Walking around Krakow’s Old Town and the Jewish Quarter, you might be forgiven for thinking that history ended in 1945, the old town with its elegant medieval buildings and the Jewish Quarter with its many offerings But the modern history of Poland has arguably shaped this land as much as the war and the middle ages.
And there was only one place to see it – Nowa Huta.
This wasn’t what I was expecting.
What was going on?
Just because World War 2 ended does not mean that everyone was equally liberated. While France and West Germany found themselves liberated to operate on the system their previously used to have (democractic systems with American support), Poland found itself on the short end of the stick. Poland fell under the Soviet sphere of influence that the Allies had decided upon at the Yalta Conference.
Poland was to be liberated by the Soviets on their path to Berlin. At the end of World War II, the Nazi’s were replaced in Poland by the Soviets, the first major offensive being the Vistula-Oder Offensive which liberated the major cities of Krakow, Warsaw and Poznan.
The new government of the cities were run by socialists, however the Polish people were not socialist, and the middle classes in these cities resisted via referendums. This was not the auspicious start that the Soviet liberators needed to their reign. It was thus decided that satellite cities filled by more sympathetic working classes needed to be built to dilute the power of the bougeious middle class in these cities. One of the first cities to be created was Nowa Huta, east of Krakow, in 1949. The massive tract of land was to be the colossus of a heavy industry, bring in many labourers from around the country and be a model of what Soviet style rule would look like.
It began with the opening of a steel mill, followed by a tobacco factory and cement factory all of which would become some of the biggest in Poland. (Some interesting stories can be found here and here).
Nowa Huta began life as a Soviet model city, and was designed in a form that the world had not seen before – socialist realism. Socialist realism was a form of art that glorified and celebrated communist values such as the emancipation of the proletariat, forced optimism, celebration of the party and the instillation of values that the ideal Soviet person should have.
In fact it was so idealised as the perfect example of Soviet living that a song, O Nowej to Hucie piosenka was written and hit the top of Soviet billboards.
Nowa Huta was meant to have large boulevards akin that conveyed a certain grandeur not unlike Paris or London.
The desire for grandeur also let to vast amounts of trees and gardens to be planted all around the area, making it today the greenest part of all Krakow.
Poland from 1947 to 1956 was tightly controlled by the Communist Party however things turned sour and in 1956 the Polish October (similar to the Borsch Revolution in Hungary), whereby hardline Soviet rule had clearly lost its way and a new group of reformers within the Communist Party found their way to the top leadership positions. It was during this time that the architecture and buildings in Nowa Huta took on the form of Swedish architecture as Polish architects were sent to Stockholm to learn about design and urban solutions (I assume some of the concepts must be catalogued in ArkDes), resulting in the construction of ‘Swedish apartments’.
Nowa Huta later became an important trojan horse for the communist, when a church was constructed in the area, leading to it eventually becoming a key base of the Solidarity movement that won the Soviet government in democratic elections in 1989.
The symbols of communism have all fallen – a staute of Lenin torn down, street names replaced by symbols of Polish freedom such as Pope John Paul II, the main square has been named the Ronald Regan Central Square after the US President who oversaw the last throes of the Iron Curtain.
While today a residential and tourist site, Nowa Huta seems to have decided to go the exact opposite direction of a utopia in every sense – it is considered the most dangerous neighbourhood in Krakow.
Although there are also attempts to show Nowa Huta in a different light.
What is the truth? I don’t know. I can say though that a revitalised and refurbished Nowa Huta can be very beautiful. The Soviets sure knew how to make things look grand.
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