New East Digital Archive
American dreams
How colourful kitsch overtook eastern Poland post-1989

The reality used to be dull and grey. Now the soulless, identical tower blocks are just a reminder of a turbulent past, a national monument present all around the country. Walk down the street of any Polish city today and you will see old-fashioned concrete juxtaposed with homemade, brightly coloured billboards, often in the most unexpected places, advertising even more surprising content. You are also likely to encounter a great variety of English sounding names, not necessarily spelled correctly. As a generation born in the 1990s, we grew up surrounded by these kitsch attempts to disguise the Soviet past. We took what we saw for granted.

Torn between years of fidelity to Russia and a new devotion to America, we got stuck somewhere in between — too east for the West, but too west for the East

Recognising the uniqueness of these bizarre aesthetics came only after going abroad. Picturesque little squares in London, romantic Parisian alleys, charming restaurants along the canal in Copenhagen, idyllic Italian boulevards by the sea… Being so different to what we were used to back home, they seduced and inspired us immediately. We began to feel shame towards our home country. Torn between years of fidelity to Russia and a new devotion to America, we got stuck somewhere in between — too east for the West, but too west for the East. But when we look at them now, the pseudo-American bars and colourful billboards tell a dramatic story about searching for identity and a desperate need to belong. Once a subject of embarassment and disregard, today they constitute a diary of transition, the path from socialism to the free market and the personal struggles that went with it; an account of generational changes, the memory of an uncomfortable past and the everlasting hope for a better tomorrow.

“Ladies and gentlemen, on 4th June 1989 the era of communism in Poland is over” announced the actress Joanna Szczepkowska on the evening news on Polish television. Her words introduced the fall of the system and the beginning of new times in Poland, the first country in Europe to switch from socialism to parliamentary democracy. Finally, after months of talks between government representatives, members of the opposition trade union Solidarity and observers from the Catholic Church, numerous reforms and freedoms were agreed — freedom of speech, political pluralism, independence of the court and organisation of the first semi-free elections. Solidarity, the first trade union not to be controlled by the Party, was allowed to participate in the subsequent elections. Supported by a majority of Polish citizens, Solidarity led the coalition government and its chairman Lech Walesa was elected President of Poland.

From that point on the life of the Polish people changed dramatically. “Friendship” with USSR was no longer a part of the constitution: the name of the country was changed from the Polish People’s Republic to the Third Polish Republic. Introduction of free-market laws after years of centrally planned economy fuelled the development of small independent businesses. Previously government-led institutions were privatised. Communist landmarks and street names were immediately renamed or liquidated. The age of censorship was over and the citizens were allowed to travel freely.

These grey and featureless buildings started to be decorated with bright colours. Often they were painted in randomly chosen shades, turning the streets into the vivid collage of pastel rainbow

Traumatised by years of greyness, people indulged in themselves in colour. Eclectic advertisements emerged on the streets, promoting blossoming businesses, filling out the city with endless posters, boards and painted fabric. There was no law regulating the presence of tasteless adverts and soon they were present everywhere. Nowadays, even though the billboards have been claimed to be illegal, due to the protection of private property law they cannot be removed or damaged without the owner’s permission.

The regime which had dominated the country for decades had produced a specific, utilitarian type of architecture. Concrete tower-blocks were commonplace as public housing for Polish citizens. These grey and featureless buildings were too cold in winter and too hot in the summer. In the 2000s they started to be insulated with Styrofoam boards and decorated with bright colours. Often they were painted in randomly chosen shades, turning the streets into the vivid collage of pastel rainbow. As the writer Andrzej Stasiuk said in 2013, “We are the nation of extremists, we are the total revolutionists. The basic matter of communism used to be greyness (...) So when we were heroically unleashed, the first impulse was to visit a paint store. And this is how my homeland looks like now: as if a monkey had played with a brush.”

Urban planning was neglected and supplanted by more urgent social problems. Neither the government nor the people were bothered with this issue, so loose regulations resulted in chaotically arranged urban space with the most bizarre architectural forms.

Disco polo was a dream of a better world, an aspirational symbol of the American Dream for people in small towns and villages

Along with economic and social changes, the entertainment sector was flourishing and a new music genre called “disco polo” emerged. Deriving from pre-war street music often referred to as “pavement music”, the era of disco polo started unofficially in the 1970s with records made by Poles living in the United States. The most popular band, the Polish Eagles, performed old folk songs with playful lyrics, often with sexual connotations. The political transformations of 1989 opened up a new world for artists. Getting permission to record an album was no longer a problem and producers were keen on finding artists eager to make “light and pleasant” music. Inspired by italo disco, which was popular at the time, a young group called Top One decided to mix well-known tracks by the Polish Eagles with disco. The experiment turned out to be a massive success, initiating the wave of popularity of disco polo.

Numerous new bands emerged, the majority of them coming from small towns in Podlaskie and Mazowieckie voivodeship in eastern Poland. Often described as ‘Poland B’, the eastern part of the country has been stigmatised since the 18th century. As a result of the partitions of Poland, eastern territories taken by Russia developed less economically in comparison to the western part formerly under Prussian control. Thus, disco polo was a dream of a better world, an aspirational symbol of the American Dream for people in small towns and villages. Newly created bands were usually named with western-sounding names, such as Boys, Atlantis, Weekend, Focus, Milano, Akcent, Bayer Full. Rough-and-ready bunkhouses were constructed especially in the countryside to serve as venues for disco polo parties, with proud, American-sounding names — Atlanta in Jeżowo, Miami in Bakałarzewo, Manhattan in Mońki, Paradiso in Horoszcz and Feniks in Suwalki. The clubs filled up with young people every Friday and Saturday night, even though some of them resembled a barn made out of corrugated iron more than a party venue. Kitsch typography and often-misspelled English symbolised a desire for Americanisation and increased prosperity. Finally, there were the songs themselves. Disco polo songs, usually strongly eroticised and portraying women as trophies and sexual objects, also reflected other acquisitional longings: success, fortune, and freedom.

Text: Natalia Domagala
Image: Paulina Korobkiewicz

This text is an edited version of the original guest essay published in Paulina Korobkiewicz’s book Disco Polo. Photos courtesy of Thisispaper, a publishing partner of The Calvert Journal.