These were taken during a 60-minute cruise up the Martwa Wisla, or Dead Vistula River, to the Baltic Sea through or near the sprawling Gdansk Shipyard, where Soviet-style Communism died in 1980.
That fall wasn’t immediate and took nearly a decade, but the christening of the Solidarity Trade Union in September of that year after a strike by 17,000 workers forced the Polish government to give in to strikers’ demands and legalize the union, signaled the beginning of the authoritarian system’s end. Today much of what was then known as the Lenin Ship Yard lays rotting, abandoned derelict buildings and heaps of rusting metal.
Surviving a boom and bust cycle since Prussia built the first ship-building facility there in the late 1840s, the area’s shipyards employed more than 20,000 people at its post-World War II peak, by far the region’s largest employer. Today it employs just ten percent of that as it continues to struggle to keep pace with changes in the industry. About 70 companies currently operate on the grounds.
A similar fate fell upon Solidarity in the post-Communist era. Poland’s strongest political movement in the early 1990s, Lech Walesa, Solidarity’s first leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, became Poland’s first president in the new era, serving from 1990 until 1995, when he lost to Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former Communist. Walesa ran again in 2000, polling just 1.01 percent, the final nail in the proverbial coffin for Solidarity-as-political party.
Plans are afoot to rejuvenate the area with the creation of a Young Town section, a residential, business, cultural and entertainment complex. That’s still a long haul away. In the meantime, a local told me, a cultural scene is beginning to develop, with small clubs, restaurants and modest galleries beginning to take root.
What was I doing on the Dead Vistula? I was on the waterway to Hel.