Freelance writer Laura Soderlind writes: Nostalgia and resentment walk hand in hand through the picturesque amusement park known to local Lithuanians as ‘Grūtas Park’. Travel-braggers such as myself, however, use the far catchier ‘Stalinworld’ when describing the bizarre collection of Soviet statues and artwork which are scattered within a wooded lakeside property in southern Lithuania.
During the Soviet era, street corners, city squares, town halls, opera houses and museums were ornamented by busts of Lenin or Trotsky, black metal statues of noble proletariats or your neighbourhood role model, like the most productive cow farmer in your agricultural district. When Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, these communist relics were dismantled and discarded with much celebration. Viliumas Malinauskas, a Lithuanian whose fortune was founded through his mushroom business, rounded up these statues and bought a chunk of forrest near the Belarusian border to showcase his collection.
As it exists now, the Stalinworld visitor walks along several paths through a birch forest, beside streams, and over little wooden bridges, before turning and finding themselves face to face with a studious Lenin, or a stern Stalin on a pedestal. To make the experience extra-sensory, loudspeakers are scattered amongst the foliage, playing the musical strains of 1950s Russian propaganda.
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Stalinworld is symbolic of Lithuania’s muddled strides into a post-Soviet existence: grappling with newfound capitalism, becoming a member of the European Union and having one of the fastest developing economies to emerge from the Eastern Bloc. Lithuania’s gaze is firmly fixed upon the future, embracing the west and rejecting Russia for the recent history of imperialistic expansionism and the oppression suffered under the dictatorial communist regime.
The overtones of Grūtas Park solemnly condemn the tyranny that Lithuanians experienced, which included whole families being deported to Siberian work camps; the fervent repression of religion; artistic and media censorship and the phasing out of the Lithuanian language in favour of Russian.
The undertones of Stalinworld, however, suggest a contradictory nostalgia and fondness. Buried in a shallow grave are wistful and sentimental memories. Who wouldn’t miss an era where no one had to pay rent or heating bills? In a culture that valued high culture, you could stay at your free university however long you like, studying something as useful as, say, aerospace engineering. Yes, it was the time of the space race, which Russia being Russia, naturally won.
Contrary to what I thought I knew, a good Lithuanian friend of mine informed me that being the first to send a man into space was more impressive than sending the first man to the moon. Understandable. Anyway, who wouldn’t yearn for a time when frontiers were being rattled and national enthusiasm was quaking through the land? Also, referring to the closed borders that the West saw as restrictive, this same friend told me, “we didn’t want to go to Paris or the Italian beaches for a holiday, you see, we had the Ukraine and Belarus!”
Aside from me and my partner, the only other non Eastern European tourist we saw was a quiet American, of likely Lithuanian descent. I don’t say this to bolster my off-the-beaten-track credentials, but because the other visitors were part of the spectacle. We would overtake a group of three women — dressed in dowdy smocks dating to the Soviet era and inspecting plaques which described the previous location of a group of noble soldiers — or an older couple picnicking on potatoes and pickles wrapped in foil, refusing to return our smiles. And my favourite human curiosity: a young blonde woman wrapping her arm around a bust of Lenin, kissing towards a camera, while a thuggish looking boyfriend snapped her next Facebook profile picture.
Stalinworld not only exhibits Soviet artwork, but its very existence as a museum adds an additional historical layer to the lives and interpretations of these peculiar pieces. One such exhibit is a hefty stained glass window, about two metres by eight. In the Western artistic tradition, stained glass windows are almost exclusively the domain of Christianity and Churches. However, an artist commissioned by the devoutly athiest Soviet authorities used the medium to portray and romanticize a factory scene. In this sense using artwork as propaganda to help ‘re-educate’ people about a new system. The artist uses steely grey glass for machinery and the same hue that bedecks the Virgin’s cheeks instead highlights the rosy face of a female factory worker. In a society which criminalised religious activities, the piece reclaims and reinvents an art form in line with communist principles.
However, situated in the surreal forested context of Stalinworld (which pays revenue taxes to the autonomous republic of Lithuania) this austere and clunky object can be viewed simply as a bizarre, somewhat absurd historical relic. Situated in Stalinworld this artwork is deflated of its political potency and thus contributes to a new historical narrative exposing Soviet ideology to be a failed experimental blip, albeit with some neat 60s design features.
In a world where victors write the text-books, the fall of the Soviet Union is interpreted as a victory of capitalism and democracy over communism and despotism. The objects, statues and portraits at Stalinworld are referred to more as propaganda than as artwork. This demotion means that the world does not readily get to see what this Empire has produced. Stalinworld showcases paintings of Lenin pumping his fist in oratory overdrive, giving speeches to a hall full of bright eyed men in overalls.
It houses 1940s block prints depicting the rebuilding of infrastructure and new roads in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, hung next to images of the Soviet officials bringing electricity to hitherto dark corners of the CCCP. Stalinworld shows an ideological milieu which contrives to aesthetise factory scenes and agricultural landscapes.
As a nation caught between two different worlds, Lithuanians are looking forward to a wealthier and liberal future, but looking back at a time of publicly owned assets and fewer personal responsibilities. Indeed, Stalinworld shows Lithuania grappling with its demons and ghosts from the past: in statue form.