Can the Real Truth Please Stand Up?

Everyone’s busy with Easter preparations now. It’s a biggie in Poland. I am also clocking some kitchen time to bake mazurek, a festive sweet (more about in another post). Meanwhile, I’m distracted by what I’ve just read in this month’s Warsaw Insider about the Palace of Culture (A Secret Side of Warsaw).

Did the city really ask for the Palace of Culture instead of the subway?

There are many stories out there about how the Palace of Culture came to be. It’s full title is Palace of Culture and Science. In Polish, the abbreviation is PKiN. In the said issue of the Insider, yet another urban-myth-or-fact surfaced, courtesy of a guide from I must say I haven’t heard this version before. And it runs contrary to the one Monika Richardson, a Polish TV presenter, told Michael Palin during the British traveller’s coverage of New Europe. Looks like as long as the PKiN shall stand, there will be more yarns to be spun, each trying to out-do the competition in the “…but what really happened was…” department.

For those who haven’t met the Palace of Culture, it’s the unwanted child of communism and a landmark of Warsaw which locals love to hate. If you happen to think the building actually has solid character and loads more personality that the generic global towers rigged up after the fall of communism, you’d do well not to express this thought too loudly. Since it was a “gift” from Stalin, certain quarters still want to tear down the PKiN, though with time, such sentiment is waning. While designs from the cold war period have their appeal, we mustn’t forget why those who lived through it despise the symbols from that era so wholeheartedly. That was sinister times when office holders had thugs on their payroll to snuff off the opposition; neighbours squealed on neighbours; friends severed ties when one side joined the party in order to jump the housing queue; and the country was a George Orwell’s Animal Farm in action.

However it came to be, the PKiN has now firmly latched on to the community. Critics of urban planning bemoans the absence of a central district in Warsaw. The Old Town is for tourists. There’s supposed to be a financial district but I can’t figure out where that is. The PKiN has organically turned into a hub where all ages can hang out. Kinoteka provides reprieve from the multiplexes. Cafe Kulturalna draws musicians and hipsters. A kitschy disco located in the bowels of the building is/was the spot where rednecks (burak, in local speak) converged for drunken brawls. On the refined side, Sala Kongresowa is the most atmospheric concert hall in the capital. The stretches of halls were intended as trade fair/conference facility, and they still fulfil that function. A reputable book fair is held there annually. And there are two quirky museums within that are time-capsules from the commie period. It also has a viewing terrace to get a bird’s eye perspective.

If we need a revenge for a dictator’s imposed gift, perhaps the best is to show that it’s serving us well. Didn’t someone say “the best revenge is to live well”?

Anyhow, I’d like to find out what really happened. Frankly, I am quite tired of hearing that the then authorities (allegedly) asked for a subway system instead of the PKiN, and Stalin (allegedly) said, “Here, have the PKiN, anyway.”


About kitfchung

Experienced food and travel journalist based in Warsaw, Poland.
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