The Fate of Unwanted Art: Poland’s Symbolic Dealing with the Communist Past

The Fate of Unwanted Art: Poland’s Symbolic Dealing with the Communist Past
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Ever since the regime changes in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, communist-era monumental art has become a controversial subject. Post-communist states, both the pre-existing ones and those which emerged after the Soviet disintegration, followed very different paths of handling the artistic remains of their immediate past. Dealing with symbols is highly symbolic.

Were the statues preserved or removed? If removed when and how? What happened to them they were taken down? – all these questions highlight the different ways in which different society have imagined and re-imagined their communist past and steered the future. 

Symbols of ‘Soviet totalitarianism’ 

In Poland, a former Soviet satellite state in Central-Eastern Europe, re-imagining the communist past was quick and straightforward. Over the last three decades, post-1989 nation-building in this country has oscillated between nationalist and populist visions, on the one hand, and pro-European and liberal ones, on the other. Yet what most political factions had in common, with only minor exceptions, was their condemnation of the past and support for the removal of communist-era monumental art. This largely focused on the larger statues, which occupied public squares in Polish cities and towns.

Unlike many parts of the Soviet Union where the statues mainly glorified Lenin or commemorated local communist activists, a large part of Polish communist-era monuments was supposed to express Polish people’s gratitude to the Soviet Army or praise Polish-Soviet friendship.

Over the last three decades, post-1989 nation-building in this country has oscillated between nationalist and populist visions, on the one hand, and pro-European and liberal ones, on the other.

The monuments became such sensitive artifacts because in the public consciousness, Poland’s history between 1945 and 1989 has been portrayed generally as ‘enslavement’ (zniewolenie) under ‘Soviet totalitarianism’ (sowiecki totalitaryzm). Frequently, analogies were drawn between the Soviet Union’s influence and the country’s occupation by Nazi Germany (1939-45).

This argument is often used by the Institute of National Remembrance, one of the main government research and educational institutions, to justify the removal of monuments. Indeed, Maciej Korkuć from the Institute has claimed: ‘between 1944 and 1945, the Soviet Union annexed almost half of the pre-war territory of Poland and enslaved the rest of the country for several dozen years. It forced Poles to express their gratitude for their enslavement.’ Moreover, in answer to the question of why the monuments should disappear from public spaces, the Institute’s Andrzej Zawistowki replied with a rhetorical question: ‘Why there are no Wehrmacht commemorations in Poland?’

This blog was produced following the “Re-Imagining the Past” Conference, jointly organised by CIPS and the Centre for Global Cooperation Research at the University ofDuisburg-Essen in Germany.

Such one-sided, martyrological narratives concerning the communist period are highly problematic. They suggest that there was no active participation of locals in the building of communist Poland. Further, they do not allow for nuanced discussion on, for example, positive legacies of socialist public policy. Yet specifically with regard to communist-era monuments, they explain why no actual debate on such art has taken place. In light of the aforementioned rhetoric, defending the monuments is seen as justifying the enslavement of the nation. 

Decommunizing public space 

Since the 1989 rejection of socialism and command economy and embrace of democracy and the free market, three waves of removal of communist-era monuments have taken place in Poland. In the first phase, between 1989 and 1993, the removal of monuments often involved participation of cheering crowed. This was the case of the removal of the Lenin statue in the socialist-realist district of Nowa Huta in Krakow and the Warsaw monument to Feliks Dzierżyński, a Polish communist activist and founder of Soviet security services. The second wave, in 2007, and the third, between 2016 and 2018, were initiated as part of nation-building efforts undertaken by various constellations of populist ruling parties. 

In 2016, the so-called Decommunisation Act ultimately prohibited the ‘promotion of communism and other totalitarian systems’ in public spaces and officially banned communist-era street names, as well as monuments, commemorative plaques and other artifacts from the public space, with the exceptions of cemeteries. This law has also systematized the removal of several hundreds of communist-era monuments across the whole country by drawing up a detailed inventory of them.

Notably, this document has also acerbated tensions between Polish and Russian governments. In 1994, the two countries signed the Agreement on Graves and Memorial Sites of Victims of Wars and Repression, but they interpret it in different ways. While Russia insists on the preservation of all artifacts dedicated to the Red Army on Polish territory and accuses Poland of ‘insulting our ancestors who fell in battles for the liberation of this country’ (оскорбляется память наших предков, павших в боях за освобождение этой страны), Poland holds that the intergovernmental agreement concerns only cemeteries where Soviet soldiers are buried. 

Storing unwanted monuments 

Despite the government’s heated rhetoric concerning the monuments, their removal has been low-key and does not resemble the mass spectacles from the early 1990s. Moreover, dismantling of the monuments in recent years did not attract the attention of ordinary people, with the exception of some acts of vandalism by hooligans. Once removed, the monuments from across the whole country were transferred to existing museums, such as the Art Gallery of Socialist Realism in Kozłówka or the Cold War Museum in Podborsk. As Zawistowski noted, ‘we do not want a “socialist realist Disneyland”, but a serious centre of historical education.’ While such education follows the official, martyrological narrative about enslaved Poland, it is remarkable that the monuments have not been destroyed. The past was re-imagined, but it was not orientalized and commercialized for foreign tourists. 


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