Gruto Parkas was designed with the intention to shock and early signs were that it would do just that. The parks 500 acre grounds were dominated by some sixty odd statues of Communist icons, the old favourites such as Lenin and Stalin and some less known additions. Despite it being a sculpture garden with cafes, kids playgrounds, a zoo and other concessions to the modern day visitor, the idea was to ‘recreate the horror of the Soviet gulag’, and first impressions were indeed more gulag than theme park. First off the park was surrounded by barbed wire, guard towers and speakers blaring out patriotic Soviet songs.
The visitors centre was alive with day packed visitors shuffling around the souvenir shop, which sold anything from fridge magnets to vodka. The statue of Lenin looming down on me as I approached did little to quash my hunger, as I was quickly seduced by the idea of eating as the ‘Soviets’ had in the café. I shamefully gave little thought to the legacy of the park, but sunk into my role, the role of a tourist. Despite the attempts at authenticity the park was an authentic site for tourists, and with the recorded voice of Stalin any resolve I might have harboured was dissolved. It fast became about me, my life, my memory, my understanding of the world. I fast cared very little for the victims and more about what I could take away with me. But such is the powerful force of tourism. And its model is designed for us to think just as I was, about myself, and what my experience meant to me, and once I was thinking about me, then I was definitely thinking about my stomach. I began my visit with breakfast in the Communist era cafetia, a bland menu recreating that of forty years ago. The waitress’ could have been doing a Summer shift at Poultons Park, pretty and easy going, the weight of history somehow washing gently over her.
The horrors of Lithuania’s Communist past have been furiously discussed in the country, where one third of its population were imprisoned, deported or executed during the time of Stalin’s repressions. It has been reported that some 60,000 survivors lived in Lithuania still, at the turn of the century. When asked about the theme park it’s founder Viliumas Malinauskas said, ‘You shouldn’t turn your back on history. If you hit a dog, he’ll remember it for a long time. That’s why I’m doing it.’ Critics of the park or the Soviet Sculpture Garden as it’s officially called believe that it might fuel nostalgia for the Soviet period others believing that it indeed trivializes history.
Malinauskas out bid four others for the right to display the statues, which were torn down in cities, towns and farms across Lithuania, they were then mothballed by the government post 1991. With a fleet of trucks the statues were rounded up, some bronze some copper and some concrete and transported to the site where Lithuanian partisans fought Soviet and Nazi forces during the Second World War. He then drained a swamp to create the park close to the village of Grutas, where now an elevated wooden walkway winds its way for more than a mile through birch, fir and pine forest, which connects clearing where the statues, some as tall as thirty foot, are displayed.
For better or for worse the park really didn’t pull any punches. The plaque beneath one Lenin statue stated:
‘Lenin created the system which gave necessary conditions for slaughter, not only in Russia but in other countries as well.’
Both the founder’s father and Uncle had been sent to Siberia, his uncle died a captive, his father broken after ten years a prisoner died soon after returning home. Malinauskas himself served in the Soviet army and was a successful wrestler, whilst managing a collective farm. Since the break- up of the Soviet Union he wasted no time in creating a multi- million pound mushroom export business…!
Nowadays the park attracts thousands and there were plenty there the day I visited.
The setting for the park was indeed beautiful, which contrasted unsettlingly with the statues and the theme of the park. The lady at the reception in the wooden visitors centre wore an ironic expression on her face as she passed me my ticket, which suggested she knew what an odd experience I was about to have. I set off along the wooden boards, raised off the ground to emulate those of the gulag, with unsettling certainty. I simply couldn’t feel it, as each display appeared through the trees, or with even less warning, my detachment was reinforced. The reality was I was too far gone, the reality of the Soviet Union was simply too alien to me. All these years I had been seduced by history, my own subjective and sometimes romantic take on history, which isn’t and is never going to be reality. Walking around the park I didn’t feel anything, not really FEEL anything…but then how could I feel anything, I was there in the park to be entertained not to suffer at the hands of the Soviet regime. As I walked along the constructed, contrived walkway, as I walked along one Lithuanian man’s vision of the Gulag I realized how ridiculous I was, stumbling along simply a tourist who had bitten off more than they could chew. How can torture, deportation and murder become something that I was considering to be so beautiful , but with every step I took it was.
The setting was sublime, the smell of freshly cut grass, the wind fluting through the trees, the companionship from distant, unknown tourists. I was soon unsure, giddy, unsure whether the sardines from my breakfast were repeating on me or whether I was simply complicit in things I wasn’t able to fully understand and thus feeling nauseous. Regardless whether the park was simply a commercialization of the icons or a display of cultural heritage there was no question that it was proving to be a real money spinner.