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Kitsch to creepy: Polish town no longer likes Soviet past (or Rasputin)

BORNE SULINOWO, Poland – Nestled in lush forests, surrounded by crystal clear lakes, the town of Borne Sulinowo in northwestern Poland is free from violent crime and has an undeniable pastoral charm – except for Nazi and Soviet soldiers in every quiet lane. Creepy streets built by ghosts.

For the past three decades, the town has been ruled by Poland, controlled by and part of Germany before World War II; captured by the Red Army in 1945; and occupied by Moscow forces until 1992. For a while, it embraced its dark side, eager to attract tourists and money to this desolate and formerly off-limits area, which was so secretive that it didn’t appear on the map.

Military reenactors, including enthusiasts from Germany and Russia, come here every year for the parade, dressed in Soviet and Nazi uniforms, which are banned from public display in Germany.

A Polish businessman opened Hotel Russia, adorning it with photos of him and a friend in Russian military uniforms and Communist-era banners embroidered with images of Lenin. His other ventures in town include a cafe named after Rasputin and boozy Russian-themed corporate events.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine prevented all of this. Kitsch becomes creepy.

“Everything changes very quickly,” said Monika Konieczna-Pilszek, the manager of Hotel Russia and daughter of the founder. She said online reviews had suddenly gone from “commenting on our food to talking about burning us”.

She told her father they had to change their name. “Instead of attracting people, it repelled them,” she said. The guest house is now known as the Borne Sulinowo Guesthouse. A huge Soviet banner hanging in the corridor next to the restaurant had been turned upside down so Lenin was no longer visible.

“Nobody wants to be reminded of Russia these days,” Ms Koniecnza-Pilszek said.

Dariusz Tederko, a local official in charge of promoting the town, lamented that the war in Ukraine had “turned everything upside down”. Military reenactors are no longer welcome, he said. Because of the government ban, Russians can’t come anyway.

To attract more Poles and Western Europeans, he now promotes the town’s less-than-glamorous charms. “We have a lot of beautiful heather,” he said, waving a booklet with pictures of hiking trails and wildflowers.

But he misses the “less sensitive” days of pre-war Russia, and Borne Sulinowo needn’t be ashamed to set it apart from countless other places in Poland with beautiful scenery and beautiful flowers.

He said he remains in touch with retired Russian soldiers, including one who now works in the Kremlin, served there during the Cold War and used to return regularly to reflect on the past.

Unlike many Poles, the residents of Borne Sulinowo generally have no personal hatred for Russians. They were appalled by the bloodshed in Ukraine but blamed President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

During Soviet times, the town – home to more than 10,000 soldiers of Army Group North – was a world unto itself, wiped off the map and off-limits to Poles without a special pass, though many still sneak in to buy food and vodka .

Renata Szmurlo was a nurse who grew up in a small Polish town near the Soviet area and moved with her family to Borne Sulinowo after the Russians left. They accepted Polish currency, but stocked more supplies from Moscow than Poland for Soviet officers.

“The Russians were great,” she recalls.

Hitler visited the town when it was still part of Germany, arriving by train in 1938 to inspect what was then a secret military training ground set up in the forest so that Nazi commanders could secretly practice Blitzkrieg tactics, and only a year later, the Poland, and indeed the rest of Europe, were drawn into World War II.

“If you just look at the trees and the buildings, everything here looks good, but if you know the history of the place, it can creep you out,” said Dariusz Czerniawski, a former teacher who was evacuated shortly after the last Russians evacuated Moved to Borne Sulinowo to get out. They left an empty ghost town of dilapidated barracks, shooting ranges suddenly silent and fields strewn with tank tracks.

Borne Sulinowo reappeared on the map in 1993, after a year under Polish military control, as another Polish town, home to some early pioneers like Mr. Cherniawski. “It was so quiet, I wanted to scream,” he recalls. “The silence and emptiness is frightening.”

Over time, more and more Poles were attracted by cheap housing and the chance to start over. The town now has nearly 5,000 year-round residents, with many more in the summer. It still feels empty and isolated.

The main roads – Adolf Hitlerstrasse during the Nazi period and Stalinstrasse after 1945 – are now Independence Street.

It is lined with gaudy Soviet apartment buildings interspersed with fortified dachas left by the Germans, a few shops, an abandoned pizzeria and Sasha’s Cafe, run by a Russian-speaking man from eastern Ukraine who originally Came here as a young photographer to work for the Soviet military command.

The target of suspicious whispers from locals and scrutiny from Polish authorities, he recently put his property up for sale.

Mr Cherniawski, an early pioneer who now runs the town’s museum, spends a lot of time thinking about what to do with the past.

“It might be easier to tear down an entire town,” he said, “but what would that get us—just a big empty lot without any memory?”

Borne Sulinowo, he argues, needs to survive as a “unique place established by two of the most brutal totalitarian systems of the last century” – and a reminder of where those systems are headed. “Usually go to war,” he said.

“We have to remember our bad past so we can learn something for the future,” he said.

He rejected proposals to remove mannequins wearing Russian military uniforms from the museum, as well as calls to remove a Soviet-designed tank across from the entrance. Some residents threatened to destroy it.

But Mr Czerniawski pointed out that the tanks were placed there Taken from Warsaw Military Museum by Polish authorities. “It was a Soviet design, but it was made in Poland,” he said.

“It’s part of our history — maybe not the glorious history we want — but it’s ours,” he said.

Most of the most menacing remnants of Moscow’s former hegemony – concrete bunkers housing nuclear warheads – have been largely swallowed by forests near Brzeznica-Kolonia, 19 miles south of town.

“Access strictly prohibited. Risk of death or disability,” a sign posted in front of the crumbling, overgrown bunker.

Until the warheads were brought back to Russia in 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed, they were part of the Vistula program, which secretly deployed nuclear weapons in Poland beginning in the 1960s. Throughout the Cold War, Moscow insisted it had no nuclear weapons in Poland, while accusing the United States of threatening peace by placing its own warheads in Europe.

For Polish Jan Chmielowski, who first visited Borne Sulinowo in 1994 and “immediately fell in love with this strange place”, the Soviet past was “just a big sad joke” for many years because Russia All that is left of man seems to be falling apart.

He bought an old German villa, converted it into a guest house and, inspired by the Russian hotel next door, began organizing corporate team-building events that included vodka, rude Soviet-style service and mock Russian officers at gunpoint arrest. He has given up on that and now organizes French-themed events with champagne and without arms.

“After the war in Ukraine, everything in Russia is not interesting anymore,” he laments.

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