We have a pretty clear picture of why the Communist regime in Poland collapsed in the late 1980s. It broke down under the weight of growing debt and permanent economic crisis. Repeated political upheavals destabilized the Soviet Union’s domination over its satellite states. Many prominent party functionaries came to choose pragmatism over ideology, and the benefits that could be gained from reaching an agreement with the democratic opposition allowed officials to entertain hopes for the future, while enormous costs came to be associated with maintaining their leadership. But there was of course another important reason for this collapse: the Communist Party lost legitimacy in the eyes of society. Gradually it looked as if Communist governments owed their existence only to the principle of inertia. This development was all about psychological effect – governing politicians were completely compromised, the falsity of their propaganda was grotesque and they committed disastrous mistakes as they teetered between arrogance and desperation.
Disregarding martial law, during which the threat of Soviet intervention might have allowed the authorities to pull the wool over the eyes of the Polish people, there were three final nails in the coffin of the communist regime in Poland: the fatal beating of Grzegorz Przemyk (1983), the political murder of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko (1984) and the explosion in the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl (1986). In each of these dramatic situations, the authorities’ catastrophic reactions shattered any remaining illusions regarding their moral standards.
First came the case of Przemyk. On 12 May 1983, a militia patrol in Warsaw’s Old Town arrested the nineteen-year-old while he was celebrating his school-leaving exams with friends. At the local police station, the officers decided to teach the young man a lesson because he had refused to show his ID card. They beat him unconscious making sure that there would be “no traces”, but they damaged his internal organs. Two days later Grzegorz Przemyk died.
This whole affair would probably have been swept under the carpet if the boy hadn’t turned out to be the son of Barbara Sadowska, a poet associated with the opposition. The communist secret police had already threatened that her son would come to harm. What is more, there was an eyewitness to the beating, Cezary F., who had been taken to the station along with Przemyk. The regime’s functionaries panicked and decided to respond with absolute denial.
Cezary Łazarewicz’s excellent reportage is basically a work of activism. Written almost thirty years after the events, it offers the first detailed account of the circumstances of Przemyk’s murder and its aftermath. It is hard to say why this issue hadn’t ever been tackled before. Was it because Grzegorz Przemyk was quickly turned an anti-communist martyr? Or because Barbara Sadowska, an eccentric artist with hippie leanings and a weakness for younger men, did not fit with the patriotic narrative, grief-stricken though she was? Or was it because the crime never led to any convictions – not even in democratic Poland – and the individuals who had lied, spied, and fabricated evidence continued to fare as well as before?
Łazarewicz’s book is both condemnatory and compassionate. It has three threads. The first is an insightful reconstruction of the events after Przemyk’s death – a terrifying account of a cynical power apparatus that is guided solely by its own short-term gain. This narrative is a testimony to the government’s methods of disinformation and intimidation, as well as a portrait of its influence over the administration of justice. Przemyk’s story offers a perfect case study of this sort of practice. The second thread describes the families of individuals involved in or manipulated into the affair. These complex portraits offer a glimpse into the stifling and depressing atmosphere of that era. The third thread is basically a courtroom drama: a study of the failure of democracy in the face of totalitarian manipulation. Ironically, the individuals who were responsible for the crime could not be sentenced after 1989 precisely because they were given a fair trial under the rule of law.
Translated by Tul’si Bhambry