Located on the banks of its namesake pond in the scenic town of Druskininkai, approximately fifty miles from Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, Grutas Park has become something of a joke to both Lithuanians and foreigners. Since the park’s opening on April 1st, 2001, visitors have had the opportunity to revisit the era of the Soviet Union by playing on a characteristic Soviet-style playground, dining in a Soviet-themed café, which serves local foods with witty Soviet-named dishes, and, wandering through the park’s main attraction: an exhibition of Soviet sculptures.
The park’s collection of Soviet statuary includes eighty-six monuments to Soviet heroes and leaders, which were created by forty-six sculptors. The sculptures, which were removed from their public sites after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, were bought by former-heavyweight-champion-turned-mushroom-magnate, Viliumas Malinauskas, who is using the park to simultaneously actualize his dreams of perpetuating the memory of the Soviet experience, and operate his own Disneyland-esque theme park, to the dismay of Lithuanian nationalists, freedom fighters, and government officials.
As former Soviet States, particularly the Baltic States, seek to identify themselves as European, elements of their Soviet past continue to limit their integration. Given the context of this process of integration, the significance of Grutas Park remains a contentious topic in Lithuania and worldwide, and evidence of this conflict can be found in newspapers and travel guides published in the years since the park’s opening. By welding together elements of museums and amusement parks, Grutas Park offers a unique case study in the history of Lithuania’s relationship to the Soviet Union, as well as the story of her most recent nation building efforts.
Although the project seems to undermine the efforts of nation building by creating what some perceive as a shrine to the Soviet past, I argue that this process of creating a hybrid museum and amusement park, in fact, reinforces the nation building efforts. By relocating the monuments and redefining them as historical sculptures, the creators of Grutas Park have separated the artifacts from meanings attached to them during the Soviet Era, making them a part of the origin narrative of the post-Soviet Lithuanian nation state. In this paper, I analyze the park’s formation as an essential site to this narrative, and develop new dimensions to the framework of Alois Riegl’s monumental values, arguing that the dual process of museumification and commodification of the exhibits in Grutas Park effectively contributes to Lithuania’s nation building efforts.
The USSR and Lithuania: A Love-Hate Story
The Soviet Union occupied Lithuania after signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August of 1939. For the duration of World War II, Lithuania was a battleground between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, and was officially annexed by the Soviet Union as a republic at the end of the war in 1944. Unlike the other Baltic States, Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania had a fairly significant Communist party at the time of annexation, which meant that Russia did not need to send many officials to serve in the local governments in Lithuania.
Despite the significant presence of Lithuanian communists, the transition to a Soviet government meant a national conversion to Soviet lifestyle. The government attempted to occupy all spaces, both public and private, with Soviet ideology and propaganda. Each public city square was presided over by the image of a heroic communist leader, or a visual representation of the victorious proletariat. Moreover, under Stalin in 1934, the Soviet leadership adopted socialist realism as the official method for the arts; thus, all public monuments were made in the same severe style, attempting to depict the epic historical transition of the entire world towards a communist utopia under Soviet leadership.
The commitment to Soviet ideology was clear in economic and political policy; however, during Khruschev’s post-Stalin thaw, the republics were given room to develop their national-cultural identities, so long as they did not challenge the political domination of the communist government. This new policy allowed Lithuanian leadership to restore national historic sites, such as Trakai castle and the Lower Palace of Vilnius, in an effort to re-establish their national cultural identity. The reconstruction efforts in Lithuania focused on the strong imperial identity of the medieval era, and were easy to implement because of the large Lithuanian presence in the communist government.
Having such cultural monuments in reconstruction was advantageous for Lithuania’s declaration of independence on March 11th, 1990. At that time, Lithuania immediately began to reclaim the public spaces that had been occupied by Soviet statuary, while continuing their restoration efforts on historic sites. As an independent republic, they were able to carry out these efforts in a more politically charged way. Soviet-era, socialist-realist monuments were removed from squares named for Soviet leaders, and the removals themselves even became public events, essential to the nation building effort. One such notable event was the removal of the Lenin statue from Lenin Square in Vilnius; soon after, the Sajudis-led government returned Lenin Square to its original name, Lukiskiu Square. Images from this event became iconic in creating the story of the new, free Lithuania.
Once the statues were removed from their original locations, however, no one knew what to do with them. On the one hand, the statues symbolized an era that was over, and most were eager to forget both the monuments, and what they represented. On the other hand, scrapping the materials seemed like a waste of effort, and destroying the monuments would only be a visible disruption of the memory of the Soviet era, while the political, economic, and emotional scars remained. The statues were held for some time in the “purgatory” of junkyards, warehouses, and backyards, until Viliumas Malinauskas came to the rescue.
Visiting the Park: Newspapers and Memories
The park’s development began in 1998, when Lithuania’s ministry of culture invited entrepreneurs to offer solutions to the statuary situation. Out of four candidates, Malinauskas won the bid, primarily because he needed the least amount of state support. After seeing Lenin’s head rolling around on a factory floor, he was inspired to create his park, and was willing to actualize it of his own private funding. In 1999, exhibits began to be transported to the site in Southern Lithuania, and the park opened, appropriately, on April 1st, 2001.
The beginning plans for the park were much more extreme than what actually came to fruition. Malinauskas dreamt of a train from Vilnius to Grutas that would carry visitors from the nation’s capital to the park’s information center in cattle cars. The experience would compare to Soviet deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia, and help people connect to what their relatives experienced. Due to lack of funds, this plan did not pan out. Instead, the park includes the sculpture exhibition, as well as a café, a petting zoo, and a Soviet-style playground.
Initial reactions to the park were generally negative. Headlines from Lietuvos Rytas, Lithuania’s leading newspaper, around the developmental years show concern about the park being a place of political provocation. A member of the Christian Democrat party dangerously insinuated that some of the monuments might explode, if the park were to open. However, even the earliest of the articles ask why it is that Lithuania is unable to laugh at itself on a national level.
In general, after only ten years of independence, most Lithuanians claimed in these media outlets that they were not yet ready to confront the Soviet images that had occupied their public and private spheres for fifty years. For many, the park was both literally and figuratively too close to home. Leonas Kerosierius, one of the most vocal opponents of the park, said that the park sheds a positive light on the rapists and executioners who destroyed his family during the Soviet era, and was disgusted that someone would obliquely profit from his family’s destruction. Others agreed with him, remarking that Malinauskas’ uncritical approach to the park’s layout and the sculptures’ curation make the park seem like a shrine to the crimes of the Soviet Union. Even Lithuanian government officials expressed their discomfort with the project, claiming that the park turns an era of national suffering into show business.
Malinauskas and the park’s team stand firm in their belief that the park is a positive move in response to the terrifying era of Soviet communism, and Malinauskas himself thrives on the criticism he receives. For him, the park is an opportunity for the Lithuanian people, and the rest of the world, to learn about and remember the Soviet era in a casual atmosphere, so that the events of that time will never happen again. He claims that the statues depress even him, but that his depression can be harnessed to fuel the efforts of nation building.
The dialogue created around the park earned it a great deal of attention domestically, as well as internationally. Domestic newspapers covered the debates surrounding the park’s development, ultimately feeding the curiosity of Lithuanians who came to visit the park in its first years. The park draws a great number of school groups and young visitors, who were too young to understand the transition out of the Soviet era in the early 1990s. Coming to the park gives rebellious Lithuanian youth the fun and exciting opportunity to climb on Stalin’s shoulders and pick Lenin’s nose, while also learning about their history.
Internationally, the park gained attention in travel columns and guidebooks that advertised the uniqueness, authenticity, and absurdity of this particular Soviet themed park, which some even sarcastically gave the nickname “Stalin World.” The articles abroad highlighted the debate between Malinauskas and his opposition, inviting people to visit the park and see what the fuss was all about. Malinauskas was even awarded an Ig Nobel Peace Prize from the Journal of Improbable Research in 2001, whose caption is, “research that makes people laugh and then think.”
Building on Riegl: Museumification and Commodification
The categorization of Grutas Park has been altered between the monuments’ original installations and the park’s opening. The sculptural monuments have gone through a process of value change, particularly when they were moved from their original, isolated locations, to the collective body of the sculpture garden at Grutas Park. The monuments were originally installed to commemorate individual members of the Soviet regime and moments of the Soviet era. Coming together as a collection, however, the group of statues becomes a monument to the Soviet Union’s permeation into everyday life in public space.
The value of the monuments in their former and present locations can best be described through the framework of Alois Riegl, who evaluated monuments in his article “The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Origins.” In this article, he defines monuments as human creations erected for the specific purpose of keeping single human deeds or events in the minds of future generations. Through his system of values, he attempts to build a structure for objectively assessing monuments. Based on his framework, I will evaluate the monuments as they existed in their original locations in public spaces throughout Lithuania, and then the collective body of the sculpture collection as a unitary monument in Grutas Park, in order to identify the values by which they were placed there.
When the statues on display at Grutas Park were originally installed in their sites around Lithuania, it was for the purpose of glorifying the ideology of the Soviet State. Monuments to Lenin recalled the rise of the proletariat before Lithuania was even a part of the Soviet Union, while statues of Lithuanian pro-Soviet resistance fighters memorialized the victory of the Soviets over Nazi Germany during World War II. The monuments, commissioned by the government, conformed to the tenets of socialist realism, as the official method of Soviet art. The socialist realist master plot, which the Soviet government mandated for all works of art, focused on the protagonist’s ascent towards communist ideology under the guidance of an ideological mentor. Soviet era sculptures ritually reenacted the climax of communist history, with Lithuanians as the heroes of this epic transformation, who were led by Lenin, their Russian mentor. Based on these principles, we can determine that the monuments were originally appreciated for their ideological and artistic value, as explained by socialist realism, and their intentional commemorative value, in memorializing Soviet figures.
Moving the statues to Grutas Park in the first few years of the independent republic brought new values to the monuments that were layered on top of the original values. In the park’s exhibition, each sculpture is labeled with the monument’s original location, who the monument is memorializing (if the figure is not recognizable), and the artist. By capitalizing on the authenticity of the sculptures, the park adds a dimension of historical value to the artistic and intentional commemorative values.
The collection of statues is also endowed with a new intentional commemorative value, separate from the original intentional commemorative value, which involved lauding the Soviet figures. As a collection, the monuments serve to commemorate the Soviet era as a whole, as well as the presence of the regime in public space, while drawing a clear line between the crimes of the Soviet past and the new nation of the present. This line between past and present intentional commemorative values can be categorized as a process of “museumification,” which isolates objects and artifacts from their past and preserves them in the present. By museumifying the monuments, the park tries to disconnect the feeling of guilt that the Lithuanian nation has felt in its association with the Soviet Union, and designs Lithuania as a victim of the crimes of the regime.
The problem emerges when museumification is combined with the process of commodification. Because the park’s management markets the statue collection along with a restaurant, playground, and petting zoo, and charges admission to the park, the statues, along with the park’s other attractions, turn into capitalistic commodities. Commodifying the park’s exhibits blurs the line that museumification draws, making it more difficult to distinguish the value of the statues as they commemorate the success of the Soviet Union’s regime from the commemorative value of the monuments as they were used as tools to promote Soviet ideology in public spaces.
It is interesting to note that the collection of sculptures at the park is described as just that, an exhibition of a sculpture collection, rather than a monument collection. The term monument, as Riegl describes it, recognizes the value of a monument for preserving the deeds of the past for the benefit of the future. By calling the exhibits sculptures rather than monuments, the park draws attention to the dual process of museumification and commodification, separating the sculptures’ purpose in the past from their purpose today.
This dual process confuses park visitors because it blurs the line between past and present, as well as between intentional and unintentional commemorative value. The original monuments were created with the intention of commemorating Soviet heroes. At the end of the regime, the monuments were collected in Grutas Park to intentionally commemorate the legacy of the Soviet regime, in order that its crimes not be repeated. However, the collection of the statues also unintentionally commemorates the Soviet heroes for whom the monuments were originally built. For those who are unable to comprehend the line that the museum draws, the park appears as a monument to those crimes.
The Grutas Park statues remain significant in the lives of those who see them, although the context of the park has changed the experience of visiting them. For this reason, I propose that the re-appropriation of these Soviet monuments by Grutas Park has been an effective way of rebuilding the Lithuanian nation in the post-Soviet era. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania was forced to confront nearly fifty years of history that had been integrated into all aspects of life, while simultaneously rebuilding a national identity independent of Soviet ideology. The confrontation of the monumental artifacts was one of the most important aspects of reinventing the nation’s past. Through a dual process of museumification and commodification, these monuments became separated from the ideology which they represented, as well as society-at-large. Thus, the monuments changed in status, and the public has been able to find dialogue, and, most importantly, humor, in the history of the sculptures, by acknowledging and appreciating their museum and commodity values.
In their original spaces, the monuments represented the ideology of the Soviet Union and the values of communism. At the end of that era, Soviet ideology became defunct, and the monuments used to represent those values were devoid of Soviet ideological value. A modern technique for confronting such objects is to place them in a museum, separating them from their ideology and their significance, by labeling them as historical artifacts. Lithuania, instead, took a post-modern, and, appropriately, late-capitalist dialogical approach, by not only museumifying these monuments, but by also commodifying them. Collecting the monuments, calling them sculptures, moving them to one place, opening a themed restaurant next to them, and charging admission, recycles the monuments of the bygone era, preserving them as a historical past, while still allowing the public to access them.
Public access to these artifacts in the setting of a fully interactive museum sets the stage for a democracy-building dialogue. In discourse, visitors can discuss the values of the sculptures in their new locations and dig up the experiences that they previously associated with the monuments. Disassociating the memory of the monument from the sculpture in its new environment allows visitors to come into profane proximity with the object that used to dominate their cities. However, this disassociation is dependent on the willingness of the visitors themselves to do so, and to be accomplished on a national level, implies that each visitor must exercise their individual agency as a Lithuanian citizen, and be willing to abandon their regret regarding Lithuania’s Soviet history.
Simultaneous museumification and commodification has endowed the whole project with a sense of humor that, evidently, not all Lithuanians are prepared to acknowledge. Malinauskas claims that visitors can come and joke about the grim statues, and that these jokes show that Lithuania is no longer afraid of Communism. The monuments now exist in the context of this theme park, in an age when the ideology they were built to represent is no longer relevant to the nation’s political, cultural or economic circumstances. The fear of the park derives from the fear of this ideology and the commodification of the pain that this ideology induced. With confidence in their distance from communism, the Lithuanian nation can learn to laugh together at their past, approach these stone figures with dignity, and maybe even take silly photographs with them. The humor of the park can help the Lithuanian people collectively digest the horrors of their history, thus contributing to the efforts of nation building in the post-Soviet age, and preventing any possible repetition of the terror of the Soviet era.
About the Contributor:
Monika Bernotas graduated from the College of William and Mary with a degree in European Studies in December of 2011. She is currently living and working in Boston while patiently waiting for news about a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Belarus for the 2012-2013 school year. Her interests include Eastern European culture, global education and international business. This paper was written in autumn of 2011, drawing on research conducted in St. Petersburg over the summer of 2011.
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