PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 September, 2004, 12:00am

Poland's short journey from a Soviet basket-case economy to rising Slavonic tiger seems little short of miraculous. Fifteen years ago, tired Trabants and Ladas lolled around the grey, dimly lit, potholed streets. Now, Mercedes-Benzes and Volkwagens speed along well-kept roads lined with advertising hoardings offering all the consumer riches of a modern, capitalist Poland.

But a trip to the Gdansk shipyard affords a glimpse of the dark old days. In an austere, industrial corner of historic central Gdansk, steel cranes still dominate the skyline, rising above vast but near-derelict warehouses flanked by decaying, Soviet-era tower blocks.

Formerly the Lenin Shipyards, it was here in 1980 that 18,000 workers locked themselves in the sprawling compound, taking on the might of the Soviet system - and here that electrician Lech Walesa, later the first president of a democratic Poland, clambered over the wall to show solidarity with the workers who demanded political and economic change.

Although it won its demands and gave rise to the Soviet system's first free trades union, eventually attracting 10 million members, Solidarnosc was ultimately crushed by the power of a state simply biding its time. Few Poles talk of defeat, however, proudly proclaiming instead how the strike signalled the beginning of the end for Soviet communism.

A large map near the Monument to Fallen Shipyard Workers - a 140-tonne steel structure that was a key demand of the strikers - rises 13 metres and is surrounded by wreaths and plaques dedicated to the martyrs not just of 1980, but those lost in the workers' uprisings of 1956, the student protests of 1968 and the revolts of 1970 and 1976.

Beyond the memorial, through the gates of the shipyard - and through an intriguing steel sculpture of a sinking ship that symbolises the corrupt and floundering communist edifice, and past a rusting Warsaw Pact armoured car that eventually helped crush the strike - is the Roads to Freedom museum. Housed in the large breezeblock and corrugated iron shed that hosted the protracted and fraught negotiations between worker and state, it contains a moving multimedia exhibition on the postwar history of Poland and Solidarity.

The museum brings the turbulent times back to life. The first exhibit shows just what the Poles were revolting against, with a mock-up of a shop remarkable only in that there's little to buy. It represents a system that delivered few rights and few goods.

Video, slide-show, audio and poster exhibits cover censorship, the secret police, propaganda and the role of the Catholic church in Poland. Visitors can't help but be moved by the sacrifices demanded in a fight against a system that was morally, economically and politically bankrupt.

Roads to Freedom ends in a room bare except for a few chairs and a cinema screen showing the bitter crackdown, preceded by the Big Brother experience of General Wojciech Jaruzelski declaring martial law. Solidarity's struggle against communism was a battle it lost in a war it ultimately won.

Roads to Freedom Museum; ul Doki 1, Gdansk; tel: (48) 58 308 42 80. Open 10am-4pm, closed Mon. Admission five zlotych (HK$11); Wed free