hidden europe 1

Steel, Stalin and socialism

by Nicky Gardner


The erstwhile steeltowns of Russia and eastern Europe may not seem obvious tourist destinations, but hidden europe takes a look at four such cities.

The reaction of the bus driver told its own tale. "Just to Nowa Huta?", he asked again, this time adding, with a perceptible hint of persuasion, "but we do go on to Kraków, you know". I stuck to my guns and insisted on a single ticket to Nowa Huta. A couple of hours later I was standing at the junction of Solidarity Avenue and John Paul II Avenue in the very heart of one of Europe's more bizarre communities. Nowa Huta may be just a few miles from the jewel of Kraków, but it is quite another world. When Nowa Huta was established after World War II, it set out to be everything that Kraków was not: assertively proletarian, industrial and anti-intellectual. Here on a bluff above the Wisla (Vistula) River, the planners decreed that there should arise one of Europe's largest steelworks and a socialist city which, in its size and economic might, should dwarf nearby Catholic Kraków.

Nowa Huta looked to renaissance and classical architecture for inspiration, and lifted more than a few ideas from Italian city planning aesthetics and the English garden city movement. But in its implementation, Nowa Huta was relentlessly socialist realist. No space here for Kraków's mediaeval spires, and the very Polish expression of art nouveau (called the Mloda Polska or Young Poland movement) which so enhanced Krakówian life earlier in the twentieth century found no place in Nowa Huta. Instead, a new city of classical lines, brash avenues and everywhere the statues, sculptures and murals that served as reminders to inhabitants that everyday life served a greater purpose: the advance of communism. A very different propaganda, therefore, from that touted in the churches of the illustrious city on the flood plain below.