This past summer I studied at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. It was founded in 1364 by King Casimir III and is the oldest university in Poland, the second oldest in Central Europe, and one of the oldest surviving universities in the world. But as soon as I arrived at my dormitory, a firm sense of consternation took hold of me. The dormitory was a Soviet bloc-style building that had been converted into a hotel, affectionately dubbed “Piast” after an important dynasty in Poland’s history. Despair reigned in the building. Its concrete prevented WiFi from reaching past the lobby, the laundry machines and ovens did not work, and the concierge could offer little to improve the situation. The dining service was extremely limited and lackluster, and the biedronka (convenience mart) next to the hotel was underwhelming. I immediately realized that I was in the middle of a post-Soviet experience, witnessing some lingering effects of the communist ideology.
The dormitory was a far cry, however, from Kraków’s Stare Miasto (Old Town). There I was filled with awe. Gothic architecture, enthusiastic street performers, and an abundant selection of pubs and restaurants made Kraków proper feel lively and welcoming. A couple of streets over, Jagiellonian University’s brick buildings, some of which have existed for centuries, stood as a testament to traditional Polish culture. The laughter of young adults filled the air wherever I went, and a preponderance of stores catered to one’s every need. The sights, sounds, and smells of Kraków almost made me forget the horrors that Poland experienced during the twentieth century.
The dichotomy between these two areas of Kraków highlights a tension in Polish society: the reconciliation of a communist past with a capitalist future. Communism has undoubtedly left an indelible mark on Poland, and many Poles view their country as the foremost victim of modernity, due to their country’s experiences of Soviet rule, Nazi rule, and the destruction of World War II. The cheap concrete apartment buildings built during the more than four decades of communist rule dot the city’s outskirts. The interiors are often painted bright colors, or plastered with tacky wallpaper, in an attempt to humanize the monolithic and inorganic structures. As a Westerner, I found these buildings both an affront to my sense of beauty and a reminder of the damage that communism did to whatever it touched. One needs only to look to Nowa Huta, a district of Kraków that was largely made into a Socialist Realist architectural dystopia, to recognize how devoid of humanity certain ideologies can be, and how awe-inspiring traditional Polish culture really is.
Poland has certainly been making strides in eschewing its dark past and emerging as a strong force in Europe. Historically it has been a regional power, but the past 20 years have brought a global level of development and sophistication, especially in economic terms. Many eateries in Kraków often put up signs saying they have run out of food halfway through lunch time. While this may suggest a problem of a Soviet-style planned economy, it is also indicative of a demand that continuously outpaces supply. Poland is growing on all fronts, and anyone with the ability to seize this opportunity benefits from its free-market policies. Its strong sense of nationalism also drives forward an international competitiveness.
This pride in the nation is rooted in both Poland’s historic achievements and its successful rejection of communism, most notably through the Solidarność (Solidarity) movement. This love of country is not merely latent in Poland; it is active and clearly visible. I was present in the Stare Miasto on August 1 at 5 p.m., when hundreds of Poles gathered in silence as the most patriotic among them popped red flares and played a siren in commemoration of the start of the doomed 1945 Warsaw Uprising against the occupying Germans. This sight profoundly affected me as I realized how devoted people could be to their country.
At the same time, many Poles share the fear that too much political correctness has been imported from the West, both through foreign students at universities and through Poland’s increased involvement in European affairs and/or increased European Union involvement in Poland’s (and other nations’) affairs. Poland is wary of any possible regression toward any policy that seems related to communism. This tendency has elicited many unfair judgments by people in the West, but has also led to a strengthening of Polish-American relations. Many Poles seem to love President Trump, primarily for his rejection of socialism, and they speak ill of him only when they hear the English word “Russia” uttered alongside his name.
Regardless, Poland’s new post-communist future appears to be much more promising than its experience under Soviet “leadership.” One day, I will return to the country and witness again its stunning transformation from communism to freedom and democracy. Until then, I offer a toast to Poland and its people: Na zdrowie!