Communism and Kitsch in Central Europe – Krakow, Budapest, Bratislava, Berlin, Europe
In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, Poland’s Solidarity movement was legalised, Czechoslovakia rose up in the Velvet Revolution and the Soviet Union collapsed. Since these momentous era-defining events, the borders of Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Hungary have opened up to trade, political ideas and people. Once again, these countries have become viable tourist destinations; Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and Krakow’s Wawel Castle are no longer out of reach to the Western tourist.
A strange new feature of this relatively newborn tourism is the ironic use of their Communist pasts as a tourist draw. Travellers seem to be interested by the Social Realist statues, Communist tours and re-enactments. This has been acted upon by tourist boards throughout Central Europe. There is a dark paradox in the often nostalgic use of the sometimes repressive and brutal regimes to provide kitsch attractions. Alternatively, the area also offers many apt, moving and historically important records to a significant era in their histories. This is a guide to offerings of a few of those cities.
Krakow is one of many cities to offer a plethora of the Communism tours. These excursions come with varying degrees of nostalgia, history and humour. A necessity is that the tours take place in a Trabant – the Soviet Union’s people’s car of choice – and usually comes with a tour of workers’ accommodation and some Socialist food and vodka.
One of the main destinations for the tours is the “utopian” centrally planned Soviet district of Nowa Huta (or New Steelworks). Stalin wanted to create a city free from inequality with industry and the worker at its heart. This was a strange idea as it was located nowhere near any iron, coke and ore. Through shipping, the raw materials actually lost money. It is a place of curiosity, a museum to Communist ideals, but also to Communist reality as living conditions and architecture can be scrutinised from inside and out.
Irony rears its head once again. Since the collapse of the Communist regime, many of the roads and place names formerly given over to Stalin and Lenin were renamed after heroes of the Solidarity Movement or Polish historical figures. It’s a very post-modern experience to stand in Ronald Reagan Central Square in the former jewel in the crown of the People’s Republic of Poland.
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The Hungarian capital of Budapest is an example of the logistical requirements that are encountered when there is a regime change. The city was covered with dozens of social realist (mainly ugly, ideological and concrete) statues rejoicing the Soviet Union and values of Communism, from Karl Marx and Josef Stalin to the anonymous worker, leaving them with the decision of either destroying fifty years of art or somehow keeping the collection alive. After much deliberation the sculptures were transferred to Memento Park on the outskirts of the city out of sight of those who had lived and suffered through the Soviet regime. It could be a visual document to this era in their history, and serves as a useful money-making tool in attracting Western tourists.
One of the strangest experiences can be had stood on the windswept grass plain in Southern Buda surrounded by over forty ten-foot tall concrete modernist monuments to heroic workers or obscure Hungarian politicians loyal to the Party, with names like Endre Ságvári. It can be a very eerie experience, especially on a cloud covered windy day as the surroundings take on a subdued black and white aura. Taking one of the Hammer and Sickle guided tours (about twenty-three pounds) is highly recommended. Being confronted with a bust of Ferenc Münnich will baffle almost all non-Hungarians apart from the most ardent Sovietologist. There is also a commendable small exhibition that does well to put the motley collection into a historical and social context, it describes Hungary’s battle for independence.
Bratislava, on the other hand, has kept the Communist artwork as a part of the urban fabric. A ring of social realist artwork encircles the pretty Baroque city centre. The statues show big strapping Slovakian soldiers wrestling weak fascist soldiers or rippling workers with pickaxes depicting the epitome of Soviet machismo. Viewed today, much of the artwork is quite ridiculous. One wonders how they were ever taken seriously, but they do provide many a tounge-in-cheek photo opportunity. The Monument of the Slovak National Uprising (against fascism) in Nam SNP Square ironically became the main rallying point for the uprisings against Communism.
Prague bears hardly any of the aesthetic scars of Communism as fortunately, the post-Communist governments oversaw a restoration to the majestic glory of the Old Town from the almost fatal dilapidation that was allowed to occur. Luckily, for the city’s skyline, a gigantic fifteen metre high Stalin Monument was demolished after only five years in existence, and was replaced with a giant metronome (at Letna Park). The main monument to the Soviet regime is in the form of The Museum of Communism (on Na Příkopě off Wenceslas Square). The museum, ironically situated next to and above a McDonalds and next to a casino, is marketed in a rather cute way, but the content focuses on the dark reality of life under Communism.
The city is proud of its resistance and it is the symbols of resistance that are touted as attractions. The Memorial to the Victims of Communism (situated at the bottom of Petrin Hill) is a monument with a modern art twist, as it shows a series of human figures in different stages of decay depicting the decay of political prisoners. It has its opponents. Some label it too kitsch for a serious subject; it was even targeted by a bomb blast in 2004. Then there is The John Lennon Wall – found in the labyrinth of Mala Strana – an unofficial graffiti space that was given over to dissidents to air their grievances under Communism. It is easier to see this as a mess on a wall rather than a symbol of serious rebellion, though. And it is quite easy to walk straight past.
Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie – the only thoroughfare between East and West Berlin for most of the Cold War – has been re-erected as a tourist attraction and can be considered the worst culprit of Cold War kitsch. Tourists flock there to senselessly throw their money at photos of themselves simultaneously hugging a Communist border guard and an American GI. As with all of these exhibitions, there is an adjacent over-priced stall selling Communist memorabilia, including Stalin mugs, T-shirts of Lenin and anything remotely Russian. All this is around the corner from the extremely commendable open-air Holocaust Museum, the Topography of Terror (Niederkirchnerstrasse). Go there instead.
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