GDANSK, POLAND -- There are some weeks when I’m not sure what to write to you about, because nothing very interesting seems to have happened.
This is not one of those weeks.
President Obama’s speech in Cairo about relations between the US and the Muslim world? Fascinating and significant, certainly worth a newsletter.
Events in Westminster, the apparent public disintegration of the government? Not without interest.
The 20th anniversary of the beginning of the end of Communism in Europe, the reason I’m here in Poland? Definitely worth reflecting upon.
As, of course, is the 20th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, when Communist leaders in Beijing refused to do what their Polish counterparts were doing: accept that it was time to look for a new political model.
I’ll leave the Obama speech for another day ... but it did seem to me, having read the text of it, that there was plenty there to encourage the hope that Washington is ready to try a new approach.
As for Westminster, events are now moving so fast that between the time I write these words in my Gdansk hotel room and they reach your inbox, who knows what’ll have happened? (If you heard the programme last night, you’ll appreciate how quickly we sometimes have to adapt to new developments.)
So here are just a couple of thoughts about Poland and China. Why did 4 June 1989 mark the end of Communism here in Poland but not in China? Well, for one thing, the Polish democracy movement had been fighting for nearly a decade by the time the end finally came … remember, the Solidarity independent trade union movement had been established back in 1980, and had survived both the imposition of martial law and the imprisonment of its leaders.
In China, on the other hand, the protests in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere lasted barely seven weeks. True, there had been a fledgling pro-democracy movement, but with nothing like the depth of support that Solidarity had been able to build on in Poland.
And if you believe in the power of individuals to change history, reflect on the roles of two men: Pope John Paul II, the Polish pope, Karol Wojtyla, and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov. Here in Poland, the influence of both was enormous. (Even today, in a survey asking Poles who was the most influential man of recent times, the Pope came top.) The Pope came to Poland in 1979 and told Poles they need not be afraid and that they had the power to change their homeland.
Mikhail Gorbachov told them that it was up to them how they chose to be governed, in other words that there would be no Soviet tanks rolling through their streets, as there had been in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. And in China too, his pro-reform stance encouraged pro-democracy campaigners to believe that, as in the Soviet Union, it was possible for a Communist party to adapt.
In some ways, it already seems a long time ago. Walk through the streets of Warsaw or Gdansk, and it’s hard to imagine that just two decades ago, this country was “behind the Iron Curtain” (what a strange sound those words have now!).
But I remember those days so clearly, going on air night after night, reporting the end of Communist rule first here in Poland, then in Hungary, and East Germany, and Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria and Romania. No more Iron Curtain, no more Berlin Wall.
I’ll write about Gordon Brown another day.