Communism Deluxe Tour of Nowa Huta in Krakow

by JoHarrington

Nowa Huta was Stalin's gift to Poland. A shiny new steelworks and model homes steeped in the ideology of Communist architecture. Crazy Guides Tours take you there.

I have to admit that I burst out laughing when I saw the leaflet. It was nestled there amidst the inducements to see Krakow's Medieval city or sign up for a tour of Auschwitz.

Communism Deluxe! Take a trip to see Poland's Communist heritage! Only 169 PLN and they throw in a free shot of vodka!

I had the giggles. There was something so wonderfully Capitalist about it all! It was surreal and surely had Stalin turning in his grave. I rushed the pamphlet to my friend in the restaurant. She tittered, and promptly booked us on the trip.

It was one of the best experiences we had in Krakow.

Drive into Communist Poland in a Trusty Trabant!

Every other tour guide had collected us in a top of the range minibus. Crazy Guides did not. And it was fabulous!

The amusement saw no signs of abating from the moment we were picked up. 

I was standing outside our hotel, smoking a cigarette, when I heard this almighty racket coming down the road. As I looked up to find the source, my friend joined me. We both immediately gave in to heartfelt guffaws.

What other reaction could there have been to two men beaming at us like chipmunks, from behind the window screen of a tiny, rickety car?  The thing looked like it was made from plastic and held together with rust!

Yet the men inside it were obviously having so much fun. It was infectious.

Image: Trabant - Communist era car of choice!
Image: Trabant - Communist era car of choice!
Photograph by Jo Harrington

Our Communism Deluxe Tour Guide was Philip. His gleeful companion was another tourist enjoying the ride.

Philip explained that the Trabant was now a classic car in Poland.  No-one in their right minds would drive one, unless they were connoisseurs of vintage iconology. As a child born into Communist Poland, Philip could recall being driven around in one of these. Everyone had one.

His father had put down a deposit and paid it off in three years. Still the Trabant never turned up. He'd owned it for another three years, before it was finally delivered. Thus was the efficacy of the system.

The Trabant reminded me of the old Ford Cortina, that my family were driving around in during the 1970s. It sounded like it too.  There was the same propensity for bits to fall off, if you knocked them in the wrong way.

It wouldn't be the last time that Communist era artifacts (and architecture) would make me recall Britain in the '70s. In many ways, it was like going home, time traveling into my own past.

I loved every second!  Especially driving around in that Trabant, grinning at startled passers-by. Make no mistake. The Communism Deluxe Tour is a whole lot of fun.

Image: The steelworks used to namecheck Lenin. Now it doesn't.
Image: The steelworks used to namecheck Lenin. Now it doesn't.
Photograph by Jo Harrington

Nowa Huta: Stalin's Show City in Krakow

Nowa Huta translates as 'new steelworks'. For the Soviet occupiers, it represented a way to persuade the Poles to embrace Communism.

The Communism Deluxe Tour may have been conducted with hilarity, but the subject matter, at times, could be rather grim.

It was perfectly pitched dark humor, which led us wide-eyed through the ideologies that formed these times and built this city. Often our smiles were framed within a 'WTF?!' expression, as we tried to establish if common sense had ever come into play.

Nowa Huta was not founded upon the principles which ordinarily place a settlement. It did not grow holistically around natural resources or markets. It was deliberately placed and designed to showcase Soviet mores; as such, it was steeped in propaganda from the outset.

That was fertile, agricultural land upon which the Soviet show city was constructed. The farmers were merely thrown out of their homes with barely any compensation.

Nor was this a particularly wonderful site for the industry that would replace them. The steelworks could not be fueled by any mines in the region. The raw materials were simply not there. They had to be shipped in, at great (and ultimately crippling) expense from elsewhere.

However, just up the road was Krakow, that great city of wealth, privilege and middle class culture. For centuries, Wawel Castle had been the seat of Poland's monarchy.  While the aristocracy may have relocated themselves, and capital city status, to Warsaw, they'd left behind a population that was distinctly bourgeoisie.

That was why Stalin ordered Nowa Huta to be built right there. It brought the working classes right into the heart of Poland's hierarchy. It created the conditions in which Communism could flourish.

But for the Poles lured by the promise of a fine home and secure employment, there was a bit of a shock in store.

First they had to build it.  None of the literature and campaigners had mentioned that little snippet. The pictures had depicted what it would all look like, not what was there right now. The incomers were all handed a shovel and told to get to work.

They were in this together.  Workers Unite!

Image: Avenue of Roses in Nowa Huta
Image: Avenue of Roses in Nowa Huta
Photograph by Jo Harrington

Vodka, Milk Bar and Walking into my Nan's Old Flat

There are lots of different locations to check out on the Communism Deluxe Tour, and they feed you too!

Image: Nowa Huta guardsThe Avenue of Roses (pictured above) is a main pedestrian thoroughfare leading to Nowa Huta's Central Square. 

It was once famously home to a three storey high statue of Lenin. The Poles pulled it down after the Solidarity Movement succeeded in kicking out the Soviets.

Also now missing were the huge letters lining the rooftops, which left the Polish population in no doubt that all this had been a gift of the USSR.

They struggled to hit the right note of gratitude, when the funding dried up from Moscow, taking the steelworks with it.  The shops emptied of all supplies and Martial Law banned all employment. They'd barely managed a muttered 'thank you', when it was all going well, and everyone was suddenly a brick-builder!

I doubt they even tried, when a wrong word could see people disappeared; nor when a sixteen year old boy, protecting his grandfather bodily from crowd control water chutes, discovered that rubber bullets were hidden in the stream. The memorial to the boy is over the road from the Catholic church, which was itself constructed under terms of stoic protest and violence.

Anecdotes and histories abound on the Communism Deluxe Tour, punctuated by complementary shots of vodka (or whisky, if like me you're allergic to the stuff). We visited the locations, heard the stories told with fascination and humor, then jumped back into our trusty Trabant.

Along the way, we visited an apartment which frankly looked a lot like the one my Nan lived in back in Britain.  My friend found her own grandmother's house-coat hanging on a peg.

Did I mention that Soviet era Poland was a lot like Britain in the '70s and '80s?  Though not quite as underscored by the Communist ideology.

Finally we were deposited in a Milk Bar (Bar Mleczny), which offered the cheapest food in Poland. Another relic of the age, they were established in order to ensure that workers could afford at least one hot meal a day. 

The menu is still subsidized by the Polish government, hence the queue stretched nearly to the door.  It gave Philip ample opportunity to describe how his childhood was pretty much spent standing in queues too. But that was Communism for you.

And probably much less fun at the time, than it was for us visiting. We were like the Greek girl in Pulp's Common People, delighted tourists glimpsing another culture. But yes, it was fun. I thoroughly recommend that you do it too.

Documentary about Nowa Huta

This film is in Polish but with English subtitles. It introduces what Nowa Huta was all about, and why it was built.

Books about Polish Communism and Nowa Huta

Nowa Huta

Poland's Communist city presented in German, English and Polish.

View on Amazon

Poland under Communism: A Cold War History

This 2008 book was the first English-language history of Poland from the Second World War until the fall of Communism. Using a wide range of Polish archives and unpublished sour...

View on Amazon

The Polish Revolution: Solidarity (Third Edition)

A brilliant eyewitness and analyst, Timothy Garton Ash in this book offers a gripping account of the Polish shipyard workers who defied their communist rulers in 1980. He descri...

View on Amazon

Strike for Freedom! The Story of Lech Walesa and Polish Solidarity

This book was originally published by Dodd, Mead (NY) in 1982.When army troops stormed through the streets of Warsaw and other cities in a pre-Christmas seizure of Poland, it ma...

View on Amazon

Solidarity And Contention: Networks Of Polish Opposition (Social Movements, Protest and Contention)

After a series of failed attempts at mobilizing society, Poland's opposition sprang to surprising-and newly effective-life with the formation of the Solidarity trade union in 19...

View on Amazon

The Polish Solidarity Movement: Revolution, Democracy and Natural Rights (Routledge Studies of So...

This book provides a groundbreaking analysis of democratization in Poland by placing Solidarity in the context of the major democratic upheavals of modernity: the French and Ame...

View on Amazon

Updated: 10/15/2013, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 10/15/2013

I'd be happy to do it again, if you wanted to go and take me with you!

Linda Harrington on 10/15/2013

Very exciting I wish I had shared your adventure

JoHarrington on 10/12/2013

Apparently the Trabant used to be painted to advertize the tours. It had a huge red star on it. But the Polish government have recently made it illegal to promote Communism. The rules are so stringent, that Crazy Guides Tours had to repaint their Trabant to remove the symbol!

Like I said, the ideology was different, but the architecture and items were very reminiscent of my childhood.

Are you considering running your own tours now? They were doing a roaring trade!

Mira on 10/12/2013

I admit the Trabant idea is great for business. I still remember them. I'm glad you had a great time. The views look familiar. Many of the towns built from scratch (or almost) in Communist times look like that over here.
From British books about the sixties and seventies I can connect a few dots to what you're saying here. I find it fascinating. So much to learn.

JoHarrington on 10/12/2013

*slaps head* I really should have remembered that, shouldn't I? In my defence, I'd only just woken up when I replied to you before, and my mind was full of the Krakow Ghetto. I transferred all available (first cuppa) mental capacity to the Warsaw Ghetto and stopped there. -.-

There really was a tremendous sense that the fate of the Poles was historically jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Those I met and spoke with though all seemed to have a wonderful sense of dark humour. I guess you had to, really.

JoHarrington on 10/12/2013

The Poles never forgot that the Soviets hadn't helped them during the Warsaw Uprising. They'd waited on the other side of the river and didn't intervene.

The way our guide told it, the Soviets wanted to be the great liberators all by themselves, with no help from the native population. In that way, the Poles would be so grateful that they'd accept the gift of communism afterwards.

It didn't quite work like that.

JoHarrington on 10/11/2013

sflm - It's funny you should say that. Did you notice that no doors open onto the Avenue of Roses? This was indicative and quite deliberate. All front doors opened into central areas, which were accessed by a single archway apiece.

A strategically placed tank could effectively block in whole neighborhoods.

JoHarrington on 10/11/2013

Mira - I would especially love to know what you make of it. Perhaps there's a business opportunity for you to emulate there!

sflm on 10/11/2013

The city looks like a massive prison complex

Mira on 10/11/2013

Will be back to read this. Sounds like fun. Love that Trabant! ;-)

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