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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Walesa Takes Spotlight 25 Years Later

GDANSK, Poland -- It was 6 a.m. and Lech Walesa was late for an appointment with history.

He was supposed to be at the Gdansk shipyard, rallying workers to go on strike and defy Poland's Soviet-controlled communist government.

The shipyard's former electrician, who had been fired for his attempts to form a trade union, says he was late on that August morning in 1980 because he was trying to shake off a secret police agent who was following him.

His colleagues waiting at the shipyard did not know that.

"I looked at the crowd which had gathered there and I was terrified," said Jerzy Borowczak, another activist.

"'Everything is lost,' I thought. 'We won't do it.'"

But just as the shipyard's manager was beginning to persuade some workers to resume work, Walesa turned up, vaulting over the shipyard's gate to bypass security. "We begin a sit-in strike," he told the workers.

Twenty-five years later, Walesa will take center stage again next week as Poland celebrates the creation of Solidarity, the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc.

Solidarity toppled communism in Poland in 1989, dealing a first blow to Soviet authorities who would soon be overthrown in countries across Eastern Europe and in Russia itself.

Since his union heyday and a difficult term as president, Walesa has spent several years in the political wilderness.

But the anniversary festivities -- and his plans to use the event to hand in his Solidarity membership card -- have brought the democracy icon back into the limelight.

Walesa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, said his decision to hand in his card was a consequence of the changes since the fall of communism -- changes that include Poland's entry into the European Union last year. "I was a member of a freedom movement, not just a trade union," he said. "I feel that Poland is safe now. I am confident of its place in history and in Europe."

The Solidarity movement was defeated a year later in a military backlash, but it went underground and re-emerged in 1989 with a freedom march that brought about the collapse of communist states across the region.

Walesa was elected president in 1990 and defeated in a 1995 election. He tried to steer a middle course between intellectuals and economists in charge of reforms and the Solidarity rank-and-file.

In the end, he disappointed both camps with his maneuvering, brusqueness and confusing statements, such as his famous quip that he was "for and even against" reforms.

"I believed in Walesa. He was one of us, but he wasn't a good [president]. I was disappointed," said Ludwik Pradzynski, a worker who helped plan the Gdansk strike.

For nearly a decade, Walesa all but disappeared from the domestic scene, dividing his time between promoting Poland in lectures around the world and his favorite hobby, fishing.

But Poland's EU entry last year focused his countrymen's attention on Walesa's role in making that feat possible and he began to rediscover his status as a national moral authority.

"For me, Walesa is a national hero because he brought down communism," Marcin Plaza, a 32-year old businessman in Gdansk. "That's the important bit."