Grutas Park: a Social Realism Museum Attracts 100,000 Visitors a Year
Village Grutas is located near the small Lithuanian resort town Druskininkai. The village’s name evokes a range of emotions – from outrage to satirical smiles – but leaves no-one in Lithuania indifferent. The reason — its unusual open-air museum, Grutas Park, where the key exhibits are the sculptures of Soviet leaders that long "decorated" squares in Lithuanian cities. These are the monuments in front of which both rallies were held and pioneers took their oaths
GrutasPark, which spans nearly 20 picturesque hectares was recognized as one of the world’s 10 strangest museums in 2011. It is a fairly popular tourist attraction visited by over 100,000 people every year. The territory of the museum is marked by symbolic border posts. After passing posts with the national emblem of the Republic of Lithuania, visitors come face-to-fact with others bearing Soviet emblems and the inscription: “Welcome to the territory of eternal social realism!”
A narrow path leads to the ticket office. On the left, you can see a train with freight cars. The Soviets and their local henchmen boarded up people in cars like this before exiling them to Siberia. On the right, there is a long glass-covered board with clippings from various Lithuanian and foreign newspapers that tell about the museum.
The first sculpture that visitors see is that of Mother Kryzhkalnis. According to the sculptor’s design, it was supposed to symbolize the Red Army that “brought liberation from bourgeois nationalism.” It has a fairly interesting story: the sculpture was made for the Russian city of Alekseyev, but the local communists rejected the gift. The local communist committee secretary said that it had “features that were too un-Russian.” The sculpture stayed in Lithuania and stood for a long time by the road from Kaunas to Klaipeda. The next sculpture, Underground Partisans, weighs over 75 tons and represents Soviet “partisans” led by Antanas Snieckus, the first post-war secretary of the Lithuanian SSR. The guide says that the tires on the truck that carried the “partisans” were replaced 16 times.
We proceed along “Lenin Street,” as it is designated on a plaque. This is no surprise because most of the monuments in the park are dedicated to the “leader of the world proletariat.” Soviet Lithuania obeyed an unwritten rule: “The bigger and more important the city is, the bigger the monument to Lenin it must have.” The biggest one, six meters high, was erected in Vilnius, while two smaller ones stood in Kaunas and Klaipeda, 5.8 m and 5.1 m, respectively. The smallest monument to Lenin was erected in the resort town of Palanga. Now all of them are here, surrounded by fir trees and facing the opposite shore of a small nearby river.
A number of funny stories are linked to the sculptures. For example, people used to joke that it was warmer in Kaunas than in Vilnius, because Lenin was wearing an unbuttoned jacket there in contrast to the overcoat he wore in the capital. Moreover, people notices that he must have borrowed the overcoat from his wife, because the buttons are on the left-hand side.
The other shore of the river is designed in the style of a GULAG: barbed wire, observation towers and barracks.
The road brings us to a civic house. The flags of all Soviet republics are hanging here, as well as red banners that were passed from one group to another. A variety of Lenin and Dzerzhinsky busts, Volga and Moskvich model cars, boxes with decorations, and so on fill the shelves. The administration plans to install a multimedia projector to show Soviet-era documentaries. The next building, Rally Station, welcomes us with a strict order signed by the secretary of a local party organ station: we must come to a party meeting on March 5, 1978. The building houses a huge collection of propaganda, methodology and ideological publications. The walls are hung with Soviet posters sporting quotes from the leaders of the CPSU and urge people to vote for the “bloc of communist and non-partisan candidates.”
Finally, the Art Gallery is filled with traditional social realist paintings: Harvesting, Comrade Budonny and Comrade Dzerzhinsky in the Kremlin, and so on. You can see a miniature copy of Lenin’s father’s house and dolls dressed in the national costumes of all the Soviet republics.
A small zoo and a playground with large swings and a merry-go-round, which are a fond childhood memory to many visitors, are located near the entrance. A mock May 1 celebration takes place every year on a nearby stage. On this day, Lenin “returns to life” and offers kvas or beer and advises visitors to “demand more after the foam has settled.”
Pioneers, who are old enough to be Komsomol members, will serve you drinks in a small coffee shop. They will also offer borshch “Nostalgia”, cutlets “Goodbye, my youth” and kissel “Memory”, as well as tea – in faceted glasses with glass holders and a cube of sugar and cookies – just like the drink was served on Soviet trains. The most expensive dish is called “À la Russe” – sprats with boiled potatoes and onions served on an aluminium platter and supplemented with half a glass of vodka.
A MUSEUM OF THE ABSURD
As you exit the museum, you will almost certainly wonder: What is Grutas Park after all? “An Institute of Marxism and Leninism in the open air,” its opponents would say. “A living history lesson in the open air,” the museum’s creators would counter. Young visitors smile and laugh at many things, but it was in fact an absurd reality in which 4 million Lithuanians lived for over 50 years. In any case, Soviet monuments brought together in one place are an excellent illustration that the historical truth has had victory over official mythology.
HOW TO GET THERE
You can take a bus (UAH 430) or a plane (around UAH 2,500) from Kyiv to Vilnius. A bus ride from Vilnius to Druskininkai (126 km) costs 30 lits (UAH 93). From there you can reach the museum by bus (1.8 lits or UAH 6) or by taxi (10-15 lits or UAH 30-45).
FEES AND LANGUAGES
The entrance fee is 20 lits (UAH 62) for adults and 10 lits (UAH 31) for children aged 6-16. The entrance is free for children under six, journalists, museum workers, guides and the handicapped (1st category - ID required). Information is presented largely in Lithuanian, English and Russian. Audio guides are available in Lithuanian, Russian, English, German, French and Polish for 46 lits (UAH 143).