by Rob Harding
Well folks, these last few weeks your humble correspondent has been travelling around Eastern Europe on a hastily-booked last chance tour. I’m four cities in and thought I’d share a little of the mood on the street from Warsaw, Vienna, Prague and Budapest. Part one of this article looks at Warsaw and Prague.
Day one, and good grief it’s hot over here. Warsaw is a curious city, a mess of postwar Communist blocks, wide streets and vast shiny modern buildings, all riddled with a rather excellent Communist-era subway system and the remnants of five decades of occupation and warfare. Memorials are everywhere, both to the dead of Poland’s many wars and the dead and missing of the Nazi occupation and the subsequent Uprising in 1944.
More than a few of Warsaw’s current features stem from the Second World War, from the two-mile square park that was once the Jewish Quarter, levelled after an uprising in 1943 to the vast high-rise modern buildings that overshadow even the Socialist Realist monstrosity that is the Palace of Science and Culture, a 35-story monument to Stalinism that rears from its own vast square in the city centre. Built in the 1950s when the rest of the city was still rubble, the Palace is now a museum, gallery and conference space, and it’s observation deck is worth a look for an arresting view of the city that’s cheaper than a single drink in the nearby (and equally tall) Marriot Hotel. The locals still refer to it as Stalinsky Chuja.
the Socialist Realist monstrosity that is the Palace of Science and Culture, a 35-story monument to Stalinism that rears from its own vast square in the city centre
Warsaw is currently experiencing a refugee problem. Not from those fleeing Syria and the conflicts in the Middle East, although some of those unfortunates have made their way to Poland. The refugees in question are Polish, Warsovians who escaped the Nazi and later Communist regimes with the deeds to their houses. Since they left, the city has been razed to the ground (much of it deliberately by the Nazis following the Uprising- when the Soviets finally arrived in 1945 they found just 900 people alive in the ruins, the rest fled or deported to death camps).
The postwar Communist government declared all property belonged to the state, and rebuilt medieval Warsaw as a city of wide avenues and socialised tower blocks, but post-communism people are beginning to legally claim their family homes once again, citing documents that date back to the 1930s and before. Many of these claimants have no wish to return to Poland, having settled and prospered overseas, but with property values spiking in the city centre the land they once owned has become hugely valuable to the capitalist Mongols sweeping across Eastern Europe. The courts and the city council are doing their best to fight it, but land disputes are paralysing development in some places and fertilising corporations in others. Blocks of luxury flats are going up all over the place, often unaffordable to regular Poles struggling with a weak currency (the Zloty is ahead of the Czech Koruna and the Hungarian Forint, but far behind the Euro) and low wages.
a guide on one of the excellent Orange Umbrella tours told us: ‘There are so many protests you have to go to – Pro-migrants, pro-abortion, anti-military’.
Warsaw is also in the grip of a sizeable anti-war debate. A major city-centre bank currently hosts a fifty-foot banner comparing the Hussars of Polish military legend to Poland’s modern GROM special forces, who also sell their own energy drinks and have a gung-ho exhibit about their exploits in Afghanistan awkwardly tucked into the otherwise excellent Warsaw Uprising Museum. The city stadium recently became ‘the safest place on Earth’ to host a major NATO conference; anti-war posters are everywhere, demonstrations are regular. As a guide on one of the excellent Orange Umbrella tours told us: ‘There are so many protests you have to go to – Pro-migrants, pro-abortion, anti-military’.
I might make a habit of finding the secret fallout shelters hidden under whatever city I happen to find myself in. Prague’s is beneath the luxury Hotel Jalta in Wenceslas square, and it hosts some impressive pieces of historical curiosity, from uniforms and motorbikes to an entire secret police listening station, the original that was used to spy on the hotel’s guests.
Our guide also mentioned the first of what was to be many things British People have forgotten that we should be ashamed of: handing the Czech Republic over to the Nazis by forcing them to surrender the otherwise superbly defensible Sudetenland. Whatever time Appeasement bought, it was paid for in blood and terror by the Czechs under Nazi rule. The Czechs aren’t big fans of the postwar Soviet government either, although they still have a Communist party, now trading under a red cherry (less Stalin-y) as the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia. Their share of the electorate is growing despite many of their (predominantly older) voters dying off- the suggested explanation is increasing voter apathy among the young. Their new HQ is on the historic Political Prisoner’s street, presumably due to some elaborate city planning joke.
While the abiding memories of the communist governments of Czechoslovakia are negative, with the brutal suppression of the Prague Spring (the currently-under-renovation National Museum at the top end of Wenceslas Square no longer bears the scars of Soviet tanks mistakenly believing it to be a radio station, but it does hold monuments to the two young men who set themselves on fire protesting the soviet occupation), some are more positive.
The old Communist healthcare system is still in place 18 years on, the employed and students have health and social insurance paid for them. The unemployed have half a year of healthcare and a wide variety of programmes to get them into employment.
The old Communist healthcare system is still in place 18 years on
Combined with free education for Czechs and EU citizens in Czech (€1000 a year in English or €3000 a year for non-EU citizens), Prague has a boasted 99% employment rate and the country as a whole has just 5.9% of its population unemployed, although immigrants and the disabled have trouble finding work and there are many beggars working the tourist-rich areas in the town centre.
Still, The Czech Republic seems to be ticking along. Semi-legal marijuana edibles are sold in every other hole-in-the-wall shop and tourists throng every inch of Old Town and Wenceslas Square, feeding a thriving tourist-tat industry. Don’t buy the Matryoshka dolls or Ushanka hats- many Czechs resent the unwanted intrusion of Russian culture, a sentiment shared by many who once faced an unwanted intrusion by Russian tanks.
Read Part 2 here.
Featured Image: ‘Zamkowy Square of Warsaw’ by Mallice
All other images courtesy of Rob Harding.