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Solidarity and the Underground Press

May 3, 2015
Anna J. Dudek
9 min read
Solidarity and the Underground Press
Solidarity and the Underground Press

Think of Communist Europe, and Poland’s Solidarność (Solidarity) looms large — a movement that today has an almost mythical importance, the ultimate symbol of resistance. Hatred for communism was strong among ordinary people, and many were willing to risk their lives. Journalists and editors also took great risks, producing and circulating underground newspapers, some of which was smuggled to the outside world so that people outside of this closed community knew about what was going on in: repression, crackdown on dissent and absolute censorship. Anna J.Dudek talked to Roman Kurkiewicz (below, right) about censorship, underground publishing, and why floor detergent made the front page news. 


Solidarity and the Underground Press

Cell phones, emails, blogs, flash drives. For my generation these are the obvious tools. Technology gives use easy solutions to uneasy problems. All you had during the communist period was problems. No technology. And yet you were able to create one of the biggest underground press systems in the world. How?


 We needed places to hold meetings, so a special group of people had one task —  find safe houses. For editors' meetings, for Solidarność's meetings, for storing paper, which, by the way, was rationed...


You had to use the black market?

Well, that was the only way, because there was no free market. Getting the paper was one of the biggest problems. As well as buying the printing ink. So we were well acquainted with this detergent used to cleaning the floors — Komfort” paste. That's why thousands of books smelled like freshly cleaned floors.


 But buying the paper wasn't the end of our problems, because once we got it, we needed to transport it. And not very many of us had cars. So we needed to buy the paper, get it out of the place from which you couldn't really get it out from, get it to a place that was top secret. And then- print. 



We had thousands of underground printing houses, at different levels of technological advancement  — starting from very basic serigraphy techniques, where basically every page was done manually. In many places, workers would, after hours, print the illegal, independent papers and books. 

Around 1983 we started smuggling, mostly from Scandinavia, offset printing machines and xerographes. That was due to the big Polish diaspora who emigrated in 1968. Another big coordinating center for Solidarność was in Brussels. 


Sounds like a huge, well coordinated machine.

Not really. Paradoxically, our strength was the fact that we weren't so well coordinated. It was a network of people using their own connections, family ties, personal ties to get the job done. At one point the printing houses were in every single small city. 

The tasks were simple. Get the paper. Get the printing ink. Get it all to the printing house. Then put together, from all these printed pages, a book or a magazine. We would do it in many different locations, because in case of a raid only some of the work would be lost. So page after page, we were putting the books together. Sometimes printers would work for a week straight. The word is that showing up at a party all covered in printing ink was insurance for a social success [laughs].


What about the way these papers and books were distributed?

A weekly "Mazowsze" was printed, between 20,000 and 50,000 copies. Every week. Couriers had microfilms they would bring to printing houses all over Poland. Once the microfilms were handed over, the matrixes were made. Then, the printing. From this point, assigned people would distribute "bibuła" to people and places that were safe, who would then distribute them further.


Why were people were willing to risk so much for the sake of distributing the newspapers and books? Money?

Sure, there were people who did it for money. Less than 1 percent, I'd say. Cab drivers — some — did it for money, because they didn't care whether they were smuggling cigarettes, guns or "bibuła".  Writing and editing we did for free, it was obvious. Most of us were doing it for the ideological reasons, although at certain point it was so time consuming, that people were getting paid. It was sort of like a normal job. I remember one time I distributed copies of Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies. Another time we went to Cracow with The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. 200 copies. Come to think of it, from these years I mostly remember lugging around tons of books.


Now, after almost 26 years of nominally free press in Poland, when we're one click away from all the media outlets in the world, what is the state of Polish media in today?

Formally we have no limitations that were present in the press up until 1990, when censorship ceased to exist. So formally there's no control, no censorship, no restrictions. But the question of independence and freedom of the press is always a complicated one, because there are always networks of certain dependence. They obviously have an impact on what appears in the media.


What is the most important issue in the Polish media today?

The biggest problem that our media needs to deal with is the fact that information became a commodity. Commodities need to be sold, and in such circumstances, the exchange of information becomes a type of business.


What are the consequences?

Well, most newspapers make their living by selling ads, so engaging in a conflict with the companies and corporations can cost them their very existence. In such a market, for a lack of a better term, strong corporations win and the press loses.

The choice seems to be clear— compromise or cease to exist.

Both public and private media play by the same rules, taking part in a race for money, which means that certain topics are absent. More to the point, there are certain precautionary measures that bear a striking resemblance to censorship. Courts, if approached by someone who doesn't want to be present in the media, can stop the media from writing about that person. That's what happened to the documentary about Amway made by Henryk Dederko, Welcome to Life.

For the past 20 years this documentary couldn't be broadcast in the media because the Amway corporation blocked it. Eventually, last year the decision was made that the movie can appear on public television, but on the condition that certain scenes will be cut out of it. It's no different from the institutional censorship, but today it's happening under the appearances of the legal protection of corporations' interests or protection of personal rights. 


With that in mind, independent press sounds like an utopia.

Certainly. But there are of course countries where the situation is worse. And of course we can't compare it to the 46 years of institutional censorship, during which every single form of expression was controlled and couldn't be published, printed or broadcast without the stamp of censor's approval. Which obviously had an enormous impact, because censors would publish thousands of so called "recommendations" about what could and could not be published. When Tomasz Strzyżewski, one of the people working for censorship, rewrote those  "recommendations" and smuggled it out, in 1977 to Sweden, people didn't want to believe their own eyes. He later published them a book called The Black Book of the Censorship in the Polish People’s Republic.


Do you rememeber any of those " "recommendations"?

We weren't allowed to use the name of Czesław Miłosz, unless his poetry from before the war was mentioned. We weren't allowed to write about accidents in the mines. Positive reviews of certain movies were banned. Generally censorship’s tentacles reached every field, each aspect of life.


 What were the ways to circumvent it?

The biggest strike against censorship happened in the 1970s, when the “second circuit” was created. At a certain point it was decided that books and magazines were to be published without asking the censorship board’s permission.


So illegal publishing.

The best Polish authors and journalists, tired of censorship, decided they wanted to be published in the second circuit, very often risking ostracism and all types of consequences.



There are so many different ways those in power can make authors and journalists miserable! They could refuse to issue a passport, close the doors to the author's existence in the official media, ban them from writing, intimidate them, beat them up ... In 1968, Stefan Kisielewski was brutally beaten. Censorship wasn't about innocent editing, but very often violent and brutal.

In the1980s, especially after the martial law was imposed on the country in 1981, there was an explosion of those illegal publications. We had thousands of publishers and dozens of thousands of titles of books and magazines. Of course being involved on any level was illegal —the punishments were severe for printing, publishing and distributing those publications.


Censorship was designed to enslave the minds, but some writers say they enjoyed the game they had to play with it. It made them more creative when they had to communicate with the readers on a higher level.

Possibly, but there were more pressing matters at hand. In the reality that the regime's propaganda was trying to create, using censorship, huge chunks of life were absent. Important, painful information.



Like those events in the mines. Like any narrative about opposition and dissidents — unless the were portrayed as criminals. At the same time there was this constant game between an author, a censor and a reader, who had to read between the lines. A big change came in 1981 — at that moment the censorship board had to make all the changes it made visible. That was huge. And in some ways it was, once it was made obvious where the interference took place, less evil than today's informal censorship. More honest, because at least the reader knew where the changes were made. Today he doesn't. 


The other kind of censorship was this one when the author censored himself, knowing that certain topics would never make it to the paper.

That happens up to this very day. Usually, you know what your editor wants, what goes well with the official "party line". Today the party is the owner. And the corporations. 



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