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The revolutionary gnomes of Wroclaw
Posted on 14/11/2017

CulturePoland

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The city of Wroclaw is under invasion. An army of gnomes have taken over public spaces. Washing clothes in the river, withdrawing cash, or sharing a bottle of wine twice their size, these merry characters can be found all over the city's 12 islands, 130 bridges and riverside parks. Striking cheeky, jolly, and downright silly poses, the gnomes bring a charming atmosphere to the streets of this culturally vibrant city. It's estimated that there are over four hundred of the tiny locals in the city, from merchants, bankers, and buskers, to professors and postmen all going about their daily business.

The cheeky residents are getting up to all kinds of mischief

The cheeky residents are getting up to all kinds of mischief
© figurniysergey/123RF

Upon stumbling across Wroclaw's smallest residents for the first time you are bound to ask yourself two questions, why they're there, followed by where they've come from. Whilst they may seem whimsical, the answer to both questions has its roots in Poland's dark communist past, before it broke free from the throes of Soviet control. In the 1980s, the country fell under martial law, with tanks and soldiers becoming part of everyday life for residents. The Orange Alternative revolution fought back through peaceful protest, with street art popping up all over the city. Although ludicrous at first glance, the gnomes became the symbol of Poland's struggle against a humorless authoritarian government.

Talking about the gnomes to the BBC, Arkadiusz Förster, a journalist for Poland's national Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, said: "The dwarves gave us something to laugh at, and that was the whole idea: to show how absurd the situation was and encourage people not to be afraid." The artist who co-ordinated the marches, Waldemar 'Major' Fydrych, went on to organize public marches campaigning for "dwarves' rights." When the authorities tried to crush the movement, their efforts were picked up by the national media and they became a laughing stock. The conflict came to a head on 1 June 1988, when 10,000 protesters donned comical orange caps, chanting "freedom for the dwarves!"

All of this took place at a time when Orange Alternative's parent organization, Solidarity, and the communist government were taking part in round table discussions. The talks were a direct result of the humorous activism, and concluded in the country staging semi-democratic elections.

Some of them are getting themselves into trouble...

Some of them are getting themselves into trouble...
© Pavel Kavalenkau/123RF

Today, Wroclaw is a much freer place to live. Layered with Bohemian, Austrian and Prussian architecture, it is a culturally thriving city, which boasts gorgeous theaters, major festivals and an eclectic nightlife. With Polish Communism confined to the annals of history, are the dwarves still needed today? In 2001, the city council decided that they were. They placed a large bronze dwarf, called Papa Dwarf, on the very street where Orange Alternative staged their protests decades ago.

Four years later, local artist Thomas Moczek came up with the idea to create miniature bronze dwarfs that were designed to look like they were taking part in ordinary Wroclaw city life. This sparked an explosion of Wroclaw's gnome population, and soon the 100 that Moczek created were joined by hundreds more, commissioned by local charities and shops. Since then the city has become enamored with their tiny friends, holding a "Great Dwarf Parade," and creating a special website whered you can find out each gnome's backstory. The city may have moved on from its communist past, but their companions through that history are here to stay.

...And some of them are already there

...And some of them are already there
© figurniysergey/123RF