In 1987, at the height of Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s glasnost, I sat down in a Moscow theater with a few hundred others to watch a just-released somber film. Shot three years earlier by the Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze but immediately shelved, the film, “Repentance,” was a powerful allegorical critique of Stalinism in which a corpse refuses to stay buried. In the audience there was not a single dry eye. Finally the monstrosity of Joseph Stalin’s terror could be openly discussed. Sitting in the dark, I realized how painful those secrets, kept so long by millions of Soviet families, had been.
Two years later, in June 1989, Communism collapsed in Poland by way of a negotiated “semi-democratic” election. In November the Berlin Wall fell. Another two years and the Soviet Union broke up, on Dec. 26, 1991.
Those who witnessed it believed the magic formula of liberal democracy and free-market economy had won, forever. There would be no turning back.
Twenty-five years after that, visiting Russia in October, I found Stalin again on the agenda. This time, though, Russian officials exhibited not the paranoid leader of the Great Terror, responsible for millions of deaths, but the glorious war hero whose summer dacha in Sochi is now open for group tours. The first item of our talks, organized by the Valdai Discussion Club, was “What if the U.S.S.R. had not ceased to exist?” Obviously, in the minds of very serious people, turning back had become an option. The West’s moment of triumph was short-lived.
Of course, we will not see the failed U.S.S.R. reborn. But the political evolution of the last few years, culminating now across Europe and the United States in an explosion of electoral insurrections — the “revolt of the masses,” President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia called it in October — betrays one simple truth: The democracy-cum-free-market formula has not just lost its magic; it is now openly contested.
Nowhere has this formula been more spectacularly challenged than in Poland, where it started. The Poles never accepted Communist domination after World War II. Decade after decade, they tried all sorts of rebellions, soft or hard. Thirty-five years ago, on Dec. 13, 1981, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law and jailed thousands of Solidarity activists in order, he said, to avoid Soviet intervention. Even that failed. Solidarity survived underground and brought the general, his government and the Soviet Union to their knees, forming the first democratic government in the East bloc in 1989.
December is a fateful month in Poland, and in freezing temperatures, Poles have taken to the streets again. Some are the very people who were jailed under martial law; they, too, thought their ideas had won forever. Karol Modzelewski, one of the leading intellectuals instrumental in Solidarity’s victory against Communism, joked that a foreign friend visiting Poland after a 30-year interval marveled at how much the country had changed, then noted: “The only thing which has not changed is the opposition. They are still the same people.”
On Dec. 13, two rival demonstrations were held in Warsaw: one led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of the ruling party, Law and Justice, and one organized by a coalition of opposition parties. A former Solidarity activist himself, Mr. Kaczynski is a reclusive politician whose twin brother, Lech, then president of Poland, was killed in 2010 when the government plane carrying him, his wife and dozens of senior officials crashed in the forest of Smolensk, in Russia. Determined to prove the crash was plotted by Russia, Jaroslaw Kaczynski is obsessed with the past. A member of Parliament, he holds no government post but is widely considered Poland’s real leader.
In little over a year, Mr. Kaczynski and his party’s government have engineered much more than parties generally do when they win elections and emerge from opposition. They are trying to build an alternate system to the one established by their former friends in Solidarity after the democratic transition of 1989. At a business conference in Poland in September, Mr. Kaczynski and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary vowed to wage a “cultural counterrevolution” to radically change a post-Brexit European Union.
In Poland, it started with an assault on the Constitutional Tribunal: The new government overturned a pre-election appointment of three new judges. The court has been paralyzed since, and with its president’s term having ended on Dec. 19, it now comes under the ruling party’s control. Next came a takeover of public media. Polish national television now broadcasts so much propaganda that people who remember Communist television just sighed when, a few weeks ago, a broadcast of the Oscar-winning movie “Ida” was canceled as “un-Polish.” On Dec. 16, privately run television called demonstrations to Parliament against restrictions on media access a “protest for media freedom”; public TV denounced them as an “attempt to destabilize the state.”
In less than a year, thousands of officials suspected of sympathy with the opposition have been dismissed. Textbooks are being rewritten. Nongovernmental organizations and public gatherings are being regulated. Leaders of the democratic transition, once treated as national heroes, are being investigated for collaboration with the former Communist government; not even Lech Walesa, the former president and Nobel peace laureate, has been spared. Their biggest “crime” is to have decided not to initiate a witch hunt against their former oppressors.
For Mr. Kaczynski, 27 years later, revenge is the order of the day. He does not travel abroad, or speak foreign languages, nor does he meet foreign journalists; only rarely does he meet foreign leaders. Yet on Dec. 15 he spent two hours talking with the former New York mayor and close Trump associate Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was on a business visit to Poland. The only foreign leader he sees regularly is Mr. Orban. Interestingly, Poland and Hungary, where in 1989 the most liberal elites in the region led the transition to democracy from totalitarianism, now lead the pack of “illiberal democracies” within the European Union.
What happened? Why, less than 30 years after crying over Stalin’s crimes, do 86 percent of Russian citizens approve of a leader who glorifies the Soviet Union’s legacy? “Soon it will be 120 percent,” Mr. Gorbachev recently joked in a BBC interview; he blames the West and its media. Mr. Kaczynski blames the arrogant elites of his country and the European Union.
Because of Poland’s history, Mr. Kaczynski is at odds with Russia. Yet his political style resembles Mr. Putin’s. The authoritarian streak, excused by nationalism. The accusations of “anti-state” activities against the opposition. The constant references to conservative cultural values — Roman Catholic in Poland, Orthodox in Russia — and enrollment of religious leaders in the political fight. The difficulty in accepting pluralism. The appetite to control the media and civil society.
Just as the West wonders how to deal with Mr. Putin, the European Union seems powerless with Poland’s and Hungary’s leaders; such assaults on our values by member states had hardly been envisaged. Now that Mr. Trump is giving a whole new dimension to the turn toward what is called populism, maybe this is a good time to reflect on the quarter-century triumph of liberal democracy, and how to win it back.
Sylvie Kauffmann, the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde, is a contributing opinion writer.