For the first time, I visited Warsaw in summer 2014 — relatively recently. Having not slept well due to the early train, I passed the customs at Brest, Belarus, and being alone in the train compartment I slept most of the way. I woke up several minutes before the arrival.
I chose the capital of Poland because of the two buildings, which have long been on my “to see” list, and I shall talk today about one of them. After staying at my relatives in Brest, who kindly sheltered me for a week (thank you very much for that), I bought tickets to Warsaw as well as booked a hostel there.
So, finally, the train has arrived. I am standing in front of the central station in the city center and look around. I must say that I liked Warsaw immediately, but more on that some other time.
As I said, the main reason for my interest in the Polish capital was architecture. One building is almost a symbol of the city, albeit with a difficult history — the Palace of Culture and Science, and the other, due to which I arrived exactly at the end of June — its absolute antithesis. In contrast to the pompous Palace, that is seen from everywhere and that brazenly occupies a huge space around it, the small house, for which I visited Warsaw — is tiny, gray, plain and modernly utilitarian.
This “midget”, of course, took precedence over the Palace on my personal list, so the first thing I went in its direction. After visiting it, as well as having a lunch and a little rest, I headed towards the most magnificent landmark of Warsaw.
For some reason, I was sure that there is something to do there, even though I’ve read nothing about the Palace in advance and I had every reason to stay in front of closed doors due to my Moscow experience, but we’ll come back to that slightly later.
As I wandered through the city, the rain had replaced the sun, the lightning flashed and so I sat in a tiny café in front of the Palace. As the summer storm ended along with the rain, I, jumping over the puddles, finally entered the Palace. It was the side with the cinema and I, admiring the Soviet interior, went outside and started to walk around the building looking for other entrances.
My hopes were justified and I found what I was looking for — the tickets to the panoramic floor. After taking some more photos of the pompous interiors, I went to explore the city, planning to return in the evening to see the panorama of Warsaw when it gets dark.
The panorama is indeed amazing and not only with its view. After admiring the capital and getting a dose of nostalgia from the interiors, I took the elevator and in 25 seconds was on the first floor. I left the only place in Warsaw from which the Palace of Culture and Science cannot be seen with a lot of conflicting feelings, which I think is quite natural for such a controversial building.
To understand my feelings, a historical background is required. After the Second World War Poland was in the zone of “influence” (or “a colony”) of the Soviet Union. I find it difficult to choose other words, so to say as it is — to show “who’s the boss”, the Stalin’s Soviet Union gave Poland a huge tower as a “gift”, which to this day is the tallest building in the country. Let’s even give the Soviet rhetoric in which the “Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science” (the original name of the building) was the “brotherly gift of the Soviet people to the people of the Republic of Poland”. What a ridiculous phrase.
This building, like many other things in the socialist countries, had little in common with the real needs of the population, as well as the “economy”, if it is possible to say so about countries in which market relations were prohibited. Even though in market economies these two concepts are inseparable — the market meets the needs of the population.
In the socialist bloc, it was more important to satisfy the whim of the dictator and to suppress the local population with a symbol of the constant presence of “Moscow”. Today, when the city skyline has plenty of skyscrapers and the Palace creates an interesting contrast with the new buildings of the free Poland, this problem is not so dramatically evident, but in 1952, when the building of the Palace began, it was very noticeable.
At first, it is worth mentioning the economic irrationality of a large tower in the heart of the city. I have already discussed it in another material — the fact that until now Poland has not built a single building higher than the Palace only proves that there is no need for such a “giant”. There was also no need in 1952 when the country was just recovering from the war.
Let’s go back to the fifties and look at the newly built Joseph Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science:
The building was completed in 1955 and was erected in the midst of ruins, though it has been almost ten years since the end of the war. In addition to the economic inexpediency, the “Palace of Ruins” (let’s call it that) was built in the center of the city and for the sake of it dozens of buildings of the XIX century were destroyed — all for the glory of communism.
On some of the photos, a large square area around the Palace is very noticeable. No adjacent building dares to step on it.
It feels like the Palace is the USSR Embassy in Warsaw, a state within a state. This same “emptiness” is still visible — like the neighboring buildings retreat from the Palace and the roads resemble armed guards or high fences.
And, as it should be at an embassy, one should use an underground tunnel to get to the Palace, although at some places zebra crossings through the wide roads are present.
It is clear that the huge area around the Palace is left for a variety of processions and celebrations of the forever working “common people” and the wide roads are needed so a local kinglet rode them once or twice in a limo and appreciated the “beauty” of the city from a car window.
This architectural style has its own name — the Empire style (in this case Stalinist) or socialist realism. Another thing is that like many other things that are imposed by the tasteless superiors the Stalinist Empire style had nothing to do with the modern, relevant, well thought-out and functional architecture of that time.
And so we have the post-war Poland, in the center of its capital a Soviet (and even “Stalinist”) high-rise stands in the midst of poverty and ruin.
The high-rise that stands amidst the ruins and on the ruins of an independent country and its pre-war buildings, a country whose independence has ended the first and the seventeenth of September 1939, with the invasion of the Third Reich from the West and the Soviet Union from the East.
The country that “liberated Europe” had no plans to leave the “brotherly nations” in poverty and immediately took everything in its “wise” hands right after the war. The hands turned out to be too tenacious and powerful and parted only at the end of the 80s. And the country was again free and independent.
What was left to the Poles? A giant reminder of their humiliating past that lasted exactly 50 years — from 1939 to 1989. The tallest building in the center of the city built exaggeratedly in the Empire style.
Not surprisingly, it is still a matter of controversy and appeals to demolish it as a symbol of communism are occasionally heard.
But the building stands. It hosts a variety of institutions, offices, administrations, a cinema, the Museum of Technology and much more. Despite the questionable and disproportionally large advertising signs and satellite dishes on the upper floors that slightly worsen the view — in general, the building looks neat and well maintained, as well as its interiors.
And the colorful lighting of the Palace in the evenings gives the city a truly European look.
The next time I will see the Palace almost two years later — in 2016. Again, I will visit the panorama, this time during the day. It will be more crowded, and the day view is less romantic than the evening one two years ago, but it does not matter.
What matters is that passing by the Palace under the drizzling rain (I have no luck with the weather in Warsaw — each visit is accompanied by rains) I thought what a great symbol of today’s Poland it is. A large shard of communism and colonial dependence on the Soviet Union is saved and is used for the benefit of the city and people. The building is neatly maintained, restored periodically and that is very noticeable when compared to my native Moscow.
It feels like the indescribable democratic nature and freedom of visiting this building purposely contrasts with its history — anyone can enter it, visit a museum, cinema or go to the third floor using the high-speed elevator and explore the city. Of course, all this is possible during working hours and for a fee. But this democracy pleases — there is no army of security guards at the entrance to the building, no metal detectors arches, no entry registration or pre-registration and all that is present in today’s Russia. A few examples of what any Muscovite constantly faces (add a rude security guard to this and the picture will be complete):
There is even a ramp for the disabled — an unthinkable thing for the socialist countries, in which there was no concept of an “accessible environment” and people with disabilities were sitting at home like they were non-existent.
What I saw passing by the Palace was — reconciliation. Reconciliation with your past: a difficult one, unpleasant, terrible, humiliating and frightening, but nevertheless — your past. Reconciliation at the national level and adaptation of the past to the current needs: careful restoration, interiors maintenance, market orientation, openness to everybody — locals, tourists, the disabled, the use of the building as a tourist attraction and so on. From a Soviet bogey, the Palace is transformed into a piece of history — a reminder of other, unpleasant and shameful times.
German concentration camps can be preserved and turned into museums, Soviet primitive and ugly sculptures can be demolished, but a building will remain a building — it has its functionality and it should be realized. It is too difficult from a political point of view, as well as architectural and financial to demolish the tallest building in the country in the center of the capital. The current Palace is a bit lost in Warsaw’s skyline and looks intricate but also organic and even unique.
If we would like to demolish the buildings of the Soviet period then we should start with the countless number of prefabricated panel houses across the country, but not with a unique in its characteristics skyscraper. It would be very unwise and immature to do so — communists did the same thing, depriving us of a large number of beautiful buildings.
The “Palace of Ruins” turns into the “Palace of Ruins and Reconciliation” — reconciliation with your past, its adaptation, and democratization to the present. The Palace should be made a symbol of modern Poland that accepted its history, forgave and lives now in the present.
This is what would be the worst nightmare of the Soviet dictators that lived in a world of violence and constant oppression and “dominance” (this is the kind of impression that the Empire style buildings create). Socialist potentates expect the worst from people — hatred, vengeance, while people are capable of more — forgiveness, reconciliation. This is the only way for the Poles to promote the Palace of Culture and Science and exactly these thoughts were in my head while passing the Soviet colossus.
The Poles have reborn; they created a new free and democratic society that is able to forgive and understand. The building in the center of Warsaw is an example of this. Of course, we can talk about various appeals to demolish / dismantle Stalin’s “gift”, but the fact remains — the building is intact and renovated. The rest is a matter of positioning. Even if the country and the nation have not yet reached full reconciliation, nothing stops to simply believe in yourself, your strength and to really leave this whole experience behind and the building — for the edification of the ancestors, so that they remember the past and appreciate the current freedom.
Leaving Poland, I would like to say a few words about the successor of the USSR — Russia. Being born in Moscow, I’ve only been once in one of the “Seven Sisters”. If anyone thinks that the Stalin’s high-rises in Moscow did organically fit into the city, in contrast to Warsaw, in that case, I shall disappoint you — they didn’t. Local residents didn’t like these hulks that disrupted the city and looked as ridiculous as in Warsaw. Not only did Stalin cripple the lives of the neighboring countries, but also of his “native” (Stalin’s birthplace is Georgia) country — USSR. But, of course, it is not discussed in today’s Russia, as in any deeply traumatized and unfree society.
So, back to the topic, in high school, we had an excursion to the Earth Science Museum at the Moscow State University (MSU). I perfectly remember how we stood at the doors of the first floor until we were passed by the guards; I remember the dreary Soviet silence in the Museum, where one has to behave “quietly”.
This Museum at the MSU is, in fact, the only opportunity to get into one of the Stalin’s high-rises in Moscow. Actually, this Museum is open for students of the MSU and organized groups. It is not possible to just drop by and wander around it after paying your ticket in contrast to the Museum of Technology at the Polish Palace of Culture and Science. The loss is, of course, not great — a quite boring museum, according to my memories, an excellent representative of the Soviet time, however, in sum, it turns out that in my hometown I am unable to visit any of the “Stalin’s high-rises” — “majestic” buildings built by the “socialist people for the people”, unless, of course, we believe the Soviet propaganda.
I do not take into account all kinds of excursions, acquaintances, trying to pass by the concierges at the entrance and so on — this is not democratic and easy, as such large buildings and symbols of Moscow require.
All of the Seven Sisters in Moscow have a clear purpose: a university, two hotels, three residential buildings and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The collapse of the Soviet Union turned the residential buildings into “luxury real estate”, hotels became “luxury hotels”, the university also turned into some kind of “elite university” and the MFA remained the MFA. Would you like to wander into one of these buildings as I did and take a look at the interiors and the views of the city? I wish you luck. These buildings are an impregnable fortress for the powerful, the way they were designed under Stalin.
As expected in an unfree and undemocratic country, all the high-rises are heavily guarded: security, cameras and other attributes of the Moscow’s routine that the Muscovites don’t even notice. The readiness to repel an invisible attack of a fictional enemy and protect the occupied land — this is what “Stalin’s high-rises” symbolize exactly. No democracy, no openness, no reconciliation. If you need freedom — feel free to go to Poland or Latvia.
Oh, I forgot to mention — Riga also has a small “Stalin’s high-rise” and also with the panorama of the city. Leave Moscow to the barbarians, who are ready to defend their land by any means necessary, but, as expected from the barbarians, cannot even adequately take care of their possessions — a large variety of different windows depending on the taste of the owner of the premises, conditioners on the façade as well as basic incompetence of the building management companies that are unable to restore the monuments.
I’m not even going to talk about the interiors: dark, bombastic, uncomfortably empty and cluttered with tasteless furniture, standees, and concierge’s flowers.
And if in a free society the past is accepted, analyzed and the nation tries to move one, in an unfree society, on the contrary — nothing is done in that direction. Moscow is being built by pompous buildings, which are very far from the concept of harmonious and modern architecture and are as tasteless and ugly as were the “Stalin’s high-rises” in the previous century. Without an understanding of the past, the history will be repeated. This is evident in Moscow’s architecture, which reflects the current Russian society.
As we can see, there are two ways in the post-Soviet space. The first — an open democratic path, a path of reconciliation, economic feasibility and a kind of “inclusion” of this complex imperial heritage in the city’s architectural environment through a variety of methods. This way improves the society, makes it culturally healthier, opens its heritage to anyone who wants to comprehend and just physically experience it, and also saves the buildings — the tangible heritage.
The second way is the succession of the brutal methods of the past, the closure of the achievements of the nation for the nation itself, the utter lack of democracy, mismanagement, a reluctance to raise difficult issues in the society and maintaining the status quo, with the subsequent destruction and loss of the tangible heritage — in the truest sense of the word, and also the reproduction and repetition of history — that history, which we do not want to repeat.
Thank you Poland, for the fact that it is possible to visit the “Stalin’s high-rise” anytime when it is open. Apparently, to explore the Soviet heritage, including architectural, without stress and humiliation (and this is what an individual feels when dealing with the arrogant Russian guards), one should leave the capital of the USSR / Russia — Moscow. Well, so be it?