Monday, 15 December 2014

Soviet chic? Exploring Eastern Europe's statue dilemma

When it comes to Soviet-era sculptures in Eastern Europe, the only collective noun that suits is "an embarrassment of statues". After the fall of the Iron Curtain, what could be done with all these furrowed brows, towering Stalins and farm maidens toiling in the field?

In some cases, where Soviet sympathies simmered beneath the surface (or indeed where statues formed a structural part of a building), the mighty sculptures stayed put. Elsewhere, statues were hauled out of cities into "statue graveyards"; no longer colouring the city's character with their raised scythes and righteously pointing weapons, they became a snapshot of the era, to be considered from a safe distance.

A sky-piercing statue in Budapest's Memento Park. Image © Anita Isalska
These outdoor museums can be fascinating places. Budapest's Memento Park presents its Soviet-era statues with one eyebrow firmly raised. You can buy a scented candle in the shape of Lenin's head in their gift shop; perhaps you'll take it home to add some fragrance to a relaxing evening spent watching Vlad Ilyich's cranium smoulder into a shapeless lump.

Soviet salutes in Budapest's Memento Park. Image © Anita Isalska
Where the statues are abstracted, like these stylised Hungarian soldiers, it's easier to admire without feeling awkward. For all that they represent, they are anonymous enough to be appreciated as artwork. They call to mind knotty Futurist sculptures, there's a pleasing uniformity, and we can gawp at them without feeling the full weight of history.

Lenin gesturing towards... a flock of peacocks, probably. Image © Anita Isalska

Statues of Soviet leaders are another matter entirely. The figurehead of a regime who brought pain and misery to a country can't easily be viewed with detachment. To make these statues palatable, eyebrows need to be raised ever higher. Like in Grūtas Park near Druskininkai in Lithuania, where saluting Lenins jostle with zoo animals in what must be one of the world's most surreal days out.

A nonchalant zebra in Grūtas Park. Image © Anita Isalska
Grūtas Park's mission statement is "to provide an opportunity for Lithuanian people, visitors coming to our country as well as future generations to see the naked Soviet ideology which suppressed and hurt the spirit of our nation for many decades". Some of this is done with unflinching exhibitions and chilling reminders of the era's repression and coercion, like watchtowers dotted around the park. But whether intentionally or not, the zoo animals juxtaposed with looming Lenins undermine the regime with a whiff of the absurd.

One of several watchtowers in Lithuania's Grūtas Park. Image © Anita Isalska
Things get more complex where post-Soviet humour mingles with nostalgia. Prague's Museum of Communism is scathing, yet the souvenir shop is filled with delightfully stylish postcards and postcards, that capture a feisty, optimistic spirit. Tucking into a hearty plate of food at Lenin's Mating Call in St Petersburg, Russia, it's hard to tell if the Soviet decor is poking fun or wistful homage.

Zov Ilicha ('Lenin's Mating Call') cafe in St Petersburg. Image © Anita Isalska
Statue graveyards and Soviet caricatures can be ways of processing past trauma, by containing these loaded symbols or giving them an absurd context. What could deflate the hammer & sickle more than reducing it to a trimming that hangs over your plate of pelmeni? But the whiff of nostalgia you're detecting is real. And the coexistence of revulsion for the Soviet era and nostalgia for it is the most troubling dilemma of all.

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