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Katherine Lebow’s _Unfinished Utopia_

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Katherine Lebow’s Unfinished Utopia: Nowa Huta, Stalinism, and Polish Society, 1949-1956 (Cornell University Press, 2013) provides a fascinating account of Poland’s “first socialist city,” Nowa Huta. Located just a few miles from the historic city of Krakow, Nowa Huta was intended to serve as a model for a new kind of socialist modernity through city building and the creation of “new men.” Although historians have often cited Nowa Huta as a prime example of Communist domination Lebow argues that, “Far from being a gray and regimented landscape, Nowa Huta in the 1950s was colorful and anarchic, a place where the formerly disenfranchised hastened to assert their leading role in building socialism—but rarely in ways that authorities had anticipated.” (4) Furthermore, Lebow argues that Nowa Huta does not represent a site in which Polish society rejected the idea of being turned into “new men.” In fact, it was the very encounter with Stalinist ideology in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including attempts to create a new, better, and more egalitarian civilization, that set the stage for Solidarity’s protest in the 1980s. By using the particular case study of Nowa Huta, Lebow offers wonderful insights into the everyday lives of citizens under Stalinism.

Lebow begins her work by exploring the unstable interplay of visions, plans, and realities that existed in the beginning stages of Nowa Huta. Although Nowa Huta was intended as a model city of Stalinist city planning, the socialist city could not wait for its architects to finish its designs, ensuring that much of what was constructed in Nowa Huta was unplanned and unintended. As a result those that came to live and work in the city were able to carve out their own spaces and sites of resistance. According to Lebow, “becoming Nowohucian was a process of self-invention—-a willed act, for many of its pioneers, of becoming modern urban citizens of their self-built small fatherland.” (9) Stalinism’s relentless labor competitions, prevalent in Nowa Huta, carried with them unanticipated consequences in which the visions of collective effort and shared rewards reinforced popular understandings of a moral community of labor within the city and its surrounding enclaves.

Lebow also highlights the ways in which assumptions about Nowa Huta’s ability to become a site for the cultural enlightenment of the masses crashed upon the rocks of inadequate funding that confounded many socialist cities behind the Iron Curtain. Without funding for state-sponsored cultural activities Nowohucians created their own spaces of entertainment by embracing jazz, jitterbugging, and drinking rather than high cultural pursuits. Particularly interesting is Lebow’s examination of bikiniarstwo, a youthful subculture formed from a pastiche of supposedly American dress styles and behavior, and Nowohucian fashion, described as “hipster,” as a space of resistance to Communist authorities. In fact, Lebow’s examination of Nowa Huta’s landscape finds that it was where Stalinism most disrupted conventional geographies of everyday life that Nowahucians were able to carve out spaces of relative freedom. As Lebow explains, the generation that made Nowa Huta one of the most militant centers of the Solidarity movement in the 1980s consisted of the sons and daughters of the city’s original builders. In this way Lebow argues that “A selective memory of Stalinism . . . provided Nowohucians with a usable set of tools for struggle and dissent, while Nowa Huta’s distinctive industrial and urban geography proved particularly conducive to organization and protest.” (11)

Wonderfully written and persuasively argued Katherine Lebow’s Unfinished Utopia provides a much needed addition to the historiography of socialist city building. Drawing upon memoirs, oral history interviews, unofficial transcripts of Stalinism, and archival records, Lebow presents a fascinating portrait of the lives of Polish peasants in the process of becoming industrial workers. Much like Stephen Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain Lebow’s work provides concrete examples of Henri Lefebvre’s concepts of domination and appropriation within the production of space. Although Nowa Huta was imagined as a site of industry, cultural education, and socialist transformation by its planners, it was the everyday workers and residents that ultimately carved out their own social spaces of acceptance and resistance. In this way Lebow’s work helps to explain the paradox of why, years after the fall of communism, many residents of former communist-bloc cities reminisce about their relative freedom under Stalinism. In the end Nowohucians embraced their role of creating Poland’s first socialist city. However, much to the shock and disappointment of Communist Party officials, the city they built became a site of conflict and negotiation between the promises and realities of post-war socialism.


Chris Byrum
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted December 2014

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