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
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.
0.26–0.33 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?