Thursday October, 19 at 16.30: An ordinary day, an ordinary man stands on the steps of the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science. He is reading something through a megaphone to inattentive passers by. Just another protesting voice in the Polish capital. Except, once finished, this 54 year old man, who would become known for some time simply as Piotr S., then sets himself ablaze, performing an act of self-immolation to the sound of a song by ‘Chłopcy Placu Broni’ coming from a tape-recorder.
‘Freedom. I love and understand freedom. I don’t know how to give it up…’ On the ground lie strewn the pieces of paper from which he had been reading – a manifesto outlining 15 points of protest against the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS). Ten days later, on October 29, he dies in hospital. It begins to sink in that this was a decisive, considered and dramatic political act. Where at first the media and politicians stay largely silent, following his death they now rush to assess his sanity, his past and his intentions.
All this he foresaw. He openly admitted that he struggled with depression for eight years – but this was nothing to do with that, though he knew politicians would try to make it so. Depression does not equal derangement. So how should he be understood?
* * *
Piotr Szczęsny, as his full name was revealed to be post-mortem, chemist, former youth Solidarity activist, and management trainer for NGOs, had on that grey ordinary day travelled up to Warsaw from his home in Niepołomic, a small town near Krakow in the South of Poland. 130km west, in a small town called Rybnik in Upper Silesia, a group of active citizens, known as the Silesian Pearls have for the last year been mobilizing local protest in order to try to hold back what they see as the ruling party’s authoritarian agenda. They were stunned by this event. ‘Poland is on fire’ reads one of their slogans. They did not think the metaphor would become personified. Yet Jola Jackiewicz, 57, co-founder of the Silesian Pearls, tells me she was less surprised, more deeply saddened; she had anticipated tragedy sooner or later. Piotr was far from a ‘provincial’ man – in the condescending, stereotypical sense – but maybe the environment in which he lived also played a part in making him feel isolated or perhaps suffocated. Outside of Warsaw, daily reality is too often treated as peripheral and insignificant. But it’s here where the tense effects of nationalist, hardline rhetoric can be felt most keenly.
Small towns and villages, like Rybnik and its environs, are the most difficult places to be active in, says Jola. People know one another and there is often stronger social pressure from the Catholic Church, which is known even to galvanize support for the ruling party with its pro-family, anti-abortion, anti-Muslim rhetoric. If you have opposing views to the government your job can now even be at stake if you voice them too loudly. While PiS’s popularity is not limited to small towns and villages – far from it – support for the government is strong here, explains Łukasz Kohut, 35-year-old Silesian Pearls member, because in the provinces people have felt marginalized for years. ‘Now there is a government that speaks plainly, supports people financially through social programmes, and feeds deep inner phobias while promising to protect us. The worst thing is how state media has become a tool for party political propaganda. Hearing their slogans repeated in daily conversations is frightening.’
For Jola, the hardest part is how deeply divided people have become, even family and friends. There is a growing atmosphere of hatred in which anyone who opposes the current government is labeled the ‘worst sort’, or even ‘Soviet murderers’. Open and fair debate is impossible where public discourse has stooped so low. Silesian Pearls aims to change that by providing means for dialogue, political conversation and citizen education, something Jola feels has been neglected for too long. In order to love freedom, Jola says, you must understand what it means.
‘Now there is a government that speaks plainly, supports people financially through social programmes, and feeds deep inner phobias while promising to protect us.’
Jola is of the same generation as Piotr. Like him, she feels an unsettling sense of deja vu. She lived through the days of the Polish People’s Republic, the closed-in world, the dictatorial rule, she knows, like Piotr, what not having democratic freedom feels like.
While she could never conceive of such a choice of protest, she empathizes fully with his sense of despair, his helplessness, particularly after this Saturday’s fascist-led Polish Independence Day march attracting 60,000 people to Warsaw, which Piotr did not live to witness. ‘Traditional methods like going out on the streets or petitions don’t seem to be working. But we can’t just sit back and watch. People like us who have been there before, we can see the threats, the signs, the steady movements towards dictatorial rule, now creeping fascism – and it’s not just happening in Poland. It can happen bit by bit, while we are asleep, until it is too late. There is a very fine line we are approaching. That’s what he wanted to alert us to.’
Wake up! It’s not too late yet!
Piotr’s 15-point list of grievances is measured and articulate. It could have been written by the Opposition or by the stronghold of protestors, like the Silesian Pearls, who align themselves with his urgent perspective, drawing attention to the government’s increasing restrictions on civil liberties, attacks on the Constitutional Tribunal, attempts to politicise the judiciary, breaking of the Consitution, marginalisation of Poland on the international arena, destruction of the Bialowieza Forest, the rise of xenophobia, the political use of hateful language, discrimination of minorities, and the propagandisation of state television and radio.
‘I, an ordinary, grey man just like you, call upon you all – do not wait any longer!’, his letter to the Polish people reads. ‘I love freedom above all. That’s why I decided to perform this act of self-immolation, and I hope that my death will shake the conscience of many people, that society will wake up and that you will not wait until the politicians will do it for you – because they will not! Wake up! It’s not too late yet!’
Are things really so desperate as to come to this? Łukasz thinks they are and they aren’t. ‘It’s not yet that moment where there is violence on the street, but it could happen. Especially given Saturday’s march. What Piotr S. did is to highlight that there is a moment to say no – and this is it. I can completely relate to his sense of political depression, but I hope his action will spur us on towards regaining a Poland that is European, democratic, and open to the world through the next elections. The fear is of course that that won’t happen, but we must fight.’ What Piotr S. did is to highlight that there is a moment to say no – and this is it.
Renowned Polish film director, Agnieszka Holland, in a strong rebuke to the pejorative or absent media and political comment on Piotr S’s action, wrote in OKO.Press that ‘Fire destroys, but it also illuminates. Like anger.’ Jola, too, sees hope in his brave if awful message. ‘Fire also cleans – it prepares the ground for something new. While things may look dark, there are still many lights burning – us, people, citizens.’
(First published in Swedish in Dagens Nyheter – Polen – ett land som står i brand – https://www.dn.se/kultur-noje/polen-ett-land-som-star-i-brand/. Also originally published in English on Open Democracy – https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/irma-allen/poland-on-fire-voices-from-provinces)