Dr Katherine Lebow

Featured Publication

Unfinished Utopia: Nowa Huta, Stalinism, and Polish Society, 1949-56, Cornell University Press, 2013.

Unfinished Utopia: Nowa Huta, Stalinism, and Polish Society, 1949-56

Unfinished Utopia is a social and cultural history of Nowa Huta, dubbed Poland's “first socialist city” by Communist propaganda of the 1950s. Work began on the new town, located on the banks of the Vistula River just a few miles from the historic city of Kraków, in 1949. By contrast to its older neighbor, Nowa Huta was intended to model a new kind of socialist modernity and to be peopled with "new men," themselves both the builders and the beneficiaries of this project of socialist construction. Nowa Huta was the largest and politically most significant of the socialist cities built in East Central Europe after World War II; home to the massive Lenin Steelworks, it epitomized the Stalinist program of forced industrialization that opened the cities to rural migrants and sought fundamentally to transform the structures of Polish society.


Focusing on Nowa Huta's construction and steel workers, youth brigade volunteers, housewives, activists, and architects, Katherine Lebow explores their various encounters with the ideology and practice of Stalinist mobilization by seeking out their voices in memoirs, oral history interviews, and archival records, juxtaposing these against both the official and unofficial transcripts of Stalinism. Far from the gray and regimented landscape we imagine Stalinism to have been, the fledgling city was a colorful and anarchic place where the formerly disenfranchised (peasants, youth, women) hastened to assert their leading role in "building socialism"—but rarely in ways that authorities had anticipated.



Prizes, reviews, discussions:

  • Barbara Jelavich Prize of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (2014)
  • Reviewed in: Acta Poloniae Historica, American Historical Review, Austrian History Yearbook, Canadian Slavonic Papers, Dzieje Najnowsze, East Central Europe, H-Poland, Hungarian Historical Review, Journal of Modern History, Kwartalnik Historyczny, Pol-Int, Polish Review, Slavic Review, Slavonic and East European Review, Social Anthropology, Times Literary Supplement, Zeitschrift für Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung
  • Featured in: New Books in History (podcast), Second World Urbanity (blog)


Excerpts from reviews:

  • "With its monumental architecture and bold layout, Nowa Huta appears to be the quintessence of Communist urban planning. Yet, as Katherine Lebow's rich yet concise study demonstrates, underneath the regimented spaces and ubiquitous concrete lie more complex and nuanced stories. . . . It also provides important general insights into the intricate processes by which modernist urban spaces. Despite their aspiration to control, become powerful sites of negotiation and resistance."—Uilleam Blacker, Times Literary Supplement (27 September 2013)
  • "Katherine Lebow has redirected the study of Stalinism in scholarly debates. Unlike practitioners of traditional sovietology—now morphing into victimology, for popular consumption—she seeks out the complexities and ambiguities of Stalinism in eastern Europe . . . This book will appeal to a wide readership across many disciplines. The range is extensive: urban geography, political mobilization, social structure, gender, youth culture, and film studies. It crosses boundaries within Poland and beyond." —Anthony Kemp-Welch, University of East Anglia, Slavic Review (2014) 
  • "Unfinished Utopia is an extremely interesting and beautifully executed book. . . . This book will appeal to a very wide audience. It will of course interest historians of the Polish postwar first and foremost, but beyond that it will appeal to Eastern Europeanists and, notably, to historians of the Western European postwar as well. The book succeeds on many levels: as Polish history, as a history of postwar European recovery, as a history of Stalinism and of Communist identity formation, and, lastly, as a history of twentieth-century political and social transformations."—Eva Plach, The Journal of Modern History (June 2015)
  • "Unfinished Utopia is an impressively researched and beautifully illustrated book that draws on a wide range of archival, primary, and secondary sources. Though rich in detail, Unfinished Utopia never seems cluttered, and the main themes and arguments are always clearly apparent. Katherine Lebow presents a history of the new town and steelworks at Nowa Huta, but she also uses her case study to offer many insights into Stalinism in general and the book presents a fascinating portrait of the lives of Polish peasants in the process of becoming industrial workers."—Slavonic and East European Review 


  • 20th-century East Central Europe in global perspective
  • society, culture, and politics in modern Poland
  • autobiography/testimony and the uses of personal narrative in history/social science

Shortly before I embarked upon the study of East Central European history, I had the good luck to spend a year living and working in South Africa – an experience that was quite important, I think, for how I have approached my subsequent research. To begin with, it was clear from the outset that modernity came in many guises and ought not be measured against a single, Northwest European/North American template. So, for example, in South Africa, the almost inconceivably vast disparities in living conditions between cities and rural areas were complicated by highly interpenetrated consumption, labor, and mass-media regimes; thus, South Africa exposed me firsthand to the apparent paradoxes of ‘semi-peripheral’ or ‘uneven’ societies, with insights that carried over very suggestively to East Central Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

Similarly, I was struck in South Africa by the high levels (compared to the US or Western Europe) of political mobilization, especially among young people, and more broadly, the widespread sense that politics, history, ideas actually mattered. On the eve of apartheid’s collapse, hopes for a better future ran high, just as they did in East Central Europe at Versailles or in the aftermath of World War II. In my research, I have been drawn to historical moments like these, when large numbers of people share a palpable sense of the malleability (for the better) of human institutions, the law, and/or the state. Since then, of course, both South Africa and East Central Europe have been through multiple waves of disenchantment and withdrawal from such aspirations, providing more work for historians.

My first book (Unfinished Utopia: Nowa Huta, Stalinism, and Polish Society, 1949-56, 2013) considered some these themes through the lens of the Stalinist social revolution in post-World War II Poland. My current monograph-in-progress (tentatively: The People Write! Polish Everyman Autobiography from the Great Depression to the Holocaust) reaches back to the decades straddling the war. It focuses on Polish ‘social memoir’ – autobiographies of ordinary people collected through prize competitions – and the political, literary, legal, and scientific projects in which they were embedded.

My other current projects similarly explore questions of narrative, knowledge, and power in the period ca. 1930-50. These include (with Małgorzata Mazurek and Joanna Wawrzyniak) an attempt to re-write the history of twentieth-century social science from the margins, arguing that East Central European thinkers parlayed local and regional ‘epistemologies of in-betweenness’ into global social scientific paradigms. Another project, undertaken during a stay at the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute, allowed me to think about Holocaust and World War II documentation, including the ramifications of interwar Polish social memoir for the emergence of the new genre of testimony, as well as begin work on translating (with Anna Muller) the wartime chronicle of interwar radical Halina Krahelska.

  • Making Modern Social Science: The Global Imagination in East Central and Southeastern Europe after Versailles

  • The Polish Peasant on the Sugar Plantation: Bronisław Malinowski, Feliks Gross, and Józef Obrębski in the New World

  • Letter from Linz: An Archive Story

  • Halina Krahelska’s Warsaw Chronicle (1941-1943): Documenting the Holocaust on the Other Side of the Wall.

  • La voix et le regard : les régimes visuels des concours d’autobiographies polonais, 1930-1984

  • Autobiography as Complaint: Polish Social Memoir between the World Wars

  • More

Current DPhil Students

  • Mao Mao

I would be happy to hear from potential Dphil students  working on modern East Central or Southeastern Europe, Poland, Habsburg history, or international history with an East Central European angle.

I currently teach:

FHS Masters

Europe Divided, 1914-1989

Europe in the Twentieth Century

Global Twentieth Century

1914-1989: National, Transnational, and International Histories

Disciplines of History  
In the Media

Die Presse on the project, ‘The People Write! Polish Everyman Autobiography from the Great Depression to the Holocaust’:


Der Standard on the project, ‘The People Write! Polish Everyman Autobiography from the Great Depression to the Holocaust’:


Profile in Die Zeit: http://www.zeit.de/2015/29/umzug-von-amerika-nach-oesterreich