A friend of mine who was born and raised in communist Lithuania has a trendy tee-shirt with a hammer and sickle on it.
“How can you of all people wear that thing?” I once asked him. But he didn’t see a problem with it.
“Soviet Union is place where I grew up.”
“But what about the atrocities?” I demanded. “What about all the people who were tortured and exiled? And what about the poor Lithuanian children who could not attend Holy Mass?”
“Those things didn’t happen to me,” my friend responded. “I was just regular kid.”
“But what about the mystery meat? Or the suppression of your native culture? Or the fact that you weren’t allowed to leave?”
Just outside the town of Druskininkai in Lithuania, on a pretty plot of fields and forest, is a sculpture park full of old Soviet statues collected after the fall of communism by one Viliumas Malinauskas, a guy who made his fortune in the mushroom canning business. The entrance is lined with a few of the original cattle cars that Stalin used to transport people to exile in Siberia, and when we visit it’s as far as my Uncle R, our host for the day, will accompany us.
“Why do you want to see this place?” he asks me. “It makes me sick.”
My Uncle R was born in Lithuania but spent most of his life in America and returned to his homeland as an adult. He remembers the war “like it was yesterday,” remembers fleeing the approaching front and riding in those cattle cars. He’d have been happy if all the Soviet-era relics had been destroyed, because they represent what invaded his happy childhood and turned the country he remembered with such nostalgia into a totally different place.
But I hadn’t lived through that history, had only learned about it from my grandparents’ generation and the Lithuanian Saturday school I attended as a child. For me, a park full of communist statues was more a novelty than anything else.
The park’s website states that its aim 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.” But walking through, it’s not altogether clear whether the place is condemning communism, or gently extolling an era that, some would tell you, wasn’t all that bad.
Many of the statues are enormous and displayed individually in manicured enclaves. There is a room full of Soviet literature and art depicting famous comrades. In the restaurant, you can eat anything from escargot to a Soviet-style meal of borscht and mystery meat. You can buy kitchy souvenirs in the gift shop, wander through a room full of devil sculptures, or take a break as your children amuse themselves on the quaint playground.
And among the larger-than-life statues of Soviet bigwigs, there is a mini zoo where boars and gerbils live side by side.
There are people in Lithuania who feel that, on balance, life was better under the Soviets.
“Was not top quality,” explains my aunt Ona’s husband, Kostas, “But least you always have job.”
And if you knew the right people, you could secure a comfortable two bedroom apartment, a decent car, or quality meat and cigarettes from the black market. Now you can buy everything under the sun in Lithuania, but, according to Kostas, despite nascent government assistance programs, there’s no guarantee you won’t die destitute or be able to feed your family from one minute to the next.
“Lithuanians no help each other,” says Kostas. “Plus, everyone leaving to work somewhere else.”
Communism’s ironic legacy is that instead of creating cultures where citizens band together for the good of the whole, it has raised a generation that feels every man must fend for himself. And of course, it must be a difficult transition to go from a place where life was “not top quality” but provided a certain amount of security, to a free and beautiful land of non-guaranteed plenty.
But Kostas is obviously proud of his country, and during our trip he often asks me, “What you think now of our Lithuania? Is very different country from last time you visit? Better, no?”
I tell him “Yes.”
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