Lech Walesa carried through the streets by Solidarity supporters in 1980 (Photo by PAI-Foto.pl/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

September 8, 2020   5 mins

Accounts of how and why the Berlin Wall came down, and the end of the Cold War, tend to begin with Mikhail Gorbachev, the reform Communist who became Soviet leader in 1985. Or — for those who don’t like the idea of anointing a Communist hero — Ronald Reagan, who became US president in 1981, is said to have hastened the end with his 1987 call to “tear this wall down”.

Gorbachev and Reagan both had important roles to play, for sure — including in their surprising friendship. But not everything in history is about political leaders and superpowers.

Above all, the astonishing events that transformed Poland through an upsurge of popular resistance in autumn 1980 paved the way for everything that unfolded throughout the region in the years to come. The ripples of those events continue, including in neighbouring Belarus today.

The strikes 40 years ago in the shipyards of Gdańsk and then across the country led to the creation of Solidarity, an independent trade union with 10 million members which achieved legal status within the still-strong Soviet bloc. The Gdańsk Agreement was signed at the end of August 1980, and Solidarity as a national movement was formed on 17 September. This was an opposition movement, by any other name — in ways that had until then seemed unthinkable.

These were dangerous times. Leonid Brezhnev, then Soviet leader, had given his name to what was described as “the Brezhnev doctrine”: if faced with a problem, send in the tanks. The Russians had invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, to stop the Prague Spring. Just eight months before Solidarity, they sent tanks into Afghanistan. The Western consensus was that the Polish strikers were foolhardy, because the authorities “clearly” could not agree to their demands. The Times took comfort from the fact that “the romantic and volatile Pole of tradition” was now “less in evidence”, and that therefore they would only demand what the authorities were ready to give.

It didn’t work out that way.

Poles, like Belarusians today, understood the risks better than any outside observers could do. A decade earlier, protests in Gdansk had been violently crushed, and dozens were killed. But, as I witnessed when living in Poland through these extraordinary days, Poles were energised by the astonishing possibilities of change. Despite all the power at the government’s disposal, non-violent mass action forced an unyielding police state to back down. That legacy would never be entirely erased.

In the months that followed, Poland was transformed. Unpublishable books were published. Unseen films were shown. Public meetings, traditionally dull affairs, became engaged and extraordinary. There were still self-imposed boundaries; most speakers tiptoed around the ever-present threat of Soviet intervention. But Poles could echo Wordsworth, on the French Revolution: bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.

It didn’t last. After 16 months, the tanks did go on the streets. Solidarity was banned. Many were arrested and jailed. Dozens were killed. The sceptics and pessimists felt justified in saying: you see, we were right all along. Those pesky Poles had just been too bold, with their demands. The status quo had been restored.

Except that it never was restored, despite all the propaganda, the tear gas, the arrests. The dissident Adam Michnik was briefly released from jail under a political amnesty in 1984. Back behind bars the following year, he wrote of what he had seen while out on the streets, describing it as the “barren twilight” of the totalitarian world. His experience “exceeded not just my expectations but even my dreams”. Sooner or later, he wrote, “but I think sooner, we shall leave the prisons and come out of the underground on to the bright square of freedom”.

Many would have described Michnik as a naïve dreamer for those words, and understandably so. Within a few years, however, he was proved right. Solidarity was re-legalised. In August 1989, as East Europe Editor of the Independent, I was able to sit in the gallery of the Polish parliament and watch a Solidarity prime minister being appointed. Three months later, the Berlin Wall came down. Two years after that, the Soviet Union itself was history.

I was reminded of those words of Michnik recently, when reading the reflections of Svetlana Sugako of the (brilliant) semi-underground Belarus Free Theatre, who was held for several days with a colleague in an overcrowded cell in the Okrestina prison in Minsk, notorious for its violence and torture. Sugako said: “We went into jail in one country, and came out into another… I just burst into tears, it was so unbelievable.

Renewed official violence in Belarus is still an obvious possibility, as we are reminded by the sight of President Alexander Lukashenko strutting around with an assault rifle, and by the continued arrests and deaths. Lukashenko praises his violent OMON riot police, even as the non-violent protesters — with women often playing a key role — use creative methods to trump the violence. But, as with Poland in 1980 and 1981, each day that goes by makes it more difficult for Lukashenko (and his uneasy backers in Moscow) to return to the repressive status quo ante, whatever violence he or they may choose to use.

Arguably, Lukashenko has already overplayed his hand: if he had not claimed an offensively absurd “80%” electoral victory over his presidential challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the protests against the stolen election might not have been so vigorous or sustained. Authoritarian leaders sometimes persuade themselves that they can do anything — as this week’s abduction of opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova by unidentified masked men made clear. But officials lawlessness and violence should not be seen as the last word.

As with Poland in 1980-81, this remains a fragile time. It is unsurprising that the most vocal support for the people of Belarus comes not from powerful Western governments but from the small neighbouring Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, who were also told by Western leaders that they were “unrealistic” in their aspirations to regain independence from Moscow, which they had lost when Stalin annexed all three countries under the secret terms of the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939.

The stance of Moscow will remain important. Clearly, Vladimir Putin has every reason to be nervous about the prospective fall of Lukashenko, however little respect he may have for Lukashenko himself. The ripples of protest in Belarus could still spread into Russia itself — just as happened 30 years ago, when Russian slogans in solidarity with the Baltic states proclaimed: “For your and our freedom.”

In 1989, I asked a pro-independence leader in Estonia if he was not frightened of the prospect of violence from Moscow, to stop this defiance of Kremlin rule.

No, he said: “You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube.” To prove his point, he added: “Look what just happened in Poland”, where the appointment of a Solidarity prime minister had just been announced. Another activist calmly explained that any Soviet violence would simply be “the last dying flick of the dragon’s tail”. She and others were proved right. Eighteen months later, when Soviet tanks went into the Baltic states in January 1991, the violence backfired.

The end of the story in Belarus is not yet written. But if we see increased official violence and mass arrests and a part-Russian takeover tomorrow, that won’t mark the end of the story, any more than it did in Poland or the Baltic states. A Soviet hardline coup in August 1991 was supposed to stop reforms and restore Soviet strength. The coup collapsed because of popular protests after just three days. The Soviet Union itself ended four months later.

For Lukashenko and Putin alike, those lessons from history are impossible to ignore.

Steve Crawshaw is policy and advocacy director at Freedom from Torture, and author of Street Spirit: The Power of Protest and Mischief