Tragedy is easy, the actors say, but comedy is hard. In politics, as Adam Michnik has learned, dictatorship is easy, democracy is hard. In the 1970s Michnik (pronounced meek-nick) was the most attractive of the Polish dissident intellectuals. His eloquently articulated belief in democracy cost him six years in prison, but life was relatively simple. He knew who his enemies were (the government and its supporters) and he could certainly identify his friends -- the Catholics, the intellectuals in KOR (Workers Defence Committee), the shipyard workers in Gdansk and anyone else brave enough to fight the state.
His articles shone with a generous intelligence, and his collection Letters from Prison and Other Essays was one of the most admirable of the smuggled-out books. Today, Michnik's life is more complicated. He edits Poland's largest daily, the Gazeta Wyborcza, and spends much of his time reconciling old alliances and new realities. Politics can be frustrating, in a way that's now familiar in the countries of the old Soviet empire. But Michnik differs from most former dissidents: He demonstrates a shrewd understanding of the present, and he remains both a realist and an optimist. He believes Polish democracy is slowly finding itself -- though it's imperfect, infuriating and sometimes corrupt, like other democracies. He doesn't flinch from the most intimidating aspect of freedom: "Freedom gives us power over ourselves. It thereby enables us to do good and evil, as we choose."
In the 1980s he kept reminding his colleagues to imagine what they would become when freedom arrived. While he suffered under tyrants, he wrote, "I am not afraid of what they will do to us but of what they can make us into." Anticipating communism's death, he wrote: "I pray that we do not change from prisoners into prison guards."
In 1989, the old anti-Communist consensus collapsed and broke into sometimes ugly factions. "Communism was like a freezer," he writes in his new collection, Letters from Freedom: Post-Cold War Realities and Perspectives (University of California Press). Ice covered the old emotions and conflicts. "The defrosting process was a gradual one -- so first we saw beautiful flowers, and only later, the rot."
He wanted a new Poland founded on civic rather than ethnic-national or religious principles. He also wanted tolerance -- even for Communists. There were Poles who hoped to see Communist leaders hanging from trees in every town in Poland, but Michnik insisted that democracy could tolerate even its old enemies. He argued that moral absolutism can nourish those who are struggling against dictatorship but only weakens those who are recreating democracy. He's not appalled by the electoral success of the post-Communist parties.
Letters from Freedom brings together speeches, articles and interviews. There's a long conversation between Michnik and the great poet Czeslaw Milosz; reading it, one has a sense of eavesdropping on a talk between two exotic and truly remarkable characters. In the most striking interview, Michnik sits down for a chat with his old archenemy, the general who imposed military government in 1981, Wojciech Jaruzelski. Michnik asks himself: "Am I, someone who was Jaruzelski's prisoner for so many years, capable of transcending the limits of my own grievances?"
He explains that Jaruzelski wanted a Poland in which there was no place for anti-Communists like Michnik -- while Michnik dreamed of "a common Poland," in which everyone would eventually learn tolerance, if only because they had to live together. So meeting Jaruzelski in the 1990s became a moment of truth for Michnik, and possibly a chance to learn something by tolerating his enemy. The result, a discussion titled We Can Talk Without Hatred, is subtle, far-reaching, inconclusive and remarkably educational. "I'm aware that I was an oppressor and you were oppressed," Jaruzelski says, but he still believes that in 1981 he prevented something that would have been much worse, a Soviet invasion. Michnik does not entirely disagree. He also says, "If Poland has a chance, it lies in people's ability to talk to each other without hatred or hostility."
In the 1980s, Michnik set down a magnificently simple idea: "Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely." Few politicians, few journalists, have so conscientiously followed their own advice.