Scholar Interviews


Vladimir Tismaneanu: What source do you use in your classroom to help students understand the events of 1989?


It’s a book by Adam Michnik, the famous Polish historian, political thinker, dissident. He is currently the editor-in-chief of Poland’s most circulated daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, and also very well known in the United States. The book is called Letters from Prison and Other Essays, and as the title says, these are some of the most important essays and articles and letters written by Adam Michnik during his several periods in jail. It’s an argument of how to oppose a violent regime. It doesn’t matter whether the communists used violence every day. It so happened that whenever challenged, they used violence.

It’s also called Letters because it includes a wonderful and deeply moving and extremely funny letter written under tragic circumstances at a certain moment when Michnik was arrested. He was, as I said, one of the leaders of Solidarity. Solidarity was legally established as an autonomous self-governing trade union in August 1980, and it was banned via the proclamation of the martial law by the communist dictatorship headed by General Wojciech Jaruzelski in December, on December 13, 1981. Michnik together with so many of his close friends and associates were arrested, and he spent three or four years in prison as a result of this.

And at a certain moment he was offered a deal by the Minister of Internal Affairs, General Czeslaw Kiszcak. The Department of the Interior is not the Department of Natural Parks in a communist regime. It’s a department dealing with the secret police. So the head of the secret police offered Michnik a free ticket to leave prison, to leave Poland and to go to France, to the Riviera. And Michnik’s response, which is a letter he penned in prison, was smuggled out of his cell and came out in many Western newspapers in the Polish underground solidarity press, in which he explained to General Kiszcak why he doesn’t accept this offer. And the last line, which as I said it’s funny and it’s enormously courageous because he was a prisoner of this particular person, the last line is something like, “And you’ll never understand, General, why I don’t accept your offer. And you know why you’ll not understand it? Very simply, because I’m a human being and you’re a pig.” And that was the last line.

How to Cite

Vladimir Tismaneanu, interview, "What source do you use in your classroom to help students understand the events of 1989?." Making the History of 1989, Item #614 (accessed May 28 2021, 3:22 pm)