Stalin’s strange present to Warsaw…

Stalin’s lift operators do not have the best job in the world and your dullest moment at work is unlikely to touch the sides of their boredom.

Up and down they go many times a day, confined to a claustrophobic lift packed with tourists who are asked to remove backpacks. There isn’t room to swing a cat in those lifts, never mind a rucksack.

The women sit on chairs facing the panel with the buttons, but only press the one marked thirty. The lift rises to the top of the 231-metre skyscraper in hardly any time at all; the tourists walk out, more walk in; and the lift descends.

Up and down, down and up, all the working day. There is nothing for those operators to do, except press the top button and later the one for the ground floor. It’s hard to imagine a duller job.

Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science is strikingly bizarre, impressive or oppressive, perhaps a bit of both. Erected above the rubble of a city centre that was 90% flattened by Nazi bombing, this building was given to Poland as a present from Joseph Stalin, who supplied 3,500 Russian workers to do the job.

This sky-touching pillar of Soviet realism, with added Polish touches, is still the tallest structure in the city, although now it is surrounded by more modern skyscrapers. It looks a little like something out of a Batman film, where the villain lives perhaps, and its full name is the Palace of Culture and Science in the name of Joseph Stalin.

There are venues and a museum here, and a congress room where once 3,000 guests possibly nodded off during the annual meeting of the Communist Party, and where happier guests attended gigs by the Rolling Stones and Leonard Cohen. The entrance halls are dazzling and offered luxury for the masses – “like the famous Moscow metro system”, as a useful Guardian article from May 2015 observed.

Once un-podded at the top by the expressionless women of the lift, you can walk around a turreted terrace with lofty long views over the city. Strong wire mesh reassures those afraid of heights (I trod warily to the edge, then retreated, feeling that pinch of fear up behind my balls).

This skyscraper stands for the communist past the Poles rejected after the Berlin Wall fell and is an unsubtle reminder of the banished days of the Polish People’s Republic. Walk around consumerist Warsaw today, around the beautifully rebuilt old city, through the modern spaces of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, up the floors of the Warsaw Museum, in and out of the many craft beer bars or the street food stalls, and you are reminded that a city can rise.

The old city is perhaps a touch Disneyesque in its renovation, but it fits a risen city, and the reborn old square, where you can sit in the sunshine and drink coffee that is hardly overpriced at all, is a beautiful spot.

We sat on deckchairs at the top of Stalin’s tower-block, enjoying the sunshine. The traffic was busy far down below. Then we rose from hammocky rest, took a last look at the miniature world of tiny cars and human dots and commas, and headed for the lift.

On the way down, a different woman sat on a chair and pressed the button for descent. Quietly, she sang to herself, a way to dent the boredom perhaps, or maybe she didn’t know she was doing it.

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