The weight of dead symbols

The photos in this post are mine, from my visit to Poland in late May and early June. The full set, annotated and viewable as a slideshow, is available here. I have provided English-language links where I could, but much of the information I used is only available in Polish. I marked those links with an asterisk, to save you a click if you do not speak the language.

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The Polish-Soviet Friendship (officially, Brothership-in-Arms) Monument in Legnica was built in 1951*. It stands in the Słowiański Square, right in the city center. Two soldiers, one Polish and one Soviet, shake hands while a little girl held by the Pole embraces both of them. Poland, invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union acting in agreement, then devastated in the conflict between them, occupied and plundered by both even as its soldiers fought on every front they could find, finally claimed by Stalin for his Soviet empire, had to be represented as a little girl with no memory, history or trust issues, happy in the care of her saviours. Of course the child had to be a girl. A boy might not project the same naivetė, helplessness or passivity.

The monument is still there. I photographed it just a few weeks ago. The inscription, “To the Soviet Army heroes, from the people of the Legnica region,” had been removed in the 1990s and was never restored. The statue was vandalized repeatedly; past renovations notwithstanding, the neglect is palpable.

From 1952 until the end of the Cold War, Legnica was home to the headquarters of the Soviet forces stationed in Poland*. From 1984 to 1990, it also hosted the central command of the Western Theatre of Strategic Operations of the Warsaw Pact: had the Pact attempted to invade Western Europe, the military directions would have been issued from there. Estimates point* to 80-100K Russian soldiers and civilians stationed in town and at various unmapped bases nearby at any given time. The precise numbers and locations were classified, as was the exact layout of the Soviet-occupied parts of the city, surrounded by walls and guarded by armed soldiers posted at each entrance. The largest one, the “Kwadrat” [Square], measured 39 hectares and was a miniature city within a city, self-sufficient with its own shops, hospitals, cinemas, pools and sport venues. In total, the Soviets occupied about a third of the city’s pre-war area.

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I grew up not far from that monument. I often walked past it on my way back from school but rarely thought about it. We acquired the skill of inattention in response to the relentless barrage of words and images that ranged from the hostile to the nonsensical*. “Workers of the world, unite!” “PZPR [the communist party] – the working class’s party, the leadership of the nation!” “We build socialism for people and through people!” Above all, invocations of friendship and brotherly love between Poland and the Soviet Union. Unlike ordinary human friendships that enter quietly and tie little knots here and there, that friendship could not be anything less than eternal, was written into the Polish constitution and had to be pledged and re-pledged every day in the streets of every city. We learned to tune it all out except to mock it. That skill continues to come in handy. Corporate language, often no less Orwellian than Soviet propaganda, washes off me like water off an oiled plate. I can look at ads and zap them off my computer screen without ever engaging with their content. (Sorry, Google and Facebook.)

I learned to give little thought to the walled-off parts of the city. The soldiers were easy to ignore in my daily life: they marched through our streets on their way to or from exercises, but otherwise they and their families stayed within their gated communities. I grew up mocking the unkempt buildings with newspapers in place of window curtains, but also reading children’s books from the Russian bookstore, which was open to the public; as a university student, I returned there for mathematical monographs unavailable in Polish. We resented that the Soviet food stores were well stocked even when ours were empty. Poles, especially children, would sometimes sneak in and shop there: a guard might look the other way, a Russian woman might allow a Polish kid to come in with her. I dreamed of travelling the world, becoming a scientist or an astronaut, but did not know and probably could not imagine what it might be like to live in a city without the Soviet army.

This is not to say that the Soviet presence was harmless. The rapes and plunder of the early postwar years were never quite forgotten. The city’s urban and economic development was constrained by Warsaw Pact strategic considerations and the needs of the military complex. As late as the 1980s, Soviet military manoeuvres and exercises put civilian life, limb and property at risk on a regular basis*. Yes, there were fatalities. The hostility evident in that first linked article (“Legnica even smelt just like other Soviet cities”) ran deep and never quite subsided.

Nor could we forget why the Soviets were there in the first place. It was the Soviet military presence that ensured Poland’s political and economic compliance. It was from Legnica, the “Little Moscow,” that the Soviet forces were sent to intervene in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The threat of a similar intervention in Poland in 1981 was real enough. Due to its strategic importance, the city of my childhood had NATO nuclear weapons aimed at it until the end of the Cold War.

The Soviets had a habit of marking their conquered territory. Declarations of Polish-Soviet friendship were made in metal, stone and concrete at countless locations throughout the country. The best known of these is the Palace of Culture in Warsaw. The flagship building of an atheist and supposedly egalitarian system is, visually, a cross between a royal palace and a house of worship. Most photos of the palace’s silhouette do not do justice to its size down on the ground, where its footprint occupies the equivalent of several city blocks. For all the architectural references to the harmonies of classicism, the palace is more emblematic of conflict, as its segments clash in chaos, obscure each other and vie for your attention in an architectural equivalent of a street fight.

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The People’s Polish Republic officially became the Republic of Poland on December 31, 1989. The same constitutional amendment restored the crown to the Polish eagle*, although this was not implemented until the new design was approved in February 1990. The renaming binge had already started by then. Streets, schools, factories, landmarks, cultural venues were being rechristened so quickly that it was hard to keep track of the new names. Świerczewski, Dzierżyński, Rokossowski were replaced by Piłsudski, Sikorski, Anders. Communist leaders and Red Army officers gave way to Polish interwar politicians, opposition activists, Catholic leaders, saints and religious figures. In many cases, pre-war names were restored. I received my Master’s degree in 1986 from the Bolesław Bierut University of Wrocław; the Bierut name was removed in 1989 already. My high school was named after Tadeusz Kościuszko, and still is, but the former Aleksander Zawadzki Square where it is located is now known as Klasztorny [Monastic] Square.

It made sense that this would be a high priority. Street or school names are not monuments that one can pass without looking. They demand engagement. They must be spoken every time someone asks for an address, written down every time one composes a CV. There were disagreements as to which names should be removed and what should replace them, but the almost universal consensus was that the effort was necessary and urgent.

Some visual changes were immediate. The banners praising the Polish and Soviet Communist parties and their leaders were gone overnight. Communist posters disappeared under commercial advertising. Polish cities used to be all dull and grey, as if to protect the official Party-approved red banners from any competing smudges of colour. After 1989, designers announced their new freedom on the walls of multi-story apartment buildings, in purple, maroon, orange, cobalt blue and canary yellow, in rainbows and giant flowers. Those designs have not aged gracefully. What might look quirkily attractive on a small single-family house does not always scale well. Yet, there was a genuine need for such extravagance at the time.

Buildings were repurposed. The last contingent of Russian soldiers left Legnica in 1993. The Kwadrat is now a high-end residential district*, the wall separating it from the rest of the city all but gone. The opulent former Officer’s House nearby holds a theological seminar and the Catholic bishop’s administrative offices. The former headquarters of the PZPR Central Committee were home to the Warsaw stock exchange in the 1990s, then to a cluster of luxury stores including a Ferrari dealership*. There are still theatres and museums in the Palace of Culture, even if some of the art shows and theatrical plays might have been censored back in the day; a multiplex cinema and a casino were added, along with several restaurants and music clubs. The Palace itself has become a de facto Museum of Communism, built by the communists themselves, and as such is one of Warsaw’s top tourist attractions. There are calls for its demolition every now and then. My guess is that this will not happen. Warsaw enjoys its favourite love and hate relationship far too much.

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That leaves the monuments and statues: the two soldiers with a little girl, the secular saints staring into space from the walls of post-communist buildings. Those would wait longer, in part because there was a stronger urge to raise new monuments than to remove the old ones. Remembering was more important than forgetting. Our history had been suppressed for too long. Erasure of the past had been practiced too often. Names and events had been excised from school textbooks and official discourse; simultaneously, and for the same reasons, they became rallying cries for the opposition. Their restoration to the public memory would not be complete without the permanence of stone and marble.

The first anti-communist memorial*, commemorating the shipyard workers fallen in the 1970 protests on the Baltic coast. was built in 1980. Its approval was one of the key points of the Gdańsk Shipyard Agreement in August 1980, the same agreement that also resulted in the creation of Solidarity. The workers had conceived of the memorial as early as 1971, had a preliminary design created and approved by the strike committee while the talks were still ongoing, then fought back when the authorities tried to delay the construction or modify the design to soften the impact. This was followed by the construction of the memorial to the victims* of June 1956 in Poznań. Both memorials became focal points for demonstrations and protests in the 1980s. Their images appeared on everything from opposition leaflets and samizdat newspapers to lapel pins sold in churches. Technically, the lapel pins were not illegal, but wearing them communicated a message that the law and order enforcement did not welcome.

Many more monuments sprouted across the country after 1989. There are statues of Pope John Paul II in almost every city. Cardinal Wyszyński is not far behind. There are memorials to the victims of Katyń, to Piłsudski, to Anders. There are now calls for a monument to the victims of the Smoleńsk air crash. I do not believe that the best possible decisions were, or are, always made. Nor do I believe that a nation whose history was censored and suppressed for decades–and prior to that, for more than a century under the partitions–can rise immediately, upon the lifting of censorship, to a sophisticated, nuanced and balanced understanding of that history. That takes time and work.

Meanwhile, the fate of old communist monuments has varied. The hated Lenin statue in Nowa Huta* was removed and bought by a private collector in Sweden. The Red Army monument in Szczecin* still stands, on a street that now bears the name of John Paul II. Many of Legnica’s Soviet monuments, including a much-resented Rokossowski statue, were demolished in the 1990s in an effort to free the city from the shadows of the Soviet presence. But some remained.

In a 2009 poll*, 77.8% of Legnica’s residents were opposed to having the Polish-Soviet Friendship Monument removed. This is not because they are unrepentant communists longing for the restoration of the Soviet Union. More likely, they do not wish to erase their own past. They may want to keep the monument as evidence of history and a warning for the future generations. Oft-ridiculed even in my time, and now unprotected by Soviet guns, it has become harmless and defanged. One might even think of having it left in place in terms of exposure therapy for PTSD. Practical considerations are not to be dismissed. The removal of the monument and redevelopment of the empty space left in its wake has to be weighed against the city’s other needs, and there are still buildings nearby that look like this.

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This might change, though. There is a vocal and well organized minority that continues to press for monument removal. A few months ago, the city council approved funding for the revitalization of the Słowiański Square, with the call for proposals soon to be made*. The new design might leave the monument in its place, or it might include its demolition or relocation, an action that many local politicians would support. Meanwhile, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised doubts about Poland’s security, the monument’s long-presumed present day irrelevance is no longer always taken for granted. I might have seen it for the last time.

As I’m writing this, the Confederate flag is being removed from official heraldry and popular merchandise south of the border in the wake of the Charleston shooting. That is long overdue. I started thinking of writing this post a few days ago when my desktop screen was split between the photos from Poland that I was editing and a Twitter feed full of calls to remove the flag. I do not wish to claim easy similarities; if anything, I would rather point to the differences. I would like to describe the situation as I understand it, to the best of my ability and knowledge. I would hope that such information be considered before Communism or Stalinism are invoked in the usual ignorant manner. I would also ask anyone making such comparisons to consider that Poland is different from Russia or Bulgaria, and all of these are different from Ukraine. Symbols matter. So does the context in which they are used, and the specifics of that usage. Analogies are not good enough. Communist symbols that might look the same to a Westerner are often handled differently by those involved directly, and for good reasons.

That monument in Legnica is still standing. But if Soviet marauders and army deserters were still on the loose in Poland, and if one of them went ahead and and shot nine Poles in a church today?

It’d likely be gone tomorrow.

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