GDANSK, Poland (AP) — Polish officials unveiled a statue of former President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II on Saturday, honoring two men widely credited in this Eastern European country with helping to topple communism 23 years ago.
The statue was unveiled in Gdansk, the birthplace of Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement, in the presence of about 120 former Solidarity activists, many of whom were imprisoned in the 1980s for their roles in organizing or taking part in strikes against the communist regime.
The bronze statue, erected in the lush seaside President Ronald Reagan Park, is a slightly larger-than-life rendering of the two late leaders. It was inspired by an Associated Press photograph taken in 1987 on John Paul's second pontifical visit to the U.S.
The photographer who took the picture, Scott Stewart, expressed satisfaction that one of his pictures has helped immortalize "a wonderful moment in time between the two men."
"In the news business we're used to having a moment and then that moment being gone a day later. This is one image that should last for a good long time," Stewart, who now teaches graphic design and photography at Greenville Technical College in South Carolina, said in a phone interview a day before the ceremony. "I'm happy that it's been chosen as the seminal moment to represent the relationship of these two people to Poland."
Reagan and John Paul shared a conviction that communism was a moral evil, not just a bad economic system. And Lech Walesa, founder of the Solidarity movement that led the anti-communist struggle in Poland, has often paid homage to both men and told the AP in a recent interview that he deeply respected Reagan.
"Reagan should have a monument in every city," Walesa said.
Poles widely credit the Polish-born pontiff's first visit to his homeland after becoming pope as the inspiration for Solidarity's birth. During a Mass in Warsaw in 1979, he used subtle language to suggest that Poles should try to change their system, a message not lost on the receptive nation. Poles also remember that when the communist regime imposed the martial law crackdown in 1981, rounding up dissidents and imprisoning them, Reagan lit candles at the White House to show his solidarity with the Polish people.
"When Reagan lit the candles, we knew we had a friend in the United States," said Czeslaw Nowak, a former Solidarity activist who was imprisoned for his activism in the 1980s. He leads an organization of former imprisoned dissidents that worked for about four years to raise 200,000 zlotys ($59,000) for the statue. The money was collected from former Solidarity members, many of whom are today living on small pensions and could only afford the smallest of donations.
Another member of the organization, Andrzej Michalowski, credited Reagan's arms race with Moscow with leading to the unraveling of the Soviet Union and its inability to keep controlling Eastern Europe. He said the monument was designed on a small scale so visitors to the park would feel John Paul and Reagan are still with them.