Lithuania’s Grutas Park: Reminders of a Dark Past

Lithuania's Grutas Park: Reminders of a Dark Past
The sun is out and mosquitoes form small clouds over the path ahead of me. As I focus my camera on Stalin’s moustache, stout Russian voices break into song. I can’t help myself and begin to laugh. I am in a Lithuanian theme park called Grutas Park and it has to be the strangest place I have ever been.Grutas Park is southern Lithuania’s biggest tourist attraction and has been open since 2001. Grutas was the brainchild of mushroom entrepreneur Viliumas Malinauskas, who bought all the dismantled Soviet sculptures in the decade following the country’s independence of 1991.

A stoic statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin resides in the park.
A stoic statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin resides in the park.

He realized that after the downfall of Communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union, all the statues from this era of Lithuanian history would need a home, resulting in Grutas Park’s existence.

As I continue down the path, past the gray statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin on my left, the Soviet marching music plays from loudspeakers on my right, which are attached to imitation Gulag watchtowers in a forest by a small stream.

Each statue has an English translation of where it stood in the Communist era. The Stalin statue stood outside the train station in Vilnius, which must have cheered commuters as they shuffled to their work.

However, not all the statues are of Stalin, Marx, and Lenin. Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the KGB’s forerunner, the Cheka, is present looking, very sleek and sinister in a long cape. There are also statues of Lithuanian heroes such as 20-year-old freedom fighter Maryte Melnikaite, who was shot by the Nazis in 1943, and of the Four Communards, the underground communist leaders who were shot in 1926 in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city.

After an hour-long tour of the statues, I go to the canteen and am given a choice between a lengthy ‘normal’ menu and a much shorter ‘nostalgia’ menu, specializing in Soviet-style cuisine. I decide to indulge in the spirit of the park and select my lunch from one of the three nostalgia dishes offered.

The picture of the “Goodbye Youth” chop indicates to me that there is no actual meat on the chop – just bone with some marrow attached. “Hello Hunger” might be a better name.

A serene stream leads the way to the many busts and statues that adorn the park.
A serene stream leads the way to the many busts and statues that adorn the park.

I am left with a choice between the single sausage draped elegantly over the side of a metal dish or “Sprat Done The Russian Way.” The sprat is garnished with a single ring of raw onion and the ‘Russian Way’ is to have a glass of vodka with the sprat.

To complete the theme, pictures of Lenin and Stalin adorn the glass. I choose the sausage.

The museum has an eclectic collection of Communist memorabilia including “Vote for me” posters from a time when it obviously wasn’t popular to look happy when posing for election photos. The military men look especially stern. This contrasts sharply with a painting of  Stalin on the opposite wall.

Looking every inch the benevolent, cuddly uncle in a dressing gown, Stalin is smoking a pipe and reading a book in his library. He looks very calm and I have to remind myself that for every book behind him in the painting, Stalin had about 1.5 million people murdered.

Stalin’s popularity was such that when he died, almost all the statues of him were immediately destroyed and replaced by ones of Lenin, who had died nearly 30 years earlier. The rule was: the bigger the city, the bigger the Lenin.

The art gallery contains a huge selection of art works that define Social Realism: dreadful tapestries of parallel and perpendicular colored lines; muscular and angular statues of Soviet heroes; and for me the piece de resistance, hanging on the wall in a wooden frame is a three-dimensional ceramic swine herder, whose piglets are fat, pink and almost ready to be fed to the masses. Once seen, it won’t be easily forgotten.

The statue of Maryte Melnikaite beckons to visitors.
The statue of Maryte Melnikaite beckons to visitors.

Beneath the humor there is a method at work. Preserving these mementoes of the dark Communist past keeps that era alive for future generations to see, ensuring that the specter of Soviet domination never returns. I think of the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow, which Lenin insisted should be preserved so its riches could be seen by all and be a reminder of what the Soviet Revolution overthrew.

If You Go

Gruto’s Park

Julian Worker has written articles on Middle Eastern and European architecture for the US magazine Skipping Stones and has been published in The Toronto Globe and Mail, Fate Magazine, The National Catholic Register, and Northwest Travel. His photos have appeared in travel guides by National Geographic, Thomas Cook and The Rough Guides.