- Interview by
- Owen Hatherley
The Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, a skyscraping ‘gift’ from the Soviet Union to Poland and still one of the tallest buildings in Europe, is one of the most enduring and controversial built legacies of Stalinism. In his book The Palace Complex, the Anglo-Polish anthropologist and architectural writer Michał Murawski makes a revisionist case for the Palace as the most successful socialist building in Europe. Here, we interview him about the Palace’s history, and on its connections to utopian architecture, gifts, demonstrations and orgones.
So what is the Palace of Culture and Science?
The Palace of Culture and Science is a Stalinist skyscraper that was a gift from Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union to Poland. It was completed in 1955 and it’s a sort of vast skyscraper that looks a little bit like some of the New York Empire State Building type towers, but with an enormous quantity of Stalinist gargoyles on it so it’s even more extravagant in its appearance than these American skyscrapers. But the two crucial differences between it and the American towers are, one, that it’s surrounded by empty space – it pointedly emphasises that it’s not high in order to squeeze profit out of a tiny plot of land, its verticality is intended to emphasise, to enact, and to bring about the construction of socialism. And also, it’s different in function. It doesn’t contain offices, it contains this extraordinary medley of different public functions.
There’s a long list early in the book of all the things in it – this is something that surprises many foreign visitors, that it has all this useful stuff that people use all the time. If you compare it to say the later but equally notorious Palace of the People in Bucharest – that really is a building that is almost totally inaccessible to the public, that really is a stereotypical ludicrous dictatorial folly. Whereas this may look like one, but it actually isn’t.
So it contains the Palace of Youth, which is a vast youth centre with a marble-clad swimming pool, gymnasia and sports facilities, modelling and shipbuilding workshops, four theatres including an extremely cute puppet theatre, which is extremely well preserved, with cosy tiling and animals on it, and one of which opened just recently, the ‘Theatre on the Sixth Floor. It contains a huge congress hall, initially for 3000 spectators and now being renovated so that it will be reduced to around 2000, and this was the place the Communist Party held its biannual congresses – but it was also the only place where throughout the Communist period you could encounter un-officially approved acts like the Rolling Stones, who played there in 1967, or Leonard Cohen, most of the Jazz greats played there at the Jazz Jamboree that started in 1956 almost as soon as it opened. And most of the Polish or Soviet groups played there. It was the place that was most associated with Soviet power, as Brezhnev would go there and so on, but also most associated with alterity and the west and alternative culture. It also has a multiplex cinema, the meeting rooms of the Warsaw City Council, two universities, the Museum of Evolution, which is run by the Polish Academy of Sciences…
And the Museum of Technology, which has been under threat, I believe?
It was going to be closed down by the last neoliberal government but now I believe the conservative nationalist Catholic Taliban government has saved it, so this Soviet relic has been saved by this deeply anti-communist government. It has private functions as well – the two universities occupy various lecture theatres and classrooms that used to be part of the University of Warsaw, which is no longer the case, so now it contains two private universities. It has a 30th floor viewing platform, which tourists go to in droves, but which Varsovians also go to on dates. People used to plunge to their deaths from it but stopped doing so when they installed a security fence…
There’s a wedding in the book.
People have weddings there, people have wedding receptions, and I went to one of those, of a right-wing political journalist, and he and his wife had a nostalgic communist wedding on the 30th floor and then they went down to the Rudnev Room, which is named after the architect of the Palace – one of the things it has is this great number of luxurious and mostly unused halls, laid with expensive marble and wood and extravagant glasswork and chandeliers. These are rented out for use as a sort of congress centre. And there’s a whole bunch of other stuff.
A Gift You Couldn’t Refuse
Who bestowed this ‘gift’, and how was it bestowed?
It was framed as a gift from Stalin very specifically, though he died in 1953, two years before it was opened, so sadly he couldn’t visit. But there are these paintings where Bolesław Bierut, who was the sort of Polish mini-Stalin is together with Stalin standing in front of it. But it was also a gift from the Soviet Union to Warsaw, which was in the process of rebuilding itself at the time. So the process of gifting was that Josef Sigalin, the chief architect of Warsaw, who was an interesting figure too, went for a walk around Warsaw with Vyacheslav Molotov, who was the Soviet foreign minister, who was of course also the foreign minister who signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that carved up Poland but of course all that was all forgotten by then, ha ha ha.
You mention that one part of the park around the Palace was nicknamed ‘the Little Katyn Forest’ by Varsovians in the 1950s.
Yes, because the Russian birch trees that were planted in that park were reminiscent for people to Katyn, which was where the NKVD executed tens of thousands of Polish Prisoners of War in 1940. Including the chief architect Sigalin’s brother, incidentally, though Sigalin always repeated the official line that they were killed by the Germans. In any case, Molotov was there with Sigalin. Sigalin had received a phone call from Hilary Minc, who was the Polish Minister of the Interior, the day before, who told him ‘you will go for a walk tomorrow with Molotov, who will spontaneously offer you a gift, you should not express too much surprise, you should accept the gift but not appear too excited about it.’
This is like David Lynch.
He’s involved somewhere. So this is what happened, the gift was graciously accepted by Sigalin, a team of Soviet architects were assigned, led by the distinguished academician Lev Rudnev who was at the time at the very tip-top, designing Moscow State University, and he dedicated a lot of personal energy and time to the work – and they visited Poland, they were taken on a quasi-ethnographic tour around Poland in a car by Sigalin and a bunch of Polish architects in order to show them the highlights of Polish architecture, so they could distil the essence of the Polish national style and then incorporate it into their design for the building. They also took this trip with Sigalin to the other side of the river where the job was to determine the height of the Palace of Culture.
And Sigalin basically demands ‘higher, higher, higher’.
There was a biplane, and they were in radio contact with the pilot, and he was flying at a certain height. Rudnev wanted to stop at 120 metres, and then as Sigalin describes it in his memoirs, he was seized by an amok of verticality, and so he and the Poles started screaming ‘higher, higher, higher!’ and Rudnev managed to convince them to chill out at 160 metres, though it then went up to 230 metres with the spire included. So this was done with Soviet help, but there were also Polish designers working on the interiors and the square all around it, and the labour and machinery was also Soviet – it was built by a team of Soviet labourers.
A Social Skyscraper
The story I’ve heard more often is Molotov ringing up and asking ‘do you want a skyscraper like one of our seven‘, which they’d just built around the planned Palace of Soviets, which would remain unbuilt. Obviously it looks a lot like those seven (and their two smaller cousins in Prague and Riga) – but in terms of its function it’s different from all of them. You describe it as a ‘supercharged version of a Soviet House of Culture’. The others are either blocks of luxury flats, hotels, office blocks or Universities, while this is a completely different Soviet typology – a multifunctional public building. You link it to two Soviet typologies, the House of Culture and the ‘Social Condenser’. Could you briefly describe how it fits these?
Yes. The House of Culture I suppose poses an idea which was implemented with a great deal of energy, which was foregrounded by the Soviets, but it’s a 19th century idea which you find often in Germany – a house for the workers and the people where they would gather in a healthy and productive way rather than drinking themselves into oblivion or engaging in pleasures of the flesh, but would engage in higher pursuits and transform themselves from being un-enlightened and individualised and into a collective mass. And this is where the House of Culture melds with the idea of the Social Condenser, which is a theoretical articulation of what distinguishes Soviet architecture from pre-revolutionary architecture, as you describe it too in Landscapes of Communism. It’s usually associated with housing, or public architecture, or the whole city. This is an idea that was articulated by the Constructivists and then dropped and re-remembered much later.
It obviously wasn’t consciously conceived as a Social Condenser, given how the Constructivists’ ideas were verboten by the fifties, but it seems to fulfil these ideas in the present more than a lot of their buildings did. But what you seem to be doing with it is making it acceptable to people who don’t like Stalinist-era architecture. There’s a bit in Mike Davis’ essay ‘Who Will Build the Ark’ where he quite cogently argues that the Constructivists’ ideas are actually still very much viable today as a good model of social architecture in a time of climate change and extreme inequality, but he then goes on to say of course, this was replaced with this terrible totalitarian architecture that was much the same as Albert Speer. You argue that in this particular example, if maybe not in others, there is a difference. Hitler or Franco never built something like the Palace of Culture and Science, and could not.
Hitler’s Germania was meant to be literally empty inside.
But in your book you root the Palace of Culture and Science in various revolutionary rather than Stalinist ideas – the German architect Bruno Taut’s Stadtkrone (‘city-crown’) which emerged out of the German revolution of 1918, the Social Condenser, and the idea of the ‘Supreme Building’ which you trace through unbuilt edifices like Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, the Vesnin Brothers’ Palace of Labour, and the Palace of the Soviets. It’s the only one of these that ever got built. So even though the Constructivists would have hated the aesthetics, the planning ideas seem very similar.
Yeah, I’m glad you picked up on that, because that is what I want to hammer home in the reader. You could say yeah, the Palace of Culture and Science is the most successful and the most extravagantly realised Social Condenser or Soviet avant-garde building ever built. And I don’t want to sound too much like Boris Groys when I say that – Boris Groys is a Russian scholar who argued in the 1980s that Stalin realised the avant-garde dream much more than the avant-garde ever did – but I suppose it is a similar point. The point is that the Palace of Culture and Science is actually unusual for the architecture of the Stalinist period in the world in general. There are a series of planned accidents which made it possible for this to be the most successful social condenser and supreme building and city-crown ever built in the world. Actually Rem Koolhaas makes a similar but more contestable or basically wrong claim, about the Downtown Manhattan Athletic Building, in his book Delirious New York. He argues it’s a more successful social condenser than anything the avant-garde put into practice. To be clear, the Downtown Manhattan Athletic Club was a 200 metre high members club for rich men, where they did engage in bodily practices, and they did pump iron, they got drunk, and women were allowed only to enter the restaurant, and only at certain times. It was an elitist institution, which closed in 2002, as it was very much in the shadow of the Twin Towers. I read that having already written those words and was astounded he’d made this claim about this deeply elite building, which is part of his general appropriation of these ideas. While I started working on the social condenser, I found that a lot of people actually think that Koolhaas invented the idea.
Or at least they come to it via him.
And then they might dig deeper. But as a social condenser the Palace of Culture and Science is unique as a creator of collectivity.
Do you think its success partly comes from the fact that it embodies all of these avant-garde ideas in an architectural form that is deeply Socialist Realist? It’s decorative, populist, a sort of mutant version of the local debased Renaissance style, and maybe that’s how it enters people’s dreams, as you describe, and how it becomes so phenomenally popular? If it looked like a modernist tower from the same time, like the United Nations headquarters, or had been designed by a Polish modernist of the period like Maciej Nowicki, it might not have worked as well as it does.
Yeah, I certainly think its extraordinary, bizarre appearance is a necessary condition of its success. My research was not historical, so I can’t make this claim with too much confidence, but people have often said to me that they used to hate this building but now they love it. It was very straightforwardly a symbol of Soviet oppression, and its extravagant aesthetics only heightened the sense of alienness, because it rode roughshod over Warsaw, both in terms of its scale and the aesthetic of the pre-war city, very deliberately. Those features of it that were meant to make it more Polish, those Renaissance gargoyles put on the building by Rudnev after his Polish ethnographic trip – all with good intention, in order to make it ‘socialist in content and national in form’ – these were precisely the features described at the time by diarists as the most alien.
The proportions are also very strange – a strict classically trained architect would be very puzzled by it – it breaks all the classical rules of proportion. And hipsters such as the diarist Leopold Tyrmand that understood Renaissance architecture would look at it and say ‘that’s not how you do that’.
For people like Tyrmand, who was the main hipster of fifties Warsaw, who founded the Jazz Jamboree, and was part of a sort of bourgeois modernist vernacular Greenbergian crowd – he writes in his diary of Warsaw in 1954 that when it was under construction and a sort of geometrical shell he could have accepted it, but only when they started attaching these Stalinist gargoyles to it that it became offensive, and it stopped being Polish, and became instead Byzantine and Russian and ‘Oriental’, as an effect of those Polonising gestures. But with regards to a greater different cross-section of the population, perhaps it’s that which attaches them to it. There are these stories – there are two especially grandiose staircases, leading from the second to the fourth floor, which had these extraordinary gilded bas-reliefs on them showing Karl Marx and various other figures from the proletarian movement grasping wheatsheafs et cetera, and there are legends about immigrants, peasants who’d moved from Warsaw to the countryside and were visiting the Palace of Culture, spontaneously kneeling in front of these bas-reliefs because they thought they were in chapel. So there is an aspect of that, and in terms of the post-1989 reception the extravagant appearance makes it more interesting to people.
In terms of that post-89 reception, the central argument of your book is that it succeeds as a socialist building even after 1989 – if anything more so, though you don’t say that explicitly. It has become a socialist island in a capitalist city, firstly in terms of how it functions, and secondly, in terms of its deterrent nature to real estate speculation. Could you talk about the first part of this, how it has managed to stay under public ownership as some sort of socialist building?
Yes. With regard to the socialist-ness of the Palace, the Moscow seven towers are extravagantly non-socialist. The residential towers are unbelievable, the extent with which they were made as bourgeois as possible, they were just the biggest luxury tenement blocks ever created.
They’re very closely comparable to the sort of apartment blocks you get on Central Park in Manhattan – they even look like them.
They look like them, and they also have these enfilade rooms, where doors open one after the other, extremely heavy coat hangars and door knobs, and ‘black entrances’, service staircases for servants. They are very Stalinist but also very un-avant-garde and un-socialist, and in that sense the Palace is very different to those Moscow towers.
While in the present day people are still using the Palace as this multifunctional public building.
Part of that is a condition of the piling up of this extraordinary medley of different very useful public functions into the Palace of Culture and Science – which meant that even during the Communist period…people now say that they did always have this double relationship, where they say they hated it and they loved it and now they realise that they always loved it. I’ve heard this said to me quite a lot of times. And then most of those functions survived to this day, partly as an effect of the fact that the Palace is still publicly owned. This is the key factor here. The ownership was transferred in 1990, but from state ownership to the City of Warsaw, and they set up the Palace of Culture administration which runs it to this day, and runs the Congress Centre and charges rent from all the different institutions that rent space in the building, like the theatres and the Academy of Sciences. Those rents keep going up, because they are a limited liability company and have to pay for the upkeep of the building, so some of the public functions have been pushed out. So for example the Polish Academy of Sciences used to have ten floors in the building, now it only has five, so it has been shedding floors steadily. But still the lions share of the public functions within the Palace of Culture have remained as they are.
But it also provides things that are increasingly lacking in the rest of the city.
The rest of the city is full of examples of former Houses of Culture or former Kindergartens which have been turned into hair salons or banks.
You begin the book remembering the tours your grandfather used to give you in Warsaw as a child, where he’ll point out ‘here used to be a House of Culture and now it’s a mall or now it’s a block of luxury flats, this used to be a garden and now it’s a private atrium’, and so on – you literally start off with this vision of a city that has been extensively privatised, and then you go this thing at the centre of it which has been immune to privatisation.
So it’s a weird enclave, an island of socialism, but the capitalist city continues to revolve around it, and continues to incorporate the Palace of Culture and Science into its circuits of capital accumulation. So the City makes money from the Palace, it appears in advertising, it appears in movies, so it does generate profit for people who want to generate profit from it. But everyone’s a winner, because it’s also this bizarre island of still socialism that’s functioning in this environment of wild capitalism. And still socialist, as opposed to ‘post-socialist’. It is very unusual in the post-communist context in Poland or anywhere else.
I was trying to think of other buildings in either social democratic or state socialist contexts which do something similar to the Palace of Culture and Science, and I came up with three more modernist examples – the Kulturhuset in Stockholm, which survives well, the Palast der Republik in Berlin, which you mention, which is currently being replaced with a moronic neo-historicist vanity project against massive opposition from Berliners, and the National Palace of Culture in Sofia. And one of the differences with the Sofia Palace is the way that parts of it have been privatised much more obviously – one of the first things you find at the main entrance is a Costa Coffee.
So this still socialist enclave has functioned hitherto pretty well but it’s not eternally guaranteed, and I worry that in the book I give a sense that it is. This status as an enclave is under threat, and increasingly that process is underway. There are strong self-defence mechanisms and there are various people invested in keeping the public spirit of this gift alive in the context of the post-socialist city, but now the first thing you see – I don’t know when you were last there –
Right, so you remember the canteen run by the Palace administration up the stairs in the main entrance hall, which had nice cheap food and shitty coffee and was very pleasant – that’s been replaced by a Caffe Nero.
Oh. Not quite as bad as in Sofia, though, where there’s a Costa sign on the outside of the building.
You don’t see it quite so much. But the hipsterisation of the Palace of Culture has been going on for quite some time – it started in 2005 with Cafe Kulturalna, and this was followed in 2012 by Bar Studio.
The lesser of the two. Kulturalna always felt quite studenty and relaxed, and relatively cheap – whereas Bar Studio feels much more like a place for people with real money.
The greater of the two in terms of its PR machine, though. Bar Studio was responsible for ‘activating’ the square outside of the Palace of Culture and Science. The Polish version of my book came out in 2015 on the 60th anniversary along with six other books the same year, and as part of that process they put this event on and in theory it was all very nice and still-socialist social condenser but the demographic profile of media types and members of the cultured bourgeoisie was very different from the more democratic, socialist demographic the Palace usually has.
Wild Capitalism on the Parade Square
The other aspect of your book focuses on some of the real estate boondoggles that have been proposed since the early 1990s – some of them still legally binding – on that enormous square outside, Plac Defilad (Parade Square). You argue that the way it is organised makes it very difficult to privatise. This is partly connected with the land nationalisation that happened in Warsaw after the war, known locally as the ‘Bierut decree’, but also, you imply, that’s something to do with the layout of the square itself.
Well, the Palace is surrounded with empty space, but it also has this network of side wings, which reach out like a claw. Is that what you mean?
I suppose I always think of the planned space around it having three distinct parts. There’s the park/square where the underground Srodmiescie railway station is, the park that was ‘the little Katyn forest’, and the open space of Plac Defilad itself, which as long as I’ve known it has always been a terrible mess, but which has had various proposals for building on it since 1989 which all feature in your book, most famously the still unbuilt Museum of Modern Art, which got planning permission over ten years ago. The neoliberal former ruling party, who still have the Warsaw mayoralty, were unveiling new proposals to build skyscrapers on the first of those three only a few months ago. Warsaw is still one of the only cities where you get applauded if you propose to build on a park. So why is it these proposals to build on these public spaces have always failed?
Actually strictly speaking the whole space is Plac Defilad. It actually becomes a greater and greater mess. People in Poland and other formerly socialist countries have this idea that the 1990s were the epoch of ‘wild capitalism’, whereas the 2000s and especially the 2010s are the epoch of mature, normal, civilised capitalism, whatever the opposite of wild is. In Russia it’s the same, the idea is that Putin un-wilded us, sobered us up. Plac Defilad is one of these wonderful unambiguous, over the top proofs that the wildness is still with us, that were are still wild. The Parade Square and the whole empty area around the Palace of Culture and Science just carries on getting wilder and wilder. Last time I was in Plac Defilad I was at this small sliver of land which was the first part to get privatised through restitution proceedings, and is owned by Tadeusz Koss, and he had a number of kiosks and kebab stalls which were in an old plane, which was painted in the same colours as the Polish national livery, so everyone calls it ‘the Tupolev’, which is the plane that crashed in near Smolensk in 2010. It’s at the edge of the ‘little Katyn forest’. But then this Tupolev had burned down, so there was a charred husk of this fucking plane, which was already reminiscent of the Smolensk crash and the fire and the deaths of 96 people including the President and former mayor of Warsaw Lech Kaczynski, who is very important in the history of the Palace of Culture. Then it stood there burnt out for a while. It was probably burned down by the owner of this plot or of his sub-tenants so that he could avoid having to remove it…so it just carried on getting wilder, and the Museum of Modern Art is no nearer to getting built, even though a competition is currently underway led by the city architect of Warsaw Marlena Happach, who is doing her best to get something done, but – it’s still totally immune to any kind of change. Partly it’s because of this immense space, which is very difficult to fill with anything sensible.
Also, that huge space around it means that the various attempts to crowd out the Palace’s dominance on the skyline that have been going on since the 1960s have always failed, serving only to emphasise it – Plac Defilad seems to work a bit like the viewing corridors around St Paul’s in London, which means that the view of it from any direction is never blocked by anything else.
These new towers are still being built, but none of them on the actual Parade Square, still respectfully away from the Palace. The towers are built because of the Palace of Culture, so it’s responsible for a sort of verticalisation of Warsaw.
I’m interested in the degree to which perceptions of the building have changed over time. I wrote a piece ‘in praise of Warsaw’ a few years ago in Architecture Today, and I got a letter from an English architect of a certain age who was familiar with the city basically saying ‘all the things you describe are crap, and also, if you get in a cab in Warsaw and ask to be taken to the Palace of Culture and Science, the driver will pretend not to know where it is.’ This amused me because around the time I got this letter, I’d picked up a cab company’s card where the logo was literally a cab in front of the Palace. So I thought either what he’s saying is bullshit, or it was once not the case that the city branded itself using the image of the Palace – because the city I’ve known since 2009 has always used it for branding. It’s the building of the city. Do you think this changed happened post-89, or was it a gradual process?
It was definitely post-89. It became a symbol of the city but it has always been a source of obsession both for writers and for everyday inhabitants of the city, well before 1989. It turns up in films and in books…
Like The Polish Complex by Taduesz Konwicki, which I assume was the source for your title?
Well I actually found out about that book later. But there is already this idea of a ‘complex’, an abnormal obsession with the Palace that needs to be cathected and worked through and eradicated and healed. This ‘complex’ exists, but it’s healthy, it’s not a pathological thing. In terms of the change after 1989, and this is from an anthropological point of view – anthropologists are obsessed with ‘the gift’, and theories of the gift, and the big never-ending anthropological thing is that there is no such thing as a free gift. Every gift carries within it the obligation to reciprocate. The reciprocity that Poland and Warsaw gave as a response to receiving the gift of the Palace was fealty, obedience and subservience to the Soviet Union. But what happens when the giver of the gift, here the Soviet Union, ceases to exist, is that you’re don’t have to obligate this reciprocity anymore. You do not have to give back the gift. Especially when the Red Army left Polish soil in 1993 and the Soviet Union and Russia were plunged into chaos. Then, all that was left behind was this publicness, and this social solidarity that the Palace engenders. And the fact that the Palace contains so many different functions, and that it exists in the city on a social, political, economic, aesthetic, juridical and affective level, this is exactly how anthropologists describe the function of the gift, especially in societies where the gift is at the core of the economy as opposed to the commodity. So in the Palace you no longer have this evil Mana of the gift, you have the public spirit, the Hau, the spirit of the gift that remains. And this spirit is at the core of the Palace’s popularity after ’89. And it did indeed increase, especially in the last 20 years, and as this process of wild privatisation of the city, and of the buildings in the city and people’s homes, has intensified in the 2010s.
Continuing on the anthropological idea, there’s quite the cast of characters in the book, and you tell the stories of their obsessions with the Palace. Many of them are women, and the survey data you carried out for the book suggests that women are more pro the Palace than men…
Enormously so. Or to put it in another way, there’s an enormous bias to young men in terms of people who are hostile to the Palace and want to destroy it. Men in general are three times more likely to dislike the Palace, and two times more likely to say there needs to be a taller tower than the Palace in Warsaw. There is a strange mapping of anti-communism onto young maleness in Poland, and you see that on the streets, and you see that on fascist protests, and the Palace stands against that quite unambiguously.
This reminds me of the opinion poll data published before the European elections in Poland that showed Polish men under 30 mainly saying they would vote for the bizarre far-right party of the bow-tie wearing fascist Janusz Korwin-Mikke, whereas for women under 30 there was almost exactly the same large plurality for the social democratic coalition Wiosna, around the openly gay formrer mayor of Słupsk, Robert Biedron.
Yes – that’s very interesting.
There’s three ‘characters’ in the book that stuck out for me in the book – the self-described ‘Queen Tsar of the Orthodox Catholic Religion’, the ‘orgasm lady’, and the woman with the Palace of Culture tattooed on her calf.
The first two come from a series of ‘Dear Palace’ letters addressed to the Palace of Culture and Science – there’s a folder of ‘untypical letters’ that are held by the Palace’s chronicler. She’s a very erudite eccentric who has been working in the Palace since 1960, which is five years after the Palace was opened, and she’s been collecting weird letters that everyone else wants to throw away. And she’s collected this huge trove of letters from people in various parts of Poland addressed either to the Palace or a body they conceive as being in the Palace.
Some of it is very much like Outsider Art, these drawings and personal cosmologies.
Some of these are from people who are mentally ill in various ways – one of them is addressed to a psychiatric institution, the director of which is alleged to be in the Palace of Culture, but some of them are just requests for events to be held in it which are unusual in various ways. There was an ethnographer of these letters who predicted in 1992 that they would stop coming, because the Palace was an axis mundi of centralised totalitarian power, and now that we no longer have totalitarian centralisation of power they would stop coming. And fortunately for my narrative, the letters carried on coming, much more intensely – and they were focused much more on property, and much more on issues of historical property restitution. So that’s the whole trove, and some of them are much more personal, and one example of these is the ‘orgasm lady’ – so called by Hanna Szczubełek, who is the chronicler – who wrote a series of letters in 1989, on either side of the most tumultuous moment, the first semi-free elections that June, when the whole country was undergoing this totally intense transformation. She lived in one of the 1960s skyscrapers in the Eastern Wall opposite, and she was complaining that she was receiving ‘involuntary orgasms’ from the radiation coming from the TV aerial in the Palace’s spire, and asking if the Palace administration could do something about it. So she was invited to the Palace of Culture and Science by the chronicler, and she made a plan with others in the Palace administration that she would take her up to the spire and show her that they’d removed various parts of the aerials. I also cite you in this part of the book about the sexual energy that is in this building.
There’s a lot of Orgone in the Palace of Culture.
There is a lot of Orgone there. So this sexual energy is unleashed here by this tumultuous social transformation and that’s my reading of the letters of the ‘orgasm lady’, and her letters finish after 1989. The other person is the ‘tattoo lady’ – she’s an inhabitant of Warsaw, in her late fifties, a very sociable Warsaw scenester, a Communist era hipster who is still very much a figure on the Warsaw cultural scene, and she has an enormous tattoo of the Palace on her calf. I first noticed this tattoo at the party for the Palace’s 60th anniversary, where she was dancing with the then deputy mayor – who was sacked over a property restitution scandal – and they were downing shots and dancing to celebrate the Palace’s life, and the photograph of her in the book is at Manifa, the annual feminist protest that for a few years has been starting at the Parade Square in front of the Palace.
Protest and the Palace
You point out that more left-leaning demonstrations start there, rather than at Piłsudski Square nearer the Old Town, where they start more commonly.
Those which don’t start directly outside the Parliament or the Constitutional Court, yeah, and especially those connected with gay or feminist or otherwise openly progressive issues tend to start from outside this apparently phallic vertical object. So the feminist march starts there, the highpoint of the Pride parade, called the March of Equality in Warsaw, is always when it goes past the Palace of Culture. And the Palace of Culture was the scene of the tragic self-immolation of Piotr Szczęsny in 2017, which was an incredible event in terms of its symbolism. It was a re-enactment of a self-immolation in 1968 in the Tenth Anniversary Stadium which was across the river, of Ryszard Siwiec, who was protesting at Polish involvement in the suppression of the Prague Spring – and also, it was an enactment of a scene in the book A Minor Apocalypse by Tadeusz Konwicki. He had this manifesto, played a protest song and burned himself to death. He distributed this manifesto which is incredibly wide-ranging and progressive in its content. So the Palace of Culture has become an extraordinary symbol of contestation, especially in protests against the reigning Catholic misogynist regime that is in power in Poland at the moment.
Which brings us to the last question. You end the new English edition of the book with an afterword describing the Palace as a ‘still socialist building in a leftless country’, where this building is at the centre of the capital of a country which as of 2015 doesn’t even have a small left contingent in its parliament, but is a still functioning socialist model which works and isn’t a failure and this is something that most people in Warsaw experience and know, and even though they don’t put it in those words, it being socialist is why they like it. But there’s a resistance on the left to using this place as an exemplar – to say to people that ‘this thing that you actually already like is good, and it’s good because it’s socialist’. Here you quote (though don’t name) one of the leaders of Razem, the more progressive of the country’s two left-wing alliances, which unlike Wiosna doesn’t have roots in the post-Communist Democratic Left Alliance, telling you that although they agree with you ‘people aren’t ready’ for using any of Poland’s post-1945 experiences as arguments for socialism. So they rely on the example of what you call ‘obscure interwar socialist intellectuals’ rather than this history which most people have lived through and experienced. And of course, they do that in order to avoid being tainted by the very many deeply negative things that happened in that period. What you seem to imagine at the end of the book is a Polish socialist movement which would use something like the Palace in analogous ways to how Bernie Sanders uses the New Deal or Jeremy Corbyn uses the 1945 Labour government. But is it ever plausible that Polish socialists could point to the Palace, or the Bierut decree that made it possible and say ‘this is actually good, we want more of it’?
That already happens in the Communist Parties of Russia or the Czech Republic.
Yes, but they get 10% of the vote, from voters who are increasingly dying off.
I think certainly this is something that could…I don’t want to go into the realms of soothsaying but there is, to use a very un-socialist word, a demand for that kind of politics. These people – not just older people who remember socialism well – who voted for the post-Communists in the 1990s and early 2000s, now largely vote for Law and Justice for their social programmes, which nobody including the Democratic Left Alliance thought were possible before, that simply the country couldn’t afford them. Maybe all those years of fiscal austerity built up enough budget reserves for these social welfare policies to work – but they do work.
What I’m trying to get at is – you make an explicitly socialist case in this book, which I’m sure raised a few eyebrows in Warsaw.
So the question is this. We have the tainted circumstances of this building’s making, much like the making of post-war Poland in general, where yes, people had far better housing and health care and so on than they’d ever had before, but also had the repressions of Stalinism, Martial Law in the 80s, shortages, the loss of real independence, and so on. Does the process of success that you describe, by which this gift has gradually ceased to be tainted, suggest that a similar process can happen in the way people think of socialism in Poland more generally, offering a way out of this dilemma?
I suppose to make a slightly lazy point, it offers an insight into the complexity of this past, and its continued afterlives in our present. And even though the Palace is this cosy, multifunctional building which provides people with public facilities which is liked by them, it is associated not with the years of socialist prosperity, the 1970s, which is the period people remember most warmly. It is associated with the most violent, brutal years of Stalinism, in terms of its architectural form, if not necessarily in terms of its programme and its institutions, lots of which actually come from the ’70s. So it’s through its simultaneous socialist evilness and its socialist goodness that we can see how a more complex relation to the socialist past is not only desirable and necessary but empirically accurate. And it reflects how people view the socialist past themselves – especially people who are not liberal/left intellectuals who opinion poll after opinion poll after opinion poll has shown have a more critical understanding and recollection of the socialist past than people who live in small towns and smaller cities or are less highly educated.
Or people who live in the outlying housing estates.
Or people who live in the outlying housing estates. Except Ursynow, which is all intelligentsia. So it does offer a way out, partly through the Palace complex, which a testimony to all the complexity the Palace contains within one place. So the problem with using history for politics is that history is very complex. The Palace condenses all that complexity in one place. It provides a navigable prism to view that past, as well as to view that present. So I’m not saying that the future Polish political scene will be fixated on the Palace of Culture, but I am saying that the fact that it is used as this symbol of protest, and has become a vector of protest against a regime that for all its social welfare policies is a deeply right-wing, reactionary regime, suggests that it does have a weird potential for contestation.