Poland suffered throughout the 20th century. WWII saw the country annexed by the Nazi regime and Warsaw virtually annihilated. The Red Army liberated the city in 1945, but it fell firmly under the repressive grip of Stalinist Russia between 1948 and 1956. During this time thousands of Poles were imprisoned and executed by the secret police, including priests and intellectuals as well as political activists. Agriculture was collectivized, enforced industrialization was rife and standards of living plummeted.
Marshall Law was imposed in 1981 and conditions in Poland deteriorated further. The Gdansk union leader Lech Walesa led the opposition to Soviet occupation, which ended with the Europe-wide collapse of Communism in 1989. Since then Poland has been slowly assimilated into the west and has received massive injections of cash from the EU to begin the political and cultural renaissance of the country.
Today much of old Warsaw has been restored to its pre-war beauty but many reminders of Communism still remain. After the war the Soviets set about remodeling Warsaw to their grandiose plans of ‘social realism’. The vast, vastly ugly and much derided Palace of Culture and Science is one such example, dominating the center of the city. At its foot lies the now largely defunct Defilad Square, designed to host propaganda rallies; plans are afoot to build a new modern art museum on the land.
The dull grey façades of Constitution Square (Plac Konstytucji) and the Ministry of Agriculture building around the corner on Wspólna are typical examples of the mammoth scale of socialist architecture. Away from the heart of the city, Communist-era blocks of featureless apartments blight the horizon.
Taking a guided tour of Communist Warsaw in a typical Communist-era Nysa van permits a glimpse into life under the Soviets. The four-hour adventure includes hotel pick-ups, photo opportunities outside the Communist civic buildings and the chance to visit an apartment furnished in Soviet style, eat a typically sparse meal of bread, lard and pickles and watch Russian propaganda films on a flickering black-and-white television.