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Poland Weekly: Recycled memories – communist-era chic makes a comeback

For several years, there has been a huge interest in objects and the culture of the PRL. 

“I like the atmosphere of the old days, when things were less commercial.., a bit slower and the designs were better quality,” says Ola, a 20-something Varsovian.

“The pandemic, if anything, has just increased my sense of this past,” Ola says as we sit on communist-era designed plastic seats drinking coffee at the Vintage Kawiarnia, a coffee bar on Waszyngton Avenue. We are in Saska Kępa, which, as Ola explains, is on the first line in Poland’s ‘culture wars.’ “If that is what they are,” she says.

The art deco-laced area houses many of the city’s foreign embassies. It has a French and inter-war feel to it, a place of nostalgia in itself during the communist era for Poland’s brief quasi-democratic interlude between 1918 and 1939. 

Today it is hipster heaven, with cafes and design shops running down its main drag, Francuska Street. At the top end of the street, where Francuska meets Waszyngton Avenue, the Independence Day march on November 11 sees annual clashes between far-right groups, a coalition of Antifa, hipsters and locals and the police opposite the National Stadium. “We are literally on the frontline here,” Ola says.

Across the road from us a huge poster on a wall shows a figure from 1970s Polish communism, the eponymous hero of a new film that came out in January, ’Gierek.’

Perhaps his is a name that fits the zeitgeist. Edward Gierek was a reform communist who came to power after a dismal anti-semitic and nationalist phase of communism and the massacre of striking workers on the Baltic coast and was seen as a breath of new air. He allowed Poles to travel abroad, but he also borrowed huge amounts of money to finance infrastructure projects, which failed after the oil crisis of 1973 and brought about the rise of Solidarity. The film seems to imply he was in fact an inspiration. 

If, as is sometimes claimed, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński’s  book The Emperor about Haile Selassie’s rule in Ethiopia in the early 1970s was an allegory about Gierek’s technocratic mismanagement in Poland, then maybe today’s ‘Gierek’ – the film – is an allegory in turn for the Kaczyński years.

1989 as a contested event

After 25 years of post-communism just over half of Polish voters elected-nationalist PiS in 2015. After four years of the party rolling back judicial independence and media freedoms, Poles voted PiS back in at the 2019 parliamentary election and in July 2020 re-elected PiS-puppet Andrzej Duda president after he ran an unashamedly anti-LGBTQ campaign.

Brian Porter-Szűcs argues that while PiS presents itself as the most uncompromising opponent of communism and its legacy, it is some respects a resurrection of the PRL.

PiS is harking back to the era of communism, but with a catholic rather than a leftist vernacular, he says.

“Just below the surface of this undeniable anticommunism, PiS has perpetuated a strand of Polish politics that has roots in the PRL,” he says.

The late 1960s and now are not the same, but the similarities are striking – a virulent form of Polish nationalism reinvents itself, as the progressive, secular strand in Polish political culture crumbles, the cynical political use of ‘the Other’ – then Jews, now Muslims – is combined with an international crisis – then the Six Day war in Israel and the cold war, now Ukraine and the new cold war – to create the conditions for what was then an attempt at a hardline coup, and now the apparent slow dismantling of democracy and the post-1989 agreement.

“It is comforting to think that communism gradually but inexorably unraveled, from the totalitarianism of the immediate postwar years, through (incompletely) reformed communism, and finally towards total collapse and the triumph of liberalism, constitutionalism, the rule of law, and individual liberty. A wave of scholarship, however, has challenged this story,” Porter-Szűcs argues.

“I am not arguing that Kaczyński is a communist. But many in Poland did not want that sort of revolution back in the 1980s. They wanted a state that would preserve the workers party (Polish United Workers’ Party) PZPR’s commitment to social cohesion, cultural homogeneity, and nationalism, but imbue it with a Catholic rather than a leftist conceptual vocabulary. We best understand PiS as a blend between the post-1956 PZPR (shorn of any ties to the Marxist tradition) with the pre-1939 Endecja. Kaczyński, then, appears as the illegitimate child of Roman Dmowski and Gomułka,” Porter-Szűcs argues.

Rethinking the PRL

Looking back is painful. For many history never finished, Smolensk being just the latest chapter of suffering. PiS has taken an active interest in the country’s museum scene and is taking down Soviet era monuments.

In 2018, the government introduced what is known as the “Holocaust law” which expanded the IPN’s powers to allow criminal prosecutions for anyone who falsely accused the Polish state or nation of responsibility for Nazi-German crimes. PiS’s “historical policy” and the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a state body whose remit covers not only documenting, researching and educating on Poland’s 20th-century history, but also leading prosecutions against those responsible for historical crimes.

Princeton University professor Jan Gross angered many Poles in 2015 telling Die Welt that the roots of Poland’s antipathy towards helping in the refugee crisis in Europe could be found in the treatment of Jews during World War II. Gross is best known for his 2001 book Neighbours, which describes the 1941 massacre by Polish villagers of 1,600 Jews in Jedwabne in north-eastern Poland. 

Nostalgia for quality 

Why are some younger Poles nostalgic for a social reality their parents rejected several decades ago?

“Well, not all are. There is a phase of 1980s fashion right now says,” Ola says. “And not all people rejected the old ways,” she adds. 

As Adam Ostolski, ex-leader of Poland’s Green party and a sociologist at Warsaw University, says, “the postcommunist SLD is a key bloc of voters, and its nostalgia and welfarism are important attractions for a group of the electorate,” he says.

I ask the cafe owner, Marcin Brzózka, if this fashion for communist-era cultural artefacts indicates the final death of the old system or a rumbling rebirth of interest in it? Marcin says his shop-cum-cafe is about design quality. 

“It’s not nostalgia at all, we sell things which are intrinsically beautiful, well-made. People want quality, whether it’s from the PRL, from Italy or elsewhere,” he says. 

Artefacts of communist era are also valuable collectors items now, he adds, with a wry smile.

“This comes from general worldwide fascination of vintage,” says Jacek Pilachowski from the Muzeum Życia w PRL (The Museum of life in the PRL) in Warsaw. 

“The young generation do not remember all the negative sides of communism in Poland and the older generation, or a big part of it, also want to remember this time as the time of the childhood or youth. They remember life as easier than now despite the shortage of goods, lack of freedom. It’s about memories of playing and games, of first loves, of growing up, warmth, it’s very emotional and it creates nostalgia,” Pilachowski says. 

Pilachowski mentions Saturator, a coca cola vending machine, stylised telephone booths from the 1960s, the Polski Fiat, a bicycle called komar (mosquito).

Circular economy

“The communist era in many ways was more eco-friendly, things were made to last and not just to be thrown away,” Ola says.

Olga Drenda agrees. “It was a very circular economy, in fact until the times of Gierek in the early 1970s.”

But circularity takes other forms too. Many things we now see as quintessentially communist were in fact part of Poland’s resistance to communism. Wearing sunglasses and jeans, which some now may see as symbols of resistance to communism, are for others iconic as symbols of the PRL. 

Perhaps this is because communism’s legacy is rooted in contradiction – the old system never fully existed- and was fought every step of the way in Poland – so could never fully end. 

“There are two mythologies competing in the cultural space: one that the PRL in the 1970s wasn’t so bad, was trying to improve living standards, and one that confuses the iconic early 1980s with the whole 44 period of the PRL. The early 1970s saw the rise of social mobility, consumerism, and the birth of what became the middle class,” Drenda says.

“The younger generation may see the PRL as an oddity, a period before consumerism and mass production,” Kalinowska says.

Communism was a world where most official reality had to be negotiated with micro-victories, selective and private repossessing of public artefacts, often recasting them as symbols of resistance. Hence a pair of shoes might become a metaphor of individual choice.

“Communism was shit to live through, but fashion was a kind of protest. Mainly driven now by younger people, wearing flares, for example,” Przylipiak says.

“Another issue is sentiment, even nostalgia for the past of the PRL. Of course, it is not synonymous with a positive assessment of communist regime. It seems that especially now, during the PiS ruling, this nostalgia may illustrate people’s attitude to the present situation in the country, especially of the young generation who do not agree with the image of the world imposed by PiS. This deep aversion to PiS ruling makes it easier to mythologize the past, the flaws of which the young did not feel the hard way,” Ostaszewska says.

“It is interesting that especially the young generations when returning to the past of the PRL, do it with irony, they ignore the political background,” Ostaszewska says.

“For them, the PRL is more like a lifestyle. Books or movies (such as Gierek show the PRL as a country of paradoxes, one great grotesque. Especially for the young generation, the PRL appears less and less as a totalitarian country, without fundamental democratic freedoms. So, the problem is there is no education about the PRL! Young people learn about the PRL from tv series or movies, for example, Bareja’s movies, such as “Miś” (“Teddy”) … These are funny, foolish, even ridiculous, and absurd scenes of life that makes you laugh. So young people get the message that the PRL was such a crazy period in history. These funny and crazy clothes, hairstyles or furniture attract attention because they seem old-fashioned but in the good way, they represent ‘old school’. They are interesting, because they not only hide someone’s story, but are story themselves. It is attractive for someone who is tired living in a world saturated with copies and fakes around,” Ostaszewska says.

The silver screen

Like a good Andrzej Wajda film, the events we see on the screen can be read in contradictory ways, both fulfilling official propaganda needs and those of the underground opposition. In Ashes and Diamonds, Wajda’s 1958 classic, ‘Poland’s James Dean,’ Zbigniew Cybulski, plays an assassin of good communists in immediate post-war Poland. But with his sunglasses, jacket, his roaming eyes and good looks, he glamorises that which the authorities wanted to debunk.

Ida, a 2013 film directed and written by Paweł Pawlikowski also set a certain tone. Set in Poland in 1962, it is a kind of Polish road movie. Ida won the 2015 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and captured a certain mood, a Polish cool, the Warszawa car, elegant clothes, and jazz, reminiscent of the style of Roman Polanski’s moody 1962 classic Knife in the water.

Pawlikowski’s 2018 Cold War is another stylised view on the PRL era in Poland and France during the Cold War from the late 1940s until the 1960s. The film is loosely inspired by the lives of Pawlikowski’s parents.


It is the rebellion that is attractive. “This is a generation of kids that are against influencers, Instagram and fake celebrity. They also see the darker side of communism returning in the form of education, for example,” Marta Kalinowska, a fashion analyst at Hartwig Fashion house in Warsaw, says.

“In the context of a government in Poland that many see as authoritarian, this kind of fashion combines nostalgia for struggle with a sense of irritation at the consumer society and this plays into a kind of retro underground, a resistance,” Karolina Golinowska, a cultural theorist at Warsaw University, says.

“The PRL is something that we used to think about with disgrace, now – we are interested in, somehow we may think about it as a story, a fable even,” Remigiusz Ryziński, author of a book about Michel Foucault’s stay in 1950s Poland, says. 

“‘People were covered with darkness and fear’ our mothers used to say, and now we can see it, taste it as if it was something to be interested in. I believe it is truly the time to re-discover and re-tell the story of PRL, as our common sources,” he says.

“Suddenly the PRL has become a true scene for life that happened. It is no longer a boring and terrifying history. The PRL can be read as an opportunity to discover yourself again, ask an awkward question – what would have I done? Who would have I been? It all makes it visual and plastic, ready to play with, seriously,” Ryziński says.

“PRL-related topics remain hot for narrow big-city social groups yet they become increasingly popular also among less educated Poles,” says Marcin Wojdak, who runs Cosmoderna about PRL leisure architecture. “The urban and educated see the PRL as a time of very interesting art and architecture, while ‘ordinary’ Poles have more of an emotional perspective: sentimental reminiscence of their childhood,” he adds. 


“Fashions always repeat over time. Now we have a phase of PRL nostalgia. This wasn’t just grey and miserable times, everything in black and white. It was a very creative time,” says PRLbufet blogger Wojciech Przylipiak. 

“So in one way Polish fashion in communism used to look awful, like Pepegi (trainers made in Grudziądz) and a working class uniform called drelich,” Przylipiak says.

“Nowadays sometimes young people want to wear things from the past: sunglasses and military jacket like Zbigniew Cybulski, bananówa skirt like Maryla Rodowicz in Sopot festival 1973, fly sunglasses like Małgorzata Braunek in the Wajda movie Polowanie na muchy, colourful socks like subculture bikiniarze from the 50s or flared pants like hippies,” Przylipiak says.

Eats and drinks

Known as ‘Zakąski Przekąski’ (‘Appetisers & Snacks’) these bars cash in on communist nostalgia, with drinks at 4zł. śledź (pickled herring in oil), galaretka (pig trotters in jelly), and pickles. 

One is the “Pewex” in Warsaw’s Nowy Swiat street. The name is an abbreviation for Przedsiębiorstwo Eksportu Wewnętrznego—Internal Export Company —  hard currency shops in communist Poland selling otherwise unobtainable Western goods in exchange for Western currencies.

Cola Grochowska is an interesting alternative to American Pepsi and Coca Cola, Czech Kofola and German Fritz.

“In the 1990s, the trend was to erase this uncomfortable past of the PRL, people wanted desperately to experience the Western culture. McDonald’s seemed to be a bit of a luxury, and now?” Aneta Ostaszewska, UW,says.

The Ronisz company, which has been producing carbonated drinks since 1948, is Józef Romaniuk’s baby.

“We were the only company of 55 similar companies during the communist period that survived after 1989,” Romaniuk says. “Coca Cola after 1989 was like a forbidden fruit and people wanted more and more. Now we are a niche product mainly sold in Warsaw and nearby,” he says. “Young people are curious and older ones like to drink something that is connected with their childhoods. The company e ploys 8 people and produces, bottles and distributes the bottles from a small plant in Grochow, further east than Saska Kepa. “We have a well here and people value local water and lower sugar and fizz than Coca Cola.

The Red Hog or Oberża Pod Czerwonym Wieprzem, in downtown Warsaw, promotes itself by claiming to be “the last secret of the PRL.”

“The taste of meals, but also the atmosphere of interiors, furniture, objects of everyday use or elements of design, which today are inspired by many young designers,” says Piotr Popiński, owner of the The Red Hog Inn.”

“Czerwony Wieprz was the first restaurant in Warsaw after the fall of communism to bring back dishes popular in the communist era with humour and a pinch of salt, preserving the original recipes and the atmosphere of the times,” Popiński says.

Czerwony Wieprz also serves dishes of former Eastern Bloc countries, such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or the USSR.

“It is not only a restaurant, but also a museum of the times of the PRL,” Popiński says. “The clothes worn by waiters in the style of young activists, musical hits of the stars of those times, stylised tableware, but also furniture and objects which remind the older guests of the years of their youth, and for the younger ones are a kind of history lesson of socialist design,” he says.

Visitors can see a painting commemorating the “Last Supper of the Communist Leaders”, showing the feast of the leaders of the communist world led by Fidel Castro (Cuba), Leonid Brezhnev (USSR), Mao Tse Tung (PRC) and Erich Honecker (GDR) before the CSCE Summit in Helsinki (1975).

Guests looking for entertainment can dance in the glow of a crystal ball to the rhythm of DISCO 80’s hits played from old vinyl records. 

“Despite all the limitations of sovereignty, the sloppy name of the PRL, it was nevertheless our country, because we had no other country. People lived modestly on the verge of poverty, but they were closer to each other, they were more affectionate than ever before,” says Marta Mędrala, of the The Red Hog Inn.

Milk bars are also in vogue. “Some if these never actually went away,” says Sobieszuk. “On Krucza street it never went away and is still subsidised by the state, though only certain items eg non-meat. Now there is a new wave with a new business model. Aleje Jerozolimskie has two milk bars both run by Mleczernia, the same owner and is vegan, so mixing old school users, the poor and the new trendy affluent.”

Clothes and shoes

Relax shoes, produced years ago by Nowotarskie Zakłady Przemysłu Leatherowego “Podhale”, are on sale again. The first pair saw the light of day in October 1955 in Nowy Targ. At the turn of the 1970s and 1980s, they were a hit, exported to the countries of the Eastern Bloc. 

Prezes Stowarzyszenia Kombinat “PODHALE”, Andrzej Kiernoziak.

Despite the huge popularity, the plants in Nowy Targ did not survive the political changes and collapsed at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s. 

This famous footwear was brought back to life by the Wojas brand.

Relaksy appeared on the big screen in 1984 in Juliusz Machulski’s comedy “Sexmission”, fitting perfectly into the atmosphere of the film – made of shiny nylon and on a thick sole, the models resembled space shoes.

Sofix, the first Polish sneakers, popular during the PRL, returned to the market in April 2019. The cult shoes from the 80s were reactivated by two enthusiasts of the old style – Jarosław Kamiński and Łukasz Konofalski. 

The new owners belong to the generation of kids from the 1980s and it is their peers, that is, today’s 30- and 40-year-olds, who are one of the groups they want to interest. 


“We aim to be honest about what communism was,” says Michał Sobieszuk, the founder and CEO of Station Warsaw Tours, which runs bike tours in Warsaw. “People like the absurd and funny, but increasingly also urban planning, design and socialist realism, places like the Palace if Culture, MDM, the PZPR HQ, milk bars. People are now starting to appreciate the green and light, the stability, and not part of the rat race of the PRL era. television 2 channels, no internet. ‘5,10, 15’ kids program in 1980s.”

“Post-war modernist architecture is slowly beginning to be appreciated with a growing number of its examples being officially recognized as cultural property. It’s still a very slow process. There are publications, photo exhibitions and associations focusing on this very period in the history of architecture. At the same time, a number of facilities are demolished or renovated in such a way that the original value is lost. Many Poles have recently appreciated living in PRL-era blocks of flats: once considered a very bad place to live, now praised by many for the urban planning and space functionality. Shops, kindergartens, schools, medical facilities – it’s all missing in the newly-built housing estates,” Wojdak says.

“Iconic examples of PRL architecture are often seen on posters and photos – they are a fashionable choice for big city dwellers’ interiors. However, if you asked an average passer-by in any small town whether it is a nice building, the answer would most likely be ‘no, it is gray, ugly and communist’, Wojdak says.


“A lot of this vintage fashion comes from rap groups sampling their grandmothers’ favourite songs,” says Kalinowska.

Maciej Zambon, a DJ and producer at The Very Polish Cut Outs record label based in Berlin, claims the wave of nostalgia started around 2015 with the release of vinyls of remixed techno, house and disco classics overlaid with Polish text samples. 

“I was inspired by Turkish sampling of traditional songs in Berlin and found someone on New York who wanted to make the records. We sold 500 and that’s when this whole thing kind of took off,” Zambon says.

“We sampled one Krzysztof Krawczyk – the PRL’s Elvis – song,” he says.

“The ultimate Christmas season hit on TVP last Christmas was a documentary on Maryla Rodowicz, who embodies the optimism of the Gierek era, with its prosperity, consumerism, imported goods and forward-looking attitude, and while she had reinvented herself since, especially her 70s period evokes strong nostalgic feeling for a future that never came to be,” Drenda says.

Monopoly PRL

A special edition of Monopoly takes the player into the reality of the communist era. There are 20 objects from all over Poland on the board. The legendary “Maxim” Club in Gdynia was synonymous with luxury, splendour and extravagance in the times of the PRL. It was also frequented by the then elite – businessmen, actors, directors, singers and people from the front pages of newspapers, as well as wealthy gangsters. 

The IPN began experimenting with child-friendly games and toys in 2010 and in 2011 released Kolejka (Queue), a game in which players are transported back to the communist-era and tasked with shopping for goods and groceries.


After the successful launch of a combustion engine version of the iconic PRL-era car, the Syrena, its Polish carmaker Fabryka Samochodow Osobowych (FSO) is launching an electric version.

Like Skoda in Czechoslovakia and Trabant in East Germany, the Syrena was an iconic in communist eastern Europe, inspired by the Russian Volga limousine.

The project fits into a pan-European trend after the Fiat factory in Turin revamped its Fiat 500, new versions of the Volkswagen Beetle and Morris Mini.

The Syrena was first exhibited at the Poznan Trade Fair in 1955 and a total of 520,000 were made.

Foucault in Poland

Few know that French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote his seminal work on madness in Poland in the late 1950s. “It was a place and time that seemed to allow him to see clearly all the elements of fear, prejudice, authoritarianism and coded silence,” says Ryziński, enmeshed not only communism but a deeply catholic society. 

“I would dare to say that my book about Foucault somehow plays a part in this fascination with the old system. We should remember that it was about the complex oppression of the system against freedom and particularity, individuality,” Ryziński says. 

“The experience under the old system and now under PiS, we can easily see the huge similarities. The language that they were speaking about gays is the same as we experience today, in the media, in politic discourse. It causes a specific mood in a part of society, giving some people courage to express their fears, phobias, hateful opinions,” Ryziński says.

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