Stalinism, Utopia and the Peculiar/Familiar World of Nowa Huta

Katherine Lebow’s Unfinished Utopia is a stunning portrait of a fascinating city—Nowa Huta. Nowa Huta was the largest and most ambitious of a host of planned industrial cities that dotted the landscape of postwar Eastern Europe. Most of its residents worked at the nearby Lenin Steelworks and it served a crucial role in contemporary propaganda as a symbol of Poland’s Communist state’s success at rebuilding the country and constructing a new socialist future.

For me, Lebow’s most important contribution is simply in the fact that she takes seriously Stalinism as an ideology. All too many historians of Eastern European socialism simply dismiss ideology, instead focusing on the state’s use of power and technologies of rule without fully considering its ideological framework. Lebow’s attention to how ideology functioned both as a set of dogmas imposed from above and as an “everyday” set of beliefs to be appropriated and reworked from below will be a model for future histories of socialism.

Lebow makes the claim that Nowa Huta’s history embodied the limits of state control, as its unruly and often anarchic citizens challenged the state at almost every turn. She claims that Nowa Huta also embodied a kind of Stalinist ideology that had a profound impact on its citizens. The book provides plenty of evidence of the former, which is no surprise, as it reflects a revisionist approach to totalitarianism that has become well accepted. It provides less evidence of the second claim, which is (to my mind) the more intriguing one. I’d love to hear more about how Stalinist ideology functioned in the city, as well as more about how this ideology and its limits related to one another.

Lebow quite rightly begins both with the pre-history of the region and the pre-history of its residents, showing that neither the space nor the people of Nowa Huta were entirely new. Both uniquely Stalinist and unquestionably Polish, Nowa Huta challenges any simple understanding of the relationship between Poland and socialism.

Lebow demonstrates how in Poland, the arrival of socialism as well as the immense needs of postwar Poland, just recently ravaged by war, created a welcome opportunity for planners and architects to realize dreams that were long in the making. However, Nowa Huta would also prove to be a graveyard for such dreams as cost overruns would lead the state to withdraw support for many of Nowa Huta’s most grandiose plans. This collision between material circumstances, ideology and professional desires is not unique to postwar Poland, of course, but one question to ask would be if this set of circumstances, so oft repeated across the Eastern bloc, was actually the fundamental experience of early socialism for the region? If that was the case, then what does this mean for the writing of its history?

Many of Nowa Huta’s early residents were both peasants and young, which made the process of “becoming Nowohucian” a particularly crucial and fraught experience. In reading Lebow’s fascinating account of this process, I couldn’t help but think of a nearly contemporaneous process occurring in another part of Poland—namely the process of “becoming Polish” experienced by formerly German towns in the West, many of whom were occupied by peasants from Poland’s lost Eastern territories. As a suburb of Cracow, Nowa Huta lay in a region of Polish territory less affected by these population movements of the postwar world, but I am sure it was not entirely unscathed. So I wonder what relationship Lebow would posit between the process of “becoming Polish” and that of “becoming Socialist.” Are these related processes? If so, how?

Nowa Huta was both socially and architecturally designed according to Stalinist precepts. This book largely concentrates on the social aspects of this construction and architecture takes something of a backseat. But what was the relationship between this social and architectural “construction”? How important (if at all) was Nowa Huta’s spatial layout?

On p. 43, Lebow makes the intriguing comment that “Nowa Huta’s builders and inhabitants lived planning in a way that was extreme but also typical of many East Europeans’ encounter with ‘Stalinism as a civilization.’” I wonder if she could say more about what is uniquely Stalinist about this sort of planning, as opposed to planning cultures elsewhere or even during different Socialist eras?

Speaking of different socialist eras, this book quite rightly takes Stalinism as its subject. I would like to hear more about what Lebow has to say about post-Stalinism as a separate period (and not just the working through of Stalinism’s legacy).

The final chapter of this book offers the intriguing claim that it was Nowa Huta’s very Stalinist past that set it up for its role in the dismantling of Communism several decades later. Did Nowa Huta and similar new towns elsewhere have a unique culture of dissent? To what degree was Nowa Huta’s experience of the last decade of Communist rule unique? Or does Nowa Huta’s experience and Lebow’s tale have something to tell us about the later experience of Communism across Poland and the rest of the Eastern bloc?

In conclusion, I wish to return to the title of the book. In her conclusion, Lebow argues that Nowa Huta’s later residents took the utopian origins of the city as a kind of insistent challenge (p. 182). I’d love to hear more about this—what kind of utopia Nowa Huta was intended to embody? Did residents see it as utopia, or just planners? How did their respective visions differ? How current residents relate to this utopianism? And what it might mean to finish this peculiar unfinished utopia?

Finally, I would like to end by offering my thanks to Steve Harris and Daria Bocharnikova for organizing this forum, and, especially for Katherine Lebow for writing this excellent book.


Ari Sammartino teaches Central European History at Oberlin College. She is the author of The Impossible Border: Germany and the East, 1914-1922 (Cornell University Press, 2010). She is currently working on a book that examines mobility and migration as constitutive elements of the history of East Germany, as well as one on mass housing in postwar New York City.

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