THE FACTS: a man who helped lead his country to a new political freedom. 1943-
Lech Walesa was born in war-time Poland on September 29, 1942. His father died shortly after the war and he and his brothers and sisters were raised by his mother, aunt and uncle. Poland had been occupied by the Soviet Union and life was hard under the imposed communist regime.
When he was old enough he trained as an electrician and mechanic and went to work in the ship building industry in Gdansk. Here he quickly became interested in politics and started to protest not only against the shipyard management but also the communist government, and he was instrumental in the shipyard strike of 1970.
Over the next decade he was involved in organising many more protests and eventually was fired in 1976 for his political activities. By 1980 the shipyard workers were ready to strike again and Walesa became a leading spokesman of the trade union party Solidarity. He openly spoke out against the Polish government’s economic and social policies and was consequently arrested in 1982, but released without charge after some months. The Western World was well aware of his activities however, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.
Meanwhile, Mikhail Gorbachev was rising to power in the Soviet Union and had launched a radical programme of reform and restructuring (perestroika) of the Soviet economic and political system, whilst refusing to intervene in the politics of the other Eastern Block countries. This opened the way for Solidarity to organise nationwide protests, culminating in the free election of a new government, headed up by Lech Walesa. Five years later, in 1995, he was defeated by Alexander Kwasniewski but has continued to be an outspoken character in the country he helped free from communist oppression.
His autobiography, The Struggle and the Triumph, first appeared in English in 1992.