Gdansk – 6

In 1956, Nikita Khruschev’s address to the 20th Convention of the USSR’s Communist Party spoke of strengthening socialism’s grip on the East, and of the dangers of individualism. Already simmering with discontent the Polish media helped stir local discord and on June 28th a strike started in the Stalin brick factory (later the ‘Hipolita Cegielskiego Factory’), before spreading to the city’s other major industrial plants. An estimated 100,000 workers descended on the Municipal National Council (now the Zamek building), chanting slogans like ‘Bread and Freedom’ and ‘Out with Bolshevism,’ while demanding lower prices, higher wages and a reduction in work quotas.

Initially peaceful, the protests took a violent turn when it was revealed that the team negotiating on behalf of the strikers in Warsaw had been arrested and detained. The demonstrators stormed Poznań prison, liberating 257 inmates, destroying records and seizing armaments. These insurgents marched back to the city centre to continue their protests. The communist authorities reacted by deploying 10,300 soldiers, 400 tanks and 30 armoured personnel carriers. Street battles followed, but with the city cut off from the outside world, order was quickly restored by 30th June. The clashes officially left 76 civilians and eight soldiers dead, with over 600 strikers injured (though unofficial estimates were vastly higher). The victims included a thirteen year old boy, Romek Strzalkowski, who was shot dead whilst waving a Polish flag. News of the riots helped spark an equally heroic anti-communist uprising in Budapest later in the same year, which was also brutally suppressed.

All this historical information surrounds the living room of a typical flat available to families from the Polish state. These flats were assigned to their owners and wouldn’t have been given to people taking part in events described elsewhere in this section of the museum! The items on show included a soda syphon decorated with a sticker of Goofy, an alarm clock, and a radio. The owners would have been able to listen to Radio Free Europe if the authorities hadn’t jammed the frequency.

Gdansk – 5

The exhibits then contrast the ordinary nature of some people’s lives with the extraordinary events taking place in the Communist countries of the Eastern Bloc. Some events such as the Hungarian uprising of 1956 when Imre Nagy withdrew his country from the Warsaw Pact, the raising of the Berlin Wall on 13th August 1961, and the Alexander Dubcek-inspired Prague Spring of 1968 are well known.

Others are not but are of equal significance in the gradual breaking down of the Communist system under the control of the Soviet Union. On 16th June 1953, three months after the death of Stalin, 300 East Berlin construction workers went on strike and marched down Stalinallee towards government buildings after their superiors announced a pay cut if they did not meet their work quota. These demands soon escalated into an outcry for a General Strike on the following day.

Early the next morning, 40,000 protesters had gathered in East Berlin. Protests were held throughout East Germany in almost all industrial centres. The original demands had turned into political statements including one that required the resignation of the East German government, who decided to crush the uprising, a theme that was often repeated behind the Iron Curtain, though not in 1980 in Gdansk as already indicated. The East German authorities turned to the Soviet Union for military support. 16 Soviet divisions with 20,000 soldiers were used to quell the uprising.

Gdansk – 4

I rarely use audio guides, but I must recommend them at the European Solidarity Centre as the information provided was clear, concise, and fitted in almost perfectly with what I saw. This may seem obvious but there is so much information to process that you have to concentrate all the time during the visit.

In 1980, the Lenin Shipyard was the 5th largest ship manufacturer in the world and the largest in the Baltic region. 17,000 people worked there on a site covering 150 hectares with its own hospital and cinema. Electricians such as Lech Walesa would use bicycles to move around. The industrial scale of the museum is emphasized at the start by the presence of hard hats covering an entire ceiling, an attendance control board with hundreds of available slots, and a wall full of individual lockers for workers’ essentials.

In the next room is a large photo of Leonid Brezhnev kissing Edward Gierek, the Polish Communist party first secretary at the time the Gdansk Agreements were signed. In the summer of 1980, price increases on essential foodstuffs set off protests across the country, especially in the Gdańsk and Szczecin shipyards. Unusually, the Communist regime decided not to resort to force to suppress the strikes. In the Gdańsk Agreement and other accords reached with Polish workers, Gierek’s representatives were forced to concede the right to strike, and Solidarity was born. Shortly thereafter, in early September 1980, he was replaced as first secretary, but from the Polish authorities’ perspective the door had been opened and the damage done. Solidarity kept going in an upwards trajectory.

Gdansk – 3

I stayed at a hotel close to the station as I was moving on by train to Torun in a couple of days. Rather than heading to the reconstructed Old Town I first walked to a large monument visible over the tops of the trees and buildings. Anchors were suspended at the top of three tall, grey columns.

This was the Monument to the fallen Shipyard Workers 1970 unveiled on 16th December 1980 near the entrance to what was then the Lenin Shipyard. This huge structure was created in the aftermath of the Gdańsk Agreement, about which more later, and was the first monument to the victims of communist oppression erected in a communist country. This memorial commemorates the 42, or more, people killed during events in Gdańsk, Gdynia, Elbląg, Szczecin in December 1970. Polish citizens had protested after the government suddenly announced massive increases in the prices of basic foodstuffs, especially dairy products, after a bad harvest throughout the course of the year.

Gdansk – 1

The trains run from Gdansk airport to the main station, Gdansk Glowny, every 15 –  30 minutes depending on the time of day. Visitors should follow the red arrows from the west end of Terminal T2 via a covered bridge to the platform where the ticket machines are found. The station is called Port Lotniczy and the trains to Gdansk go from the platform closer to the airport buildings and head eastwards. There are a few direct connections to Gdansk Glowny but visitors will more likely need to change trains at Gdańsk Wrzeszcz station. The trains are brand new and all the stops are illustrated on the TV screens inside the spacious, airy carriages. Gdańsk Wrzeszcz is not easy to pronounce and I would suggest pointing at the name rather than attempting to say it, otherwise who knows where you might end up. It is three stops from Gdańsk Wrzeszcz railway station to Gdansk Glowny. The final destination of this train will almost certainly be Gdansk Śródmieście.

Travels through History – The Balkans: Journeys in the former Yugoslavia

The Macedonians build a fountain and upset the Greeks.

Villages on the road to Lake Ohrid fly Albanian flags instead of Macedonian ones.

Kosovan taxi drivers believe fundamentalists are being sponsored in their country by former foes.

Dubrovnik is so popular a one-way system is now in operation on the city walls.

In Sarajevo, the place the First World War started is not easy to find, but evidence of more recent atrocities is.

All these stories and more can be found in my new book: Travels through History – The Balkans

Memories are long in The Balkans, contrasts and contradictions are all around. History is always in your face, reminding you nothing stays the same for long in this most fascinating corner of Europe.