Warsaw Palace of Culture: Stalin’s unwanted gift to Poland

Palace of Culture and Science Warsaw

At some point in our lives we have all received an unwanted present. We usually hide it away and hope that no-one will notice. When Stalin decided in 1951 that he wanted to make a ‘gift’ to the people of Poland, he chose to erect a colossal tower in the heart of Warsaw that would be the tallest building in Poland. This was one present where pretending it didn’t exist was not an option. Almost 60 years after its completion, the summit of the Palace of Culture and Science still marks the high point of the Warsaw skyline, its 188 metre high roof topped with a 43 metre mast.

Much has changed since the concrete skyscraper, better suited to Batman’s Gotham City than to a European capital, was opened in 1955. Originally given the grand title of The Jozef Stalin Palace of Culture and Science, the building dropped the name of its Russian benefactor soon after opening as Kruschev took over in the Kremlin and the reign of Stalin was quickly denounced. You can still see where Stalin’s name was scratched out of the stonework as you enter the building.

Palace of Culture and Science Warsaw - Observation Deck

For many years, whenever the people of Warsaw stared up at the giant monolith they were reminded of their entrapment under the influence of their all-powerful neighbour to the east. Every year government workers would be expected to parade with pride outside the Palace of Culture and Science, in celebration of the glorious achievements of the People’s Republic of Poland, as it was known between 1952 and 1990.

As communism fell there was talk of pulling down the Palace of Culture and Science. As well as being an unwelcome reminder of a past that Poles were eager to leave behind, many considered it an ugly eyesore that looked out of place on the Warsaw skyline. Yet the palace survived and has since been used for varying functions (most recently it is home to a Da Vinci exhibition). A surly lift attendant whisks you to the popular 30th floor observation deck without a hint of emotion and for those few seconds it’s easy to imagine you’re back in the bad old days.

The Warsaw fanzone for the Euro 2012 football tournament is being erected in the square just under the palace, in the same spot where those annual parades took place in the communist years.  Over 100,000 people will crowd into this space on match days to cheer on the national side. For many folks the prestige of hosting Euro 2012 finals is evidence of Poland’s transformation from an Eastern Bloc basket case to a dynamic 21st century central European nation.

The fans over the age of 40 might still remember marching in support of the Soviet-backed regime on the same spot where this summer they will be sipping a beer amid the sponsors’ banners while watching football on giant screens. The world has moved on in Warsaw, but Stalin’s gift still stands firmly at the heart of the city.

An elderly lady was watching the crowds shuffle into the new national stadium at the opening match last week and she spoke to me with visible excitement and pride. “Isn’t this fantastic?” she said with a beaming smile. I asked her if she remembered the days of the old stadium and she laughed, telling me that she remembered well the days before the old stadium was built in the immediate post-war years. “But we’ll lose” she said raising her hands in a gesture of resignation. “The stadium is wonderful; it’s a shame that our team is no good.”

 

My trip to Warsaw was hosted by the Polish National Tourist Office.

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Freelance travel writer

5 Responses to “Warsaw Palace of Culture: Stalin’s unwanted gift to Poland”

  1. Wow, that building looks strikingly similar to Prague’s Hotel Crowne Plaza, which took inspiration from the design of Moscow State University.

    March 5, 2012 at 11:05 am
  2. I love old Communist-style buildings. This was a fascinating read and definitely a place I have to check out when in Warsaw. I really have a yearning to go to Gori, Georgia, Stalin’s hometown where he is lauded as a hero instead of a cold-blooded dictator.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:47 am
  3. Thanks Jeruen – yes there are a number of these towers around. I think they tried to erect something similar in every capital of the Warsaw Pact nations. There are 7 in Moscow I believe…

    Thank you also Bula – now you have me also wanting to visit Gori. Georgia is on my list for sure, and I’d be fascinated to hear how the locals view their famous son.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:15 pm
  4. Lovely piece, Andy! It’s reminiscent of the Seven Sisters in Moscow.

    March 7, 2012 at 4:55 pm
  5. I love these “Stalin wedding-cake” buildings. They are beautiful and unique. There are seven in Moscow (including the Seven Sisters building, Alex) each more impressive than the other.

    Varsovians hate the building because of its connotations and want to tear it down, but when I was there, I managed to persuade some of them of its beauty. If you go up and look around, you’ll see that there is nothing else as eye-catching as this.

    March 17, 2012 at 7:27 pm