FIVE HISTORICAL HAPPENINGS THAT GENERATED A COLD WAR NOVEL BASED IN WARSAW
The Cold War has generated countless novels. When I dared to write my own, I chose to base the story in Warsaw during the early ’80s after the imposition of martial law. Remember, this was the city flattened by the Nazis in 1944 while the Red Army watched from the other side of the Vistula River. This is the city that was later surrendered to Stalin by Roosevelt and Churchill. And remember, it was Stalin who immediately ordered the execution of Poland’s wartime resistance leaders. The resistance, however, didn’t end there. It continued through to the collapse of Communist rule in 1989. The spreading of ideas and hope that can’t be killed or locked away. And so the story centers on Róża Mojeska, a lonely woman in her fifties, who took on the army and the state and won—but not in a way that anyone could have expected, least of all Róża. Here are five historical episodes that served as an inspiration.
Martial Law and the Prison Camps
Faced with Solidarity, a socio-political movement it couldn’t control, the government declared a state of war in December 1981. Tanks rolled onto the streets. Within two weeks, 10,000 people had been arrested. Forty-two camps and places of internment had been opened. The idea was to decapitate Solidarity. The move failed.
Even as people were being arrested, friends and families produced lists of those who’d been taken away. Since the use of ink, paper, and printing machines (including typewriters) was under government control, ingenuity took over. People made their own ink. They made their own printing presses. Papers and journals appeared—analyzing the crisis, reporting the news, mocking the oppressor—edited by teams who kept on the move, relying on groups of volunteers for widespread distribution. The government with its tanks and guns was overwhelmed. In 1982 alone, the security apparatus closed 360 publishing operations, seizing 196 printing machines, 468 typewriters, 730,000 leaflets, 340,000 publications, and 4000 posters. But as soon as one operation was shut down, another began, using different equipment and supplies.
The Role of Women
Many of the leaders of this publishing phenomenon were women. From writing to editing to distributing, it was often women who took key leadership roles. First, they had the necessary skills; second, many of the leading male figures had been imprisoned; third, and most interestingly, the security forces, being sexist, were often slow to consider women as important, dangerous, or rebellious figures. This last was exploited to the full. How many macho secret policemen in their leather jackets and jeans failed to suspect that the smiling pregnant woman at a bus stop was, in fact, carrying banned newspapers strapped around her waist? I’d love to know.
The Cold War was, above all, a battle of ideas. And since the state’s ideas were determined by Communist ideology, another system of education became vitally important. The tradition of “flying universities” and secret teaching organizations has a long history in Poland, and they remained important tools of resistance. People’s minds were unshackled. Lectures and talks were given in basements and factories. The present may have been in the hands of the enemy, but a very different future was being planned out of their reach. While Bond and Smiley played their role in the struggle for freedom, so did teachers and their students: ordinary people who refused to give up the right to think.
We’ve all heard of the KGB and the Stasi. In Poland, the dreaded secret police organization was the SB. And just as their confreres recruited informers, either voluntarily or through blackmail or by exploiting a family crisis, so did the SB. And like their confreres, they kept copious notes and records, all stored away in files. After the collapse of Communist rule, these files were housed by the IPN, the Institute of National Memory in Warsaw. Shelved back to back, the paperwork would cover a hundred miles. That is an awful lot of words. A lot of whispering. The problem, of course, is that those whisperers now face the prospect of their words being uttered out loud. And those who suffered are now finding out that they were betrayed by someone they loved. These are dark corridors for a writer.
In The Day of the Lie, I took all these elements, and more, to weave a story of hope. A story about survival. A story about the quest for justice, once the perpetrators were no longer protected by the system that had made them powerful. It’s a Cold War novel where one easily forgotten victim gets the final word.
William Brodrick was an Augustinian friar before leaving the order to become a barrister. He won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2009 and is the author of five novels featuring Father Anselm, in addition to The Day of the Lie, also from Overlook.