Janek Wiśniewski Padł: Affect and Social Movement


Poland’s demonstrations against the Communist regime in the 1960s and 1970s were driven by language. The words of Lech Wałęsa’s speeches rung out through the shipyard of Gdańsk, inspiring the people to speak out against the Soviet-controlled Government. As economic conditions deteriorated across the People’s Republic of Poland, riots broke out in the tri-city region of Gdańsk, Sopot, and Gdynia in December 1970. When the volume of protesters on the streets halted the factories and shipyards that produced and controlled Polish industry and trade, the police responded with violence, killing hundreds of workers. On December 17, the army fired into a crowd of workers emerging from a commuter train in Gdynia, under the pretext of preventing an industrial sabotage action. At least 40 innocent people were killed. This provoked a riot, in which the image of a young man’s body carried on a door panel through the cordons of police and tanks inspired author Krzysztof Dowgiałło to write the poem Janek Wiśniewski Padł, or Janek Wiśniewski Fell. Not knowing his real name, Dowgiałło gave him the name Wiśniewski, a common Polish name, in order to cultivate a sense of familiarity. This was also achieved throughout the first verse of the poem with references to local streets (for example, St. John’s), local workers at the shipyards in Gdynia and Gdańsk, and towns in northern Poland from which protesters had travelled to take part in the organised action. Later it was established by the opposition that the man was named Zbigniew Godlewski and had lived in nearby Elbląg. Music was later added to the poem by Mieczysław Cholewa and it became known as Ballada o Janku Wiśniewskim, or the Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski. The cultural history of the ballad tells the story of the Polish opposition to state socialism in the 1970s and 1980s, also known as the Solidarity Movement (or Solidarność). The ballad became a cultural artefact, representing the difficult process that eventually led to the successful formation of the Solidarity Trade Union, the first independent trade union behind the Iron Curtain. But more than this, it represents the beginning of the end of Soviet control over Poland. This song reminds us how important local landmarks and histories shape the emergent history created through public popular dissent.


The Affective Turn

In the mid-1990s, scholars turned their attention towards the ways that ongoing political, economic, and cultural transformations were changing the realm of the social, specifically the notion of ‘affect’, as “pre-individual bodily forces, linked to autonomic responses, which augment or diminish a body’s capacity to act or engage with others” (Clough & Halley 2007). This is known as the “affective turn”, where scholars based in sociology, cultural studies, science studies, trauma studies, and similar fields use a psychoanalytically informed approach to subject identity, representation, and trauma to engage with information and affect. Clough and Halley (2007) argue that attending to this affective turn is necessary to theorising the “social”, as the cofunctioning of the political, economic and cultural. While the term ‘affect’ can mean emotions in the broadest sense of the word, it could also signify much more general modes of influence, movement and change; one could ‘be affected’ by an event, even if it is not quite clear what the impact is. Affect in this sense need not be confined to humans or even animate life – the sun affects the moon, a magnet affects iron filings, and the movement of waves affects the shape of the coastline. Affect, in this sense, means something like a force or an active relation. As Wetherell (2012) phrases it, the term “loses its moorings in studies of human emotion” and expands to signify disturbance and influence in their most global senses (p. 1). The turn to affect has thus led to a focus on embodiment, to attempts to understand how people are moved, and what attracts them, to an emphasis on repetitions, pains and pleasures, feelings and memories.


Janek Wiśniewski as an Object of Affect

The Solidarity Movement became personified in the body of Janek Wiśniewski, which represented the vulnerability of the workers and the extreme lengths that the Government had resorted to in order to control the people. The choices in language employed throughout the ballad provide a means of performing emotion, in order to affect others. In particular, the line “Janek Wiśniewski Padł” elicits an emotional response that only intensifies with further repetition. Each stanza becomes stronger and stronger in affective language, until it reaches the most explicitly emotive words “do not cry mother, it’s not for nothing… For bread and freedom, and a new Poland, Janek Wiśniewski padł”, highlighting the Polish struggle for a better life.

Janek Wiśniewski’s body became a symbol of Solidarność for the Poles. It was embodied with all of the emotion that came with the social movement: the shock that the government had turned on its own people; the defiance of the people “against the cops, against the tanks”; the disbelief that it was not only the workers who were being targeted, but the young, the old, men, women, and children; the defiance of the people against the Party; the dejection that came with the lack of help from other nations; and the resilience of those fighting for the ultimate cause – freedom, along with political and economic reformation. According to Ahmed’s “affective economies” (2004), as bodies are given value through emotion, the bodies, as well as the individuals, become aligned with a popular ideology. Throughout the ballad, the reader is taken on a rollercoaster of emotions with each stanza returning to the symbol of the movement: the body of Janek Wiśniewski.

Throughout the Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski, a distinction between the Party and the workers is created by aligning some bodies with each other inside a community and marginalising other bodies. The men, women and children who are suffering under the Soviet-controlled government are aligned with the workers under the symbol of Janek Wiśniewski, who represents their suffering. The cops, tanks and the Party are aligned in direct opposition to the workers and are negatively construed as “bloodthirsty bandits”. Ahmed calls this the “cultural politics of emotions” (2004), where emotive language is used to create social alliances. In this case, the suffering of the Poles who are aligned with the workers is attributed to the actions of the Party by means of the “cops” with their various weapons.

In the final stanza, the words “for bread and freedom” represent the Polish struggle for economic and political reformation, respectively. Economic reformation is reduced to the simple object of bread; a symbol of the basic necessities needed to survive. Political reformation is reduced to the simple notion of freedom; the desire for self-determination and an ideal that has been fought over for as long as revolution has existed. By reducing these reformations into simple forms, the reader is given the impression that the Solidarity Movement seeks to address basic human rights abuses and expects nothing more than simple justice for the people of Poland.


The Legacy of Janek Wiśniewski

The affective strength of the ballad is shown in the way it has become an anthem in popular culture. It was sung at the end of the 1981 movie Man of Iron by actress Krystyna Janda and actor Jacek Kaczmarski. After the fall of communism in Poland, a major street in Gdynia was named after Janek Wiśniewski and a street in Elbląg was named after Zbigniew Godlewski. In 2011, a film was released featuring the name of the ballad in the title. Czarny Czwartek – Janek Wiśniewski padł, or ‘Black Thursday – Janek Wiśniewski fell’, carried the legacy of the social movement, but the ballad was given a grunge makeover by Polish artist Kazik. In an interview, the singer explained that he was not a fan of the 1981 version, and instead preferred the way his own cover presents the ballad as a rock anthem. Through his own interpretation of this Solidarity ‘anthem’, the musician elicits the gritty struggle ascribed to the Polish struggle against oppressive outside forces, rather than reviving a song that was instrumental at the scene of dissent. For the Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski, performance is instrumental to the song’s ability to mobilise tradition (Eyerman and Jamison 1998) and take on new meanings. The way it is performed allows it to adapt to new social movements that oppose any threat to the Polish way of life.


Image credit


Ahmed, S 2004, ‘Affective Economies,’ Social Text, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 117-139.

Ahmed, S 2004, The Politics of Emotion, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Clough, P and J Halley 2007, The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, Durham: Duke University Press.

Eyerman, R and A Jamison 1998, Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wetherell, M 2012, Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding, London: Sage.


The Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski

Chłopcy z Grabówka, chłopcy z Chyloni

Dzisiaj milicja użyła broni

Dzielniśmy stali i celnie rzucali

Janek Wiśniewski padł


Na drzwiach ponieśli go Świętojańską

Naprzeciw glinom, naprzeciw tankom

Chłopcy stoczniowcy pomścijcie druha

Janek Wiśniewski padł


Huczą petardy, ścielą się gazy

Na robotników sypią się razy

Padają dzieci, starcy, kobiety

Janek Wiśniewski padł


Jeden zraniony, drugi pobity

Krwi się zachciało słupskim bandytom

To partia strzela do robotników

Janek Wiśniewski padł


Krwawy Kociołek, to kat Trójmiasta

Przez niego giną starcy, niewiasty

Poczekaj draniu, my cię dostaniem

Janek Wiśniewski padł


Stoczniowcy Gdyni, stoczniowcy Gdańska

Idźcie do domu, skończona walka

Świat się dowiedział, nic nie powiedział

Janek Wiśniewski padł


Nie płaczcie matki, to nie na darmo

Nad stocznią sztandar z czarną kokardą

Za chleb i wolność, i nową Polskę

Janek Wiśniewski padł


Boys from Grabówka, boys from Chyloni

Today, the police used weapons

We stood bravely and aimed accurately

Janek Wiśniewski fell


On the door they carried him along Świętojańska Street

Against the cops, against the tanks

Shipyard boys avenge our friend

Janek Wiśniewski fell


Rumours are roaring, gases are coming

Blows rain down on workers

Children, elderly, women are falling

Janek Wiśniewski fell


One is wounded, another beaten

The blood thirsty bandits

The party is shooting its own workers

Janek Wiśniewski fell


Bloody Kociołek is the Tri-City executioner

Through him, the old men and women die

Just wait you bastard, we’ll get you!

Janek Wiśniewski fell


Shipyard workers of Gdynia, shipyard workers of Gdańsk

Go home, the fight is over

The world found out, and said nothing

Janek Wiśniewski fell


Do not cry mother, it’s not for nothing

A black banner hangs above the shipyard

For bread and freedom, and a new Poland

Janek Wiśniewski fell