When he jumped a fence on Aug. 14, 1980, at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, Lech Walesa could not have known he would set off a chain of events that would help topple the Soviet Union. Walesa, then a 36-year-old electrician, entered the shipyard and gave direction to striking workers there. Three weeks later, he left as the leader of a peaceful revolution.
The strike forced Poland's communist government to allow free trade unions, and Walesa headed the first of these, Solidarity. But 16 months later, Poland's leaders tried to regain their tight grip, declaring martial law, delegalizing unions and interning Walesa. After his release, he worked to bring the union back to life, using the power of his new celebrity to put pressure on the government. Pope John Paul II and U.S. President George Bush both met with him, and, in 1983, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
A new wave of strikes in 1988 pushed the government to fresh concessions. Solidarity was legalized, and partly free elections followed. Nearly all the Solidarity candidates won by a landslide. Popular movements across Eastern Europe took heart. Five months later, the Berlin Wall came down it was the beginning of the end of communist Europe.
"I don't want to, but I have to" that was a Walesa mantra during his successful campaign to be Poland's first noncommunist President in 1990. His term in office was controversial ironically this icon of democracy was accused by critics of having authoritarian tendencies. Yet Walesa still hints at desires to return to frontline politics. An electrician who came to represent freedom: Who knows what fences Walesa will scale next?