Kuroń, Jacek

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Jacek Kuroń

Polish political dissident Jacek Kuroń (1934-2004) spent nearly a decade imprisoned for his actions and speeches during his country's long, often bleak ex periment with one-party state socialism.

He was a key figure in Poland's Solidarity trade union movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s, then rose to the post of labor minister in his country's first non-Communist, freely elected government in 1989. A noted historian and onetime ardent Communist Party member who grew disillusioned with the regime's increasingly totalitarian aspects, “Kuroń was instrumental in bringing together the two previously separate strands of industrial unrest and intellectual opposition to the Communist regime” in the mid-1970s that gave rise to the Solidarity trade union, noted Gabriel Partos, the writer of his obituary in London's Independent newspaper.

Kuroń was born on March 3, 1934, in Lviv, Poland, a city that would later became part of the Soviet Union as the Ukraine republic at the end of World War II. He came from a middle-class family with leftist leanings who relocated westward to Poland after the war when the borders of the region shifted, and in 1949 the 15-year-old Kuroń joined the Polish Youth Union (ZMP). The ZMP was the youth branch of the Polish United Workers Party (PZPR), known less formally as Poland's Communist Party, and the PZPR was emerging as the dominant political force in a war-ravaged country still under occupation by Soviet troops. Kuroń was a committed Marxist during these young-adult years, for many Poles of his generation believed allegiance to the Soviets—and to the socialist state model—was the appropriate response to preventing the rise of fascist alternatives like Nazi Germany and its genocidal policies, which had included a plan for turning Poland into a nation of slavelaborers.

Active in Scouting

As the Soviet apparatchiks tightened their control of the PZPR in an effort to firmly establish Poland as a Communist ally, debate and dissent within the Polish party's ranks became impermissible. Once Kuroń began to question the party's draconian control, he was quickly cast out of its ranks. In the early 1950s, for example, he was serving as president of the ZMP affiliate at the Warsaw University of Technology, and in an official report he submitted as required, he was critical of the parent party's direction. Called to answer for his defiance, he stood by his claims and refused his superiors' orders to submit a boilerplate “selfcriticism” report in order to atone for his transgression. As a result, he was dismissed from his posts in both the ZMP and the PZPR.

Kuroń was allowed to rejoin the PZPR in 1956 after a thaw that year, and earned his degree in history from Warsaw University a year later. He went on to become a professor at the school, and was also active in the Związek Harcerstwa Polskiego (ZHP, or Polish Scouting Association). His attempts to establish political debating societies in such workplaces like the Warsaw Steel Factory in the early 1960s were rebuffed by the party, and that prompted him and another professor to pen their “Open Letter to the Party.” In it, he and Karol Modzelewski “argued that control of the economy gave communist planners powers of exploitation over society which surpassed those held by capitalists,” Kuroń's Times of London obituary noted. The pair were both arrested on sedition charges for the document in 1965, and Kuroń spent two years in prison.

In 1968, during a period of unrest in March, Kuroń helped organize a student strike during demonstrations that had started at the university level. The student revolt had no support among ordinary workers in Poland, though both groups were equally dissatisfied with the Communist regime. Two years later, workers in Poland's Baltic sea ports staged a series of demonstrations to protest price hikes of consumer goods, and this time the students and intellectuals failed to join in. Kuroń was actually in jail again at the time, having been arrested on charges related to the 1968 disturbances, but began to realize that Poland's leadership seemed to be playing these two groups against one another. This manipulation actually kept dissent to a manageable, nonthreatening level in the country.

Argued for New Approach

Kuroń was jailed again in 1975 after signing a manifesto in protest of proposed constitutional changes that contained controversial wording noting Poland's “special relationship” with the Soviet Union. A year later, workplace labor unrest erupted when the government was forced again to raise the price of basic food staples, and major strikes took place at industrial centers in Warsaw and in nearby Radom. Government troops responded with force, and scores were arrested and jailed. Kuroń became the cofounder of the Komitet Obrony Robotników, or Worker's Defense Committee (KOR), which was set up to aid those arrested and their families. The KOR offered legal help, medical treatment, and even financial help for detainees and their families, and served as an inventive new merger of the intelligentsia and the workers and their common cause.

Kuroń's other significant contribution to shaping Poland's postwar history was his belief that new organizations could be formed that would supplant the tightly controlled, state-sanctioned ones. “During the protests in Radom, angry workers had set fire to the building of the local Communist Party committee,” noted Partos in London's Independent. “Kuroń later told them: ‘Don't burn committees: found your own.’ ” In 1979, KOR evolved into a new body, called the Committee for Social Self-Defense (KSS-KOR). Its focus was to establish just these types of independent groups. One of the ones it encouraged to form was a workers' self-defense committee at the massive Lenin Shipyard in the Baltic port city of Gdansk, where several workers had died during the 1970 protests and antigovernment resentment lingered. As part of this activity, Kuroń came to know one of the workers who had agreed to risk their jobs and lives to distribute an illegal newsletter called “The Coastal Worker.” That man was an electrician named Lech Wałęsa, who soon rose to lead the illegal strikes that erupted at the Lenin Shipyard in the summer of 1980.

The Gdansk workers' actions were quickly copied by workers at other shipyards and factories throughout Poland, and captured worldwide attention. In September of 1980 the trade union called Solidarność, or Solidarity, was formed. This was the first-ever independent organization in the Soviet bloc. Kuroń was recruited to serve as an advisor to the top leadership as part of its national coordinating commission. “As one of Walesa's chief advisers, Kuron was keen to steer Solidarity along a moderate course,” explained Partos in the Independent. “It involved negotiating—and striking—for better pay, working conditions and social benefits, as well as for a freer society. In the process Solidarity gained a key role it what became a de facto power-sharing arrangement—without ever explicitly challenging the Communist Party's notional monopoly to rule which would have held out the danger of Soviet military intervention.”

Jailed Once Again

Solidarity quickly turned into a social movement over the next year, but Polish authorities declared martial law in December of 1981, and dozens of ringleaders, Kuroń and Wałęsa included, were arrested. In September of 1982, Kuroń was given a four-year prison term on charges of conspiring to overthrow the regime. When authorities finally relented and granted a general amnesty in 1984, he was one of the last to be released. Solidarity and other unofficial organizations had been outlawed under martial law, but its membership remained active despite government surveillance and harassment. When strikes erupted again in the spring and summer of 1988, Wałęsa formed the Solidarity Citizens Committee, and Kuroń was given a seat. With a new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev (born 1931) in power and signs that the formerly tightly controlled Soviet bloc alliance was crumbling, Polish authorities agreed to hold the famous Round Table talks between Solidarity leaders, the PZPR, and military officials. Kuroń took part in these historic negotiations on Poland's future, which were held in February of 1989.

In June of 1989, Kuroń was elected to the Sejm, the lower house of Poland's parliament, in the country's first free, multiparty elections in decades. He and other Solidarity-backed candidates won several seats, and were able to form a government in August of 1989 headed by new prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki (born 1927). Mazowiecki, a longtime Solidarity activist, named Kurońto serve as the country's minister for labor and social policy. On his first day of work, wrote Times of London correspondent Roger Boyes, “an official and vaguely sinister looking car drew up outside” Kuroń's Warsaw apartment building. It was a familiar sight, Boyes noted, for by then Kuroń had been arrested between 50 and 60 times, and was “accustomed to the early morning arrival of the secret police. Usually, the car stays parked for a while and a neighbour rings Mr. Kuron to warn him to pack his prison gear.” But on this day, the car was an official vehicle from the Ministry, and in place of a police officer it was helmed by a chauffeur.

The ride to and from the office may have been the only tranquil part of Kuroń's job as government minister. Poland's looming economic crisis had been the catalyst for the Round Table talks, and the situation had only worsened. The country's transition from a planned, heavily subsidized system to a new, free-market economy brought massive unemployment and terrible hardships for the majority of Poles. Kuroń appeared regularly on television to discuss the changes and offer reassurances that the difficulties were temporary, while working behind the scenes to bring actual relief in the form of soup kitchens and hardship stipends. He even staffed the lines at the soup kitchens on occasion, and the unemployment benefit instituted during his term became known informally as the kuroniówka, or “Kuroń's soup.”

Made Failed Presidential Bid

Mazowiecki's government lasted just over a year, but in 1992 Kuroń returned to his minister's post under a new prime minister after three more governments failed. That cabinet lasted a year and three months before dissolving in October of 1993. In 1995, Kuroń became a candidate in presidential elections, but took third place in the contest in which a former Communist, Aleksandr Kwasniewski (born 1954) bested Wałęsa. A year later, Kuroń reunited with Karol Modzelewski to publish another open letter, this time claiming that the Polish intelligence services—rife with holdovers from the Communist era, it was said—was still actively working to quash dissent in the country, only this time in the form of undermining legitimate political opposition.

Kuroń was known for his informal, iconoclastic demeanor. He wore jeans, even as a government minister and even when accepting France's prestigious Legion of Honor medal. His apartment door in Warsaw was famously left unlocked for years as an open invitation to anyone who needed to speak with him or sought a place of refuge. He died on June 17, 2004, in Warsaw, at the age of 70. Survivors included his second wife, Danuta, and a son, Maciej, from his first marriage. His first wife, Grazyna, died during the period of martial law, when Kuroń was jailed. Upon news of Kuroń's death, Wałęsa reflected, “without him, the events of August 1980 would have been impossible,” Michael T. Kaufman in the New York Times quoted him as saying.


The Cold War, 1945-1991, 3 volumes. Edited by Benjamin Frankel, Gale, 1992.


Independent (London, England), June 21, 2004.

National Review, October 18, 1985.

New York Times, January 23, 1996; June 18, 2004.

Times (London, England), September 22, 1989; June 18, 2004.