When a country is ruled by a communist regime and all free thought is quashed, how can citizens make their opinions known to each other and try to rebuild social trust and civil society? A new book by Siobhan Doucette, Books are Weapons: The Polish Opposition Press and the Overthrow of Communism, shows just how important free, citizen-produced books and magazines were to this task.
The Polish underground press was unique from early on. Whereas dissidents in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc distributed illegal writings by “samizdat”—self-typed manuscripts produced only a few copies at a time—the Polish dissidents used mimeographs, duplicating machines that could produce hundreds or thousands of copies that spread to hundreds of readers in broad networks.
Today, the term “network” may make us think of Twitter or Facebook, the tools of 21st-century activists. But there was a key difference. The publications of the 1970s and 1980s were, of course, printed on paper—a physical medium. And that physical nature dictated that activists had to meet in person. They had to hand off bags of contraband magazines and books. They needed secret locations for their duplicators. They needed to put themselves at risk. They needed to put skin in the game.
For Doucette, this explains why the Polish underground press was so important, and why it had such a lasting impact. These flexible, in-person networks helped to create a pluralistic civil society that learned from what Hannah Arendt called “the exhilarating experience of power which comes from acting together.”
In the mid-1970s, smuggled mimeograph machines enabled secret publishing ventures in several different milieux: among students at the Catholic University of Lublin, among literary-minded intellectuals, and in nascent civic rights organizations like the Committee for the Defense of Workers (KOR) and the Movement for the Defense of Human and Civil Rights (ROPCiO). By the late 1970s most of these groups had made contact with each other. Interestingly, even at this early stage, political and philosophical differences were becoming manifest—foreshadowing some of the partisan divisions of the post-1989 democratic era.
Underground publishers became confident, even bold. Many openly named their editors and contributors. NOWa, the “Independent Publishing House,” actually took part in the 1977 Venice Biennale and the 1979 Frankfurt Book Fair, and delivered its publications to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC and even to members of the Polish communist elite!
Readers from all strata of society took to the new publications with gusto. By 1980, underground publications were reaching a regular readership of 200,000, including workers, students, and farmers. Independent presses produced academic works to be used in illicit “Flying Universities,” pamphlets explaining what to do if arrested by police, and lists of political demands meant as action plans for oppositional action. And by buying publications, readers directly funded the opposition.
Still, all was not easy. Dissidents were vulnerable to firing from their jobs, temporary arrest, house searches, confiscations, fines, and physical attacks, among other punishments. Moreover, state security services infiltrated the underground press with informers and moles and even created counterfeited independent publications.
In 1980 everything changed. After major strikes in Gdańsk, the agreements known as the August Social Accords led to the creation of the independent trade union Solidarity, an epochal event in Polish history. In little more than a year, the trade union, led by Lech Wałęsa, would grow to 10 million members. Suddenly, Poland had a popular, above-ground opposition movement.
The networks established by underground printers proved useful to Solidarity. Printers aided in the establishment of Solidarity’s new publications, which were legal and massively distributed, but subject to government censorship. Nevertheless, 1980-81 was a period of shocking freedom during which uncensored publications were broadly available to all sectors of society.
Alas, it was too good to last. In December 1981, the communist regime of General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared a state of war and carried out a savage crackdown on Polish civil society. Over 10,000 people were interned and over 3,600 arrested. Of 1,896 independent periodicals in production in 1981, only 83 survived to 1982. 360 printing locations were shut down; 1,196 pieces of printing equipment and 468 typewriters confiscated; hundreds of thousands of flyers, posters, and books were taken away.
Publishing was especially hard-hit by the period of martial law. But it did not disappear. In some cases, precautions that had seemed paranoid in 1981 paid off. Duplicators and printing equipment had been stashed in secret locations. More importantly than that, the years of open opposition had changed people’s attitudes. While existing institutions like Solidarity had been smashed and dismantled, individuals and small groups began organizing on personal initiative.
The underground press, once more, became the most important independent institution in the country. It was the only independent institution with recent experience of clandestine activity. Despite the regime’s best efforts, complicated secret distribution networks were reestablished. Dissidents even build their own duplicators.
Publications were made for military servicemen, for anarchists, for punks, for pacifists, for nationalists, for average citizens. “There was no clear point in the 1980s when pluralism came to the opposition,” Doucette writes, “yet if one were to exhibit the serial titles available in the independent press in 1987 and 1988, they would be in many ways akin to a periodical display at a bookstore.”
“The independent press is an island where people learned things such as democracy, economic practicality, and independent decision making,” said Andrzej Osęnka. After the round table transition of 1989 and the dissolution of Poland’s censorship office in June 1990, these lessons would stand Polish citizens in good stead as they faced the new challenges of free self-government.
Siobhan Doucette, Books are Weapons: The Polish Opposition Press and the Overthrow of Communism (Pittsburgh University Press, 2017).
Photo: Open Society Archives