The Peasant in the City
This piece was written for a Zacheta show, Polska – kraj folkloru? You can download the catalogue in English here. It includes excellent essays by Gabriela Świtek, Błażej Brzostek and the curator, Joanna Kordjak.
A Socialist capital – a city for every citizen … the worker, the peasant and the working intelligentsia’ – political slogan Poland, early 1950s
In the 1952 romantic comedy ‘Przygoda na Mariensztacie’ (Adventure in Mariensztat), Hanka, a country-girl, arrives in Warsaw as a tourist. A socialist realist fairytale, ‘Przygoda na Mariensztacie’ was the first full colour feature film in Poland and the director Leonard Buczkowki made full use of the bright fabrics of her festive dress, and the even brighter red horizons of the city. Her route though the capital’s streets, conducted at an exhausting ‘Warszawskie tempo’ (Warsaw tempo) by an animated guide motivated by the spirit of socialism, takes her from Mariensztat, a new housing district, past romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz on his plinth and Stanisław August’s picturesque palace which seems to float on the surface of the lake in Łazienki Park. Her tour ends abruptly when she seems to be lost in Constitution Square, the monumental showpiece of new socialist realist architecture in the city. Unperturbed, the joy of finding herself in the radiant future of socialist Warsaw is written in her smile. She is a peasant who is on the way to becoming a socialist activist. She joins a work brigade, becoming a bricklayer. The agent of her transformation was not a lecture or a political tract but the city itself. Warsaw had done its ideological work in this fable. Not only were the workers making the city; the city was making workers of peasants. Access to education, to homes of the kind being built in Constitution Square and to houses of culture would, it was claimed, overcome what Marx and Engels had classed the ‘idiocy of rural life’ in The Communist Manifesto one-hundred years earlier.
Social transformation was declared to be a priority of the new political order in the People’s Republic of Poland. Vice-Minister of Culture Włodzimierz Sokorski announced:
there is progress, a constant grappling with the new life conditions, a process of transforming peasants into proletarians. And take a look at the newly accepted university students who come from the working classes of cities or villages. Look how they have to struggle, how they are initially oppressed with the dominance of the pseudo-elites that they meet at the start of their student life. How they don’t give up, nonetheless, how they push themselves up to the surface and hold on tight to the positions achieved. They will be our leading and militant intelligentsia.
Yet state attitudes to peasant life were contradictory. At the same time as calling for peasants to be made into proletarians, Sokorski also claimed that peasant culture was the beating heart of national life: ‘Folk art’, had he claimed, ‘formed itself in opposition to aristocratic, courtly culture. And at the same time its roots can be traced to a form of society founded on the drudgery of the masses, the feudal peasantry. When aristocratic culture severed itself from its national origins by becoming a source of docile cosmopolitanism and fossil-like formalism, peasant art nourished itself from a perpetually creative, richly national and deeply class-marked social stream.’ Peasant culture was ‘a living movement which renews itself everyday and every hour in the creative march of the Polish countryside to Socialism’. This claim was allegorised in countless representations of the peasant in the company of her fellow builders of socialism. Had Hanka looked up during her visit to Constitution Square in Buczkowski’s ‘Przygoda na Mariensztacie’, for instance, she might have even caught a glimpse of herself. The monumental arcades which flank the square were decorated with mosaics created by ceramic artist Hanna Żuławska to represent the seasons. Spring features a brightly dressed peasant woman marching arm-in-arm with a miner from Silesia, a factory worker and a ZMP-owiec (member of the socialist youth organisation) carrying a red flag. Here was an illustration of the national unity so loudly proclaimed by the state at the time. Countless other representations – posters, magazines, and in newsreels – recreated this happy scene. Almost invariably embodied as a woman in these images, the Polish peasantry was identified with femininity and the proletarian worker with masculinity. The peasant was both romanticised and emasculated in such representations (just as the political parties which represented peasant interests had been in the late 1940s).
The paradoxes of official representations of the peasantry was evident to many, even if censorship meant they could not be admitted. Writing abroad Czesław Miłosz in his critical account of the Stalin years, The Captive Mind, accused the state of making a fetish of peasant culture at the time when it was attempting (and failing) to impose collective farms in the countryside, attacking so called ‘kulaks’ (wealthy peasants) and encouraging internal migration to new urban projects like the construction of the city and kombinat of Nowa Huta:
In the villages, where the entire former pattern of custom is to be abolished through the transformation of peasants into agricultural workers, there still remains survivals of the individual peasant cultures which slowly stratified over the centuries. Still, let us speak frankly, the main support of this culture were usually the wealthier peasants. The battle against them, and their subsequent need to hide, must lead to the atrophy of peasant dress, decoration of huts, cultivation of private gardens, etc. There is a definite contradiction between the official protection of folklore (as a harmless form of national culture designed to satisfy patriotic tendencies) and the necessities of the new economic structure.
For those who could not make a permanent move to Warsaw or Nowa Huta, tourism offered an alternative. Day trips and tours to Warsaw were organised for Poles from across the country to witness the miracle of reconstruction. To serve these national pilgrims, plans were put in place for new hotel and cultural centre in the heart of the city, Dom Chłopa (House of the Peasant). First conceived in 1946 (though plans for similar structures can be traced back to the First World War ), Dom Chłopa was conceived as a place not only of rest but of improvement. The building was to contain not only bedrooms and a restaurant for 500 guests, but also a library, a świetlica (political education room) and a cinema/theatre as well as a medical centre, a photographer’s studio and a hairdressers. Long delayed, the competition to design the building on a plot on Plac Powstanców Warszawy was not announced until May 1957. The winning scheme was designed by the most successful architect of the Stalin years, Bohdan Pniewski, and Małgorzata Handzelewicz-Wacławek. Organised around a quadrangle, their scheme provided accommodation under a rippling roof line (that earned it the nickname ‘the house of the camels’) and a glass-walled lobby from which all Dom Chłopa’s services could be accessed. Constructed after the so called ‘Thaw’, the architects could now take advantage of the ‘contemporary style’.
The open lobby was decorated with brightly coloured furnishings and largely abstract decorative schemes by artists Władysław Zych, and husband and wife team of Hanna and Gabriel Rechowicz. Attempting to produce a thoroughly modern interior, Hanna Rechowicz admits to making some compromises: ‘There were strange birds and other pretty funny unknown animals and plants … Because it is a hotel in which peasants stay, they asked for some that could be read as fragments of reality’. Nevertheless, the Dom Chlopa’s presented its guests with a vision of the bright future in social, political and aesthetic terms.
Dom Chłopa was an exceptional institution but perhaps one that had been prefigured in the writing of the Stefan Żeromski. In his last novel, Przedwiośne (The Coming Spring, 1924), the writer tells the story of a father and son returning home from Baku after the First World War and the revolutionary events in Russia and elsewhere. It is a political bildungsroman. One of the magnetic images which pulls them home to Poland is the father’s descriptions of a liberated country enjoying the benefits of modern technology. Peasant homes are now, he tells his son, made with glass walls – bright, transparent, warm and above all hygienic: ‘water cools the walls; as a result, even in the greatest swelter it’s as cool there as in our cellar in Baku, but without the damp and the bad smell. The very same water constantly washes the glass floors, walls, and ceilings, bringing cool and cleanliness. (…) there is nothing that could rot or go moldy or smell from visible or invisible dirt, since all the utensils, all the furniture and fittings – everything is made of glass.’ Żeromski’s vision was fashioned not only from one of the clichés of progress – glass architecture, but also from one of the deep rooted prejudices of modern life – the dirtiness of the peasant. Similarly, the Dom Chłopa had been shaped by the conviction that the peasant needed to be improved to truly engage with the city. When not decorating the city in her gala dress, she appears to have been viewed as detritus (lit. matter out of place). Varsovian Anna Mańkowska passed her opinion of country tourists when interviewed in an article in Stolica (Capital City) in 1958: ‘I see countless tours through the windows of my apartment in the Old Market Square in Warsaw. Unwashed and rumpled and carrying their cases and bundles all day and foraging for orangeade at a kiosk, I wish for the simple device of day hotels, conceived for ordinary people.’
This trope of dirtiness was evident in other campaigns to improve peasant life. Writing in Stolica Stanislaw Komornicki accused new-comers of reproducing the social spaces of the rural home in their new city apartments. The small, often meanly proportioned, kitchen was, he observed, sometimes used like the traditional czarna izba (black chamber) in the peasant home, a multi-functional room organized around the fireplace where household labour was conducted and meals consumed. In transposition, this ‘disposition’ in the new Warsaw apartment left the much-trumpeted collective services like the communal laundry unused. The other, biała izba (white chamber) – which had been used as a site of display and for the reception of guests – was preserved as a space of display rather than self-education or other virtuous hobbies. The small, new flat, which typically accommodated a family in two or three multi-purpose rooms, was designed according to principles of utility. In effect, the design of the apartment was disregarded by its inhabitants. In the view of this apologist for the new Warsaw, this trace of the peasant disposition in new socialist spaces ‘was an unfortunate memory of long-past, unhappy times’. What Komornicki had in mind was not the ‘private’ time of biography but the epochal conception of Marxism in which life was regulated by the metre of progress: in this teleology, peasant life was destined for extinction. Ideologically correct, his article sought to raise a consciousness that would speed its disappearance.
Komornicki’s criticism tapped into deep-seated town/country antipathies in Polish culture. It also anticipated a good number of sociological and anthropological studies made in the decades that followed which sought to understand why newcomers to the city did not avail themselves of the cultural resources to which they now had access, or seem to have been improved by their new surroundings. Assessing the situation in Nowa Huta in the 1960s, one academic wrote ‘Where the new blocks were inhabited by the families of rural origins, there were frequent problems due to incompetent use of a contemporary flat by the immigrants. It was often the case that the fittings in a flat were devastated (such as water supply and drainage, or gas heaters in bathrooms) due to incorrect use of the equipment (such as drawing water from the radiator), or using bathroom as a place to keep animals’. Internalising the ‘progressive’ policies of the state, much of this sociology eschewed observation in favour of judgment (‘incompetent use’).
Other portraits of the persistence of rural habitus in the city were more sympathetic. They include the social documentaries produced in the second half of the mid 1950s. During the Thaw, film-makers freed themselves from the task of producing propaganda and began to explore the impoverished conditions of everyday life. Known as the Czarna Seria (Black Series), their short films – sometimes involving actors and re-enactments but mostly assuming an observational style – took their viewers to the building sites and workers’ dormitories of Nowa Huta to witness the hooliganism and alcoholism there (‘Miejsce zamieszkania’, dir. Maksymilian Wrocławski, 1957), and the depopulated towns and villages in the Polish countryside (‘Miasteczko’, dir. Krystyna Gryczełowska, 1956). Another significant theme was the on-going housing crisis in Poland where many still lived in ruins ten years after the Second World War had ended. Made in the second wave of these social portraits, ‘Miasto na wyspach’ (‘City of Islands’, dir. Jerzy Dmowski and Bohdan Kosiński, 1958), a 8-minute film made for Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych, features one of the new clichés of the era, the image of the city as the countryside. New buildings were being constructed in Warsaw in small clusters with vast dusty plains in between. The clearance of the ruins had allowed nature and even small-holdings to occupy the city. Sometimes in Dmowski and Kosiński’s film, this lends itself to picturesque contrasts: a tram crosses a grassy meadow and a tethered cow appears with building site in the background. Other shots are more desperate, showing dilapidated shacks and their inhabitants scratching a meagre living by recycling the debris of the pre-war city. (And Dmowski and Kosiński intercut stills from the crowded streets of the pre-war city, decorated with advertising, to emphasise the contrast between urbanity and rurality). Despite the rhetoric of turning peasants into proletarians, it looked as if the village had come to occupy the city. This was not the romantic image of the village populated with happy peasants but a landscape of desperation. These scenes might also have come from the pages of Żeromski’s The Coming Spring. When the son arrives in Poland – still carrying his now late father’s images of peasant modernity in his mind – his disappointment is palpable: ‘Cezary gazed with cheerless eyes at the miry streets pocked with bottomless potholes; at the houses of all different, heights and colours and degrees outward filthiness; at the pigsties and the puddles, the outbuildings and the charred ruins.’
Dmowski and Kosiński were making a point, demanding that the post-stalinist state to make good on its promises of improved housing and welfare for all. This argument was taken further in Architektura, the mouthpiece of the professional association of architects in Poland. In 1963 Jan Minorski published an article entitled which interpreted data about life on the fringes of the city generated by Ekonom. Techn. Rady Naukowej przy PRN. Entitled ‘Architektura samorzutna’ (Spontaneous Architecture), it explored the ways in which improvised homes were made from cheap and often scavenged materials on narrow plots of land overlooked by the planners. Minorski’s portrait of such unsupported and largely illegal attempts to ‘meet the needs of human life’ was surprisingly sympathetic. He had been a loyal champion of socialist realism and then, after 1956, of the modernist revival in Polish architecture. Often represented as antinomies, both shared a confident belief in the civilising mission of architecture. Yet, in this article, he expressed a genuine interest in what Bernard Rudolfsky called ‘architecture without architects’. Minorski provided detailed maps of social relations in these households; sympathetic photographic portraits of the inhabitants of these shacks; and positive descriptions of the the resourcefulness and creativity involved in making their homes and running small business in the suburbs. Perhaps to offset the doubts of his readers, he asserted:
‘This architecture is:
- spontaneous, the result of lively activities,
- concrete, arising without a blueprint, variable, ‘tachiste’, according to one’s wishes’
Some of these homes and workshops were the product of urban expansion, sweeping former villages into the orbit of the city. Others were the product of tragedy: Minorski, outlining the lives of these householders, points to the dark catalogue of war and destruction that had necessitated this kind of domestic creativity. Moreover, it is clear – from the descriptions of their households – that they are predominately populated with women (or as Minorski puts it, ‘the grandmother reigns over the hierarchy here’). The gendering of the peasant is, in this case, less a matter of ideology than of tragic fate. But his point is that these homes might also contain lessons for architects and urban planners too: they ‘are subject to constant change. Their spatial development is dynamic.’ ‘In spontaneous construction,’ he continues, ‘you can see that what is good comes from heroic efforts to provide a roof over one’s head. What is evil has its roots in the lack of financial, technical, legal, organisational support by the state.’ Perhaps little more than a footnote in the history of Polish architecture and urbanism, Minorski’s article did more than any other representation in the period to fill in the details of the figure of the peasant in the city, albeit on its very fringes. Her appearance here was not a fantasy in gala dress or a crumpled figure in need of improvement but was an attempt to understand her concrete existence.
 Włodzimierz Sokorski, ‘O sztukę realizmu socjalistycznego’ in Sztuka w walce o socjalizm (PIW: Warsaw, 1950) 150.
 Włodzimierz Sokorski, ‘O własciwy stosunek do sztuki ludowej’ in Polska Sztuka Ludowa (May 1949) 131.
 Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1985) 67.
 Bohdan Rostropowicz, ‘Chłopi będą mieli swoj dom w Warszawie’ in Stolica (?) 15.
 Hanna Rechowicz cited by Max Cegielski, Mozaika śladami Rechowiczów (Warsaw: W.A.B., 2011), 164-5.
 Stefan Żeromski, The Coming Spring, trans. B. Johnston (Budapest: Central European Press, 2007) 85-88.
 Cited in Stolica 45, (1958)
 St. Komornicki, ‘Jak urządzić nowe mieszkanie’ in Stolica (1 March 1953) 11.
 S. Panek, E. Piasecki, ‘Nowa Huta. Integracja ludności w świetle badań antropologicznych’ in Materiały i prace antropologiczne, 80 (1971) 30 – cited by Ewelina Szpak, ‘’Between Farm and Factory. Peasants in Urban Space in Communist Poland’ in Lud’a Klusáková and Laure Teulières, Frontiers and Identities: Cities in Regions and Nations (Pisa: Pisa University Press, 2008) 248.
 Żeromski, Coming Spring, 126.
 Jan Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’ in Architektura, 4 (1963) 133.
 This was a title of an exhibition curated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1964-5 which surveyed the diverse faces of vernacular building traditions around the world.
 Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’, 118.
 Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’ 115.