I have come across some interesting and sometimes bizarre exhibitions on my travels, but a collection of Communist-era statues dotted around the estate of an eccentric mushroom farmer is certainly one of the most unique I’ve seen to date. Grūtas Park, around eight kilometres east of the Lithuanian spa town of Druskininkai, offers a peek into life during the most horrific and oppressive period in Lithuania’s history. Yet, far from portraying the great suffering and fear experienced by Lithuanians during this time, Grūtas Park prefers to poke fun at the regime behind it with many parts of the exhibition, particularly of Lenin, coming across as disturbingly comical.
During the 1970s, huge bronzed statues of key communist figureheads – most standing over three metres high – were erected in the squares of every town and city across the Baltic states. These were duly taken down in 1991 after the three countries finally won their independence from the Soviet Union, and turned their backs on Communism. Lithuania managed to salvage many of these statues intact. But, with no available funds to melt the vast number of statues down, and with no idea what to actually do with these now hated and unwanted objects, the collection was thrown into disused warehouses and abandoned until Viliumas Malinauskas came forward years later with an idea to create a public sculpture park with them.
Together with other post-war Soviet memorabilia, including a very impressive collection of authentic Moscow 1980 Olympic Games souvenirs, Malinauskas has peppered his estate with a varied choice of these statues. Since 2001, visitors have been able to walk around, touch and even take a selfie with Stalin and Lenin in the park without dire repercussions. The whole setting, presentation and in some cases the blatantly comical positioning of these statues by Malinauskas, has led to Grūtas Park being nicknamed “Stalin World”. Yet, as most of the collection is made up of likenesses of the leader of the Russian Revolution – the centenary of this event being marked this month (November 2017) – surely a more suitable nickname for Malinauskas’s sculpture park would be “Lenin Land”?
Lenin is prolific but not exclusive at Grūtas Park. There are statues and busts of other leading communist figureheads on display there as well, albeit less well known outside Lithuania.
The immortalisation of Lithuanian communist heroes in bronze and stone was not limited to men. The park also has examples portraying key Lithuanian female partisans. It is easy, especially for a westerner, to chuckle at how almost sexless these particular statues appear.
Yet, it is also rather refreshing to see portrayals of women – regardless of whom and what their politics were – that do not obsess solely on their physical female attractiveness. These women were held in high esteem not because they were perfect looking women (by western standards) but because they were perfect fighting comrades. Their gender was irrelevant and they were treated, or at least honoured, equally to their male counterparts.
That said, the Soviet Union did not entirely avoid recreating the female form in bronze or stone. Softer, more graceful and more physically feminine likenesses were created, although these were used to represent the Soviet Union in the guise of the ultimate ‘Mother’ figure, rather than of an actual female individual.
Grūtas Park is open daily from 9am until sunset. Entrance costs (2017) 7.50€ for adults and 3€ for children.
As well as the sculpture park, there are various indoor galleries and museums on the grounds, and even a petting zoo and playground. Entrance to all of these activities are included in the ticket price.
The turning for Grūtas Park is well signposted on the well-maintained Lithuanian A4 main road directly linking Vilnius with Druskininkai and the south. The drive from Vilnius to Grūtas Park and Druskininkai is around two-and-a-half hours. There are a number of Vilnius-Druskininkai coaches daily, and most coach drivers will happily stop at the turn off for Grūtas Park if asked to do so beforehand. Click here for timetables and ticket prices.
If staying and/or setting off for the park from Druskininkai, bus routes 2 and 2A (weekdays), 2B and 2C (mainly at the weekends) can be picked up outside the main tourist information office along M.K. Ciurlionio street, and all four routes terminate at the park. There is approximately one bus an hour in both directions from 11am until 10pm. Timetables can be found at the bus stop. If driving to the park from Druskininkai, just follow the A4 out of town north and look out for the sign pointing to the turn off for the park. There is a small parking fee on arrival (only a few Euros) which is paid separately to the attendant in the hut leading to the ticket office.
The park is well laid out, wheelchair-friendly and it is very easy to navigate around. Information plaques are in Lithuanian, Russian and English accompanied in most cases with photos of the statues in their original positions around Lithuania before 1991. The park has plenty of toilet facilities, a canteen and souvenir shops to buy a comical Soviet Union themed memento.
More information can be found on the official Grūtas Park website here.
Druskininkai … ‘carving’ a unique identity for itself with the help of sculptor Antanas Česnulis
Bratislava … the Soviet era architectural tour
Tallinn … and the KGB Museum at the Hotel Viru