECS brought together on 4 June several leaders, including the historic leader of the Solidarity trade union and former president of Poland – Lech Wałęsa – and the president of the European Council and a native of Gdańsk, Donald Tusk. Accompanied by dozens of people, they sang the national anthem – the Mazurka of Dąbrowski – after signing the Declaration of Freedom and Solidarity, placing flowers in front of the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers, and distributing a cake of two meters that put the icing on the official acts.
More than an anniversary
But if the memory of Solidarity, the shipyard and the end of an era is of any use, it is to question the direction that Poland has followed since then. Specifically, to ask where is the country, since 1989 when a trade union managed to democratically defeat the powerful Soviet state, until today, with the ultra-conservative party Law and Justice – PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), for its acronym in Polish – in power and the whole country in the spotlight on many issues that concern the whole of Europe, such as climate change or immigration.
According to Reuters, since the fall of communism, Poland has joined the European Union and the NATO military alliance, but many Poles feel that acceptance of Western values and pro-capitalist economic policies have come at their expense. In this sense, the PiS has intensified the debate, arguing that communist era practices still hamper the judicial system, and that the inability of liberal governments to get rid of pre-1989 judges makes them inefficient and unfair.
The acts of the ECS were not attended by the Eurosceptic leaders of the PiS, a symptom of the differences with the European institutions and, especially, with the city of Gdańsk, feud of the opposition in the Polish Parliament – Civic Platform – and of the “Europe Coalition”, a formation that was presented at the last European elections and whose results were indisputable in this city, as opposed to the tiny presence of the PiS. The anniversary, as several media have affirmed, has become a battleground for the legacy of communism between the liberal opposition and the ruling nationalists, just a few months before the national elections, which will be held in autumn.
Recognition, from Spain
Whatever the battle, whether in Parliament or on the street when it comes to preserving the historic past of this place, the city of Gdańsk is celebrating, not only for the anniversary already mentioned, but because it was awarded the Princess of Asturias Award of Concord 2019 last June 13. The jury in charge of awarding this distinction recognised this city as “an example of sensitivity to suffering, of solidarity, of defence of freedoms and human rights and of extraordinary generosity”.
Perhaps many, when they see this place with the naked eye, simply perceive a quiet city on the shores of the Baltic. Nothing would suggest – except for the worn red brick façades – the hustle and bustle of these labyrinthine corridors in the old Lenin shipyard, which employed almost 20,000 people, or that 80 years ago, just ten kilometres from the historic centre, the start of the Second World War was taking place. Somehow, all this is impregnated in the Renaissance-style facades of the historic centre, in the monumental floors of the PRL – Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa or People’s Republic of Poland – of neighbourhoods like Zaspa, and in the green cranes of the shipyard, today immobile with the passing of time and surrounded by the sway of curious people. All these places are the soul of an enclave that, in the words of its current mayor, Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, are an indisputable part of Gdańsk, “the city of freedom, solidarity and now also of harmony“.