In late January 1993, three years after the abolition of the Soviet-imposed Polish People’s Republic, a crowd of 5,000 demonstrators marched on the Warsaw residence of Lech Wałęsa. As the chairman of Solidarity, the independent trade union and mass opposition movement that negotiated communist Poland’s demise, Wałęsa is widely credited with initiating the chain of events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and a peaceful resolution to the cold war. But after he became post-communist Poland’s first democratically elected president, his critics circulated rumours that he had been a communist collaborator all along. Chanting “We want a president, not an agent,” the demonstrators burnt the Nobel peace prizewinner in effigy.
Their leaders included a former Solidarity functionary called Jarosław Kaczyński. Armed with a megaphone, he angrily denounced his former leader: “He was supposed to be our president, but he turned out to be their president, the president of the reds!”
Short, white-haired, and always dressed in black and white, Kaczyński is now the most powerful man in Poland. In 2015, the party he founded with his identical twin brother Lech, Law and Justice, won the first parliamentary majority for a single party since the democratic transition; since then, it stands accused of attempting to reverse that transition by seizing control of Poland’s independent democratic institutions. Although Kaczyński holds no office other than his seat in parliament and the chairmanship of his party, President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Beata Szydło are entirely beholden to his patronage. Law and Justice’s eminence grise – part Yoda, part Karl Lagerfeld – runs a country of almost 40 million people from his party office in central Warsaw.
At the time of Poland’s liberation more than a quarter of a century ago, the Kaczyński twins were middle-ranking members of the Solidarity leadership. They participated in the 1989 round-table talks between Solidarity and the communists, which paved the way for the elections that led to the collapse of communism. However, they built their careers on the argument that Wałęsa and the liberal intellectuals at the top of Solidarity betrayed Poland’s transition to democracy by allowing communists to keep their hands on the levers of power in exchange for the status of high office. Known for having starred as child actors in the communist-era film The Two Who Stole the Moon, theirs was a symbiotic political dynamic, with the more softly spoken and personable Lech softening the image of the vitriolic and misanthropic Jarosław. But their partnership was cut short by Lech’s death in a plane crash in 2010. Fuelled by a cocktail of grief and revenge, the controversy surrounding his brother’s death gave new impetus to Jarosław’s mission to “remodel” Polish democracy.
With a penchant for conspiracy and a vituperative speaking style, Jarosław Kaczyński routinely brands his opponents “gangsters”, “cronies”, and “reds”. Before the parliamentary elections in October 2015, he claimed that migrants from the Middle East were bringing cholera and dysentery to Europe, risking the spread of “various parasites and protozoa”. More recently, he implied that people demonstrating against the Law and Justice government were “the worst sort of Poles” – an epithet they have adopted as a badge of honour.
Many find the Law and Justice phenomenon utterly bemusing. Although still a relatively poor nation by western European standards, by any objective measure Poland’s recent history is one of triumph. It has the most successful and dynamic economy of any former communist country. After centuries of occupation and partition, Poland is now an independent state anchored in western political, economic and security institutions such as the EU and Nato. Poles have never been as prosperous and secure in more than 1,000 years of existence, and they now enjoy individual and collective rights their ancestors could only dream of.
And yet a significant minority of Poles believe that Poland and Polishness remain subject to foreign control and malign internal forces. It is a belief rooted in Poland’s traumatic past and the chaos and controversies of its post-communist transition – encouraged by Jarosław Kaczyński’s consistent assertions that this transition was, in fact, a sham. Poland’s present turmoil is the story of how anger at Poland’s liberals mutated into a war on liberal democracy itself.
You can read the full Long Read essay for the Guardian here.