WARSAW, Poland (AP) — There is no love lost in Poland for the bygone communist system, but those who think they have missed something unusual still have a chance to experience the austerity and subdued atmosphere of life in those times.
A life-under-communism museum in Warsaw offers tours of communist-era architecture, a look at a typical small apartment, a taste of cherry vodka and a ride in a militia van. Foreign tourists come here out of curiosity, Polish schoolchildren come to learn about those not-so-distant times that their parents grew up in, and parents and grandparents come out of nostalgia for their youth.
The museum, called The Charm of PRL (the People’s Republic of Poland), offers “Warsaw Experience” guided tours, in English and in other languages.
Arranged in an old, bleak warehouse in a backstreet in Warsaw’s gritty Praga district, the tour offers a glimpse of more than four decades of life behind the Iron Curtain, under an oppressive system that was directed from Moscow. After communism was imposed on Poland following World War II, the country experienced persecution, deprivation and bans, often bordering on the absurd. The Poles, led by the massive Solidarity freedom movement, voted the system out in 1989 elections.
Inside the museum, visitors see a typical, modest one-bedroom apartment with simple, Polish- or East Bloc-made house appliances, a typical office of a local party secretary with the communist leaders’ portraits and a hot-line phone. In another spot, bust figures of Lenin and Marx, and an old radio serve as reminders that the communists were jamming Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, which the Poles secretly tuned into for true news.
“We were there (under communism) for 45 years,” the museum’s driver-guide Mariusz Nurkiewicz said in English. “For example, my parents, they were young, they fall in love, I was born. … So this is that sentimental feel to youth, to the past, more than to communism, to system. Nothing was too good about the system, but about the life, we were still trying to be happy.”
For a moment of respite, the visitors are invited to a bar to sample simple biscuits or wafers, enhanced by a toast of cherry vodka. Nearby stands a phone booth, with no phone inside, just as it sometimes was in communist times.
Nathan Hanson, a U.S. tourist from Dubuque, Iowa, said he has “always regretted not seeing anything Soviet before the Soviet Union fell. And I know remnants of that are quickly disappearing and so I booked the communism tour today to see what I could, to see what’s left.”
His conclusion from the tour was that the society in Poland is “changing very quickly.”
“It’s just fascinating to look back in time,” Hanson said. “It’s a big part of my generation with the conflict with the U.S. and the Soviet Union, so it’s really neat to just get a peek of what it looked like.”
The visitors can also take a ride in a no-comfort Polish-made van used by the militia in the 1960s and ’70s to transport criminal and political detainees. For some 150 zlotys ($42, euro 36) per person, an English-speaking driver-guide will take them to see typical architecture of the time, including Poland’s tallest building, the Palace of Culture and Science, a 1955 gift from Soviet leader Josef Stalin. It survived a cathartic push to have it torn down just after the ouster of communism, and celebrates its 60th birthday this year.
“We would see some of the architecture of that time which is called socialist realism (and) admire the figures of the working class, because all that system was built, was created, for the happiness of the working class,” Nurkiewicz said.
He jokingly said that he tries to get tourists join the Communist party.
“No, I’m just kidding of course. We are happy here in Poland (that) the communism is over.”
If You Go…
WARSAW EXPERIENCE: Guided tours offering a look at life under communism. At the Charm of PRL museum, Minska 25, “Soho Factory”- entrance from Glucha street; http://adventurewarsaw.pl or mobile 48 606 22 55 25 or 48 662 39 08 15. Museum open Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission, 8 zlotys (2 euros, US $2.25). Life under communism tour, 150 zlotys (US $42, 36 euros). Booked tours starting daily at 10 am. Available in English and other languages.