The fall of the Eastern Bloc left many images for History, those that stay in your mind forever. But the one I remember the most among them all is that of the people knocking down the statues of Lenin, Stalin and other soviet communism leaders that had been watching and threatening them from their marble watchtowers for dozens of years. And as somehow I have always been a practical person, I kept wondering a few things: what happened to those statues? were they smashed by the angry mob as the first taste of their just recovered freedom? were they sold as metal scraps like the Colossus of Rhodes? were they abandoned in the Siberian steppe in a twist of destiny and a historical revenge?
I am not sure what finally happened to the statues in other ex soviet republics but in Lithuania Viliumas Malinauskas (famous entrepreneur and businessman whose family became rich selling the mushrooms and berries from the dense forests in the south of the country) had the brilliant idea of renting them from the government and setting up a theme park / museum. The curious and interesting result is known as Grūtas Parkas, aka “Stalinland”.
The project was controversial from the start, not surprisingly since it has only been 20 years since the Wall fell and many wounds and difficult memories are still open, fresh and bleeding. Many people opposed to it saying that a theme park about the soviet invasion was inappropriate and it could be considered making an apology of totalitarianisms. But to show another point of view, Grutas Parkas states in their web that their mission is to denounce soviet ideology, the propaganda culture, the lack of liberties under the regime and the Lithuanian Genocide. When Malinauskas was asked about the reason why he was doing it, his reply was: “(the park) is my gift for future Lithuanian generations. They can come here and make fun of these statues. That will mean that Lithuania and the Lithuanians are no longer afraid of communism”. Some of the politicians that accused him of being indifferent to other people feelings and their pain tried, unsuccessfully, to close the park. Malinauskas, controversial as usual, ordered wooden statues with the politician’s faces and put them in th park among the other ones saying “those who are still scared of the shadows of the past have to be here with them”. Nostalgia or rejection? Probably uses a bit of both to drag visitors here. In any case people’s verdict has been clear so far: Grutas Parkas receives over 100.000 visitors per year despite being far from Vilnius and not very well connected to the main Lithuanian cities.
The park is close to the small spa city of Druskininkai, deep into the south of the country and close to the Byelorussian border. “Druski” is a very popular destination for local tourism and we went there to get to know both the city and the amazing primary forests that surround the area. It took us some 20 minutes of leisure drive to reach Grutas Parkas. In my opinion they have chosen the right place to set the park up: a bit apart from the main road and by an idyllic lake, just at the heart of the quiet and peaceful Dzūkija Natural Reserve.
Before the visit I did not know much about the site, just that it had a collection of soviet times statues and all the controversy surrounding the project. So I must say I was quite surprised when we arrived there and I realised that the external appearance of the park imitates to the detail the infamous soviet Gulags.
Barbed wire demarcates the boundaries of the park and all along the perimeter is dotted with watchtowers, some even with dummies wearing Red Army uniforms. Each of the towers had a small old-looking speaker that played unsettling soft martial music non-stop, to remind the inmates 24 hours a day that the Big Brother was always watching, even when they were sleeping.
In the entrance path there was a train like the ones used to transport the deported persons to the Gulag. It looked similar to those we see in Holocaust movies, with carriages designed for cattle painted in red, with tiny windows covered with iron grids. The difference was that this time the locomotive had a distinctive red star at the front. When the park was being set the idea of making visitors arrive in these trains was discussed but was finally dropped after fierce opposition from gulag survivor groups. It was going a bit too far.
Once you cross the gates and you are in you bump into a signpost stating that all the historical references have been done by the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania. I think it was a check mate move by the owners to give the park credibility and plus of interest, although I imagine Malinauskas had little choice after all the problems he faced in when he announced the creation of the park. Still, if I think about Spain, I find really hard to imagine a Franco related museum or theme park in Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen) with the owners letting the left-wing Historical Memory Law Association do the texts and explanations. No way.
Grūtas Parkas is quite different from what I had in mind prior to the visit. It is much bigger (covers 20 Ha), with a smart and well thought set up and much more interesting than the “bunch of rotting statues piled up in a corner” that I had imagined. Apart from multiple statues and busts of Stalin, Lenin and Marx (the most repeated) there are other groups of sculptures representing idealised communist imaginary: stoic soldiers with fierce eyes, tireless looking workers, austere women with a martial aura representing Victory or scenes showing the relentless effort of the proletariat building the perfect society (for example a massive one of Mother Kryzhkalnis, symbolising the Red Army that freed Lithuania from the bourgeoisie nationalism).
Some of the statues that really caught my attention were those of the “renegades”, Lithuanian citizens that worked for the soviet side and that are widely considered as traitors by Lithuanians, like Vincas Kapsukas and Feliksas Baltušis-Žemaitis, or controversial and disputed figures like Antanas Snieckus. Most of the statues have a detailed explanatory legend in english, including the original location where they were standing before their removal, usually in prominent spots of the main cities.
Visiting the whole park takes a good amount of time since there are over a hundred statues and monuments and the complete distance to walk is more than 3 Km of narrow wooden paths, also Gulag style. One of the best spots is the so-called Museum or Information Centre, a 40s soviet dacha looking wooden house. Inside there is a collection of all sort of soviet era artefacts and memorabilia: flags of all the ex soviet republics, medals (both military and commemorative), uniforms, daily use objects…The walls were covered with propaganda posters and with the front page of the regime’s official newspaper, taking you in a time travel throughout the main news of the soviet occupation times: the deaths of Stalin, Breznev, Andropov and Chernienko, Bolshevik Party congresses, Gagarin in space, visits of soviet high ranks to Lithuania…). All of them have a footnote with English translation, what really makes things more interesting to the foreign visitor.
There is another house that can be visited, containing the Picture Gallery with paintings done in soviet realism style. You can find the historical leaders (multiple portraits of comrades Stalin and Lenin, the feared Dzerzhinsky, the mastermind of the Red Terror) and others of the idealised soviet society (there seems to be always one of workers harvesting).
In order to make Grutas Parkas look more as a “Theme Park ideal for the whole family” the complex has a restaurant, a small zoo and a children playground. On May 9th, anniversary of the soviet victory over fascism, a group of actors dressed as soldiers recreate the old parades. Here is how to reach the Grutas Parkas using public transport.