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Nowa Huta: Generations of Change in a Model Socialist Town

0 Comments 🕔30.Jul 2015

Built as Poland’s flagship socialist town on the outskirts of Krakow in 1949, Nowa Huta (literally, New Steelworks) was designed to embody the core tenets of postwar socialist philosophy, including the processes of urbanization, industrialization, and the creation of a new socialist citizenry (p. 25). At its peak in the late 1970s, Lenin Steelworks employed 40,000 people, one sixth of the town’s total population (p. 66). It provided subsidized meals at work, day care for workers’ children, a medical clinic, and company-funded holidays. It operated a vocational school, cultural center, a sports club and stadium, movie theaters, and local newspaper. It assisted in building housing for many of its employees (p. 34). As cultural anthropologist Kinga Pozniak explains, “Nowa Huta was depicted as a town of youth and opportunity, a place where young people from all over the country came to escape the supposed ‘backwardness’ and ‘misery’ of peasant life to work, get an education, start families, and build their lives” (p. 27). But these official representations masked not only darker creation stories of how the town was built on the backs of local farmers, who were dispossessed, but also a record of protest that started in the 1960s, when Nowa Huta residents held public rallies demanding the construction of a church in this bastion of socialism. In the 1980s, steelworkers in Nowa Huta held strikes, joining the Solidarity trade union movement that brought the government to the Roundtable Talks that eventually brought about the demise of socialism in Poland.

Kinga Pozniak sees in Nowa Huta a microcosm of postwar Polish history, a lieu de memoire shaping and shaped by local and national memories, as well as a “place of arrival” where people project their expectations and desires for the future (p. 192; Nora 1989; Weszkalny 2010, p. 31). Pozniak conducted her fieldwork over a 10-month period beginning in August 2009, which gave her the opportunity to examine some key anniversaries, specifically the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of socialism in East-Central Europe and the sixtieth anniversary of the town of Nowa Huta. Pozniak uses these anniversaries to explore how different groups of people in Nowa Huta negotiate and experience historical change. As she tell us, “I was especially curious how a former model socialist town would celebrate its construction the same year that the rest of the country (and indeed, the rest of the continent) was celebrating socialism’s collapse” (p. 12).

As the title suggests, in Nowa Huta: Generations of Change in A Model Socialist Town, Pozniak not only examines the creation of Nowa Huta, but also charts how its residents understand and navigate a variety of transitions: from central planning with its guaranteed employment to a market economy characterized by job insecurity, from an economy based in industry to one based on service, and from Soviet Bloc country to member state of the European Union. To explore the question of how Poles in general and Nowa Huta residents in particular remember the socialist era, Pozniak draws on ten months of participant observation conducted at local museums, cultural centers, and public ceremonies, as well as on her interviews with residents of a variety of ages and walks of life.

Pozniak opens with an entertaining account of a tour with Crazy Guides, who use a Trabant to shuttle its clients to various sites around the city, among them a “typical communist restaurant” complete with poor service, a milk bar, and a “typical communist apartment” decorated with propaganda posters. One of Nowa Huta’s few attempts to promote “communist tourism,” the company’s itinerary suggests that the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL) was best remembered for its repression, resistance, inefficiencies, and shortages. In the five chapters that follow, Pozniak persuasively illustrates that this is the hegemonic narrative at the local, national, and supranational levels, and one that resonates with the experience of many Nowa Huta residents, indeed with many Poles. However, Pozniak also demonstrates that counter-narratives exist and that even narratives that reinforce the dominant view are nuanced (pp. 8–9). For example, in her first chapter, which is devoted to Nowa Huta’s cityscape, Pozniak finds that one of the things residents like most about their district is its urban design. Intended to provide residents with a good quality of life, the centrally planned town was created around neighborhoods consisting of clusters of buildings that housed between 4,000–5,000 people, each with easily accessible schools, a day care, grocery store, and pharmacy (pp. 28–29). Rather than expressing the widely held view that socialist-era neighborhoods are unattractive or poorly constructed, Nowa Huta residents found the centrally planned areas to be a positive contrast to more recent development projects in which community concerns were often trumped by the profits of investors (pp. 28–29).

In the second chapter, Pozniak outlines the history of the steelworks, emphasizing its changing role in the life of the community. Following restructuring, consolidation, and finally privatization, the steelworks now employs only 10 percent of its former workforce. Some of these job losses were balanced out by work in Krakow’s other districts, by the creation of small businesses, and by work in the informal sector (p. 42). As she explains, “once the cornerstone of all social life in town, the steelworks is increasingly becoming just one branch of a global company that, for the time being, happens to be located on Nowa Huta’s territory but could just as easily close its doors and move elsewhere.” Yet managers claim that no one was ever forcibly laid off, but that employees chose to accept compensation or early retirement packages (p. 76). Pozniak’s interviews with a variety of current and former steelworks employees reveals several discrepancies in how the layoffs were framed and understood by managers, union officials, and a variety of types of employees. Yet, Pozniak shows that all still reflect a high degree of acceptance of neo-liberal ideas, primarily because they believe that adopting Western workplace standards will bring with it the prosperity they associate with the West (p. 97).

Public commemorations of Nowa Huta’s sixtieth anniversary and museum representations of the past are the subjects of “Between a Model Socialist Town and a Bastion of Resistance,” Pozniak’s third chapter. She describes how, faced with the challenge of “how to celebrate the construction of a town that was built as a pet project of the now-discredited socialist government,” local memory makers coped by minimizing the town’s associations with socialism. For example, exhibits and public lectures focused on the district as a site of opposition both in the 1960s and 1980s. Pozniak offers a persuasive analysis of why resistance was such a prominent theme in the commemorations, but also illustrates how the de-emphasis on the socialist past has created distrust between local memory makers and some residents who fear that their views and experiences are being misrepresented.

In the final two chapters, Pozniak hones in on what is clearly a theme throughout the book, the variation of experience and memory across generations. In a chapter entitled “Socialism’s Builders and Destroyers,” she contrasts the memories of those who literally and figuratively built Nowa Huta and the institutions of state socialism with those of a younger socialist era cohort whose opposition activities helped bring about its demise. The narratives offered here illustrate the ways that memory is influenced by contemporary conditions, and Pozniak uses them effectively to comment on how people relate to state projects past and present (p. 125). In “My Grandpa Built This Town,” Pozniak explores what young people born after 1990 understand about the socialist era.  In doing so, she focuses on how teachers at local high schools present the past, on extra-curricular history clubs, and on family narratives.

These five chapters are bookended by an introduction that offers concise and accessible summaries of key events in Poland’s recent history, and a conclusion that is theoretically engaged, raising key questions not just about the future of Nowa Huta, but also about the potential of memory as cultural critique.

This book will appeal to anyone interested in recent Polish history and culture, and has much to offer to those interested in post-socialist transitions, urban anthropology, post-industrialization, and memory. Pozniak’s prose is accessible and she has a gift for concisely summarizing for the non-expert complex political and social changes in the region. As a result, her book will appeal to undergraduates. At the same time, Pozniak explores important questions about how hegemonic narratives are created and disseminated, about how they are used as tools to situate oneself vis-à-vis state projects, and about how they marginalize some and valorize others. Her explorations of these questions are subtle and profound to interest the professional scholar. And the fact that this is accomplished through the lens of Nowa Huta, a district experiencing multiple transitions, gives the book both humanity and allure.

The scope of Pozniak’s book is impressive, covering the changing cityscape, the privatization of the steelworks, and local memory makers such as schools, a range of locally and nationally funded cultural institutions, and small local enterprises that are also engaged in the business of memory. Reading the book, I found myself so interested in Pozniak’s field sites and the people she introduces to us there that I wished she had lingered on some of them longer, to provide us with more details about exhibits, tours, and ceremonies, or more interviews with various community stakeholders. But a firsttime author can do far worse than to leave her readers wanting more, and I for one will be eagerly awaiting her next study.

Reviewed by Erica L. Tucker, Stonehill College

Nowa Huta: Generations of Change in a Model Socialist Town
by Kinga Pozniak
University of Pittsburgh Press
Hardback / 240 pages / 2014
ISBN: 9780822963189


Nora, Pierre. 1989. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire.” Representations 26: 7–24.


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