Russia in Poland: a very brief history and what you should see (and eat!) when visiting Warsaw.

The turbulent history between Poland and Russia goes back as far as the late Middle Ages when there was a struggle for border control between the two countries. Since then, there have been multiple Polish-Russian wars, and for the most part of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Russia controlled and ruled Poland.

One of the most interesting things that I have visited while in Poland is the Warsaw Citadel, a nineteenth century fortress built by the order of Tsar Nicholas I. This fortress, complete with a moat, prison cells, and an execution area, was built to enforce Russian control of the Polish people and to discourage any more uprisings and revolts. From the 1830’s and up until World War I, hundreds of Polish political prisoners were imprisoned and or executed at the Citadel.

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During WWI, German troops took over the Citadel which the Russians quickly abandoned. Although the Germans did blow up parts of the Warsaw Citadel, the main part is still intact. When Poland regained independence in 1918, the Warsaw Citadel returned to the Polish people. However, after the Germans invaded and took control of Warsaw on September 1, 1939, Poland found herself once again under another’s country’s ruling. But remarkably, the Citadel survived the German invasion, occupation, and bombings during WWII.

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Execution area of the Warsaw Citadel.

The Warsaw Citadel is massive, and it is a several mile walk to circle around the entire thing. But although a long walk, it is hauntingly beautiful, and I highly recommend taking the time to explore the area. There are paths, so it easy to walk or bike, but you can also go off the path a bit, and really get close to the fortress walls.

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Warsaw Citadel side wall.

Depending on where you began your walk, you will eventually come to the riverfront of the Citadel. Take the stairs up to the Citadel and explore the symbolic Jewish cemetery and Christian Cemetery. The symbolic markers are really interesting to see, but bonus! You get a great leg and booty workout as you take all of the stairs and walk up the hillside. So workout your mind AND body!

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Immediately after gaining independence in 1918, Poland found herself at war with the newly Bolshevik Russia. Lenin wanted Warsaw to begin the spread of the Communism through his Red Army, however, Poland was victorious and stopped Lenin’s plan. This Polish victory was upsetting to Lenin, obviously, and for the next two decades, Poland was seen as the enemy of the Soviet Union.

This view of Poland being the enemy led to many deaths of Poles, and after the invasion of the Red Army in Warsaw only sixteen days following the invasion of the Nazis (poor Poland was occupied by the Russians AND Germans during this time), a series of mass executions took place. Named after the Katyn Forest where the first mass grave was discovered, an estimated 20,000 to 22,000 Polish nationals, politicians, leaders, and military men were executed and buried in secret.

The Germans “discovered” the first mass grave in the Katyn Forest in 1943. Although I must point out that I personally think it is absolutely absurd to think that some Nazi soldier just “stumbled” upon a mass grave in a random forest. Hitler and Stalin both HATED the Poles, and I think that it is very possible that the Nazi government, if not at least the high up officials, knew of Josef Stalin’s execution orders.

After discovery of the mass graves, the Polish government, based in London at the time due to being exiled of its country, demanded the investigation of Stalin and the Red Army. Stalin vehemently denied being responsible for the 20,000 murders, and he blamed Hitler, saying the Nazis executed the Polish prisoners in 1941. (Funny how Stalin knew when the killings took place…?)

Denial of the Katyn Massacre continued until 1990 when Russia finally acknowledged that the secret police of the Soviet Union, the NKVD, was responsible for the mass murder and execution of the thousands of Polish men. And today, there is a Katyn Museum to commemorate the men who were brutally shot and buried in shallow graves of the Katyn Forest. The museum is located in the Warsaw Citadel.

The museum is small, but holds a wealth of artifacts that were excavated from the Katyn Forest and the other sites of the mass execution. Although the exhibits are only in Polish, there is an English audio guide that (attempts) to guide you from room to room. (I say attempts because the guide unfortunately skips often throughout your tour, and you are also not able to participate in the interactive parts of the museum.)

From the moment I entered the museum, I was creeped out. For one, you are in a nineteenth-century fortress that once held thousands prisoners. And two, you enter a dark hallway with the moving shadows of men along the walls beside you. These shadows represent the men being taken into the forest to die.

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The entrance of the Katyn Museum in the Warsaw Citadel; the shadows represent the Polish prisoners being led to their death.

Room after room holds various artifacts that were found in or around the graves. Rosary beads, uniforms, personal items such as notebooks, eyeglasses, and cufflinks are on display. There is a case full of walking canes that had been crudely made; after beatings and cruel treatment, some of the prisoners had to make a walking cane to be able to move around. There were so many shells of bullets placed throughout the museum.

These shelves display many of the personal items found during the excavation digs.
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A well preserved uniform jacket taken from one of the murdered deceased.
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Undershirt, handkerchiefs, and gloves.

The Katyn Museum has a list of all of the names of those murdered as well as many photographs of the men from before their imprisonment. The Museum may be small, but it does an excellent job of presenting the information and telling visitors about what happened at the Katyn Massacre and also identifying those who were so wrongly executed. Despite not being able to fully read and hear the information being taught, I highly recommend a visit to the Katyn Museum in the Warsaw Citadel.

But not all things Russian in Warsaw are depressing! And in fact, there are two places that must be on your “to do” list if you ever find yourself in Warsaw.

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In 2006, an unusual discovery was made: a secret tunnel. This partly flooded tunnel led from a building of rubble to the Palace of Culture, Stalin’s “gift” to Warsaw. In this tunnel, there were chest full of old uniforms, medals, and decorations from the old Communist countries. Posters of Marx, Lenin, and Engel were uncovered; old menus with the list of the recipes of the guests favorite foods and alcohol were found molded in a box. There was also a sketch of the of the “great” statesmen of the former Warsaw Pact countries, gathered around the table, relishing in their power.

The Iron Inn had been uncovered.

The Iron Inn was built during the Middle Ages, and it received its name from the talented blacksmith that worked at the inn. But the restaurant at the Iron Inn was so delicious, that it soon became famous, and travelers from all over would stop to eat and rest at the Iron Inn.

But during the nineteenth century, the location of the inn was right in the middle of where all of the Polish factories and breweries were once located. A brewery on the corner of the street began to brew a special beer specifically for the Iron Inn, and the inn became the first brewery outlet in the Russian Empire where one could eat incredible dishes, but also drink its own special beer.

Because of this introduction to a local beer served at the local inn, the Polish working class began to frequent the inn after long hours of work. These gatherings of the working class is where the revolutionary political movements began to take place, and communism and socialism took hold. The Iron Inn became the meeting place for these ideas of communism to be discussed, and historians believe that it was at the Iron Inn where the celebration of the first “First of May” march in 1890 took place.

But it wasn’t just Polish communists that frequented the Iron Inn. Lenin stopped at the Iron Inn often during his travels. Because times in Warsaw and the rest of Poland were becoming more turbulent with Poland wanting to be free of Russian rule, the Iron Inn was now referred to Oberza Pod Czerwony Wieprz by the Polish because of the type of guests that often frequented the inn. Oberza Pod Czerwony Wieprz translates in English  to “The Inn Under the Red Hog”.

(Is George Orwell’s Animal Farm ringing a bell yet? Because it should!)

But during World War II, like so many other places in Warsaw, the Inn Under the Red Hog was destroyed.

Until… the Inn was rebuilt, and once again, became THE place for meetings between communist leaders. It was Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Communist Party, that suggested holding a meeting at the “Red Pig”, as he referred to the inn. This, of course, was all in secret; the CIA could not know about these meetings!

Soon, the Oberza Pod Czerwony Wieprz was once again frequented by the “red” leaders of the time. Fidel Castro came to one of the meetings, and even Mao Tse Tung came to Warsaw once for a secret meeting. The name “Iron Inn” took on a whole new meaning. Together, gathered around the table loaded down with food and drink, the “greats” of the communist world discussed the future with optimism; they were going to rule the world.

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The “head” table at The Inn Under the Red Hog.

However, as you know, communism did not spread west as planned, and after the defeat, communism fell and the Inn Under the Red Hog quietly closed its doors. That is, until the recent discovery in 2006!

Oberza Pod Czerwony Wieprz is a restaurant worth visiting if only to see the décor. Today, the restaurant has been brought back to life as it once was, and boasts many artifacts, flags, and other Russian décor that adds to the aesthetic. It has this whole 1950’s, 1960’s Soviet Era glam to it, and the party’s elite memorabilia covers the wall. White candles are lit next to a vase with a single red flower; chandeliers hang, red curtains drape the windows, and Russian music plays in the background. The menu is full of local Polish dishes, but also offers many special options of other Eastern European cuisines, as well as the favorite dishes of the Communist leaders.


The dishes are creatively named, and you can order items such as “KGB Spies Salad”, the “Gustav Husak’s Board of Beer Snacks”, “First of May Beetroot Soup”, and the “First Secretary’s Pork Loin”. Lenin especially enjoyed lamb, and a tavern in Poronin, Poland that he frequently dined at, generously passed on the family recipe for a lamb dish that Lenin preferred. Called “Lenins Lamb: Poronin 1913”, the dish is minced lamb cutlets, grilled under goat cheese, served with shallots confit, and covered in a roasted apple and rosemary sauce, and is 100% worth ordering. It was delicious, and I ate every. single. bite.

There is another famous name on the menu, although as far as I know, he isn’t a communist; Bruce Willis has frequented Oberza Pod Czerwony Wieprz on his travels to Warsaw, and there are many pictures of Bruce Willis at the restaurant. (He was the face of a vodka brand and came to Warsaw to promote the vodka.) In fact, they love him so much that they have a cocktail named after him. The “Bruce Willis” cocktail is Beluga vodka, Triple Sec, fresh grapefruit juice, fresh lemon juice, sugar syrup, and is garnished with a small hot red pepper. Its quite the “girly” cocktail, which is hysterical when you think of the macho man roles Bruce Willis has played, first saving America from terrorists in Die Hard and then the ultimate hero saving the world in Armageddon. Regardless, the drink is very refreshing, and I must admit, that every time I asked for a “Bruce”, I giggled.

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The “Bruce Willis” cocktail.

All in all, the experience at The Inn Under the Red Hog was a lot of fun. The history of the place is incredible. The food was great, “Bruce” was great, and the atmosphere and décor of the restaurant is worth seeing. The New York Times listed it in the “Top 10 Reasons to Visit Warsaw”, and the Spanish Trade Leaders Club voted Oberza Pod Czerwony Wieprz as one of the best and most interesting restaurants in the world of 2012.  And hey! Even Bruce Willis loves it.

So when you are in Warsaw, stop at The Inn Under the Red Hog, sit under the painting of the “Last Supper”, and have a cheers to the fact that the great Communist leaders’ plan of world domination failed.

The Communist version of “The Last Supper”.

But if you are in the mood for something smaller or somewhere off the beaten path, then I recommend going across the Vistula River into Praga and dining at Skamiejka.

Skamiejka, meaning “bench” in Russian, is a mom-and-pop, authentic Russian restaurant in Warsaw. It is very small with only five to six tables inside the restaurant and on the sidewalk, there are two very small bistro tables.

The menu selection is also very limited with only five main dishes offered to choose from. All of the dishes, however, are traditional Russian meals and are cooked by the owner herself. Tamara, the owner, runs the restaurant with her son, and she came from Russia to Warsaw a decade or so ago.

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Tamara, the owner of Skamiejka.

I visited Skamiejka with two friends. Sara, born in Warsaw but raised in the U.K. has been my lifesaver these last couple of weeks translating and helping me with all things Polish. Nico is here studying in Warsaw like I am, however, he is an American born to an Italian family, raised in Thailand and then Singapore, and attended British schools until the family moved to Michigan. Nico also speaks a little bit of Russian. (So I bring the southern flare to the group, throw in a lot of “y’all” in the convos, and speak the English NO ONE here can understand, but, proudly, I was the only one who not only could handle the Russian horseradish mustard served, but also enjoyed it immensely! )

So thank goodness for Sara and Nico, because without them two, I would have been doing a whole lot more of pointing and hand gestures!

I was encouraged to taste Russian Kvass, a drink listed under the “soft drinks” section of the menu. I was told that Kvass is similar to American Coca-Cola, and that Russians drink it daily. Kvass is made from fermented rye bread, what Eastern Europeans refer to as “black bread”, and where Kvass gets it dark color from. It has a low alcohol content, but regardless, Kvass is listed as a soft drink.

Being adventurous and because I will try anything at least once, I order a Kvass, because…when in Russia?

I gave it three good sips before I passed it on to Sara. I did NOT like the taste of Kvass!

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Following our delicious meal, Tamara came to our table to ask how our dinner was. (I only know this, because my friends translated it to me.) Nico began a conversation in Russian with Tamara, and this gesture thrilled the owner. In fact, it thrilled her so much, she immediately brought and shared with us a box of chocolates from Ukraine and had the waiter bring us three shots of vodka.

The waiter brought us the very chilled vodka, and served it with a pickle spear. I don’t really know what the point of the pickle is, and I am assuming that the pickle is used as a chaser, and although I don’t usually have a habit of taking straight vodka shots, chasing it down with a bite of a pickle, while eating Ukrainian chocolates…. hey, “when in Russia.”


The restaurant’s flavorful and authentic cuisine is worth visiting Skamiejka for, however, Tamara and her son made the evening unforgettable and enjoyable. Visit Skamiejka, Tamara and her son, eat Russian cuisine, attempt to speak Russian or at least Polish, and maybe you will get to nibble on Ukrainian chocolates and throw back Russian vodka shots as well. End the evening by unstacking the Matryoshka dolls to find your bill.


Nostrovia!

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