Lifestyle

Krakow's Identity Crisis: Communism Clutches to Modernity

Article published on April 7, 2014
Article published on April 7, 2014

It’s a symbolic year for Poland; it's 10 years since they joined the EU and 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell. Still, the city of Krakow shows the country’s new identity is not black and white: while most tourists swarm over the old town, a popular niche market is found in Communism Tours – including Trabants and vodka. Is it wrong to use the dark side of Polish history to entertain tourists?

The Tra­bant shakes, grum­bles and coughs, strug­gling along the big road from the old town of Krakow to the so­cial­ist style dis­trict of Nowa Huta. Noth­ing seems sta­ble about this car, which is mostly made out of plas­tic, packs 26 Horse Power and boasts a bi­cy­cle-like sus­pen­sion. It doesn’t seem the most com­fort­able way to travel - es­pe­cially not in com­bi­na­tion with Poland’s far from flaw­less roads – but tourists are will­ing to pay quite some Zlo­tys for a ride in this so­cial­ist ‘rocket’. Why? It’s all part of the com­mu­nist ex­pe­ri­ence, of­fered by tour com­pany Crazy Guides.

While Ukraine is still in a painful po­si­tion be­tween Eu­rope and Rus­sia, Poland chose sides 10 years ago when it joined the Eu­ro­pean Union. Pol­ish na­tional pride is amongst the strongest in Eu­rope. Es­pe­cially among older gen­er­a­tions the idea of a supra­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tion still has neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions, thanks to Poland’s 40 years as a So­viet satel­lite state. Why would they want to be part of a broth­er­hood of peo­ples again, when in­stead they can fi­nally form their own iden­tity? Sur­veys show 60% of Poles con­sider them­selves ‘only Pol­ish’, 35% ‘first Pol­ish, then Eu­ro­pean’ and only 4% feel like the Eu­ro­pean iden­tity pre­vails. At the same time, an­other re­cent poll showed only one-in-three Poles think a free mar­ket econ­omy is bet­ter than a cen­tralised econ­omy, as was the case in the so­cial­ist era. Al­most the same num­ber be­lieve the in­tro­duc­tion of the euro will have neg­a­tive con­se­quences.

A vodka a day…

But while some Poles might still dream of so­cial­ism, tourists are eager to dis­cover more about a pe­riod that seems long gone now.  On this foggy and cold March morn­ing, tour guide Jurek is trans­port­ing Alice and Simon from New­cas­tle, Eng­land, in his eye-catch­ing Tra­bant: the car is yel­low and cov­ered in multi-coloured flow­ers. The first stop in Nowa Huta is a restau­rant called Sty­lowa, once the cul­tural cen­tre of the dis­trict. One of the reg­u­lars is seated at the bar, drink­ing his first beer of the day after three vodka’s ear­lier this morn­ing. The two women be­hind the bar usu­ally share a vodka or two with him, which doesn’t make the ser­vice any faster. At one of the ta­bles, with a small statue of Lenin watch­ing over him, Jurek is giv­ing a sum­mary of the pe­riod 1945-1989 in Poland. He il­lus­trates it with pro­pa­ganda pho­tos and sto­ries his grand­par­ents and par­ents told him – since he is too young to re­mem­ber any­thing of the so­cial­ist era him­self.

Nowa Huta was built by the USSR in the 1950s, to­gether with and around large steel­works. It was a piece de re­sis­tance for the new so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment and a strong pro­pa­ganda tool. The big av­enues re­main, though with dif­fer­ent names, and the build­ings are cov­ered in grey dust, thanks to the fac­to­ries which were ever-smok­ing once upon a time. Not the place to be for most Kra­ko­vians, but the Crazy Guides knew 10 years ago that tourists might be in­ter­ested in this other Krakow. Their leaflet, found in al­most every hotel and bar in the city, talks about a ‘pri­vate cult tour’, ‘Stalin’s gift to Krakow’ and ‘the good old days’.  Jakub, co­or­di­na­tor at Crazy Guides, ex­plains: ‘The com­mu­nism theme is very catchy and you don’t find many places like Nowa Huta around the world. Our funky, en­thu­si­as­tic guides add a per­sonal touch to that.’ Started in 2004 as a one-man com­pany, Crazy Guides now works with about 11 dif­fer­ent guides.

No bull­shit please

Simon and Alice booked the tour be­cause it sounded ‘fun, a bit dif­fer­ent’. And, Simon adds: ‘The car was very ap­peal­ing’. Simon is lucky, be­cause on re­quest it is pos­si­ble to drive the car your­self for a lit­tle while, on a de­serted for­est road. It is all part of the ex­pe­ri­ence, just like the apart­ment build­ing Jurek in­vites his ‘group’ to visit next. Crazy Guides rents this apart­ment for dif­fer­ent rea­sons than the other 80, 000 (20, 000 less than in 1989) in­hab­i­tants of Nowa Huta: this spe­cific apart­ment is their own mu­seum, fur­nished solely with fur­ni­ture from the 50’s and 60’s. Walk­ing into the apart­ment it feels like the res­i­dents left just min­utes ago: there’s an orig­i­nal news­pa­per on the shiny wooden cof­fee table and in the kitchen the ket­tle is wait­ing on the stove. The vodka dis­tiller in the bath­tub is a nice touch.

Simon and Alice seem im­pressed, touch­ing every­thing and open­ing cup­boards. Most of the peo­ple who take this tour are Eu­ro­peans, says Jurek, but hardly any of his fel­low coun­try­men ever join. Ac­cord­ing to Jurek, Nowa Huta doesn’t have a good rep­u­ta­tion and the Poles don’t think it will show them any­thing new. It brings up the ques­tion whether it isn’t po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect to take ad­van­tage of this darker side of Pol­ish his­tory. ‘We do get crit­i­cized,’ co­or­di­na­tor Jakub con­firms back at the Crazy Guides-HQ. ‘But this is usu­ally by peo­ple who have no idea what we show and tell on our tour. From the out­side it might look as if we’re hav­ing too much fun and glo­ri­fy­ing com­mu­nism. But we try not to get too po­lit­i­cal and as long as our guides don’t bull­shit, they can give their own opin­ion. Their sto­ries should focus on the so­cial as­pect of the so­cial­ist era, still part of our col­lec­tive mem­ory.’

Au­to­bus cz­er­wony, an old Pol­ish Com­mu­nist song

Pic­turesque

Could Poland’s iden­tity be a com­pos­ite formed from both seven cen­turies as a big em­pire and four decades as a so­cial­ist coun­try? Is it the fu­sion of these two pe­ri­ods that makes Poland what it is today; the Poland that joined the Eu­ro­pean Union? Ac­cord­ing to Alice and Simon, it is ex­actly this con­trast that makes a city like Krakow so in­ter­est­ing. ‘When I thought about Poland, I thought about all the British stag par­ties that come here,’ Alice tells. ‘Now I know there is so much to do in Krakow we don’t even have enough time for it.’ Does the image of Nowa Huta over­shadow the other side of Krakow, as a city of kings? Simon hes­i­tates. ‘Ac­tu­ally I would like to think in a few years I re­mem­ber Krakow as the city with both sides. But to be hon­est I think I will mostly as­so­ci­ate it with the old town. It’s just more pic­turesque, you know.’  As for the Crazy Guides, they are ‘hon­estly a lit­tle bored’ with the com­mu­nism tour. ‘We think we can ex­port this con­cept to any other area of the city’, says Jakub. ‘Our strength lies more in the per­sonal sto­ries than in this great so­cial­ist neigh­bour­hood, to tell you the truth.’

THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF A SPECIAL SERIES DEDICATED TO KRAKOW. IT'S PART OF "EUTOPIA: TIME TO VOTE", A PROJECT RUN BY CAFÉBABEL IN PARTNERSHIP WITH THE HIPPOCRÈNE FOUNDATION, THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION, THE MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND THE EVENS FOUNDATION.