Lech Wałęsa on the state of democracy

The former Polish president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate had a wide-ranging chat with Philadelphia Inquirer columnist and Perry World House Visiting Fellow Trudy Rubin, tackling topics like Russia, Ukraine, and how to build democracies.

A group of six people stand in front of a bookcase and a white background with a Penn Perry World House banner.
(From left to right) Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin, Perry World House Interim Director Michael Weisberg, third-year Wharton student Michał Wyrębkowski, former Polish president Lech Wałęsa, Provost John Jackson Jr., and Perry World House executive director Marie Harf. 

Former Polish president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Wałęsa told a packed house at Perry World House this week that the United States must take advantage of its position as a world leader and launch a fight against Russia, not with weapons but with politics and propaganda.

“We need to put more strength, more power into the propaganda fight,” he said. “This is the biggest opportunity to bring order. Never in the history of the world have countries been so united against Russia. Let’s take advantage of it.”

Wałęsa spoke just days before Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition politician and prominent critic of Vladimir Putin, died in prison.

The Feb. 12 conversation with Trudy Rubin, a columnist with The Philadelphia Inquirer and a Perry World House Visiting Fellow, tackled issues like what makes a true democracy and how it’s up to young people to continue the fight for freedom that he started with his Solidarity movement in Poland. 

Perry World House (PWH) co-hosted the event with Penn’s Philomathean Society, the oldest student group in the country, which brought Wałęsa to campus. Before the conversation, PWH interim director Michael Weisberg introduced Michał Wyrębkowski, a third-year student at the Wharton School who is the annual oration director of the Philomathean Society.

“For me personally, this event holds central significance as a member of the third generation of Poles fortunate enough to live in a country free from foreign oppression since the late 18th century,” Wyrębkowski told the crowd before introducing Provost John L. Jackson Jr. Wyrębkowski then joined a translator off the stage and split duties translating Walesa’s remarks from Polish into English for the crowd.

“More than most, Lech Wałęsa has experienced firsthand the challenges to democracy that have come sometimes from both the left and the right,” Jackson said. “We are honored that he’s with us here to share his unique perspective on European politics in this pivotal election year.”

In starting the discussion, Rubin noted that American democracy is at a crossroads and said, “I can’t think of another figure who is more important to speak to at this moment in time.”

Wałęsa started off discussing the success his movement had in launching a peaceful revolution against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. He told the students in the audience that they are the generation that has a chance of mimicking the advances in democracy that he had in Poland.

“It will be the success of my generation if you succeed,” he said. 

Wałęsa explained what might be learned from his movement to make strides in the current moment where democracy is under attack. During his revolution, he said, the old order was preventing Europe and the world overall from developing. Then as now, it was Russia and China working to prevent advances in places like Poland, he said, and they are still operating under outdated methods.

“But if we understand ourselves, we will also help them to change,” Wałęsa said.

Lech Walesa and Trudy Rubin sit on a stage at Perry World House.
Former Polish president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Wałęsa (left) in a discussion with Trudy Rubin at Perry World House.

Rubin asked him how important it is that the U.S. stays in a position of leadership of democracy globally, with authoritarianism on the rise.

“Leading countries need to lead the world, not in the old-fashioned way with dollars and weapons,” he said. “Now, you need to prepare solutions.” He used the example of the pandemic as something that needed a new way of thinking and problem solving. 

“The entire issue is that the development of the world exceeds the current technological and structural solutions,” he said. The world needs to deal with China and Russia, with a solidarity spirit, with the U.S. leading the way, Wałęsa said.

Rubin asked what he thought the cost would be to Europe and democracies if the U.S. allowed Russia to take control of Ukraine.

Wałęsa said he travels all over the world to places claiming to have democracy, but he doesn’t see it, so he came up with what he referred to as an “electrician’s equation for democracy,” his reference to the job he held before becoming an activist and politician.

There are three elements to democracy, each one 30% he said. “The other 10% I leave out for pleasure,” he joked.

The first 30% is a constitution and rule of law, he said. The next 30% is civic engagement, whether citizens are engaged in the system, and the last 30% is the power of the dollar, or financial independence. “If I want to fight for democracy, I need to see and know which element I want to improve and promote,” he said. 

Rubin noted how people in Poland remember what it was like to not have democracy, but that isn’t the case in the U.S. and asked him if it is important to know how it feels to be without democracy to be inspired to guard it.

“I came here 30 years ago because I wanted to build a democracy in Poland and I heard you had one in the United States. So, is there a democracy here now? I would say yes,” he replied.

However, he used an example of the fact that everyone in the audience could run for president of the U.S., but he also knows that to run for president in this country a person needs millions of dollars on hand.

“So none of you can actually become a president in this democracy,” Wałęsa said. Despite that limited access to true power, he said he believes the U.S. manages to retain its democracy in large part to all the entrepreneurs in the U.S. “Those are the people that tend to defend democracy here,” he said. 

He said he believes the world needs to redefine political parties and redefine what the left and the right mean because now what had been left-wing ideas in the past are being embraced by the right wing and vice versa. “And faith-based and Christian parties often have no true believers in them,” Wałęsa said.

He compared this issue to a situation where road signs no longer work, but there are no new ones with the fresh, accurate directions leading you where you want to go. “The old political parties do not fit the times,” he said.

“If Russia is able to crush Ukraine, what impact will it have on Poland?” Rubin asked. 

Wałęsa talked about how every country in Europe was created through unification of smaller countries, and many countries in Europe have used force against another to unify itself. Even in the United States this happened in the Civil War, he said. But countries can also unify democratically by doing things like volunteering to join NATO, the E.U., the U.N., he said.

Wałęsa continued, “Which idea will prevail, the first or the second? You asked me about Ukraine. Gorbachev was a friend; I liked and respected him, but I said at the time, ‘He’s a Russian patriot; he’s working for Russia and not for us. He’s actually lying to the entire world. He wants to rebuild Russia; he wants to make the West dependent on Russia,’” Wałęsa said. “He didn’t change the political system. When Russia rises up, there will appear another Stalin or another Putin who will try to reclaim the lost lands. And precisely what I anticipated is happening right now.”

He said people need to assume that even if Ukraine defeats Russia, in a few years Russia will rise up and again the world will need to defeat them. 

“We need to help Russia change its political system,” Wałęsa said. “The head of state of Russia or China should not have more than two five-year terms. Nobody would build this sort of banditry assuming that they wouldn’t have more than two five-year terms.” 

The world is much more prepared today to fight these systems and almost the entire world is against Russia, he said.

“We have an opportunity to make order in Russia but not in a forceful way. Under the leadership of the United States, we should lead a political fight and the Russian people will be happy if we help them do that,” Wałęsa said.

He then joked that his speaking about this had led Russia to put a $5 million bounty on his head, and after saying it again at Penn it’s now probably up to $10 million.