Warsaw. Wednesday December 7th. The eighth anniversary of martial law approaches. Foul-smelling fog blankets the city. The battered Russian-made taxi which fetches me from the airport clatters down potholed roads. Rows of grey apartment blocks stand guard, frozen, expressionless. Trams whirr and clang through street crowds. Fur-capped shoppers skelter, wrapped in dour coats of brown, olive-green and grey. Powdered snow swirls through sullen-faced queues for bananas, pork, detergent, bread, chocolate. Trench-coated soldiers. Blue-overalled workers. Frozen silence. Winter. The Polish road to democracy.

The taxi speeds up, jumping every other red light. Its driver, goaded by fears of acute petrol shortages, is hungry for my dollars. Twenty minutes from the airport, we squeal and rattle into Iwicka Street, headquarters of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s first and most successful independent daily newspaper. The building resembles army barracks. I pick my way through its postered corridors to the office of the editor-in-chief, Adam Michnik. The famous ex-dissident, leading Polish historian, elected deputy in the Sejm and key adviser to the new Solidarity-led government spots me through his half-closed office door. Enshrouded in blue smoke, telephone in hand, he smiles impishly, slams down the telephone and strides in my direction. ‘Professor John! Bienvenue!’ Then a friendly handshake and bear hug, trimmed by polite cheek kisses.

Time is precious. Michnik is harried by a curious irony of socialism. In 1980 he was described by the Polish authorities as ‘the most sinister figure of the Polish counter-revolution’. Later today, after our meeting, he has an appointment with Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the new Prime Minister of Poland.

We fall immediately into sharp political discussion, in French. Michnik fires the opening shot. ‘Poland is today the most advanced laboratory in the Soviet bloc. Our country is feeling its way along an evolutionary road from communism to democracy. It is full of pot-holes and hairpin bends. The twentieth century taught us how to build communist regimes. The trouble is that we don’t yet know how to dismantle them.’

Michnik isn’t pessimistic or melancholy about the difficulty of completing the democratic experiment successfully. He makes it clear that he rejects the narcissistic view, common in the West, that the revolutions in central-eastern Europe demonstrate the ‘natural’ superiority of western liberal democracy and its guaranteed triumph over totalitarianism in the East. Although the democratic revolution in Poland is not impossible, its course is shaky and outcomes uncertain. Michnik also worries about the seductions of governmental power. He is aware that there are groups in Polish society—ecological initiatives, Christian associations, farmers’ organizations and workers’ clubs—which already criticize the new government as remote, arrogant, half-blind. They point to the continuing absence of clear, legally formalized guarantees of press and broadcasting freedom. They complain about the tendency for key political decisions to be made through informal negotiations, bargaining behind closed doors and by means of jostling among prestigious leaders. I remind Michnik of Montes-quieu’s eighteenth-century maxim: ‘Constant experience shows that every person invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry that power as far as it will go.’