Nowa Huta, Where Art Thou?

Katherine Lebow’s book looks into Nowa Huta, a new town project that symbolized a wide spectrum of emotionally charged attitudes about socialism, communism, radical industrialization, modern architecture, and huge, top-down state projects, but also resistance and protests. Unfinished Utopia focuses on the largest new socialist town project in communist Eastern Europe under Stalinism, a turbulent period in the post-war history of Poland. Katherine successfully brings into one picture the large scale perspective of a state-socialist regime’s political and ideological project, the urban planning of a model city, and the experience of its various new inhabitants, taking an in-depth view of what such projects brought to tens of thousands of men and women in post-war Poland. We follow a close description of the almost decade long and harsh beginnings of the new industrial city and later when it was integrated into the city of Kraków, an outline of the workers’ protests and the Solidarity movement. Katherine develops a complex and ambiguous account of change and transformation coming out of external pressures and the imposition of the Soviet model, various internal visions and imaginations in Polish society, the consequences of war, radical change in the society’s structure and state borders, as well as the long and lasting legacies of social injustice and halted mobility. She insightfully interweaves stories of politicians making and imposing decisions; architects and urban planners developing proposals and taking into account professional views, political interests, and available resources; peasants coming to or being driven into building and then inhabiting the new city; young men engaged in work and altercations with authorities; women oscillating between the ideological promises of emancipation and the double burden of work and household duties; Roma, a marginalized ethnic minority moved into an urban setting-in-the-making by the decision of the communist party-state; and of intellectuals falling in and out of love with the project of Nowa Huta in particular and Stalinism in general. In her presentation, Nowa Huta becomes a textured and ambivalent story of state megalomania and violence, external impositions and domestic ambitions and challenges, but also of the hopes and dreams of tens of thousands of people changing the landscape into a city and changing their lives. Taking this as a cue, I would like to highlight two points where the book offers a very insightful way of looking at post-war Eastern Europe and then pose four questions for further discussion.

The first important contribution Katherine makes is putting Nowa Huta not only within the context of socialist post-war transformations across Eastern and Central Europe, but also into a larger story cutting across the „east”-“west” and Cold War divide in Europe. This is the story of the radical change of the 20th century from rural to urban life that unfolded across the continent and with particular and brutal intensity in post-war Poland, a country devastated by war, incorporated into the Soviet sphere, and transformed by the radical experiment of building socialism. Katherine brings together discussions of these multiple legacies and “their complex interplay” in post-war Poland and Nowa Huta, a project that was “one member of a family of ‘socialist cities’” (3). For her Nowa Huta was not only a part of the socialist experiment, but a part of the broader European story of rural and urban transformation (184).

The second contribution is that Katherine reaches beyond the immediate chronological frame of her book, taking longer detours into the inter-war years and even the 19th century. Thus, when discussing the planning of Nowa Huta, in particular by economists, urbanists, and architects, Kate brings out a fascinating story of ideas and projects discussed and in some cases realized in the Second Polish Republic in the 1920s and 1930s. Such a discussion—especially with a focus on people involved in building post-war Communist Poland—helps to show a nuanced and complicated account where the lines between post-war recovery and the Stalinist project for Poland became uncertain and blurred. Moreover, the book’s extended chronology offers a more complex view into state intervention and planning, as well as the relations between technology, industry, and visions of the future, placing Nowa Huta onto the larger, global map of “techno-cities” in the 20th century, which Robert H. Kargon and Arthur P. Molella have outlined in their book Invented Edens: Techno-Cities of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008).

Based on these insightful contributions of Unfinished Utopia, I would like first to ask how this one particular new socialist city was related to the larger network of similar projects in the emerging socialist realm not only from ideological, political, and intellectual perspectives, but more specifically from the perspective of exchanges between experts, which included travelling, stays, site-visits, and follow-up correspondence not only from the USSR into the Socialist bloc, but among new projects in Central Europe? Staying on the same track but moving beyond experts and the party-state, could we say, taking a term used by Nathan Wood for early 20th century Kraków, that there was an “interurban matrix” of socialist new towns unfolding in mass media and popular culture (Nathan Wood, Becoming Metropolitan: Urban Selfhood and the Making of Modern Cracow (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010)? More generally, how did Nowa Huta flesh out the process of shaping what is more often referred to in the literature as the “socialist world” and in this forum “socialist urbanity” expanding in Europe and later beyond it?

One of the main arguments of Unfinished Utopia is that not only despite but precisely because of the huge efforts, suffering, and various expectations of different participants, a place-based community emerged. This was a community focused on labor that not only went beyond the communist state experiment but eventually undermined and took it down. Katherine provides an engaging, but also frightening and violent story of multiple, overlapping and contradicting, planned and unplanned individual perspectives within this perpetually unfinishable endeavor of making Nowa Huta and nowohucianie. Here is my second question: how did the spatial layout contribute to such developments? Katherine places the newcomers and new inhabitants of Nowa Huta in different areas, from the temporary barracks of the workers’ area with the emotionally charged nickname “Mexico” to technically fashioned A-0, A-1, A-2 settlements. One can inquire further if there were informal neighborhoods, created by other factors in relation to workplace and housing distribution, but also in relation to the needs and deeds of daily life. Nowa Huta differs from many failed attempts to produce an emotional bond between inhabitants and their immediate built environment, a theme recurrent in discussing socialist housing projects and housing estates in general. Was this a project where, even if different than planned, a new identification with and a sense of belonging to place emerged?

My third question continues with the issue of belonging and community by asking who was left out and where the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion were situated. Katherine gives space for the voices of workers of different ranks, constructors, women, and Roma. Architects, planners, and intellectuals, who were mostly in Nowa Huta on a temporary basis, also appear in the book. Yet there is relatively little on those who reached the level of middle managers at the kombinat (the main steelworks) or city officials (before the incorporation into Kraków). How did social differentiation and hierarchies develop and what other communities existed in Nowa Huta apart from the one based on labor?

My fourth and last question relates to the fascinating story of the relationship between Nowa Huta and its closest neighbor and antagonist, Kraków. Katherine juxtaposes and connects these two places (first separate and then administratively merged) providing multiple ways to understand how such cohabitation and distancing developed over the decades. These were also a working relationship between the huge steelworks enterprise and the city of Kraków. I would like to know more in particular about the many individuals in the technical intelligentsia who worked in Nowa Huta directly at the kombinat, but also in institutions cooperating with the steelworks, for example the Academy of Mining and Metallurgy. Many of them were living in Kraków, or later in areas other than Nowa Huta. Did they fit in the community of labor and if so, how? Or did they shape their own milieu separate from yet dependent on Nowa Huta?

These are just a few comments on this masterful portrait of Nowa Huta’s transformation from utopian idea to a place of living and I am looking forward to our discussion.

Sofia Dyak is a director of the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv (Ukraine). She holds her BA in history from Lviv University, MA in History from Central European University in Budapest. Her PhD thesis “(Re)imagined Cityscapes: Lviv and Wrocław after 1944/45” was defended at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences (Warsaw). Previously she was a fellow at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam, the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and most recently at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University within the program on Historical Dialogue and Accountability and at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. Her research interests include post-war urban history, heritage practices and urban planning in Eastern Europe.

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