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Park reminds tourists of the past

<p>You won’t find Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck or Goofy here. Stalin World, a.k.a. Grütas Park, is an open-air museum that collects and showcases relics, bronze busts and memorabilia of Lithuania’s tragic Soviet past. Located some 40 minutes outside the capital city of Vilnius, Stalin World draws tons of Eastern European tourists with its Soviet statues and communist kitsch.</p>

Grütas Park in Lithuania is an open-air museum



Julia Dimon/For Metro Toronto


Grütas Park, an unusual tourist attraction outside the Lithuanian capital, is a collection of Stalin-era statues, bronze busts and communist propaganda.





You won’t find Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck or Goofy here. Stalin World, a.k.a. Grütas Park, is an open-air museum that collects and showcases relics, bronze busts and memorabilia of Lithuania’s tragic Soviet past. Located some 40 minutes outside the capital city of Vilnius, Stalin World draws tons of Eastern European tourists with its Soviet statues and communist kitsch.





An attraction that commemorates Stalin’s murderous regime? What a strange idea. Can you imagine a park nicknamed Hitlerland, Idi Amin-Ville or Ceausescu World?





I pay the park admission and splurge for an English audio guide that’s part boom box, part vintage cellphone. I wrap it around my waist like a fanny pack and make my way along the stony path for a lesson on Lithuania’s grim history.





I learn that, during the Nazi and Soviet occupations, Lithuania saw the murder and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Jews and more than 500,000 Lithuanians, many of whom were either deported, exiled, jailed or shot.





Walking through the forest, I try to absorb the heavy history. I pass gigantic statues of Lenin, Marx and Stalin, through a museum of communist propaganda, to a train car, used to deport Lithuanians to remote parts of Siberia. “Some 28 million people passed through Gulag camps,” blares my audio guide.





The scene is sombre, with dreary weather and Soviet music blasting from tree-mounted speakers. The sky opens up and the clouds spit out rain like they’re watermelon seeds.





I stop a family of four strolling along the two-kilometre path to ask them what they think of this unusual tourist attraction. In broken English, the father tells me, though seeing the statues of his childhood is painful, he wants his own children to learn what happened in their country. He assures me that, though the park recreates the sad history of the Soviet occupation, it’s a fun place to take the kids. It has a mini-zoo and a playground to keep the little ones entertained.





I’m confused by the “tone” of the park. The topic is heavy, yet tourists here seem to take a light, fun approach.





Luckily, I have time to interview the owner of the park. A burly man in his late 60s, Viliumas Malinauskas wears a full jean outfit and chain smokes. Arriving for our meeting on the back of a blue Yamaha ATV, the motor humming like a pimped out lawnmower, the man turns out to be quite the character. He introduces himself as a Lithuanian millionaire who made his money in the mushroom, berry and snail business.





Self-financed, he opened this private park in 2001 to teach new generations about the horrors of the past. The aim of Grütas Park is to remind people what life was like living under a dictatorship, so history will never be repeated.





With souvenir shops selling everything from Marxist postcards to communist paraphernalia, I can’t help but wonder if the park commemorates or commodifies? Viliumas tells me that during the communist era, selling Stalin shot glasses would get you killed.





Opening Grütas Park and selling Stalin souvenirs is a symbol of Lithuania’s freedom, a reminder the Soviet era is over.




  • Watch Julia tonight on Word Travels, airing at 10 p.m. on OLN.





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Freelance writer Julia Dimon is editor of The Travel Junkie and host of Word Travels, a new reality TV-series to be broadcast on OLN in 2008. Contact her at

www.thetraveljunkie.ca

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