A day out in a cattle truck

Observations on theme parks

Every weekend, thousands of Lithuanians drive to a remote, swampy area of woodland in the south of the country, park in a narrow lane and walk towards a clump of fir trees. They see a lake, and then some buildings. Then, from behind high barbed-wire fences and wooden guard posts, they can hear singing - in Russian, not Lithuanian. And from giant loudspeakers comes the rallying cry of Soviet propaganda.

A few yards further on, on a section of railway line, they will find a windowless cattle truck, with a locomotive attached. An accompanying notice explains that this was one of many wagons used to deport 360,000 Lithuanians to Siberia between 1941 and 1953, on a month-long journey. At the turnstiles, Russian guards brandish rifles.

Welcome to Grutas Park, where 82 statues of communist leaders, in the Soviet realist style, are displayed at an open-air museum, along with memorabilia from the Gulag, a Communist Party library, art gallery, cinema and polling station. On the cattle truck, Lithuanians can experience deportation at first hand.

This weird and much-criticised theme park is the project of Viliumas Malinauskas, a Lithuanian millionaire and former wrestler, who made his money exporting mushrooms to the west. "My purpose is not to make money," says Malinauskas, sporting a large KGB tie and standing in front of one of 13 statues of Lenin. "It is educational and it is for fun. But we must not forget those terrible times. It is better for people to see these statues than to have them crumbling away in warehouses."

Hundreds of schools make trips to Grutas Park, and up to 40 groups of Swedish and Norwegian history students, who plan to establish a scientific research centre looking at the influence of socialism on the Baltic states, visit every year. Malinauskas, meanwhile, wants it to become the genocide centre for the Baltic, with input from Estonia and Latvia.

Striding around in front of one of only two statues to Stalin in the park - Nikita Khrushchev had most of them destroyed in the 1960s - an actor dressed as the communist dictator makes long, tedious speeches while brandishing his pipe. Across a stretch of water, Lenin is fishing. Groups of young Soviet Pioneers march around the complex, carrying banners and singing paeans to the dignity of work.

On the lintel above the open-air theatre is a quote from Lenin: "Art belongs to the people." On stage is Juozas Zavaliauskas, one of Lithuania's best-known comedians, who manages to get some laughs from his picnicking audience with gibes about Rolandas Paksas, the country's deposed president, who was impeached in April for giving citizenship to the Russian businessman Yuri Borisov in return for a financial leg-up.

This strange Disneyland death camp ends on a genuinely poignant note. The final statue stands alone, commemorating the 10,000 local men who joined the Soviet army. Only 600 survived.