I have a healthy fascination with old-school communism. The history and style of architecture always attract me when I visit a destination with a dose of either. Warsaw is definitely one of those places. It’s also a city where local tour operators have identified that there are enough visitors similarly fascinated by the subject to warrant running tours dedicated to it.
Regardless of whether you plan to buckle up in a Nysa van or Jelcz 043 bus on an organized tour or want to free wheel it under your own steam this article highlights some of the key communist-leaning sights in Warsaw that you should set some time aside for.
The Foundations of Communist Architecture in Warsaw
But first a little light history…….
Prior to World War II, Warsaw was sometimes referred to as the “Paris of the East” thanks to its culture and, most notably, its architecture.
Although Poland’s communist underpinnings can be traced all the way back to the late 19th Century it’s modern communist history starts in 1942 when the Polish Workers’ Party was established during the period of Nazi occupation. During the process of Nazi defeat the communists in Poland collaborated with the Soviets and established a Polish State that was heavily dependent upon Soviet support.
The devastation of World War II left Warsaw as little more than rubble and the architects charged with the task of rebuilding the city were required to construct buildings ‘socialist in content and national in form’; otherwise known as the style of ‘social realism’ and definitely a case of functionality over aesthetics. The best examples of social realism can still be seen in Warsaw’s public buildings and apartment blocks.
Communist Sights in Warsaw
The Palace of Culture & Science and Defilad Square (Plac Defilad)
The Palace is a fairly contentious relic of the city’s Soviet Communist past and a structure that wouldn’t look out of place in Ghostbusters with Stay Puff Marshmallow Man appearing from behind it (looking at the photo, tell me you don’t agree!). The 231m structure sits right in the very center of town and was the brainchild of Stalin who specifically sent an undercover delegation to New York to learn about the design and construction methods used to build the Empire State Building. It was originally designed as the Communist party headquarters, houses 3,288 rooms and killed 16 people during the construction process. It’s pretty easy to see why so many locals hate the building and a number of politicians have wanted to tear it down! These days the city has made the best it can of the building by opening the viewing terrace and filling the building with theaters, museums, restaurants and bars. If nothing else it’s a great place to visit to bear witness to the sheer magnitude and audacity of the construction effort (or to do a reccie for the next Ghostbusters movie). Defilad Square sits directly opposite the Palace and was built to host the communist propaganda speeches of the leaders of the People’s Republic of Poland. When constructed the square was the largest such space in Europe and hosted typically patriotic marches and communist parades.
Marszałkowska Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa (MDM)
Built in 1951 the MDM District is a perfect example of early socialist realist architecture and was constructed as a propaganda district to house ‘good working class communists’ (it was essentially a self-contained settlement in the very heart of Warsaw). The Communists also used the housing district as a way to obstruct views of the Church of the Holy Redeemer (the church was built in a combination of Renaissance and Baroque styles so didn’t exactly appeal to the functional social realist vision of the city). Wandering around the district you’ll see plenty of examples of reliefs of socialist heroes and socialist architecture but the highlight (at least as an example of social realist planning) is Constitution Square. The square, otherwise known as Konstytucji Square (Plac Konstytucji) is the main intersection of the MDM district and was named to commemorate the Stalinist Communist Constitution, adopted in 1952.
If you’re looking to sample a small taste of the old communist Poland (or more generally a bit of a cheapskate) then you should definitely check out one or more of Warsaw’s Milk Bars. Unlike the name suggests, this is not the place to go and buy milk. They’re actually an old-fashioned style canteen restaurant serving local fare at crazy-cheap prices (in the past they were subsidized by the Communist regime for the working class). We visited Ząbkowski s.c. Bar in Praga. Thankfully we had someone with us who was able to order on our behalf in Polish (the menu was only in Polish) – but I have no doubt that you could muddle your way through the ordering process with some good old finger pointing as dishes come out of the kitchen! That said, if you’re feeling brave and adventurous and want to try and order everything yourself in Polish then check out the Students Abroad website which provides great instructions on what to expect and how to order.
The Banking and Financing Center ‘Nowy Świat’ (Centrum Bankowo-Finansowe „Nowy Świat”)
What’s now known as the Banking and Finance Center was formally the KC PZPR – the seat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party; otherwise known as ‘the Party House’. For decades this was one of the most secretive buildings in the entire city into which Warsaw residents weren’t allowed. Like anywhere with restrictions on entry a whole host of conspiracy rumors have been fueled including that the building was linked by secretive underground tunnels to the Palace of Culture and Science and that the building houses a tightly guarded and secretive underground train station. Rumours aside, the building was constructed from the rubble of what remained of Warsaw after WWII and was completed in 1952. Although you can’t actually enter the building you might enjoy standing outside and admiring the irony that the center of communism and oppression in Poland later became Warsaw Stock Exchange and is now the Centrum Bankowo-Finansowe. Viva Capitalism!
If you’re looking to get a little off of the usual tourist path and enjoy visiting areas undergoing a slow process of ‘hipster-istation’ or ‘bohemian-isation’ then Praga is the place for you. Praga served as the base of operations for Russia’s Red Army in 1944 when Hitler and the Nazis destroyed Warsaw’s Old Town. In the following fifty years of communist rule, Praga served as the area of Warsaw where the communists moved any residents they deemed ‘unsavoury’. As with all areas that are up-and-coming Praga can be a little rough and ready and has been known for its crime. Basically don’t walk around in Praga after dark as we did; it didn’t feel safe at all. During the day head straight to Ul. Zabkowska for the perfect exemplifier of the regeneration of the area (the old Koneser Vodka Factory is a great example of the work going on in Praga). I’d also recommend stopping by the Neon Museum which exhibits communist era neon signage (just be aware that if you want to take photos there you can only do so with a camera phone unless you pre-apply for a license). The tiny but informative Museum of Life under Communism is also in Praga and serves as the base of operations for Adventure Warsaw who run an excellent communism tour (it’s the tour we chose).
Check out my full Warsaw Destination Guide for more tips on visiting Warsaw.
If you think you’d like to embark on a communist adventure in Warsaw then there are a number of companies that operate such tours. Below are a few you might want to consider checking out. Note: We used Adventure Warsaw who we found to be excellent and informative. We didn’t use any of the others but I came across them whilst researching communist tours for our trip.
Adventure Warsaw Communist Tour in Nysa Van: http://adventurewarsaw.pl/en/
WPT1313 Warsaw Communist Tour in Jelcz 043 bus: http://wpt1313.com/en/wycieczki/communism_tour/
Free Communist Walking Tour: https://freewalkingtour.com/warsaw/tours/free/communist-warsaw/
Communist Tour by Bike: http://stationwarsaw.com/communist-warsaw/
Communist Self-Drive Tour in a Fiat 126p: http://wpt1313.com/en/wycieczki/communism-self-drive-tour/