It all began at 4:30 in the morning of Aug. 14, three years ago. Polish workers stood outside the Lenin shipyard at Gdansk handing out leaflets. ''Reinstate Ana Waltenynowicz,'' the leaflets said. ''And give a cost of living bonus of 1,000 zlotys ($33).''
Ana Walentynowicz - a middle-aged crane operator - had been fired as a ''troublemaker'' of the tiny Free Trade Union.
By mid-morning, a full strike of the yard's 16,000 workers was on, and the movement had spread to 50,000 workers in other industrial plants in Gdansk. The next day strikes spread to the sister port of Gdynia, and then to Szczecin to the west.
A full fortnight the strikes lasted, ending with the famous Aug. 31 agreements and the birth of reforms - foremost among them, Solidarity, the first free and independent labor union to exist in the Soviet Union's ''Iron Curtained'' Eastern Europe.
Today, it is all a matter of history, of bitter memories, and of a nation coming to itself after 19 months under repressive martial law. In the summer of 1983, there remains hope for some kind of return to ''normal'' - but the more relaxed forms of communist rule promised three years ago seem highly uncertain.
Shadowing hope of any kind, of course, is the economic situation. Having lifted martial law, the authorities clearly expect Western governments to now follow the Western bankers' example and begin to reschedule repayment of Poland's massive debts. Furthermore, they hope that rescheduling will in time reopen Western doors to them for urgently needed fresh credit.
Poland was due to repay Western governments $2.2 billion in 1982 and $2.9 billion this year, on a total debt of $17 billion. It owes Western commercial banks some $10 million, but cannot even pay the interest on the loans.
The outlook for the economy is not bright. As one West German banker said to this newspaper, Poland is ''still desperately insolvent'' and its repayments are destined to be as slow-paced as its internal recovery.
For most Poles, moreover, recovery is a down-to-earth matter of food lines, the quest for acceptable clothes and shoes, and some easing of a generally frustrating way of life.
The strike settlement agreements of August 1980 were strong on economic promise, much of it - as any economist knew at the time - far beyond budget sense and possibilities.
That initial 1,000-zlotys cost-of-living demand was immediately doubled. There followed a surge of demands for across-the-board rises in wages, social welfare benefits, and pensions. Undoubtedly such increases were needed. But they were way beyond the country's means. The workers' mood, however, was such that the government had no option but to say ''yes'' to everything.
It was the start of a process that still goes on today. The long-overdue economic reforms, designed to bring stability to the market for the first time since the 1950s, called for prices to rise to nearer their market level. But higher prices brought demands for higher wages, creating a price-wage spiral.
And even though inflation has been brought down from 105 percent in 1982 to 25 percent in the first half of this year, that spiral has not been broken. Wage increases in the first six months of 1983, at 29 percent, still outstripped price increases. Small wonder the bankers remain skeptical about the country's ability to repay its debt.
The cynic might say all that is left of the 1980 agreements is the Sunday morning broadcast of a Roman Catholic mass by the state radio, something for which the church pressed for years.
Under the agreements, the government pledged wider respect for the public's right to know about public affairs.
It also promised to curb censorship. A July 1981 law brought censorship under parliamentary control, reduced the scope for ''official secrecy,'' and gave editors both the right to appeal censorship and, if appeal failed, to show readers where cuts had been made. (This still can be done.)
New free and independent associations - for teachers, students, journalists, writers, actors, and others - mushroomed up alongside the giant Solidarity. For the first time under communist rule - including free-wheeling, non-Eastern-bloc Yugoslavia - the right to strike was born and legalized.
Perhaps not all is lost under the so-called ''preventive'' amendments accompanying last month's formal end to military rule. But the wings of all these welcome doves of reform have been considerably clipped.
The newspapers, radio, and television have resumed the old deadly conformity. The papers reveal too clearly how editors are guided over what is to be on page one, the play stories receive, and length.
''Independent'' MPs have forced further debate over proposed censorship changes. But increased censorship is already apparent. Broader definitions of what makes a state secure have been added to the penal code. The amendments allow jail sentences of up to three years for spreading information likely to disturb public order, and include a press law strictly subordinating newspapers to the socialist constitution.
Campus activity has also come under strict discipline. Professor and student organizations, as well as professional and cultural unions, are being replaced by pliant new institutions pruned of all their former reformist shoots. There are loyalty tests for teachers to ensure they educate the young ''in the spirit of the constitution, a socialist state.''
Above all, of course, there is, and will be, no Solidarity.
Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski insists that the new factory unions created under an October 1982 law that liquidated Solidarity can really be self-governing and autonomous, independent of both the state and employers.
The unions' ''right to strike'' is hedged in with a series of obligatory arbitration and cooling-off procedures, as well as taboos on strikes in essential public services. These are generally calculated to discourage unions from exercising their rights.
But the restrictions are now legally embedded, ready to be used should the government in the future be so careless as to allow a situation like that of the late 1970s and the summer of 1980 to arise again.
''Underground'' Solidarity's Warsaw committee of five militants, headed by Zbigniew Bujak, rejects the new unions out of hand, as it dismissed the closure of martial law as a ''propaganda gesture.'' But the underground union's appeal to the workers and in the country at large is questionable.
By late last month, the new unions were active in some 16,000 factories, that founding steps were proceeding in another 10,000 plants, and that approximately 3 million workers had ''applied'' for membership. That is at best one-third of Solidarity's following.
The government goes on trying to make Lech Walesa, leader of Solidarity, a ''nonperson,'' and the church too behaves as though his role were finished. But for all that, he remains Solidarity's symbol - symbol enough that only he could bring any rapid advance on the new unions' performance.