Thursday, 23 July 2009

Red Menace: Communist-Era Relics

I was recently writing an article on Vilnius, Lithuania, which started me thinking about all the former communist countries I've visited in Central and Eastern Europe.

I love those places.

For me, coming from Australia, it feels just like encountering stereotypical "Europe", with its ruined castles, cobblestone squares and art treasures - but it's an alternative Europe in a strange parallel dimension, which includes curious relics of the communist era, left high and dry when the socialist tide ran out in 1989.

That's why I often recommend that visitors to Europe skip the well-trodden tourist paths in the west and go straight to the good stuff. I'm talking about the weird and wonderful cities of the former communist bloc, with their gigantic concrete monuments, vast housing blocks and oversized cultural institutions.

It's freaky and it's fun. Or maybe I'm just perverse. In either case, here's a countdown of the top ten communist relics I've visited in my travels - with images!

10. Hideous Hotels across Poland. The now-privatised travel organisation Orbis controlled Poland's major hotels in the days of the communist regime, and added some fairly ugly additions to the existing stock. Below, for example, is the exterior of the Hotel Arkona in Szczecin, sadly demolished since I took this photo in May 2008 (watch it go!).


The management hoped the new trouser press would raise the tone of their hotel.

9. Soviet Trains, Vilnius, Lithuania. Judging from my day trip to the attractive castle at Trakai, Lithuania is still operating trains inherited from its enforced stay within the Soviet Union. They're big, clunky, and kinda cool to look at. Because the USSR had a completely different rail gauge from the rest of Europe, possibly aimed at foiling invaders, it's caused no end of hassle in linking the three Baltic states to the rest of the EU by rail.


"The struggle of class against class is a political struggle," said Thomas the Revolutionary Engine.

8. Fallout Shelter, Szczecin, Poland. This sprawling complex of tunnels, entered by a nondescript door beneath a platform at Szczecin Główny train station, was originally built by the Nazi regime when Szczecin was the German city of Stettin. But the Polish communists converted it into a Cold War shelter, and today you can go on a tour through the eerie labyrinth, which looks much as it did in the good old days of prospective nuclear annihilation.


Marek thought he might have overdone it a bit with the low-carb diet.

7. Green Bridge, Vilnius, Lithuania. This bridge, constructed in the 1950s, is a rare example of socialist realist art still in its original location. At each of its corners, a pair of statues stands forth, proud and purposeful, showing the way to the socialist future. They're extremely irony-inducing, given their placement near the most fashionable shopping boulevard in the city, and make excellent photographic subjects.


Piotr longed for Dimitri to realise they were more than special friends.

6. Socialist Realist Gallery, Kozłówka, Poland. This tiny village north of Lublin plays host to the Zamoyski Palace, once the home of 18th century aristocrats. But it's the Socialist Realist Gallery which is our focus here. This museum was originally an annexe of the palace, used as a storage area for truckloads of Stalinist art when the dictator was repudiated after his death. Arranged in an attractive jumble, with stirring anthems playing over the sound system and heroic statues dotted through the gardens, the collection makes an entertaining side-trip.


Lenin wondered if he should improvise a little twirl at the end of the catwalk.

Next week: The countdown continues - what will be named the top communist relic? Be here for the socialist showdown!

[To see the final five relics, click here]