Late in the afternoon of 29th October, a man identified only as Piotr S. passed away in a central hospital in Warsaw, Poland, after being in a serious condition for 10 days as a result of suffering 60% burns over his body. The 54 year old’s health had deteriorated fast since he was first admitted: in the morning before his death, news broke that he had to be connected to an artificial kidney – though his family still clung to hope that he would recover.
And yet what is most devastating about this tragic turn of affairs is not simply the death of Piotr – but rather the events which led up to this shattering outcome. On 19th October, Piotr set himself on fire in front of Warsaw’s most recognisable building, the Palace of Culture and Science, in protest against the parliament of Poland; which, headed over the last two years by the right-wing PiS (the Law and Justice Party), has imposed damaging decrees and sanctions on the fabric of the Polish nation. Curbs to powers of the media, civil service and courts, along with a biting xenophobic rhetoric, suggest Poland is swinging vastly to the right along a deeply nationalistic avenue; causing concern both domestically and internationally. But whilst there have been frequent protests in Warsaw and other Polish cities against the government’s increasingly authoritarian attitude, none have had such damaging and disastrous consequences – until now.
The international press, however, have taken little heed of the news coming out of Poland over the last ten days, despite its alarming origins. The Los Angeles Times and Russia Today did cover Piotr’s act of self-immolation; but, at the time of writing, no other media outlet aside from the Polish press have covered his death. But this was a public act; a demonstration of despair from a figure determined to make his dissatisfaction with the government known. By ignoring it, the measures Piotr took, devastating as they were, are only to be in vain. This cannot happen.
We know very little of Piotr – he had studied Chemistry as a young man; but at the time of his protest was living in the southern Polish town of Niepołomice, with a partner of 34 years and two grown children, who described him as a calm and mature figure. They are, understandably, in shock at both his passing and the nature of his death; an event Piotr’s son disclosed to the Polish press by text at 17.20 on Sunday afternoon.
In an interview with OKO Press, Piotr’s wife voiced her distress at her husband’s measures; conceding that he must have planned for the protest over many months. She claimed that though he had frequently expressed his “helpless” feelings, the eventual manifestation of these sentiments was a great shock: a 54 year old married man, with two adult children studying at institutes of higher education in his homeland, should have been at a content stage in the prime of his life – and yet he had been driven to commit the most agonising of public suicides. It was unthinkable.
In the afternoon of the 19th, moments before he committed the act, Piotr had disseminated leaflets around the Palace of Culture, which detailed his aggravations at the administration of the country. Then, switching on a speaker to play the Polish song ‘Kocham Wolność’ (‘I Love Freedom’) by Chłopcy z Placu Broni (The Boys from the Square), and roaring “I protest” through a megaphone, he flushed his body with a flammable substance and set himself alight. He was unconscious by the time he was rushed to hospital; his leaflets objecting national policies left to drift across the square in the autumn breeze.
His self-immolation brought a furore of domestic reaction: from the day of the protest, anti-governmental messages, taken from his leaflets, were scrawled across the streets of Warsaw; the most prominent being a seven-word phrase written on the sidewalk in front of the house of Jaroslaw Kaczynski (leader of PiS) in the fashionable northern Warsaw district of Żoliborz: “Do not wait any longer. 19 X 2017.”
These fragments of messages left tell of a man desperate for the Polish governmental approach to change; a man determined to speak out and warn his country; a man clasping at the last liberty he felt he had left. Aside from his leaflets, Piotr wrote two letters to the public, detailing the reasons behind his disturbing deed:
“I love freedom over everything, so I decided to do self-immolation and I hope my death will shake the conscience of many people that the society will wake up and that you will not wait until the politicians do anything for you – because they will not do anything!”
It should not have taken the death of a man to raise awareness that a European democracy is faltering; but now Piotr has passed away, we must do all we can to ensure his views are not forgotten. The events of 29th October mark a new low in Poland’s administrative history, and we all have a responsibility to ensure the situation improves from here on in: for sake of Piotr; for the sake of the Polish people; for the sake of freedom itself.