Memento Park, outside Budapest, Hungary Yes, you can just feel the exuberance of the Hungarian people as the hated Communist regime collapsed in 1989.
One of the most visible signs of their occupation was the vast array of Socialist Realist “art” used to reinforce their propaganda, left behind. It’s hard to drag a 20-ton statue with you as you are running out the door.
Many of the most-hated pieces were quickly taken care of by the Hungarians. Busts of their supposed leaders could be found hanging by the neck on handy trees. Effigies of Stalin were extremely popular and were violently demolished shortly after the exodus. Almost none remain.
And then someone had the bright idea to retrieve some of these artifacts of the communist era and collect them in a park – the Memento Park. They are arranged thematically to focus on Hungarian-Soviet friendship, the heroes of communism, and idealized concepts of communism.
Greeting visitors are statues of Lenin, Marx and Engels. They managed to survive liberation.
The first round of statues celebrates the Soviet Army’s triumphant rescue of Hungary from the Nazis in 1945. Starting with a giant soldier clutching a flag, we move on to two comrades — the Hungarian worker and the Soviet soldier — shaking hands in a newly found, deeply felt friendship. Behind them, a triumphant worker breaks through a wall to celebrate his labors on behalf of the people.
Then a cycle of celebration of communism. A Hungarian woman and a Soviet woman set loose the doves of of peace. The woman with the palm leaf is so happy about getting rid of those nasty Nazis. And then the Hungarian worker and the Soviet soldier are actually doing a cheer for the same event. (Oops, I may have misinterpreted their reason for joy at the beginning.)
Heroes take on real personas as several outstanding leaders of the communist era emerge. Georgi Dimitrov’s statue was supposedly a present from “the working people of Sofia.” (They should have settled for a gift certificate.) The grandfather of Hungarian communism, Béla Kun, is shown in the center of a trio with two admirers. And then there’s good old Lenin, in his famous “hailing a cab” pose.
The large group on the hillside is unusually dramatic and human for this genre. It celebrates the 100th anniversary of Béla Kun’s birth and shows the progress from the bourgeois Habsburg Empire on the left to the workers’ uprising to the Red Army with bayonets, with Béla leading them on.
Unfortunately, poor loyal Béla Kun was a victim of his own ideology, and was executed in the Soviet Union during one of Stalin’s purges of the 1930’s.
On to more concepts that needed reinforcing. The workers’ hands holding a sphere represented the ideals of communism, protected by the workers. The Hungarian soldiers who fought against Franco line up for their place in history. And then there are the Little Drummers and the Pioneers, youth organizations set up to indoctrinate them early.
Our favorite is the communist worker, charging into the future with the Soviet flag. Evidently, naughty and irreverent photos are often taken here. At the time, many in Budapest thought this was a thermal bath attendant running after a customer who forgot his towel. An understandable mistake.
One long white wall tells the story of darkness moving into the light of the Soviet system, and then nirvana, with everyone looking the same and lined up in order, admiring a bountiful harvest. Nearby, a fallen hero collapses, dying yet somehow victorious in true Soviet propaganda fashion. Next door there’s a plundered monument, showing how eager Hungarians were to rip those pages from their history.
And then there’s Stalin’s tribute. This re-creates the giant grandstand that once stood near a city park. Leaders once posed at the foot of a gigantic Stalin statue to do their business surveying the troops. But, during the 1956 uprising, protestors cut Stalin off at the knees and left only the boots. The whole thing later disappeared without a trace.
Two barracks represent the gulags where dissidents lived during the bad times. One showed actual training films for the half of the Hungarian population that was recruited to spy on the other half. We learned a lot about blackmail and how to pass secret messages.
Today was truly an exciting moment in our survey of recent Hungarian history. It actually gave us a chill.
Just to lighten the mood, Don is off tonight to the Budapest Opera, to see a five-hour performance of Parsifal. I’m sure you join me in wishing him a wonderful time.