E&T spends a day in the company of noted electrician, not to mention Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Polish President, Lech Walesa.
Despite dozens of honorary doctorates and two professorships from the world’s leading scholarly bodies, Lech Walesa does not carry an engineering diploma. The world’s most famous electrician (one of the many clichés routinely applied to the founder of Solidarity Trade Union and the ex-President of Poland) was educated at a technical school in the town of Lipno and never made it to the university. The reason? As one of his American biographers asserts, his parents “could not afford the fees”. That assertion puzzled me as I was reading the biography before my own meeting with the “living legend” (another Walesa cliché). As someone who himself grew up in the USSR, I knew only too well that all communist regimes took pride in not charging tuition fees. The education standards could be very low, but at least it was free. At my university in Ukraine, they even paid small monthly grants to students, unless the latter were failing consistently in all disciplines.
It was one of the questions I asked Walesa as we sat down at a table in a small ante-room of his suite in a posh country hotel near St. Albans.
“Of course, this is rubbish, “ he shrugged. “There were no fees. What my parents could not afford were my living expenses and the travel fare.”
I thought that was a good example of Walesa being frequently misunderstood by Western media...
By then, we were half-an-hour into our first conversation of the day which started with the ex-President briskly and matter-of-factly taking a picture of me with his smartphone and instantly uploading it to one of his three personal websites. Triumphantly, he then brandished the newly-made photo on the screen of his ubiquitous iPad.
He would snap everyone he shook hands with throughout the day, including the E&T photographer who had been trying to take a good picture of Walesa for many hours. However, Walesa – under different pretexts – was avoiding the camera until late at night by which time he had already had half a dozen pictures of our photographer, and yet the photographer had none of Walesa!
Only later did I discover that the founder of Solidarity is notoriously averse to being photographed. Was it due to the innate, deeply hidden shyness of a provincial country lad, propelled to worldwide fame?
Walesa was in the UK on a short and largely private visit, organised by Irena Falcone, editor of the Polish-British magazine Migrant at Home. I was offered an opportunity to spend a day with the great man on the condition that, in my questions, I would (as much as possible) stay away from present-day politics – the task that proved difficult while talking to this highly charged political electrician (or shall I say “electrifying politician”?), an avuncular and roly-poly, yet fast and restless, 68-year-old father of eight, whose whole appearance perfectly suited his last name: “Walesa” means “he who roams” in Polish. “Hope what happened to him doesn’t happen to me,” he muttered, having spotted a portrait of Yuri Gagarin on the cover of the latest issue of E&T, which I was holding. He was obviously alluding to a persisting conspiracy theory of Gagarin’s death, according to which the spaceman’s fatal flying accident was masterminded by Brezhnev and his cronies.
Walesa could be also hinting at the extraordinary stroke of luck, which prevented him from being on the plane carrying dozens of prominent Poles to Russia to commemorate the anniversary of the Soviet massacre of thousands of the Polish army offers at Katyn last year – the plane that crashed on landing killing everyone on board.
Walesa was not invited to the ceremony due to his falling out with the late President Lech Kaczynski over the so-called “agent Bolek scandal” whereby Walesa was falsely accused of collaborating with communist Poland’s secret police, SB (‘Bolek’ was Walesa’s alleged code name). Kaczynski, was killed in the crash, which, as Walesa was probably inclined to believe, could have been an “arranged” one too.
Whatever his theory, one thing was certain: the man who – almost single-handedly – destroyed communism in Poland and subsequently all over Europe was bound to have a lot of political enemies.
Our conversation with Walesa lasted – with intervals – for most of the day, during which he, among other things, addressed a packed audience at the University of Hertfordshire and attended a formal dinner in his honour. I will try to recount it as one non-sequential chit-chat rather than an official interview, which it certainly wasn’t.
How does it feel to have Gdansk airport named after yourself when you hear in the intercom: “We are about to land at Lech Walesa?”
I feel absolutely fine. No false modesty... I have achieved something in my life and was generously rewarded for that. If I put on all my awards, I wouldn’t be able to stand up from this chair.
Yet the truth is that I didn’t want to be a politician. I was brought up in a village on simple principles of honesty and faith.
The further I travelled away from home, the more discrepancies with my ideals I was discovering. But I was lucky to be equipped with faith in God and belief in the rightness of what I was doing.
What exactly do you think of being compared to Nelson Mandela?
For me, just like for Mandela, it was easier to be a rebel than, say, for F.W. de Klerk, for the latter was himself part of the old system, whereas both Mandela and I came from the outside. I admire de Klerk for being able to break with his past.
Your interest in IT is very well known. Did you indeed assemble several PCs on your own?
Yes, I did. But without understanding properly how they worked. I still don’t. But am curious to find out. While travelling, I always carry a laptop, a smart phone and a handheld device, so that I wouldn’t lose track of God [sic]. I always carry a minimum of three gadgets: if two fail, one will still keep working.
What is the main attraction of being an electrician?
This profession allows you to find out how things work, to be in control, to satisfy your natural curiosity.
One of your biographers claims that you were on your way to get a job in Gdynia after finishing the vocational school, but got off the train at a stop in Gdansk to have a beer and stayed there. The power of incident. What would have happened had you not missed that train?
It could have all been very different, but God wanted me in Gdansk. Who knows, had I not missed that train, communists might still be in power in Poland! It was my destiny that placed me at the heart of struggle with communism.
Did your electrician’s skills come useful in your political life and career?
Very useful. A good electrician should be able to keep putting seemingly incompatible things (wires) together, make sure they work and keep them in order... just like a good politician. I still do all electric repairs at home myself.
What recent technological breakthrough had the biggest implications for you and for the world?
As they say, it is always the next one which is round the corner. Look, I am a simple electrician and a revolutionary and I do not always know all the answers... my dream inventions would probably be shoes that propel your forward on their own and the world ruled by computers, not politicians.
What would your wishes be to E&T readers and engineers in general?
Keep inventing new things to make our lives easier and remember: technology allows us to maintain peace.