The moment we arrive at the theme park and are greeted by an old Soviet train carriage, I know things are going to be strange.
I’m near Druskininkai, a spa town in southern Lithuania close to the border with Belarus – think Center Parcs with lots of Russian children on segways, and you sort of have it – and I’m on the weirdest day trip I’ve ever taken. The train carriage I’m looking at is one that was used to transport Lithuanians to internment camps in Sibera during Russia’s occupation of the Baltics, and it’s here because this is a theme park devoted to Soviet relics.
Grūtas Park may be among the most unusual tourist attractions in the world. Founded in 2001 by “mushroom millionaire” Viliumas Malinauskas and popularly known as “Stalin World”, the park is overlooked by replica guard towers which play tinny recordings of military anthems on a loop. Either side of the path visitors follow through the forest are statues of Soviet heroes, frequently accompanied by a photograph of them being torn down. Many of them — more than seems probable – have a caption saying they come from one of the many places in Lithuania once named “Lenin Square”.
There is a moment in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys where the students discuss the strangeness of school trips to Auschwitz-Birkenau. “What concerns me”, their teacher, Hector, asks, “is where do they eat their sandwiches? Drink their Coke?”
Grūtas Park is not the site of murder, but many of the tourists I’m with express a similar sense of discomfort, especially when we get to the middle of the park and find a bar and some fairground games for younger visitors. (Not that that stops us: alcohol in Lithuania is almost comically cheap compared to London.)
How do you memorialise a tragedy? It’s a tough question. I ask Sally Yerkovich, author of the Practical Guide to Museum Ethics, what sort of advice she gives to museums looking to commemorate genocides and other tragic events. She tells me that museum ethics are always very case-by-case – particularly when, like Grūtas Park, they are run not by a government but by an individual, whose own perspective and sensitivities come in to play.
While it’s important to take into account not just the integrity of the material but also the emotional impact it may have, there are different opinions on things like the number of years that should pass before an event is memorialised in a museum setting – or how neutral display should be. Even museums which try to be as sensitive as possible can inadvertently cause upset. She tells me that the directors of the 9/11 memorial museum in New York, for instance, visited lots of other sites – yet the site, particularly its gift shop, have still been controversial. “It’s not an easy thing to do!”, Yerkovich stresses.
For Jennifer Kreder, a Professor of Law at Northern Kentucky University who has written on museum ethics and the holocaust, this is one reason it’s important to not let any one museum have a monopoly on history.
“Whenever a museum tries to commemorate a large historical event, there are always divergent opinions on what happened”, she tells me. “We can’t give any museum the power to write a single history.”
Lithuania already has a Museum of Genocide Victims which presents a different version of the Soviet occupation. But is there still a risk that this presentation of the statues, collected all over the country, could be unethical?
Kreder tells me that the treatment of artefacts is an important part of museum ethics. Even if an item is purchased legally, that “isn’t enough to justify treating something however you want”, she says. “Legal ownership does not relate to responsible stewardship.”
So is Grūtas Park ethical? When the history of the USSR is taught in British schools, the Baltic States are a minor footnote. Here, though, the Russian invasion defines a generation.
It is estimated that some quarter of a million Lithuanians were deported during the first ten years of Soviet rule. Many did not survive their time in Siberia.
Today, Russians make up a little less than 6% of the population in Lithuania, and Cyrillic lettering is everywhere, even though Lithuanian uses a Latin script.
Grūtas Park reminds people of the darker side of the aftermath. Two areas of the attraction, the Occupation and Death Spheres, are specifically designed to show the brutality of the regime. One hut places socialist realist propaganda paintings of improbably brawny workers side-by-side with photographs showing the emaciated corpses of Lithuanian freedom fighters. They look like they might be different species. Originally, Malinauskas wanted visitors to arrive on the train, like the deported Lithuanians, but this was – thankfully – considered a step too far.
It feels strange to come as a foreigner and gawp at the ruins of Soviet pageantry, and I am keen to learn why someone would make something like this. Back at my hotel, I look up Malinauskas and find an old Mail on Sunday interview where he reveals that his father, a former police chief, was taken to Siberia during the occupation.
Yet if this personal connection might lend credence to the idea the Park is for education, an entry on another website, a Lithuanian tourist guide, suggests a different picture.
“Special menus and the Soviet-like environment attract people because it seems so exotic for many who came here”, the guide says. “However, there are those who feel nostalgic, and remember their childhood days with a light smile.”
In this sense, Grūtas Park captures the ambiguity of the Soviet legacy. Last year, Lithuania re-introduced conscription after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a sign of renewed complication in the region. For now, however, the statues in the woods stand as a curious reminder of a conflict gone by.
This article appears in the 28 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories