Article by Isabel Fleming. Edited and researched by Hayley Arnold.
On June 1st 1988 ten thousand people marched through the streets of Wrocław, Poland wearing orange hats. This event, known as the ‘Revolution of the Dwarfs’, marked the pinnacle of ‘happenings’ arranged by the Orange Alternative, a movement which acted in opposition to the authoritarian Jaruzelski regime in Poland. It is for the creation of this movement that Waldemar ‘Major’ Fydrych should be celebrated in historical writings.
During the 1970s Poland had borrowed a great deal of money from Western Europe which resulted in rapid economic growth. However, much of this money was misspent and, in the latter 1970s, Poland’s economy took a turn for the worse. At the start of the 1980s Polish foreign debt stood at more than $20 billion and government attempts to reduce this invariably ended in social unrest. In August of 1981 workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk went on strike and it was here that the movement Solidarity emerged. Solidarity attempted to improve workers’ conditions through non-violent resistance and with initial support from almost ten million people it proved a genuine threat to the Polish government. General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who had been the Prime Minister of Poland since February 1981, initiated martial law in order to deal with the problem of workers’ unrest. Martial law enabled the Polish government to arrest thousands of members of opposition groups, such as Solidarity, without charge using the Polish state militia and paramilitary police. However, it also imposed great restrictions on the civil liberties of people in Poland with rationing becoming commonplace and the military taking control over media, communications and transportation. It was under these conditions that Waldemar Fydrych formed the Orange Alternative.
Waldemar Fydrych (born 8th April 1953) was a graduate of the History and History of Art Faculty of the University of Wrocław. In order to avoid military service Fydrych feigned mental illness, appearing in front of the military commission dressed in full uniform and continually referring to himself as a ‘major’, when asked to show some deference he began to refer to members of the commission as ‘Colonel’. This behaviour led to Fydrych being declared unfit to serve, as well as granting him the lasting nickname ‘Major’. It was as a student in Wrocław that Fydrych became embroiled with anti-regime protest movements. Fydrych began simply, by painting stylistic dwarfs on walls. He would find a spot painted on the wall by the government to hide anti-regime graffiti and over this spot Fydrych would draw his dwarfs, his first example of absurdity combating state repression. As a student Fydrych also wrote a Manifesto of Socialist Surrealism, this document acted as a basis for the Orange Alternative and argued that the socialist government was so inherently surrealistic that it could be seen as a form of art. Within the Manifesto, Fydrych went so far as to state that ‘even a single militiaman standing in a street is but a work of art’.
November and December of 1980 saw a series of student protests in Poland, during which time the first publication of a new journal took place. This journal, entitled ‘The Orange Alternative’ marks the beginning of Fydrych’s movement of the same name. Over the next decade the Orange Alternative arranged over sixty ‘happenings’ across Wrocław with Fydrych at the helm. These ‘happenings’ were acts of street performance with a heavily satirical edge, a concept which developed from the ideas of art put forward in the Manifesto of Socialist Surrealism. Many happenings were based on the idea of providing goods which were in high demand, such as toilet roll, to the masses. Fydrych himself was arrested for handing out women’s sanitary napkins in 1988. However, some good came from Fydrych’s arrest as it introduced other Eastern European states, such as Ukraine, to the ideas of the Orange Alternative. Furthermore Fydrych argued that his arrest said more about the Polish regime than any writings by other anti-regime figures.
Many of the Orange Alternative’s ‘happenings’ involved people wearing orange hats, like those worn by the dwarfs in Fydrych’s graffiti. This led to those who took part in ‘happenings’ being often referred to as ‘dwarfs’. Fydrych is credited with saying that it was hard to take the police seriously when being asked if they had been in an illegal meeting of dwarfs, and this was part of the Orange Alternative’s power; people began to fear the militia less. It is evident that, in spite of appearing to be just whimsical fun, the ‘happenings’ of the Orange Alternative actually empowered the people of Poland against the violently repressive tactics of the militia. Moreover, the fact that the Orange Alternative was not a strictly organised opposition to the government allowed for anyone to join in without having to become a hard line radical.
Fydrych did not create the Orange Alternative with the intention of changing the government, which is part of the reason that it was able to continue for so long, and this can be seen by the fact that it continued after the fall of the Berlin Wall and into the twenty-first century. Fydrych’s main goal was actually to challenge the state’s monopoly on truth. In this respect the Orange Alternative can be seen as a great success as it was able to make protest part of street life.
Waldemar Fydrych is still active, having recently shown Orange Alternative support for the successful Ukrainian ‘Orange Revolution’ of 2004, by organising the knitting of the Orange Scarf of Support. He also made news in 2006 when he ran for mayor of Warsaw, as part of the party Dolts and Dwarfs. Whilst he is widely known in Poland it seems a travesty that someone who came up with the inspired idea of targeting violent repression with peaceful absurdity could be omitted from modern histories, the Major deserves to be remembered.
- The Orange Alternative used slogans which were surrealist, rather than the ideological slogans we usually see from political organisations. The Slogans ‘Vivat Sorbovit’ (Sorbovit was a popular soft drink) and ‘There is no freedom without dwarves’ are examples of this. The Orange Alternative saw their role not as inflicting ideology upon others but to provoke independent thinking.
- Following his arrest for distributing women’s hygienic napkins in March 1988, Waldemar Fydrych was sentenced to three months imprisonment by the Court of Justice, however general public uproar soon led to his release.
- In his 2006 campaign to become mayor of Warsaw Fydrych gained 2914 votes, 0.41% of all votes cast.