The Strange Death of Ryszard Siwiec

Dousing himself in petrol and lighting a match Ryszard Siwiec converted himself into a human torch of protest in front of a capacity crowd in Warsaw’s 10th Anniversary Stadium on September 8th, 1968. Siwiec was the first of a series of Communist Block citizens to perform this peculiarly outrageous act of dissent in the last decades of communist rule in Central Europe.

Forty years ago Ryszard Siwiec attended a traditional Harvest Festival celebration at Warsaw’s Stadion Dziesięciolecia (popularly known as the Russian Market among present-day English-speaking residents) and set fire to himself in front of the film cameras. The place was packed with 100,000 spectators and the audience included government bigwigs as well as official representatives from other Warsaw Pact nations.

Incredible footage of this event, captured by at least two cameras, survives to the present day.

Warning: this is film of a man trying to kill himself with fire

Ryszard Siwiec self-immolating

For those of you who don’t feel inclined to watch the above footage, let me describe it. The images are far less gruesome than our imaginations, fed by the shock tactics of modern movie special effects, might lead us to expect – there’s no horrific screaming or melting skin, and at the end Siwiec walks away with few apparent ill effects.

0.11 The scene cuts to a shot of Ryszard Siwiec standing in the first few rows of the stadium seating. He is already engulfed in flame having apparently set light to his clothes a few seconds earlier.

0.11–016 Siwiec runs around in a tight circle while flames continue to lick around him. Three or four men standing nearby are attempting to beat the flames out with their jackets while the rest of the crowd has retreated a few meters away. I get the impression that Siwiec is trying to avoid the attempts to put the flames out rather than running in a blind panic.

0.17–0.25 Siwiec falls to the ground, but quickly gets to his feet and continues to run. He turns and appears to be shouting at the men trying to save him to stay away. By this time some of the figures around him seem to be policemen, judging by the uniform caps.

Standing still and apparently in firm control of his faculties Siwiec raises and lowers his arms a few times as if appealing for calm. He is still engulfed in flame from head to foot. A man standing in front of Siwiec has time to remove his jacket during this interlude. Several men (including two or three policemen I think) move in to put the flames out. Siwiec appears to weaken and partially collapse at this point.

0.34–0.40 The same events from a much closer camera position. From this viewpoint it looks as if Siwiec’s fall (0.17 above) is caused by a man in a white shirt tripping him over by grabbing his legs (rugby tackle style). I’m guessing this guy was familiar with the idea that the best thing to do with someone on fire is to get them on the ground and smother them rather than letting them run around with the flames licking around their head.

0.40–0.47 Shot of the crowd milling around in confusion, one woman (?) is sporting an attractive hat made out of newspaper.

0.48–1.05 Perhaps the most amazing sequence in the entire film. The flames are now out. We see Siwiec (apparently) standing in the middle of the crowd waving his arms and shouting as if announcing his grievances. There are at least three or four uniformed figures standing around him no more than an arm’s length away who make no attempt to silence or restrain him. Siwiec’s upper body is naked, his clothes presumably having been burned away or ripped off in the attempts to extinguish the fire. He seems animated and impassioned but certainly not crippled or in agonizing pain. Nobody seems to be paying the slightest attention to whatever he’s saying (the film is silent) nor do they seem amazed that Siwiec is still standing and conscious.

1.06–1.18 Siwiec is being led away by multiple figures in uniform. He is walking without support, although he stumbles a couple of times. He appears to be arguing with the uniformed men leading him away.

1.19–1.32(end) I can’t see Siwiec in this scene. I get the impression that he’s being led through the crowd to a vehicle waiting near the exit, but I can’t make out exactly where he is.

According to the sources I’ve read Siwiec died four days later in a hospital in Praga.

I don’t want to leap on the conspiracy bandwagon here, but the man in this film doesn’t look like someone who’s about to die. He’s got the strength and presence of mind to stand and address the crowd and he walks away from the scene on his own two feet – there’s no stretcher. I get the impression that the fire burned his clothes but left him relatively unharmed by the time it was extinguished. His hands are clearly blackened and burned, and his neck looks burned, but the rest of his body looks normal.

You won’t be amazed to learn that I’m no medical expert. I’ve heard of shock, and I’m willing to believe that the deadly effects of the flames were not immediately felt by the victim. On the other hand four days seems like about the right amount of time to conduct a thorough interrogation and then exit Mr Siwiec with a lethal injection or bullet to the head.

September 1968 was not a happy time in the Eastern Block. In August, five Warsaw Pact nations, including Poland, had invaded Czechoslovakia in a heavy-handed attempt to put down the Prague Spring reforms of Czechoslovak premier Alexander Dubček. Siwiec, who is variously described as an accountant, teacher, or philosopher, left tape recordings and documents which made it clear that his self-burning was a protest against Poland’s involvement in the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Four months later, in January 1969, Czech student Jan Palach became internationally famous by burning himself to death in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. Although Siwiec’s death had been suppressed by the authorities or explained away as the act of a deranged mental patient it’s highly likely that Palach was inspired by Siwiec. Two more Czechs, Jan Zajíc and Evžen Plocek, followed his grisly example later the same year. Józef Dolak, another Pole, burned himself to death in Wroclaw in 1972 and in 1980 Walenty Badylak chained himself to a water pump in Krakow’s main square, soaked himself in petrol and lit a match.

It’s not difficult to understand the frustrations that might drive a person to suicidal protest under a stifling and seemingly invincible regime, but I’ve always found it odd that these men should choose this particular method. There is no European tradition of self-burning that I’m aware of. Burning is associated with religious heresy and witchcraft, and in these cases is imposed as a punishment not embraced as a form of protest. The obvious parallel is with the suicide by self burning of the Vietnamese monk Thích Quảng Ðức in 1963. Thích Quảng Đức’s suicide was widely reported in the Western world and I’m guessing the iconic images of his burning might well have been distributed in Warsaw Pact countries as anti-American propaganda. Could this have been the inspiration for Siwiec’s protest and the others that followed him?

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12 thoughts on “The Strange Death of Ryszard Siwiec

  1. DC says:

    Bless you for remembering.

  2. Ania says:

    – ks. Adolf Fedukowicz, 4 marca 1925 – według niepotwierdzonych oficjalnie relacji podpalił się w proteście przeciwko prześladowaniu duchowieństwa przez władze sowieckie
    – Szmul Zygielbojm, 13 maja 1943 w Londynie – w imię protestu przeciwko obojętności świata na losy Żydów polskich podczas powstania w getcie.

  3. ge'ez says:

    Look under self-immolation in Wikipedia:

    “During the Great Schism of the Russian Church, entire villages of Old Believers burned themselves to death in an act known as “fire baptism”. Scattered instances of self-immolation have also been recorded by the Jesuit priests of France in the early 1600s. Their practice of this was not intended to be fatal, though. They would burn certain parts of their bodies (limbs such as the forearm, the thigh) to signify the pain Jesus endured while upon the cross. ”

    Also: Siwiec became the subject of the 1991 documentary film Hear My Cry (Usłyszcie mój krzyk), by Polish director Maciej Drygas. The film won the European Film Awards prize for “Best Documentary” that year. Is this available on video anywhere?

    And: Order of Polonia Restituta, Commander’s Cross, awarded in 2003 by Aleksander Kwaśniewski, President of Poland. Because of Aleksander Kwaśniewski’s past as communist dignitary, Ryszard Siwiec’s family refused to accept the award.

    Finally, I was pretty freaked to learn from your article that one Walety Badylak self-immolated at the water pump in the Glowny Rynek in Krakow in 1980. Anything else on him in English? Or Jozef Dolak in Wroclaw in 1972?

  4. ge'ez says:

    On Badylak:

    Couldn’t quickly find anything on Dolak.

  5. island1 says:

    DC: It was something on the news about the new national stadium that prompted me to look up the old Stadion Dziesięciolecia, and there I discovered a reference to the plaque commemorating his death; I’d never heard of him before. I wonder if there will be a new plaque on the new stadium?

  6. island1 says:

    ge’ez: It’s a fascinating subject. The Old Believers were an odd lot all round. There are all kinds of stories of bizarre sex rituals and weird self-mutilation associated with them, many of which are likely to have been invented as propaganda. Still, it’s a good point, although there’s more of an association between Russians and the Orient via the Orthodox Church than there is between Poles and the same culture.

    I was quite shocked to find out about Badylak as well. The pump where he burned himself is still there and has a prominent plaque recording his act attached to it. I’d never seen it though, despite walking past it a hundred times.

    Dolak seems to be little known, I couldn’t find anything other than passing references to him either. Apparently there were others too, but I didn’t include them for lack of names and reliable sources.

    I saw references to Hear My Cry, it would be an interesting thing to see, although I fear English subtitles are unlikely.

  7. island1 says:

    Ania: Two very interesting examples, thanks.

  8. ge'ez says:

    There are still some OBs in Suwalki:

    More history about OBs in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw:

    And some say there are Mariavite connnections with the OBs, but that’s a whole ‘nother subject.

  9. Sylwia says:

    There’s also Karol Levittoux who, after a series of tortures, burnt himself in Warsaw Cytadela in order to avoid betraying his friends. It was in 1841, he was 21. He worked as teacher in Warsaw, but was also a graduate from a secondary school in Łuków where Russians discovered a plot. They arrested 200 people, including tens of pupils. Among others Antoni Dubois, a 7th grader, who was said to argue for peasants’ rights using forbidden books. Levittoux was accused of being the heart of the plot. It’s said that they were planning a rising against the Russians (yes, yet one more!).

    He became a symbol of devotion to the country. His death inspired many poets: Cyprian Kamil Norwid “Burza”, Władysław Syrokomla “Karol Levittoux”, Mieczysław Romanowski “Śmierć Levittoux”, Zmorowski (Levittoux’s co-prisoner) “Modlitwa”, Jerzy Czech “Karol Levittoux” with music written by Przemysław Gintrowski. Wikipedia also mentions the painter Antoni Kozakiewicz, but I haven’t seen the painting.

    Norwid described Levittoux’s death in a letter to Zygmunt Krasiński. He kneeled on his bed, made out of wood and straw, and put a candle under it. It took hours before it was burnt. There’s likely no ideology under his choice of method, rather he didn’t have more options in Cytadela. Gintrowski’s song ends with words “after the incident they ceased to give the prisoners light to their cells”.

    Here’s the song

    I think that the examples of witch burning you gave wouldn’t be so obvious to a Pole. After all we were known as a country without fire piles. We know about the practices of course, but it’s not a first connection we’d make. Fire in our culture is rather linked to remembrance, purification, and a way to reach to the souls of the dead. The practices go back to paganism. The remnants of it can be found in the western culture as the candles in Halloween pumpkins for example, but in ours it’s still much more as it used to be before Christianity. So it’s Forefathers’ Eve, Day of the Dead, All Saints’, Zielone Świątki (Green Holidays) that is your Pentecost, St. John’s Night – your Midsummer Night as described by Shakespeare.

  10. Manikes says:

    Do we assume he was 100% right in the head? From what I’ve heard this guy was a war-vet and a family man, self-immolation over the predicable & nearly bloodless events in Czechoslovak is a little odd.

    particularly when you consider the fact people today don’t really give a damn about events in order counties that are far worse such as say Iraq.

    Maybe the guy already severe mental problems and this just set him off or he wanted to die famous like those folk that jump off building after making sure a camera crews is present, quickes way to do that is to damn the system.

  11. […] student Jan Palach in Prague’s Wenceslas Square on January 16, 1969. The previous September, Ryszard Siwiec, a 59-year-old Polish accountant, had set himself aflame in a stadium in Warsaw. Both were […]

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