IRON CURTAIN- RUST IN PEACE!

IRON CURTAIN- RUST IN PEACE!

It is hard to be nostalgic for a system that only survived through institutionalised repression, but we understand there are people in these former Soviet bloc countries that look fondly at their past and there is nothing like nostalgia to attract those most fickle of voyeurs- tourists. Yes, there is now a tourist trail behind the old iron curtain, taking in all the grey concrete suburbs, water towers with windows overlooking railway stations and inappropriately placed steel mills, built in the promise of creating a worker’s paradise.

Bicycle tours will take you to the dreariest quarters of Tallinn in Estonia, but in the Polish city of Krakow with the rival attractions of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, various Medieval squares, the cathedral, a factory once owned by Oscar Schindler, plus the odd Chopin concert in a former palace, who would consider offering tours of architecture with all the charm of Melbourne’s Housing Commission high rise?

Mikhael would. And he does so in an ungainly Soviet era mini-bus, with hard seats, plywood lining, an entry step that feels like it will snap off and suffused with authentic petrol and engine fumes. He is thirty something, born and raised in the Stalinist utopia, Nowa Huta that was grafted onto the aristocratic and deeply religious old Krakow after it resoundingly rejected a referendum on establishing a communist state after World War II. To put them in their right revolutionary place, the central committee decided what they needed was an injection of industrial proletariat, courtesy of an enormous steel mill they were to build on some of the country’s most productive farmland, even though there is neither coal mine nor iron ore supply with cooee (or the Polish equivalent). The communists loved steel mills, they were the the ultimate symbol of industrial power belching pollution from every orifice, and this one didn’t disappoint.

The town to house these workers was designed in the shape of socialism’s star, but the central buildings, including the gate to the steel mill are mock Italian renaissance and the streets and squares were named in honour of communism’s heroes and decorated with the usual enormous statues of them. The statues are gone and the central square is now Ronald Reagan Place. The dream backfired to such an extent that the proletariat rather than putting the old aristocrats and clerics in their place, were among the country’s most enthusiastic supporters of the underground Solidarity (Solidarnosc) movement that help cripple communism. The only statue in the place these days is a homage to the Solidarity two finger victory salute.

Of course in this paradise there would be lacking the very thing these workers thought would aid them to paradise- a church. The workers were mainly from country villages and were as devoted Christians as the party cadres were devoted atheists, so to the party’s mortification the proletariat would keep erecting wooden crosses where they would hold prayer meetings. The crosses were always torn down. Meanwhile the church appointed a tough new bishop to Krakow, Karol Wojtyla. He got them a new church built, a soaring thing in reinforced concrete, that is still almost always completely full.  As we know Wojtyla went on to become archbishop, then Pope John Paul II who was instrumental in undermining communism. 

Jill and I were joined on the tour by a surprising couple from London, both in their 50s/60s. Paul is a signwriter, London born and bred with the Cockney accent to go with it. He was with his fiancee, Krakow born and bred, the blonde and glamorously dressed Dana, a former primary teacher who moved to London eight years ago: “to make a new life.” She initially worked as a cleaner in London schools, noting with some scorn that she earned much more than she did teaching in a Polish one. She now sells perfume in Debenhams, and was a great source of insights for us.

In one of the ironies of our time, the Solidarnosc enthusiastic proletariat of Nowa Huta are now feeling a little cheated. The steelworks has since been privatised and is in the hands of Europe’s biggest steel maker and one of the world’s richest men Lakshmi Mittal. Indian by birth he now chairs Luxembourg based Arcleor Mittal which has been buying up moribund steel makers around the world and either making them profitable or shutting them down. While he has cut down the pollution from Nowa Huta, he has also cut down the jobs.

And now for a segue that has nothing to do with Poland. I met a guy I think was Mittal in a Glasgow restaurant in 1976 when I was there with my former girlfriend an idealistic Glaswegian socialist, called Ruth Cameron. An Indian with a beaming smile, about my own age, the guy was there on the arm of a woman called Fiona Ross an old friend of my ex. Fiona, a reporter for the BBC was worth courting. Apart from being tall blonde and buxom, she was the daughter of Lord Ross of Kilmarnoch, secretary of State for Scotland in the Wilson Labor Government.

Idealistic to the end and not knowing who he was, Ruth and I began discussing with this guy, the situation of the poor in India. He laughed at us as you would children and said: “You are responsible only to yourself, and your responsibility is to make yourself as rich as you can. India is a great country to make money. If you have a little money, you can make a lot.”

I asked him what he did to make his money and he replied: “I own steel mills.”

I didn’t know what to say after that. 

Now I look back on my life and reflect that had I owned a steel mill or two I would probably not be so worried about my superannuation.

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