Vodka and appetizers served "Soviet style" at Gruto Park (Image: grutoparkas.lt)
Ukraine’s new legislation on de-Sovietization is a necessary step toward restoring historic justice, Vadim Shtepa says. “Without the liquidation of the imposed heritage of communism … it is impossible to achieve the complete liberation of national mentality from Soviet-imperial stereotypes and real Europeanization.”
But the Russian regionalist writer says, “the brutal destruction of monuments and ideological prohibitions are hardly likely to be effective,” given that one cannot “’exclude’ from memory the decades of Soviet history.” Trying to do so risks its repetition, he argues.
On the one hand, any ban makes the thing banned seem sweeter to some; and on the other, it only encourages those who want to restore that past to use the imposition of such prohibitions against the post-Soviet regimes. But, Shtepa says, there is a way out that can provide “a vaccination against the idealization of the USSR.”
He argues that “it would be much wiser not to ‘ban’ the Soviet era but rather put it on display with all its tragedy and absurdity… Contemporary museum technologies allow this to be done quite successfully as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Bulgaria have done with their Soviet propaganda museums and the Baltic countries with their occupation museums.
But Shtepa suggests the largest and “most original” of these is Lithuania’s Gruto Park which has its own website at www.grutoparkas.lt. When Lithuania restored its independence at the end of the 1980s, many Soviet statues and propaganda pictures and books were destroyed or at risk of destruction.
Then, a local businessman Viliumas Malinauskas proposed creating a privately funded park where they could be displayed. He collected Soviet items from around the country and the park, near Vilnius, opened in 2001. Anyone who visits it gets a dose of Soviet reality that will prevent him or her from wanting more, Stepa says.
Visitors pass through a barbed wire perimeter “like those surrounding Soviet military sites or jails.” The first thing they see is an old cattle car, the kind which was used to deport Lithuanians in Stalin’s time; and the first thing they here are old Soviet songs blasting from loudspeakers hung in the trees.
All of this creates “an unbelievable atmosphere” which combines historic tragedy and irony.” “Hundreds of sculptures and busts of Soviet leaders produce a certain unreal impression,” Shtepa says. “Initially, they frighten one by their terrifying faces and clenched fists, but then they begin to elicit a smile” when seen altogether and contrasted with Lithuania outside the gates.
To complete the scene, Gruto Park features other things from the Soviet past: a museum with examples of Soviet fine art, a reading room with the works of classics of Marxism-Leninism, and a Soviet-style restaurant where visitors can drink vodka “Russian style,” eat off metal plates and use aluminum utensils.
Perhaps especially impressive under the circumstances, the Russian regionalist says, they can order a cutlet prepared “Soviet style” – that is 70 percent made of bread!
There is an analogue to the Lithuanian park in Moscow, the Muzeon next to the Moscow TsDKh. But it isn’t nearly as effective “because there is practically no contrast with the surrounding environment. One feels that around the museum is exactly the same country on whose streets stand the very same Lenins.”
In Lithuania, no one visiting the park would ever come away with that feeling. Instead, Shtepa says, younger visitors will go away with the question on their minds “’Was this really possible in our country?” and with the conviction that “no one would want to see this in ‘reality.’”
Ukraine could benefit from a similar approach, he concludes, as could at some point in the future Russia itself. After all, Shtepa says, Marx was right about one thing: “When humanity says farewell to its past, it does so with a smile.”