I met a man in Krakow who did not like the idea of the city’s Crazy Guides Communism Tour. His name was Alex. “I lived through Communism,” he said, “it’s not funny to me.” I argued that, as far as I was aware, the Crazy Guides Communism Tour was not actually about making fun of Communism. “Then why call it a Crazy Guide?” Alex replied. “Stalin killed as many people as Hitler. Why isn’t there a Crazy Auschwitz Guide? There isn’t because it would be outrageous. The same should apply to Communism.” When he said that about Auschwitz, I admit, I felt he might have a point, but I thought I’d reserve judgment until I’d actually done the tour.
Błażej picked me up in the centre of town in late February and through shiftless snow we walked towards the Crazy Guides-branded Trabant. The Trabant is the perfect car in which to learn about the austerity of Poland’s Communist years. Modern cars are all about luxury and comfort, with the outside world a million miles away. Driving the Trabant is like driving a shed. Not one of those modern sheds either. Having said that, it certainly shifts. “As you see, it can move rapidly,” said Błażej, “and it can brake. That’s pretty important for us, especially… you know…sometimes brakes fail.” At which point I asked if I should put my seatbelt on. “You can,” said Błażej. I tried. It wouldn’t reach the buckle. “It won’t save you anyway,” he continued, “it’s just for the police to be pleased.”
After picking up another English chap and his Australian wife a few streets away, we were off to Nowa Huta in the eastern part of Krakow. Established by Stalin in 1949, Nowa Huta was originally a city entirely separate to Krakow. It was a satellite industrial town, the cornerstone of Stalinist propaganda in Poland, and the perfect antidote to the unacceptable face of middle-class Krakovian resistance to Communism.
Błażej parked the Trabant and accompanied us back in time to a restaurant in Plac Centralny (Central Square), which has changed little since its construction over half a century ago – it still has the same red walls and the same brass Lenin statue in front of the mirror. Here we drank beer and were taken through a book of photographs which formed the basis of our Communist Poland history lesson. It probably doesn’t sound like a particularly thrilling element of a tour – sitting at a table and talking about old photographs, but it was. It was fascinating, and for someone who’s fairly ignorant about the history of Communism (me), it filled in a lot of gaps.
Amongst other things, I learned about the following: the construction of Nowa Huta (which means, incidentally, The New Steelworks and was based, amusingly, on the opulent boulevards of super-capitalist Paris); the propaganda machine that was created to make Stalin’s brave new socialist democracy seem like a wise choice, or indeed like any kind of choice at all; the years of industrial growth, culminating in the 1970s when the Vladimir Lenin Steelworks was producing 7m tonnes of steel annually, most of which was transported directly to Russia; the absolute tyranny of the Communist regime and the persecution and disappearance of perceived enemies of the state; the arrival of economic crisis, rationing, the bread queues; the importance of the visit in 1979 of Pope John Paul II, the erstwhile Bishop of Krakow; the rise of the Solidarity trade union under Lech Wałesa, and the eventual fall of Communism.
We left the restaurant and took a stroll through Stalin’s Paris, 70 years on, where his own name has been replaced by Ronald Reagan’s, after which it was back into the fibreglass Trabant and a quick trip to another pocket of the past in the form of an old apartment which the Crazy Guides purchased from the family of an old lady when she passed away.
Preserved pretty much exactly how it was (although with additional Communist memorabilia brought in), the apartment now functions as a museum for Communism and as such, is utterly fascinating. This was my favourite part of the tour. We stayed in the apartment long enough to watch one of the Nowa Huta propaganda films we’d heard about and to enjoy a couple of shots of vodka and a pickled gherkin or two, but frankly, if they’d let me stay with the vodka, the gherkins and the box of old photographs I found, I could have stayed all night.
The film was called ‘Destination: Nowa Huta’. It included footage of topless young men grinning wildly as they performed their morning exercises, and such wonderfully ludicrous English subtitles as, ‘Brighter days are no longer just a pie in the sky. Each working day and each thrust of the shovel brings them closer.’
We finished off the tour with a visit to the steelworks – now renamed the Sendzimir steelworks and owned by ArcelorMittal, the largest steel-producing company in the world. Błażej then gave us a lift back into old Krakow and we said goodbye.
That night I saw Alex again and I told him that I had enjoyed the tour. He gave me a scowl which said quite clearly that I was wrong to. “Was it crazy enough for you?” he said, without a smile. I think Alex’s anxiety was misguided. Although I had fun on the tour and laughed a lot whilst learning about the tyranny of Communism, it certainly wasn’t trivialised in any way. But then again, as Goodbye Lenin! and indeed La Vita é Bella proved, it is possible to chew over human atrocity without completely sacrificing your sense of humour.
The Communism tour lasts around two and a half hours and costs £28. A deluxe version includes a meal and a chance to drive the Trabant around a disused airfield. Full details can be found at The Crazy Guides’ website.