In the heart of downtown Warsaw stands a “gift” from former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin: the Palace of Culture of Science, the tallest building in the country.
Communism fell in Poland in 1989. But the Palace remains more than 60 years after its construction, despite persistent calls to tear it down.
Much of the truly negative sentiment toward the building has dissipated over the last several decades, but it continues to strike a chord with many Poles, especially the older generation that lived under Soviet rule.
One taxi driver I met calledthe building “Sauron’s Tower.” And a running joke among Poles calls the “trzydziestka,” a large terrace on the building’s 30th floor, the best view of the city – because it’s the only place where you can’t see the Palace itself.
Aside from complaints about the aesthetic, the building’s true irony is that it wasn’t a gift at all. And it wasn’t wanted.
“Stalin wanted to build in Warsaw a monument to himself and a symbol of the USSR’s control of Poland,” Marta Hankiewicz, a tour guide with the city, told Business Insider. “The PR around the construction said that [the Palace] was a gift of friendship from the USSR and theoretically, all costs were covered. However, if you look at the reality of the Polish economy following World War II, it can be said that Poland paid for it.”
And to make room for the building, Stalin further destroyed a city already in ruins. After World War II, nearly 70% of Warsaw as a whole (on both sides of Vistula River) was destroyed.
The Warsaw Uprising, one of the largest resistance operations in Europe, infuriated the German regime, leading them to institute what’s now referred to as the “planned destruction of Warsaw” in 1944. The powerful Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler uttered his infamous quote, “No stone can remain standing,” about the city in the wake of the Uprising.
- Wikimedia Commons
The area around the Palace, however, suffered slightly less destruction – about 60%. Nearly 30 apartment buildings survived almost untouched and another 50 could have been repaired, according to Hankiewicz.
Stalin, however, confiscated and leveled those buildings to make room for the Palace.
“The area which disappeared was an important, vibrant part of the city, with eclectic and art-nouveau architecture,” Hankiewicz said. “Unfortunately, that style was hated by the communists, as it reminded them of capitalism.”
Soviet architect Lew Rudniew designed the Palace using an elaborate combination of baroque and Gothic styles modeled after the “Seven Sisters,” or seven skyscrapers, in Moscow that honored Stalin.
Construction finished in 1955 after three years. It put the Palace at 777 feet, the tallest building in Poland and among the top 20 in Europe.
- Flickr/Jorge Lascar
It contains more than 3,000 rooms. It includes two private universities, the Polish Academy of Sciences, one of the largest conference facilities in Poland, a post office, a movie theater, a swimming pool, two concert halls, a bar, and several museums and libraries.
Originally, the building’s title was supposed to include Stalin’s name – the Palace of Culture and Science of Joseph Stalin. But Stalin died one year after construction began, and his crimes against the Soviet people came to light soon after. His name was never used and was removed from a book held by one of the statutes decorating the building, according to Hankiewicz.
Poles like to joke about hating the building. But a more serious movement formed to destroy it after the fall of communism – although it has lost its momentum in the last 25 years, Hankiewicz said
“Today, most Warsaw residents, even if they may not think it’s pretty, prefer to accept it as a local landmark and a ‘souvenir’ of times gone by,” she said. “Or they don’t want to pay for the demolition.”
And the younger generation, one that never lived under Stalin, has grown accustomed its presence and “even think[s] it’s cool,” Hankiewicz said, referencing a popular T-shirt with the Palace as a heart.
Today, the area surrounding the Palace serves as Warsaw’s topographical downtown, with a large mall and the central metro station.
“But unlike before World War II, there is not much life or soul there,” Hankiewicz said.
Post-World War II, what residents consider Warsaw’s center has become scattered to many sections and streets of the city, such as Chmielna, Nowy Świat, Hoża, Poznanska, and Plac Zbawiciela.