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Katherine Lebow’s _Unfinished Utopia_

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Katherine Lebow’s _Unfinished Utopia: Nowa Huta, Stalinism, and Polish Society, 1949-56_ is an analysis of the dynamic between state and society in the Soviet periphery. In investigating the reality of day-to-day life in the Polish “socialist city” of Nowa Huta, Lebow argues that “liberal critiques have exaggerated the supposedly hyperrational, hyperlinear relationship between plan and practice in totalitarian regimes” (42). But Lebow neglects to mention that it is not only liberals, fond of emphasizing excesses of state power, who exaggerate the efficacy of Soviet planning. The literature’s tendency to accept some mythologized uniformity led by Soviet decree is likely, as Martin Malia argues in The Soviet Tragedy, due at least in part to those on the left in the Academy with revisionist sympathies who rather willingly accepted Soviet-produced information that can be seen in retrospect as propaganda. In short, both left and right often take for granted that Soviet planning ‘worked.’ In reality, Lebow posits, “much that was built in Nowa Huta was unplanned, and much that was planned remained unbuilt” (9), an observation of “Stalinism as a civilization” that Lebow aptly parallels with Stephen Kotkin’s seminal investigation of Magnitogorsk. Much like in Magnitogorsk, day-to-day life in Stalinist Nowa Huta was far from ruled top-down with an iron fist. The bogeyman of Soviet socialism was often (and continues to be) exaggerated, and Lebow seeks to contextualize the collapse of the Soviet Union by questioning the solidity of its foundation.

This low-to-the-ground, day-to-day understanding of Stalinism offered by Lebow reminds us, in the vein of James C. Scott, that even if the Leviathan seems all powerful, resistance to domination on the part of those within the system is often ever present. The Polish Communist apparatus was forced by shortages, geography, and other factors to compromise its utopian plans in the face of concrete realities. These compromises, just as Kotkin emphasizes in Magnitogorsk, created opportunities for Nowahucians to assert their own visions in the spaces of Stalinist Poland. Lebow argues that there existed an oft-overlooked penchant for work and rupture with the past in post-war Europe that drove many willingly from Poland’s rural villages into modernizing projects like Nowa Huta. These men and women, drawn not necessarily by inherent interest in Soviet socialism but instead by the promise of progress, education, and an opportunity to construct rather than destroy (as destruction was all too common during the war), were not easily subdued by Soviet policing or repression.

To much of Nowa Huta’s growing population, the city’s “newness meant freedom from the ascribed status of region, family, and caste [it also] offered hopes of civic enfranchisement for rural Poles who historically had been politically or economically marginalized” (46). In other words, in a post-war world the city offered space for expression and progress regardless of political affiliation. That Nowa Huta was founded as a ‘socialist’ city does not mean that its population lived or built the city as socialists. In fact, Lebow argues, many saw the construction of the “‘little fatherland’ they would build on the banks of the Vistula” as a matter of national pride (46). The ‘push’ factors of the rural village and the ‘pull’ factors of the city do not necessitate the assumption of ideological fervor to explain the growth of Nowa Huta.

Indeed, the “new men” and “new women” of Nowa Huta often lived in stark opposition to Party plans, ironically often because of Party promises. Nowa Huta came to be distinguished by a significant disillusionment with Stakhanovite productivity, as evinced in the films on worker protest by director Andrzej Wajda and in the memoir (or is it a diary?) of the idealist Edmund Chmielinski, one of Nowa Huta’s first new workers (91-96), who highlighted in the 1970s and 1980s that even for those like Wajda and Chmielinksi who committed themselves to socialism and work, no good future was guaranteed. Similarly, migrants from rural areas often refused to accept socialist plans for separate living arrangements for unmarried men and women, and cohabitation was common; “living wild” in squats was a direct challenge to the Party and the authority of the plan, and Nowa Huta grew in unanticipated, unplanned ways as a result (65-69). By their refusal to vacate these spaces of opposition, and by their harkening back to the unfulfilled promises of a “modern, Soviet city,” Nowahucians in the long term held open the door for the eventual emergence of the Solidarity movement in Nowa Huta, which turned everyday resistance into outright protest against the Party in the 1980s by calling upon the state to fulfill its promises.

Lebow’s piece does suffer to some extent from a lack of witness accounts: she often concludes sections of her chapters by waxing philosophical about the implications of her observations – but in examining subject matter from the 1940s – 1980s, she certainly could allow those conclusions to be drawn by those who lived the experience of Nowa Huta through conducting more interviews than she did. Similarly, she in some circumstances takes for granted that her audience will understand the intricacies of Soviet history, for instance in mentioning Khrushchev’s secret speech without explanation of its important content (146). This regrettably will surely make the text more difficult to access for lay readers.

Nonetheless, Lebow offers an insightful look into the lived experience of Stalinism in a city created from nothing to serve the purposes of the state. Nowa Huta’s inhabitants, largely young migrants from rural areas never fully accepted that the city should serve only the state, and instead sought to carve out space for the expression of their own visions of post-war modernity. Interestingly, this process of resistance quite often took place using rhetoric drawing from unfulfilled Soviet promises of what Nowa Huta could mean for workers. A “workers’ city” was promised, but never fully provided. In the 1980s, workers rallied around Solidarity in demanding that Nowa Huta ought to serve those who had built it. This meant that, often, the city escaped the control of the planners and took on a life of its own. In this way, Nowa Huta certainly “represented in miniature the utopian impulses of a liberated continent” (184) and, indeed, anticipated the collapse of the Soviet system.

Michael Newman
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted December 2014


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