Stalinism on the Frontier of Polish Socialism

We’re pleased to announce the start of our next book discussion, which will be on Katherine Lebow’s Unfinished Utopia: Nowa Huta, Stalinism, and Polish Society, 1949-56 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2013). Similar to Sztálinváros in Hungary and Magnitogorsk in the Soviet Union, Nowa Huta was in that special category of socialist city built where no town had stood before. It was thus situated on the frontier of Polish socialism as a critical node in the country’s industrial development (Nowa Huta means “new foundry” or “new steelworks”) and its social transformation under Stalinism. 7275138In this richly researched study of Poland “first socialist city,” Lebow examines the creation of this new town as a window onto Poland’s first decade under communist rule. She focuses in particular on the experiences of Nowa Huta’s ordinary inhabitants, their engagement and manipulation of Stalinist ideology, and their role in the making of this new city. For many Nowohucians, Stalinist rhetoric about forging a new way of life and creating the New Man and New Woman resonated with their own desires to leave for good the villages from which they came and assume new, decidedly urban identities and living standards. This was a story of spatial, cultural, and social mobility that intersected, as it did in many other countries and cities of the Second World, with rapid industrialization and building socialism. And for certain architects and planners, Nowa Huta likewise represented an unprecedented opportunity to break from the past and forge ahead with a dual program of industrialization and social transformation, the intellectual roots of which were shared among some members of the Polish intelligentsia in the 19th century.

The Nowohucians of Unfinished Utopia certainly talked, acted, and aspired for a better life in ways that make little sense in standard narratives about Stalinism, de-Stalinization, and the Soviet Union’s subjugation of the country after World War II. Lebow’s work thus joins those of other historians who have complicated our understanding of Stalinism (in Poland, the USSR, and elsewhere) by demonstrating how ordinary people participated in its construction and even legitimization, and how its undoing after Stalin’s death was anything but a straightforward process. But Lebow also pushes things further by examining, for example, the long-term impact of the Stalin era, in this case on Nowohucians’ worldviews through the end of the communist period. In perhaps the most provocative section of the book, Lebow demonstrates that the Solidarity movement–seemingly the enemy of everything socialist, let alone Stalinist–actually owed much to how Nowohucians had learned to use the material and rhetorical tools of the socialist regime at its foundation. This argument rests in part on Lebow’s observation that Stalinist ideology and its practices (such as labor competitions) played an early role in helping Nowohucians develop a “moral community of labor” (184) from which they began to exclude the Party already in the Stalin era. In short, through their lived experience of building Poland’s “first socialist city,” Nowohucians claimed the visions, promises, and rhetoric of Stalinism as their own, eventually turning it against the Party and Soviet domination.

In addition to shedding much new light on the history of Stalinism in Poland, Unfinished Utopia is a major contribution to the study of socialist cities and Second World urbanity. To start our discussion, I’d like to make a couple comments and pose a few questions that pertain more specifically to these aspects of the book. First, as Lebow shows throughout Unfinished Utopia, Nowohucians not only reworked and laid claim to Stalinist ideology but also developed a sense of ownership over Nowa Huta itself. This sense of owning the city and being its masters echoed Stalinist ideology on socialism belonging to workers and on socialist property relations. It’s an aspect of Stalinist subjectivity that few historians of Stalinism (at least in the Soviet case) have recognized and which Lebow shows did not dissipate over time in the history of the city. This sense of owning the city, I would propose, was a critical element of Second World urbanity as an everyday, lived experience throughout the socialist world that could use further elaboration in our study of socialist cities. Was Nowohucians’ sense of being masters of their own city a sentiment that was shared by Polish urban dwellers in other cities, especially older cities like Kraków, and if so, what were the major similarities and differences? Did Nowa Huta’s urban planners and architects attempt to incorporate this sense of the ordinary Nowohucian’s ownership of the city, and if so what were its symbolic and practical manifestations? And more broadly still, was this sentiment of owning and being masters of their own city–if we can track and study it in different socialist cities–something that existed in cities of the capitalist West or was it more or less something specific to the Second World?

In the first chapter of Unfinished Utopia, Lebow explores the early planning and building of Nowa Huta, as well as the intellectual currents going back to the 19th century that predisposed some members of the Polish intelligentsia to embrace the construction of Poland’s “first socialist city.” After working on Nowa Huta in its early years, where else did its architects and urban planners work either in Poland, other socialist countries, or beyond in the developing Third World? Also, did Nowa Huta itself become a model for socialist urban developing in other socialist countries? Did the city itself ever host international conferences on socialist city planning or train foreign architects and urban planners? In short, what was Nowa Huta’s place in the international community of socialist architects and urban planners?

At very end of Unfinished Utopia, Lebow counts Nowa Huta among cities on both sides of the Cold War’s geo-political divide that served “as pressure points of European societies moving from rationed scarcity to expanding horizons of freedom, choice, and mobility.” (184) Among urban planners and architects in the West, was there ever any awareness of Nowa Huta at all and, more exactly, any recognition that the city shared this potential with the new towns on the other side of the Iron Curtain? And finally, over the course of its history, was Nowa Huta ever included on the tours that Western architects and urban planners were able to make of cities in the Second World?

To continue our discussion of Unfinished Utopia, I now wish to turn the floor over to four scholars: Sofia Dyak (Center for Urban History of East Central Europe), Annemarie Sammartino (Oberlin College), Łukasz Stanek (University of Manchester), and Kimberly Elman Zarecor (Iowa State University). Katherine Lebow (Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies) will also contribute to this discussion. And readers of our blog are welcome to post comments on this or other posts.


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