On October 23, 1956, I celebrated my tenth birthday. Surely there was cake and ice cream, a gift or two, and a party with balloons and games, but I really can’t say. My most vivid memory of the day (or perhaps the day after, given the relative slowness of the news wires in 1956) is running down the stairs from my bedroom, only to discover the Hungarian Revolution had begun.
I was a child, growing up in Iowa. I certainly never had met a Hungarian, and I had little if any idea what a revolution might be. But I could read, and I liked to look at photographs. As I headed toward the kitchen, The Des Moines Register was lying on the dining room table. There was a huge photograph above the fold, and the words REVOLUTION IN HUNGARY were splashed across the top. I stopped to see what required such large print, and such big pictures. Looking at the photograph, my mind was wiped clean of thought like one of my grade-school blackboards. I was gaining my first, visceral understanding that the world was larger than my town, and not everyone in that world lived with cake, ice cream and gifts.
I was lucky enough to be raised in a time and place where teachers were left free to teach children, and my teachers threw away their lesson plans in the days that followed in order to talk with us about what was happening. As amazing as it may seem today, the 1848 Hungarian National Poem had been found without the aid of Google, and it was made into a poster:
Stand up, Hungarians, your country calls.
The time for now or never falls.
Are we to live as slaves or free?
Choose one. This is our destiny!
By the God of all the Magyars, we swear.
We swear never again the chains to bear.
As a child, I was moved by the straightforwardness of the poetry, and its breathless assertion that chains could fall. More recently, thinking over events of the time from an adult perspective, I found myself pondering this excerpt from Karoly Nagy’s “The Legacy of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution”:
Liberty, democracy, human rights are like health. Servitude, oppression, discrimination are like sickness. Totalitarian tyranny is death. A revolution that overthrows tyranny and achieves liberty is a resurrection. During the last week of October and the first few days of November, 1956, most of us in Hungary felt as if we were risen from the dead…
It was euphoria. We sang our long-forbidden national anthem, embraced each other on the streets, laughed and cried with joy. We felt redeemed. We were intoxicated by hearing and saying words of truth. We learned the truth and demonstrated it to the World, that what defines a country, what qualifies a society is not any ideology, but the presence or absence of freedom.
Decades later, it was events in Poland which focused my attention. The emergence of the Solidarity Movement under the leadership of Lech Walesa was profoundly significant, and its history has assumed almost mythical proportions. Solidarity’s success didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t linked directly to specific events or grievances. The rising of Solidarity as a political force in Poland was related to governmental policies and economic difficulties which had become increasingly onorous over the course of a decade. Consumer goods were scarce. People waited in endless lines for such basics as bread and toilet paper, and often left with no goods to show for their patient efforts. In July of 1980, as the government raised the price of goods but curbed the growth of wages, strikes spread across the country.
The history of the strikes, the further development of Solidarity into a national labor union and the quite amazing international support which it received is well documented elsewhere, and beyond the scope of this post. It is worth noting that Solidarity was outlawed after the imposition of martial law on December 13, 1981. Most of its leaders were arrested, including Lech Walesa, who was imprisoned until November of 1982. Less than a month after his release, 10,000 more activists were arrested, and restrictions on civil liberties continued despite the lifting of martial law on July 22, 1983.
When Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on October 5, 1983, the Polish government refused to allow him to leave the country in order to accept the award. In order to avoid involuntary exile, he remained in Poland while his wife, Danuta, traveled to Oslo to accept the award on his behalf. By December of 1990, Walesa had become the first popularly-elected President of Poland, and was free to travel as he pleased.
Former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski once said, “The idea of Solidarity is the most important answer to the globalized world in the 21st century.” Viktor Yushchenko, who eventually triumphed in Ukraine’s ”orange revolution”, agreed, saying, “By storming freedom, Poland gives an example for the continuing path toward freedom. Each country does it in its own way. But Solidarity was a guidepost for all of us.”
Indeed. In 2005, ex-Czechoslovakian President and longtime dissident Vaclav Havel noted that, “On the 25th anniversary of Solidarity, we should all be reminded of the countries where there are still dissidents fighting for human rights, and where people are not free. Solidarity does not only mean freedom, it requires responsibility.” He added that people in “Belarus, Burma, Cuba and North Korea still need clear signs of support, still need freedom, still need Solidarity.”
Recent events in Myanmar (Burma) related to Cyclone Nargis have proven Havel’s point as far as that nation is concerned, and there is an unfortunate number of other examples of oppression, incompetence and disregard for human rights around the world. Next week’s Cuba Solidarity Day (May 21) will focus attention on a struggle taking place not in Europe or Asia, but 90 miles off our shores, where parallels with earlier circumstances and events are crystal clear.
In her Generacion Y blog, Yoani Sanchez speaks of the same sort of food shortages that brought trouble in Poland. The Cuban government’s refusal to allow Ms. Sanchez travel privileges to claim her Ortega y Gasset prize for digital journalism recalls restrictions placed on Lech Walesa when he won his own Nobel Peace Prize. Many recent changes in Cuba, including those regarding consumer goods and internet access, are as painfully incremental and nearly irrelevant as those implemented in any nation where dictatorial leadership seeks to maintain power while assuaging the masses.
Like Walesa, Havel and Yushenko before her, Yoani Sanchez has become a face of Cuban opposition to tyranny, political repression and overwhelming bureaucratic and governmental incompetence. But there are other bloggers, such as those at Babalu, who also speak of Cuba, and an entire people standing behind her who deserve no less recognition and no less respect. Solidarity is meant not simply for the Sanchezes, the Walesas and the Nagys of the world. It is meant even more for the nameless ones, the ones whose voice is not yet heard: those who need someone to speak on their behalf until they are able to speak for themselves.There is something infinitely inspiring about real people engaged in real struggles over real issues. They deserve our respect, our attention, our support and, yes – a vibrant and committed solidarity.
Over the years, there has been some confusion and misunderstanding about the very term “solidarity”. Some have endowed it with an ethereal, almost mystical quality, while others seem to limit its use solely to grand gestures with a distinctly Aux barricades! flavor. The notion of solidarity actually is quite simple. It has very little to do with free-floating emotion, philosophical constructs, high-flown speeches or vague intentions, and a good bit to do with simple, concrete actions. As so often happens, a little story may prove more helpful than formal definition.
Once upon a time, there was a man who began to read a book. He was reading in bed, comfortable and warm, with a glass of wine at hand and a candle burning on the ledge. A bit of Vivaldi played in the background, and a fire flickered shadows onto the walls, although the book he was reading spoke nothing of music or pleasure or warmth. The man was reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. As he read, he discovered that ”Ivan Denisovich” portrays a world as bleak as any in literature. In Ivan Denisovich’s world, there is cold, hard work and misery, and not enough to eat. Ivan Denisovich lives out his life in a Gulag, and the Gulag is not a comfortable place.
Eventually, the man reading Ivan Denisovich’s tale of misery became distressed. As he realized the comfort of his warm bed and all the delights of life which surrounded him, he stopped reading. He rose and dressed, doused his fire, stopped the music and moved to a hard-backed chair, where he continued to read through the night.
Perhaps the time has come for us to rise and reclothe our spirits, douse the warmth and comfort of our lives, and accept an uncomfortable chair. In Cuba, as in so many places in the world, it still is night. There are voices to be heard, and words waiting to be read.
© Text copyright Linda Leinen 2008
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