Goodbye Lenin: Praga's Czar PRL museum prepares to bid farewell to Warsaw's Praga district

Back to the past. The museum shows people what everyday life was in Communist Poland. Kalbar/TFN

Never short on either charm or character(s), Warsaw’s right side has often revelled in its reputation as a raw, gritty district where the unexpected happens. Yet if once it was considered bandit land by sophisticates and snobs, its stop-start regeneration this millennium has created a unique landscape in which this traditionally working class area has seen creative life flourish: street art, edgy music venues and offbeat ventures have all thrived alongside long-established, small family businesses plying their trade from battered pre-war tenements.

Taken together, this sum of misfit parts has proved an intoxicating mix that’s endowed the neighbourhood with a unique identity that’s caught the attention of hip Varsovians and international curiosity seekers.

“I’m so proud of this place,” confesses Rafał. “We get over a thousand people coming through the doors, all because of a crazy idea I wasn’t even sure would work.”Kalbar/TFN

News, therefore, that one of the area’s principal attractions is to move from its spiritual heartland has sent the city’s culture vultures into a state of frenzy, whilst simultaneously stoking fears relating to gentrification and the loss of Praga’s true sense of self.

“I don’t want us to leave,” says Rafał Patla, owner and founder of the Czar PRL museum, “but with the building we’re located inside sold to a new owner a while back, we strongly suspect it’s only a matter of time till the structure is knocked down – for us, it was a simple case of choosing to get out before we were forced out.” The real cause for alarm, however, has been the direction the area as a whole has started to follow. “It’s not developed in the way we expected,” continues Rafał, “events in the Soho Factory complex opposite us have dried up, and we get the idea that everything is being geared towards just building flats and turning the whole place into another dormitory suburb.”

Life in all its detail. One of the stranger exhibits: a socialist snack.Kalbar/TFN

Born from a string of unplanned events, the creation of the Czar PRL museum was a by-product of Rafał’s own meteoric success as a tour guide. “Going back 10 years ago or so,” he says, “I was working on a thesis that explored how Warsaw could have developed were it not for Communism.” Through the course of his research, Rafał found himself discovering surprising stories, secret nooks and less familiar sides to the Polish capital. In the process, the architecture student developed an all-consuming passion for the city of his birth. “Basically,” he states, “I wanted to share all that, so I began organising tours showing people this town.”

Quickly, he recognized that it wasn’t facts that his early clientele appreciated (“you can learn those anywhere,” he grins), but stories and experiences of everyday life. From this, Adventure Warsaw was formed, with Rafał taking guests on urban safaris involving seedy bazaars, shadowy courtyards, murky shot bars and meetings with the cavalier eccentrics that encapsulate the essence of Praga. Communism, and life under the regime, became his specialist forte.  

The museum has everything from washing machines to items of food.Kalbar/TFN

With Rafał’s trips conducted from wheezing Communist-era vehicles, it quickly became customary for visitors to conclude their tours inside the oily, unheated garage that was then his HQ. Here, over nips of vodka, they’d huddle around Rafał’s historic photo albums and peruse his growing collection of Communist ephemera. Over time, that collection grew to the extent that he decided to take the next big jump and open a legitimate museum. “Back in the garage,” recalls Rafał, “we didn’t even have running water, but people really loved it. After speaking with my wife, the pair of us figured why the hell not, let’s do this all properly.”

Though small in its footprint, the museum packs a punch with an immense array of madcap objects, many of which were rescued from Rafał’s family basement.Kalbar/TFN

What came next was one of the most engaging museums to be found in Poland. Occupying a tiny portion of a half-derelict factory down a gloomy side street riddled with potholes and puddles, Czar PRL immediately assumed cult status among alternative sightseers. 

“I’m so proud of this place,” confesses Rafał. “We get over a thousand people coming through the doors, all because of a crazy idea I wasn’t even sure would work.” If the idea was a gamble, it’s paid dividends with the majority of visitors quick to cite the museum’s wacky, magical quality and atmosphere of intrigue. “In my reckoning,” says Rafał, “people like this place because they feel like individuals; it’s like stepping into a family home – if you want to know something, there’s always someone who is on-hand to chat. That’s in complete contrast to the famous, big museums where the staff aren’t there to talk to you, they’re there to watch you!”

Rafał started out giving people guided tours of Praga in an old Communist-era car.Kalbar/TFN

It helps, too, that everything you see is utterly bonkers. Though small in its footprint, the museum packs a punch with an immense array of madcap objects, many of which were rescued from Rafał’s family basement. “Poles are natural hoarders,” he says, “and that alone is a throwback to Communist times – in those days, you didn’t throw anything away in case you might have to repurpose it case of shortages in the future.”

From the outset, visitors find themselves romping through the mists of time by way of dioramas that present an apartment typical of socialist Poland. Laid out alongside ‘Frania’ laundry contraptions and ‘Kasia’ vacuum cleaners are lethal-looking hairdryers, bottles of Conchita perfume and nasty-looking unguents the colour of Kermit. Bolstered by spooky plastic dolls, groovy vinyl record covers, sporting newspapers and subversive literature, these finds represent but a fraction of the oddities on display.

An old phone box that comes with a reminder that in the past phones were sometimes bugged.Kalbar/TFN

Some have more personal value than others. While innocuous enough, a mechanical potato peeler is a particular source of pride. “When he was a young rascal,” says Rafał, “my dad used to prowl the basements of the housing blocks of Mokotów. They were all inter-connected by subterranean passages, so my dad and his mates used to explore them at night – that potato peeler, that was one of his ‘finds’!”

“Poles are natural hoarders,” says Rafał, “and that alone is a throwback to Communist times.”Kalbar/TFN

Browsing the museum with Rafał, other items are further singled out for special scrutiny: there’s a phone box recovered from a field (the associated caption info reminisces how bugged phone calls were occasionally interrupted by a belching eavesdropper), a signed reproduction of Chris Niedenthal’s iconic Apocalypse Now photograph depicting the outbreak of Martial Law, and a donated 1970s Saturator machine that essentially kick-started the idea for a museum in the first place. With your head spinning from the sensory overload of information, it takes minutes for the time travel bug to clasp you in its claws. From thereon in, count yourself helplessly besotted with this quirky little lair.

But changes are afoot. The closing date has officially been set for the anniversary of Martial Law, December 13th (though Rafał aims to keep the museum open for a few days longer), following which Czar PRL will shift to Pl. Konstytucji and considerably larger digs. “We still won’t be massive,” warns Rafał, “but with three times the space to play with we’ll be able to expand on our ideas.” As such, a propaganda cinema is in the pipeline, as is a view point of the square below, and a café inspired by the legendary Antyczna once found on Pl. Trzech Krzyży.

The old record player is just one of the hundreds of items on view.Kalbar/TFN

Speaking to Rafał, however, it’s clear that excitement has been laced with a tinge of disappointment. “Of course I’m delighted with the Pl. Konstytucji address, but you’ve got to remember we were always desperate to stay in Praga,” he says. “We spent a year looking for alternatives on the right side of the river, but it eventually became clear that we weren’t going to find anything and that the local authorities weren’t interested in helping.” Yet Praga’s loss, it seems assured, will be the city centre’s gain.

Czar PRL, ul. Mińska 22 (enter from ul. Głucha), czarprl.pl. The museum will reopen on Pl. Konstytucji in January, with the target date being January 17 – the anniversary of the Red Army’s entry into Warsaw.