The Corner

A Chat with Walesa

I haven’t returned to my “journal-ing” — my writing of the Oslo Journal — but I wanted to stick a note here in the Corner today. I thought I’d say a little something about an interview I had with Lech Walesa this morning. I talked with him “on the sidelines” of the Oslo Freedom Forum, here in the Norwegian capital. He was in fine form: warm, expansive, funny, charismatic, earthy. In other words, he was the very picture of what he is: a trade-union leader who became an all-time hero of freedom.

I said to him I wanted to be fast with my questions, because I knew he didn’t have much time. He said, “Do I look unwell?” Did I think he was going to kick the bucket? No, no, I said. I just knew that his schedule was packed.

Among the subjects we discussed was his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. (The prize is administered here in Oslo.) What did it mean to him, Solidarity, and the defeat of Communism in Poland? A great deal, he said, in essence. I will paraphrase him:

Martial law had been imposed, and we were really getting weaker. There was no wind blowing into Poland’s sail. It’s hard to say what would have happened if I had not won the prize. The Nobel prize blew a strong wind into our sail. Without that prize, it would have been very difficult to continue struggling.

And what did Walesa think of the 1990 prize to Mikhail Gorbachev? “I think we can debate it,” he said, chuckling. Then he said (again, a paraphrase, but a very close one),

I’m certainly very fond of Gorbachev, and I respect him. But you should ask him the two questions I always ask him. First, I ask, “Did you betray Communism? Are you a traitor to Communist ideology?” And he always says, “No, of course not.” That leads to my second question. “Look,” I say, “you’re a bright guy. Did you really believe it was possible to reform the Communist system?” That really pisses him off. He gets all red-faced and angry at me. And he doesn’t answer. In fact, those two questions as a pair, he really doesn’t answer.


Gorbachev tried to reform the Communist system, and failed. If he had succeeded, I’m the one who would have failed. So we were all very happy that he failed, and if they wanted to give him the Nobel prize for his failure? That was fine with us. He failed, he got the Nobel prize — everyone was happy.

On the other hand, there’s this to consider: He had the instruments of rape, and he did not use them. In other words, Gorbachev had the brute power to suppress rebellion, as his predecessors had, and refrained from using it. Every male has the instrument of rape — should we all be awarded Nobel prizes for not raping?

Walesa said to me, “I wonder how you’re going to phrase that for your article.” I said, “I’ll just repeat what you said — can’t be improved on.” Then he spoke of the peace prize to President Obama, last year:

The wise men of the committee gave the award to Obama for his potential merit, and in order to encourage him not to stray from a path of peace. Well, we could all get a Nobel prize for our potential merit — and in order to be encouraged. For example, every journalist could get the Nobel prize to be encouraged to write better . . .

Walesa was interesting, enjoyable, and unpredictable all through. I’ll have more from him — and from others, and about Oslo, etc. — later on.


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