Welcome to StalinWorld

[ Source: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/World/Russia/2001-02/stalin150201.shtml ]

Welcome to StalinWorld

You won't believe how bad it is

(or even that it exists. But it does, comrades, it really does)

By Robert Chalmers

15 February 2001


Tasteless?" Mr Malinauskas stared out towards the electric fence, the moat and the guard towers that enclose StalinWorld, the theme park in which he is faithfully recreating life in a Siberian labour camp. "I wouldn't say so." Viliumas Malinauskas, the former heavyweight wrestling champion of Lithuania, charges tourists the equivalent of 80p to enter the park, with its narrow wooden roadways and clumps of birch trees. There are plans to have visitors herded into a reception centre by guides dressed as Red Army soldiers.

As a family day out, critics say, it represents an unpalatable cross between Disneyland and the Gulag. Yet, undeterred, thousands of sightseers have already visited the 500-acre estate in the south of Lithuania, 80 miles from the capital Vilnius. Malinauskas hopes the park will eventually attract two million visitors a year.

Certain refinements, such as the concealed loudspeakers that play tape-recorded screams of women and children, are not yet in operation.

Coach parties, including school groups, arrive every day. Visitors wander round the site, gazing up at the 53 huge metal statues of Soviet heroes dotted around. The sculptures, in bronze, copper or iron, are up to 30ft tall and most weigh more than 20 tons. They were proudly displayed at prominent sites around Lithuania before the country declared independence in 1990.

"I have 12 Lenins, one Stalin and an Engels," says Malinauskas. On the basis that you have to provide something for everyone, he has also constructed a small, fenced-off area which contains a pig, two wild boars and "a quite remarkable selection of fowl".

"The Mushroom King", as Viliumas Malinauskas is known locally, made his fortune by exporting bottled chanterelles, ceps and other varieties prized by wealthy gourmets. But, while his preserved fungi have excited universal delight among mushroom fans from Riga to Los Angeles, his latest venture has been less widely applauded. Several critics ­ one a priest ­ have publicly recommended dynamite.

"But who are these guys?" Malinauskas asks. "They are nobodies. They are morons in a trance."

We walk out of the estate, through a wire fence, into his private grounds. The area is protected by armed guards, two Dobermans and another dog, which, the entrepreneur assures me, "only looks like a wolf".

The decor in Mr Malinauskas's own house ­ a bizarre three-storey residence that might have come straight from the set of that other much-cherished celebration of totalitarian chic, The Prisoner ­ is in marked contrast to the modest facilities in the park's Siberian-style outhouses. You enter a marble entrance hall, then climb a flight of steps that leads up past an aviary ­ containing a white cockatoo, which greets you in Lithuanian. At the top of the stairs, an opulent lobby is lined with cabinets displaying the hundreds of silver trophies Malinauskas has won for his mushrooms and wrestling.

We sit down in his large office. Propped in a corner by his desk is a shotgun. A plaque on a nearby wall commemorates his election this year as southern Lithuania's "Liberal Man of the Year".

He is a whisky enthusiast and a heavy smoker. In a nation where manhood is more openly prized than in some Western European countries, Malinauskas, whose main enthusiasms include televised kick-boxing and his pet elk, is significantly less in touch with his feminine side than the average Lithuanian male.

Pronounced clinically dead after a pulmonary thrombosis in 1998, the mushroom producer, now 59, had recovered sufficiently to take part in the regional arm-wrestling championship earlier this year, carrying off first prize as usual.

He reminded me strongly of a character from a Hollywood film, not one individual actor, but a type: the stock figure who, advancing during a bar-room fight, has a bourbon bottle broken over his head and, after briefly assuming a vaguely quizzical expression, keeps on coming. "When I start something," Malinauskas says, "I finish it."

It would be wrong, though, to presume that he is entirely without diplomatic ability. Mindful of recent criticism, he has erected no signposts to the new attraction, situated outside the small spa town of Druskininkai. Though the estate is known as StalinWorld to most beyond its gates, Malinauskas prefers the official, if less catchy, name of Grutos Park. He bought the land, in one of the poorest parts of Lithuania, with £17,000 he earned as a farm manager during perestroika and has since spent £500,000 developing the park. The idea of a Soviet theme came to him three years ago. "I was visiting a factory," he says, "and spotted Lenin's detached head, lying on the ground. That was the moment."

The statues were handed over to him by the Lithuanian government two years ago. A 20ft Lenin that used to tower above Vilnius's main square has lost his thumb since arriving. The heaviest statue, which depicts a group of Soviet guerrillas, weighs 47 tons. "It was welded together in Minsk," Malinauskas tells me. "When we first loaded it on the truck, 16 tyres popped like blisters."

Each sculpture occupies a small clearing in the woods; the area round them is not tended and many are becoming overgrown and covered in cobwebs. "He was a cruel tyrant responsible for the genocide of 33 million people," one guide says of the 20ft Lenin. "We have noticed that a small bird is nesting in his thumb."

Malinauskas claims that he was initially surprised by the controversy his park has generated, even though 200,000 Lithuanians were sent to Soviet prisons and 30,000 disappeared to the Siberian Gulags, never to return. He points out that one poll showed 63 per cent of Lithuanians in favour of the park. "It is very easy for a younger generation to forget," he says. "And today, not so far away, there are people telling us what a great system we lived in."

There are certain indications that his motivations are not purely those of a social historian. A few hundred yards from his office window, for instance, stands a large, green, Soviet locomotive. Malinauskas's original plan was to renovate a railway track which would have led all the way to Vilnius. There, visitors would have been herded by uniformed KGB men into replicas of the cattle trucks used to take Lithuanians to the Gulags. This ambitious scheme has had to be scaled down in the face of widespread outrage, though he still hopes that "they will be deported right into our information centre".

Malinauskas insists that he is the last person to require lessons on the brutality of the Soviet regime. "When I was seven," he says, "my father, who was a chief of police before the Soviet occupation, was taken to Siberia."

While his father was away, the family existed on £10 a year earned by his mother, and two bags of coarse wheat they were given each autumn. "He was a powerfully built man, like I am," Malinauskas recalls. "When he came back ­ I was 17 at the time ­ he was almost dead from malnutrition. He had survived by eating wheat husks given to him by Vietnamese prisoners. Two years later he was dead."

Opposition to the park is led by a loose coalition of religious and political groups called Labora. Several of their members recently abandoned a hunger strike. "This differed from a normal hunger strike," Malinauskas says, "in that they were paid recruits who had breakfast every morning and a massive blow-out every night. They seemed to thrive on it. Skipping lunch pepped them up."

Malinauskas recently added new sculptures to the park, which caricature his leading opponents. "One of the ridiculed activists, Leonas Kerosierius, said: 'I do not dispute his family's suffering. Christ had 12 disciples and they each shared one experience. But there is always one who will betray you. Viliumas Malinauskas is our Judas Iscariot.'"

Kerosierius does show signs of having become somewhat over-preoccupied with StalinWorld. (The statues, he tells me at one point, could give a negative impression of Lithuania both to European visitors "and people from other planets".)

Outraged observers in distant galaxies may be disappointed to learn that Kerosierius does not, for the moment at least, advocate violence. Another member of Labora recently told a journalist of his intention to "punch Malinauskas on the nose, like a man" ­ a threat that suggests that this activist, who is based in Vilnius, may not have encountered the Liberal Man of the Year in the flesh. One who has, the Christian Democrat MP Algirdas Patackas (also pilloried in StalinWorld) has urged that the sculptures be blown up ­ not just once, but repeatedly. "Once I have left parliament," he said recently, "I will permit myself a certain licence. Their days of detonation may not be over."

As I took a last walk round the park with Malinauskas, however, a young man from Vilnius was sarcastically raising his bottle of lager to the lips of another party hero. "For that," Malinauskas says, "he would have gone straight to Siberia. He'd have been transported the same day."

Pacing the wooden walkway that leads through the forest, Viliumas Malinauskas ponders: "This park is my legacy ­ my gift to future generations."

Towering above him, the vast metal Lenin ­ the hand with the missing thumb extended as if enticing the next pair of nesting birds ­ stares towards the horizon, eyes radiating a selfless commitment to some distant yet unextinguished dream. Time will tell whether the Mushroom King's grand scheme proves to be any more fulfilling or sustainable a vision.


© Mail on Sunday Review


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