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1980 - Solidarity

Solidarity in Poland - Lech Wałęsa leads the first independent labor union in a Soviet-bloc country, which transformed into a broad, non-violent, anti-communist social movement 

Although Poland's first free labour union was born out of the 1980 Lenin Shipyard strikes in Gdańsk, Solidarność's roots can be traced back some ten years earlier. Protesting against plunging living standards, workers in Gdansk and other shipyards in Gdynia, Elbląg and Szczecin took to the streets, with the army promptly called in to intervene. Bloody clashes led to the deaths of 44 people, and ultimately forced communist leader Władysław Gomułka out of power.


Replaced by Edward Gierek, his half-mad economic policies served to create an illusion of prosperity, as well as generating a flush of jobs in Gdańsk’s Nowy Port area. But the memory of 1970 did not fade and Gdańsk remained a ticking timebomb for the authorities. With the Seventies drawing to a close, tensions started to rise again, with living standards falling and the economy in huge debt built on massive foreign loans.


On August 7, 1980 the dismissal of female crane operator, Anna Walentynowicz at Gdańsk’s Lenin Shipyards provided the spark for workers who were already prepared to go on strike due to disillusionment with price increases and the falling value of their salaries.

Fired from the shipyard in 1976 for anti-government activities, labour activist Lech Wałęsa saw that momentum for a strike was growing quickly, and decided to famously scale the wall of the Lenin Shipyard to take control. A strike was called and the workers' demands were met on August 16. With many strikers subsequently leaving the yard, Walentynowicz and another woman, Alina Pienkowska, are credited with convincing many - including Wałęsa - to stay on and turn the strike into more than just a demand for better working conditions. The leaders then steered their colleagues away from mere wage demands towards the idea of creating a trade union movement to represent the workers and fight injustice.

The workers had learned from the mistakes of 1970 and did not confront the authorities, but instead locked themselves inside the shipyards. Three days later leaders representing workers from over 150 industrial plants, as well as members from across the social spectrum in the country, met in the shipyards to hammer out 21 demands, including the legalisation of independent trade unions.


Days of tension followed, with tanks and armed units stationed menacingly outside the gates of the shipyards. On August 31 the government backed down, agreeing to meet the 21 demands - which became known as the August Accords - thereby marking the first peaceful victory over communism. The agreement was famously signed in the shipyards by Lech Wałęsa using a large souvenir Pope John Paul II pen.

A month later, on September 22, delegates from 36 regional unions met in Gdańsk forming a coalition under the name of Solidarity. Lech Wałęsa, the unlikely hero of August, was elected as chairman. The next few months marked a golden period for the nation; some ten million people joined the Solidarity movement, and Poland enjoyed a freedom unknown for decades.

Riding the crest of a wave Solidarity continued to lobby for further reforms and free elections, infuriating the Kremlin. With Soviet invasion a looming threat the Polish Minister of National Defence, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, declared a state of Martial Law on December 13, 1981, and tanks once again rolled through the streets. Though Solidarity was officially dissolved, and its leaders imprisoned.


Wałęsa himself would spend nearly a year in jail. And for the next seven years, he would be under constant watch and harassment by secret police. When he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, he sent his wife to collect the award in Oslo, fearing he would not be let back into the communist country.

In the long, dark period leading up to the radical changes of 1989, Solidarity worked in the underground, but it never wavered from one its key principles -- nonviolence. 


Further Reading


ICNC - Poland’s Solidarity Movement (1980-1989) - The Solidarity Movement: Anti-Communist, Or Most Communist Thing Ever?

Polnisches Institut BerlinStrajk: Photo Archive of the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk

1980 - Soviet Afghan War

Soviet invasion of Afghanistan - fearful of declining regional influence, Soviet forces invade Afghanistan to prop up the unpopular communist government, while Islamic insurgents wage a guerrilla campaign to expel them 

On April 27, 1978, Soviet-advised members of the Afghan Army overthrew and executed President Mohammed Daoud Khan. Daoud was a leftist progressive, but not a communist, and he resisted Soviet attempts to direct his foreign policy as "interference in Afghanistan's affairs." Daoud moved Afghanistan toward the non-allied bloc, which included India, Egypt, and Yugoslavia.

Although the Soviets did not order his ouster, they quickly recognized the new communist People's Democratic Party government that formed on April 28, 1978 under Nur Muhammad Taraki. However, infighting with other communist factions and cycles of purging plagued Taraki's government from the start.

In addition, the new communist regime targeted Islamic mullahs and wealthy landowners in the Afghan countryside, alienating all of the traditional local leaders. Soon, anti-government insurgencies broke out across northern and eastern Afghanistan, aided by Pashtun guerrillas from Pakistan.

Over the course of 1979, the Soviets watched carefully as their client government in Kabul lost control of more and more of Afghanistan. In March, the Afghan Army battalion in Herat defected to the insurgents, and killed 20 Soviet advisers in the city; there would be four more major military uprisings against the government by the end of the year. By August, the government in Kabul had lost control of 75% of Afghanistan - it held the large cities, more or less, but the insurgents controlled the countryside.

As the Afghan government's situation deteriorated, the Soviets sent in military aid - tanks, artillery, small arms, fighter jets, and helicopter gunships - as well as ever-greater numbers of military and civilian advisers. By June of 1979, there were approximately 2,500 Soviet military advisers and 2,000 civilians in Afghanistan, and some of the military advisers actively drove tanks and flew helicopters in raids on the insurgents.

On September 14, 1979, Chairman Taraki invited his chief rival in the People's Democratic Party, Minister of National Defense Hafizullah Amin, to a meeting at the presidential palace. It was supposed to be an ambush on Amin, orchestrated by Taraki's Soviet advisers, but the chief of palace guards tipped off Amin as he arrived, so the Defense Minister escaped. Amin returned later that day with an Army contingent and placed Taraki under house arrest, to the dismay of the Soviet leadership. Taraki died within a month, smothered with a pillow on Amin's orders.

Another major military uprising in October convinced the Soviet leaders that Afghanistan had spun out of their control, politically and militarily. Motorized and airborne infantry divisions numbering 30,000 troops began preparing to deploy from the neighboring Turkmenistan and the Uzbekistan.

Between December 24 and 26, 1979, American observers noted that the Soviets were running hundreds of airlift flights into Kabul, but they were unsure whether it was a major invasion or simply supplies intended to help prop up the tottering Amin regime. Amin was, after all, a member of Afghanistan's communist party.

All doubt vanished over the next two days, however. On December 27, Soviet Spetznaz troops attacked Amin's home and killed him, installing Babrak Kamal as the new puppet-leader of Afghanistan. The following day, the Soviet motorized divisions from Turkestan and the Fergana Valley rolled into Afghanistan, launching the invasion.

The Islamic insurgents of Afghanistan, called the mujahideen, declared a jihad against the Soviet invaders. Although the Soviets had vastly superior weaponry, the mujahideen knew the rough terrain and were fighting for their homes and their faith. By February of 1980, the Soviets had control of all of the major cities in Afghanistan and were successful in quashing Afghan Army revolts when army units marched out information to fight the Soviet troops. However, mujahideen guerrillas held 80% of the country.

Despite continued offensives, the Soviet's scored no major victories, and were unable to adapt to the guerrilla warfare in mountaineous terrain. The mujahideen's amazing success in the face of one of the world's two superpowers attracted support from a number of outside powers seeking either to support Islam or weaken the USSR: Pakistan, the People's Republic of China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

Conditions were terrible for many ordinary Afghans, but they held out against the invaders, and with no way to break the deadlock, the war dragged on.


Further Reading


Rare Historical Photos - The Soviet War in Afghanistan 1979-1989

BBC The Soviet Afghan War Begins

Lawfare - The Soviet Experience in Afghanistan

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