A story of obsession with Europe’s most enduring socialist building.
Three decades after the end of communist rule in Poland, a towering Stalinist highrise still dominates the skyline of Warsaw. “Gifted” by the Soviet Union in 1955, the Palace of Сulture and Science remains the most recognizable—yet controversial—building in the Polish capital; an object of obsessive hatred and fascination defined as the “Palace of Culture complex.”
All efforts to privatize it have been resisted, and the building continues to be municipally owned, offering space for a variety of public institutions and services. Revisiting the concept of Social Condenser—which was developed by the architects of the Soviet avant-garde—anthropologist of architecture Michał Murawski makes a case for the Palace as the most successful socialist building still functioning in Europe.
Below is an excerpt from The Palace Complex: A Stalinist Skyscraper, Capitalist Warsaw, and a City Transfixed by Michał Murawski. The book was published by Indiana University Press in 2019 as part of the New Anthropologies of Europe series.
A Still-socialist Palace in a Leftless Country
In this book’s introductory chapter, I suggested that the Palace of Culture does or could one day function as Poland’s “left side of history” or even as its “communist horizon.” In the context of the political climate of the late 2010s—with the left decimated as a political force in much of the world, and with reactionary phenomena, from Kaczyńskism to Brexit to Trumpism, on the ascendancy—this horizon may seem further fetched than it has for a long while. In Poland in particular, the political influence of the left has been crushed to a greater extent than anywhere else in Europe; following the 2015 elections, Poland became the only European country (both in the EU and outside it) without a leftist party represented in either chamber of parliament. The postcommunist SLD (Democratic Left Alliance)—the successor party to the Polish United Workers’ Party—which ran Poland from 1993 to 1997 and 2001 to 2005 (and whose candidate held the presidency between 1995 and 2005)—failed to gain any seats in parliament for the first time in Poland’s post-PRL history.
SLD had been tainted by a series of hugely embarrassing corruption scandals and had lost its credibility in the eyes of the electorate by partaking with enthusiasm not only in the rampant, cronyish privatization of Poland’s economy but also through miscalculated, overenthusiastic involvement in Bush-era US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—even going so far as to host secret, illegal CIA torture black sites in disused Soviet military bases. New left-wing or leftish parties have sprouted up from time to time. One party, the Palikot Movement (named after its founder, an eccentric libertarian vodka magnate) won over 10 percent of the vote in the 2011 elections before disintegrating. Another grouping, the well-organized Razem (Together) party, gained 4 percent of the vote in the 2015 elections, just under the 5 percent threshold for single-party parliamentary representation. Both the Palikot and Razem Parties, however, have attempted to present themselves as new kinds of left movements, tarnished by association neither with the communist past nor with the postcommunists (Razem’s refusal to cooperate with the United Left in the 2015 election campaign was, it is reasonable to suppose, ultimately co-responsible for both groupings’ failure to win any seats in parliament).
Opinion polls continue to show, however, that the postcommunist left is tarnished in the eyes of much of the electorate not by its association with PRL [Polish People's Republic] but by its direct involvement in and co-responsibility for the multiple privations of the post-PRL era. Surveys carried out by independent polling organizations consistently report over 40 percent of respondents evaluating the PRL period in a positive light. The state socialist era is remembered by many as a time of fast modernization, rapid social advancement for previously marginalized members of the agrarian and urban underclasses, and relative economic security. Less-educated, poorer, and older respondents are much more likely to express sympathy for the communist past—an electorate overlapping to a large extent with that which would have once tended to gravitate toward the postcommunists, which is now overwhelming in its support for Law and Justice.
The new left, meanwhile, is conscious of the need to develop its historical politics (polityka historyczna) but persistently does so with reference to obscure pre-1939 left-wing activists or intellectuals. When I asked an acquaintance, a senior member of Razem, whether they would not like to appeal to the large, PRL-nostalgic segment of the electorate by hatching their polityka historyczna onto some positive aspects of the communist legacy, I was told, “Of course we do! And we plan to, eventually. But we simply don’t think the voters are ready for this yet.” On the level of national politics, the Polish new left, it would seem, continues to be afraid of “stinking of the PRL.” As long as this situation continues—as long as the Polish left thinks the people are not yet ready to be confronted with a past that they themselves have lived—Warsaw’s favorite skyscraper will remain a still-socialist Palace in a leftless country.
The Gender of the Palace Complex
In March 2017, Aleksandra Fafius—the woman with the Palace tattoo—was photographed standing on the long table outside the Palace of Culture’s main entrance once again. This time, she did so without the now-sacked deputy mayor—a casualty and, in all likelihood, a scapegoat for the restitution scandal rocking Warsaw and Poland. This time, she was not taking part in a birthday party hosted by the municipality but in Manifa, an annual feminist demonstration marking International Women’s Day. That year’s demonstrations were by far the biggest Manifas in post-1989 Poland, having built on momentum created by widespread women’s protests in September 2016, held in opposition to the Law and Justice government’s (subsequently abandoned) proposal to institute a complete ban on abortion—surpassing the already ultrarestrictive arrangements encompassed in the binding law, passed in 1993, permitting abortion only in cases of rape, incest, or fatal danger to the health of the woman or fetus (abortion had been legal and widely available during the PRL period).
When I interviewed Aleksandra Fafius in her Warsaw flat several weeks after the protest took place, she told me that she does not regard herself as a particularly political person and certainly not as an admirer of Poland’s former communist regime. Her deeply felt attachment to the Palace is connected to her own past, to her involvement in events that took place there and institutions that were housed there (the legendary Rolling Stones concert of 1967, the Palace of Youth) as well as, to an extent, to her admiration for the eccentric form of the building itself. She has never viewed the Palace through a particularly political or even historical lens. However, in the present political conjuncture, with the country under the control of crusading, misogynistic Catholic fundamentalists, she agreed that she could see the Palace—a building possessed of the unique capacity to provoke the ire of right-wing reactionaries—functioning as a political symbol in the struggle against the Law and Justice regime’s many retrograde initiatives. In the context of Law and Justice’s combined assault on women’s rights and contraception, and on what it perceives to be Poland’s postcommunist condition, could it be that that the seemingly ultraphallic, domineering Palace could even be made to take on some feminist symbolic attributes?
This conversation with Fafius made me think of the fact that among the relatively few people I met who virulently disliked the Palace or who wanted to see it knocked down, I mostly remembered random encounters with young or youngish boys or men—patriotically minded, politically conservative activists in their teens or twenties—handing out flyers on the street or attending public discussions about the history of Warsaw, fueled by varying degrees of anger and nationalistic zeal. And indeed, the data from my Palaceological survey backed up this impression. Among the most striking figures revealed in the respondents’ answers was the disparity between male and female attitudes to the Palace of Culture. Seventy-three percent of women but only 57 percent of men described themselves as “positively disposed” toward the Palace (64% overall). More strikingly, just 21 percent of the female but over half (51%) of male respondents thought that “Warsaw needs to have a skyscraper taller than the Palace of Culture,” and almost three times more men (23%) than women (8%) expressed their desire for the Palace to be demolished!
During a public meeting in Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art in the autumn of 2010 at which I presented my survey results, audience members were unanimous in their psychosexual etiology of these figures: Warsaw’s men are more aggressively disposed toward the Palace than are women because its vast dimensions—and perhaps its architectural power—leave them feeling belittled and intimidated. In other words, Warsaw’s men are uniquely afflicted by the Palace Complex. A Facebook discussion that emerged following my presentation of these statistics during a lecture at Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts in March 2017 also gave rise to a conversation about the relation between gender and the Palace Complex and about belligerent versus nonbelligerent attitudes to the Palace itself and to Poland’s communist past in general. The conversation started lightheartedly: feminist philosopher and artist Ewa Majewska posted a photograph of my slide presenting the survey figures, accompanied by the comment, “It would seem that men are dangerous.” “Rather, it seems that they have complexes,” responded sociologist Kasia Kasiówna. Soon, however, the conversation was joined by a male Facebook friend of one of the participants (who hadn’t been present at the lecture). He expressed outrage at the idea that the Palace was being considered in a positive light at all. It was a terrible imposition on Warsaw; it ripped apart the whole prewar layout of the city, separating the western Wola district from the center! And he expressed even more consternation at the idea that gender was a relevant factor in attitudes toward the Palace, toward Poland’s history, or toward everyday life in general.
I do not think that the language and atmosphere of these discussions, nor even the figures I gathered from my survey, actually prove anything concrete about the gendered nature of the Palace itself, of the social or political role it performs in Warsaw. Reflecting on this question did make it clear to me, however, that there is more to the Palace Complex than the stark distinction between a city-building positive complex and a city-debilitating negative one, which I introduced in this book’s concluding chapter. The character of Warsaw’s Palace Complex—although ultimately rooted in the political-economic parameters underlying the building’s ability to continue to function publicly—affects, afflicts, and enriches the life of Warsaw on numerous uneven, contradictory, and complementary levels. Various working generalizations can be made, however, in order to try to make sense of (rather than to obscure) all of this complexity and contradictoriness. On a comparative, global scale, the Palace Complex does appear to be highly unusual in terms of the extent to which the attention of an entire city is concentrated on one architectural object. However, even if the Palace Complex is not exactly “normal,” it is not pathological either: rather than being an affliction that only “the other Varsovian” has (see this book’s introductory chapter), the Palace Complex permeates pervasively, if asymmetrically, throughout the social existence of twenty-first-century Warsaw.
To dwell a little more on belligerent versus nonbelligerent attitudes to the Palace, it is also clear that—contrary to an opinion I often heard expressed while in Warsaw—these are not distributed linearly according to age: older people are no more likely to dislike the Palace than younger ones. Apart from gender, few demographic categories underlie substantial divergences in dispositions toward the Palace, with political opinions and attitudes towards Poland’s communist past being among the few exceptions: unsurprisingly enough, 79 percent of self-described left-wingers were positively disposed to the Palace (only 5% negatively) while the corresponding figures for right-wingers were 45 percent versus 34 percent (57% versus 17% for political centrists). One hundred percent of respondents who evaluated the communist past in positive terms were fond of the Palace while less than half of those whose attitude to the PRL period was negative thought likewise. Even among this anticommunist demographic, however, it is interesting to note that the Palace had more admirers (47%) than detractors (30%).
For all its phallicness, then, the Palace—in its awesome capacity to provoke male belligerence—may, perhaps, be able to play an antipatriarchal role in Warsaw’s symbolic-political landscape. For all its morphological centrality and symmetry, the Palace veers distinctly closer toward Warsaw’s political left side than to its right one. As a tattoo on Aleksandra Fafius’s leg during the Manifa; as an object of hatred and symbolic censorship for Poland’s currently reigning nationalist right; as a powerful container and radiator of public spirit in a city of wild restitution and resurgent privation; as a vivid reminder of the extent to which Poland’s socialist regime was as invested in the provision of new kinds of public culture and opportunity to previously dispossessed classes as it was in the withdrawal of old kinds of privilege from the feudal and bourgeois elites; and as a near-universal object of affection and fascination—even for the greater share of Warsaw’s belligerent males, right-wingers, and anticommunists—the still-socialist Palace may, so long as its publicness remains intact, serve as a powerful agent and device for the reconfiguration of the leftless, patriarchal, and privationary economic, aesthetic, social, and ideological landscape of twenty-first-century Warsaw.