Lech Walesa is a genuine folk hero among his own Polish people. Lech Walesa is a renowned resistance leader. He launched and led the most effective popular movement for political freedom and integrity which has occurred in any of those East European countries under Soviet domination.
Lech Walesa is a respected figure worldwide. That respect is expressed by the award of a Nobel prize.
Lech Walesa is an enormous thorn in the flesh of the Polish government. The government engaged in a maladroit and unconvincing progaganda effort to blacken his reputation. It has been broadcasting an alleged recording of his voice boasting of having stashed away a sum of over $1 million sent him from Western sources. He and his followers say the recording is a fake.
Lech Walesa is alive, and leading, under constant police surveillance, almost the normal life of a normal Polish factory worker.
He goes to work every workday morning at the shipyard in Gdansk. He does a routine stint of work. He goes home at night to a working-class apartment where his wife has his dinner waiting for him. He goes to church regularly.
The Polish government watches everything he does, monitors his telephone, follows when he takes a fishing holiday.
But all of this is also monitored and watched by the world's press. American and other Western television crews record Mr. Walesa going to and coming from work, going to church, going on holiday, and being cheered by his fellow workers.
On the day the Nobel prize award was announced, a crowd estimated at 35,000 of his fellow workers and friends and neighbors cheered him at the gates of the shipyard.
All over the world TV audiences saw the cheering crowd and Mr. Walesa working his way through it.
This is more than remarkable. It is unique. It could not happen in any other communist country or, for that matter, in any other country in the world. Poland is different from any other country - and something special.
In the Soviet Union a Lech Walesa would have been liquidated or buried in an insane asylum or lost on a work gang in remotest Siberia. His movement would never have got off the ground in the first place.
The same would have happened in any of the other ''satellite'' countries. Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, and Bulgarians have liquidated many such dissidents although, apparently, Alexander Dubcek is still alive in some obscure role in Czechoslovakia.
Yugoslavia since Tito's break with Moscow has been relatively tolerant of dissent. Few have been actually liquidated. But the prominent dissenters do not have the amount of freedom or easy contact with the outside world allowed to Lech Walesa.
Poland is the only communist country where there seems to be a genuine reluctance to kill each other over ideological issues. The leaders of national communism were executed during the Stalin purges of the late '40s in Czechosloakia (Rudolf Slanski), in Hungary (Laszlo Reich), and the others. In Poland Wladislav Gomulka was imprisoned and tortured. His fingernails were torn out. But he was not killed. He survived to return to power in Poland.
Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement was launched and advanced without bloodshed. Had he been allowed to control its later development it might be in open and official existance to this day. A radical element took control from him and led it beyond the forbidden line where its repression became inevitable.
Lech Walesa was careful never to advocate a break in relations with Moscow or departure from the Warsaw Pact. Of course, he would have liked to make the full break from Moscow, as would probably 95 percent of the Polish people. But he was wise enough to know that Moscow would destroy Poland rather than let it go free. He avoided the impossible, and avoided bloodshed.
The suppression of Solidarity, when it came, was also done with little bloodshed. There was some fighting in the coal mines in Silesia.
Lech Walesa is living evidence of the power of Polish nationalism. Even a communist government subservient to Moscow respects and admires Lech Walesa and his remarkable record. They have to try to weaken him by smears. But they let him live, and work, and be filmed for the outside world.
It could only happen in Poland.