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THE POLISH secret police murder a priest in 1984; five years later Communism
and their world collapse. Is there a connection? The sudden end of the system
that clasped the eastern half of Europe in its embrace had many causes, but
much research is still wanting.
Kevin Ruane is one of the most experienced and reliable BBC journalists to
have worked in the USSR and Poland during the 1970s and ’80s, and this book is
the result of one area of his reportage. His answer to the above question is:
“Yes, the Roman Catholic Church — combined with intense Polish nationalism —
was a major contributor to, even a trigger of, the political events here
He was an eye-witness of, and at times a virtual participant (the Polish
resistance trusted him with privileged information) in, the story he unfolds.
It is a tragic tale: the short life of a priest, Fr Jerzy Popieluszko.
Originally a student of no particular distinction, he became a political symbol
and an activist almost despite himself. Then he fell victim to a brutal, though
bungled, attack by the most reprehensible elements in the old Poland.
The ensuing trial of the perpetrators and the attendant worldwide publicity
were, in Ruane’s view, unquestionably a key factor in the toughened
determination of Solidarity, the Roman Catholic workers’ trade union, not to
die when it was banned by the imposition of martial law in December 1981.
Ruane, I believe, is right. His description of how the ban failed to curb free
speech in the pulpit is convincing.
The last two-thirds of this book of almost 400 pages recount in detail the
murder of Fr Popieluszko; the subsequent investigation, often so complicated
and dishonest that attempted cover-ups had themselves to be covered up, and
then disguised a second time; and the endless contortions of the trial itself.
The research and reconstruction that have gone into this convoluted story do
not always make for easy reading (and the sequence of Polish names is an added
complication), but they are exemplary. Ruane exposes the former Polish regime
as rotten, both on the surface and at its very core. The skulduggery of those
who upheld it led, inevitably, to the demise of the system, which is recounted
briefly at the end.
It is slightly strange that this book should appear 20 years after the main
events it records; but it is very right that the world should forget neither
the heroism of Fr Popieluszko nor that of the great band of Solidarity
activists who ousted the communists.