They painted dwarfs on walls, handed out sanitary pads, and planted onions in green spaces in cities. Such were the absurd methods by which the Orange Alternative fought against communism in the 1980s.
The social movement referred to as the Orange Alternative came into existence in Wrocław at the initiative of Waldemar Fydrych, aka “the Major”. During the student strikes in November and December 1981, the Major and his friends launched a strike newspaper that bore the same name as the movement. He also wrote Manifest surrealizmu socjalistycznego [The Manifesto of Socialist Surrealism]. Back then, the Polish public was engaged in a silent war against the communist authorities, which played out on the streets of Polish cities. People would paint anti-government slogans on walls, which the authorities would then paint over with relentless meticulousness. The Major came up with the idea of putting images of dwarfs on the splotches of paint used to cover up the slogans. He painted the first two dwarfs in Wrocław in the night of 30th to 31st August 1982. Shortly thereafter, hundreds of dwarfs began to appear in all major cities in Poland, with up to a dozen people painting them in each city. After a year, there were around 1000 dwarfs. However, the Major’s dream – to see citizens covering walls with dwarfs on a mass scale, which he envisioned would touch off a general ‘dwarf revolution’ – never materialized. One of those original dwarfs remains preserved to the present day and can be seen together with a historic plaque on Madalińskiego Street in Warsaw.
On 1st April 1986, the Major, together with a group of artist friends, staged what was probably the very first in a series of happenings in public space in Wrocław. It was named Tuby, czyli zadymianie miasta [Tubes, or smoking up the city]. In the following year, he organized as many as 11 such street campaigns. They were no longer limited to the Major’s friends, but rather attracted more and more participants, including ordinary passers-by – and, needless to say, the communist police units. On 1st June 1987, during another happening called Krasnoludki w PRL [Dwarfs in the Polish People’s Republic], the participants wore dwarf hats and also gave them out to passers-by. Each of the Orange Alternative’s campaigns was preceded by the posting of information leaflets and was very carefully planned. Usually, the happenings ended with a smaller or larger group of participants being arrested by the police. That was usually the most amusing part.
“Who are they?” a voice on the police radio asked.
“Dwarfs,” another police officer retorted.
“What?! Are you insane?” the other policeman shouted in reply.
“No. There really are dwarfs on the street. We’ve arrested them.”
“Have you been drinking?”
“No, we haven’t.”
“Why are you seeing dwarfs, then?”
“They are students dressed up as dwarfs.”
“Oh, right. But what are these dwarfs doing?”
“What are they signing?”
“The song ‘We Are Dwarfs’.”
During the campaign Precz z U-Pałami on 27th July 1987, the participants wore T-shirts with individual letters painted on them. When all of them stood in the correct order, they formed the phrase Precz z upałami (‘No more heat’). But when the person wearing the letter ‘U’ walked away, the phrase turned into Precz z pałami (‘No more truncheons’). Other campaigns from that year were Papier Toaletowy – pierwsze rozdanie [Toilet Paper – the first giveaway], Dzień Milicjanta [Policeman’s Day], and Wigilia Rewolucji Październikowej [October Revolution Eve], to name but a few.
In 1988, the Major’s happenings took on the scale of large gatherings attended by thousands of people, to the accompaniment of law-enforcement forces of adequate strength. During a campaign organized on the occasion of Women’s Day, which involved giving out sanitary pads under the banners of “YES to Pads, NO to Pershing Tanks”, the communist police arrested the Major. International media outlets mocked the Polish government for criminalizing the handing out of sanitary pads. A letter of protest to the authorities was signed by Andrzej Wajda and Witold Lutosławski, among others. Finally, a court trial was held three weeks later, and the Major was acquitted.
On 1st June, during the happening Rewolucja Krasnoludków [The Revolution of Dwarfs], which attracted around 10,000 participants in Wrocław city centre, an incident occurred that is known from Mirosław Dembiński’s documentary film scenes: a crowd of dwarfs rocked a police van like a toy and painted dwarfs on the body of the vehicle. The officers must have been quite scared, because they knew that the system they represented was in its death throes. Three months earlier, on 1st March, during the campaign Dzień Tajniaka [Undercover Officers’ Day], the police did not intervene. From the beginning of 1989, the government was engaged in intensive talks with the anti-communist opposition, so police operations were limited to keeping a watchful eye over the happenings, which then spread into other cities.
The Orange Alternative’s campaigns in Łódź were led from 1987 onwards by Krzysztof Skiba, the subsequent vocalist of the band Big Cyc. Starting from the first happening in November 1987, the main organizer in Warsaw was Wojciech Sobolewski. Finally, the city of Lublin joined the happenings in 1989 at the initiative of such figures as Tomek Kalinowski and Jacek Piasecki. The main element of the campaign Idzie Postęp [Progress Is Coming] involved planting onions in an area of greenery near Litewski Square. After the happening ended, plainclothes police officers appeared at the square and painstakingly dug up all the onions. But they missed one – it later became a secret sensation in Lublin. In May, the Major ran for a seat in the Senate in Wrocław under the campaign slogan “The Orange Major or the Red General – Relax, the Choice Is Yours.” He was badly defeated, which made him realize how small his group of supporters were on the scale of the country. He left Poland in late July 1990 and returned 10 years later – but that is a somewhat different story.
Translated from the Polish by Daniel J. Sax
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