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Lech Walesa

Carpenter’s son Lech Walesa grew up in a small village west of Warsaw. While his parents were visiting relatives in America in 1973, his mother was killed in a traffic accident, and his stepfather remained in New Jersey.

Lech moved to Gdansk to work in the shipyard, and in 1969 married a flower shop saleswoman called Danuta. As an electrician and trade unionist in the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, Walesa first came to prominence in August 1980 when he led an unofficial strike in protest against a sharp rise in food prices.

Industrial action escalated, and Walesa became head of an inter-factory strike committee which succeeded in having many of its demands met.

Renamed Solidarity, the movement was outlawed following the imposition of martial law by Poland’s communist leaders on 13 December 1981, and Walesa was imprisoned for a year at Armalewo Castle near the Soviet border.

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Conditions eased in 1983 and Walesa travelled abroad to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. A devout Roman Catholic, he was also received by the Pope, a fellow Pole.

In 1989 Solidarity was legalised, and was allowed to contest the forthcoming elections. The result saw the return of the Eastern Bloc’s first non-communist government.

Walesa became president of Poland in 1990 but found himself without an answer to the country’s pressing economic problems.

Defeated in the elections of 1995, he went back to his old job in the Gdansk shipyards. Despite a strong campaign, he was unable to prevent the yard’s closure a year later.