One of the most fascinating places we visited was Budapest’s Memento Park. After the fall of the USSR, and finally, by 1991, when the last Soviet soldier left Hungary, the propagandistic art of the Soviets was rounded up and sent to the outskirts of town. Hungarians were not interested in being constantly reminded of their long occupation by letting the heavy, prosaic, Socialist Realist art stay where it was littered through Budapest. But they didn’t want to completely destroy it either. Instead, a young artist won a competition for his satirical design which included the displaced “Art,” but also made commentary on it as well. Memento Park now stands as a reminder of what once was a reality in Hungary from the end of WWII until 1991. For many Hungarians, what they learn by visiting places like Memento Park and the Museum of Terror is shocking because the tales they hear do not align with what they were taught in school. As most know, what really happened in the USSR and what was “pretended” to have happened was rarely in agreement. Renaming streets, removing monuments, and rectifying history are just some of the things that Hungarians needed to do to reclaim their own nation back.
An excellent example of this can be found in one of the most iconic monuments in Budapest. High on a hill, overlooking both Buda and Pest, stands a very tall monumental statue depicting “Liberty” as a woman who holds a palm leaf high above her head. She can be seen from everywhere in the city. During the Soviet occupation, underneath her, at the base, stood a massive Russian soldier holding an automatic weapon. No longer, however. The soldier was removed and placed in Memento Park.
I don’t want to give away all of the symbolism or give readers a play by play of all of the symbolism found in Memento Park, because this really is a place that should be experienced first hand. Art in the Soviet Union, starting in the late 20s and well into the 60s and even much, much later in many areas, had to adhere to very strict “guidelines” that were forced upon artists. The art and music had to be traditional, easily understood by even the most simple peasant, and align with the goals of the Party and present communism in a positive light. This kind of art is called Socialist Realism. Not surprisingly, the “Art” is not particularly creative; rather, it is heavy, old-fashioned, overtly propagandistic, and lacking depth. Here are some examples:
But rather than just arrange all of the forgotten pieces, the designing artist used them to make an Anti-Communist statement. Here is where the symbolism gets a little involved, so I will just offer a few examples.
All of the “Art” is propagandistic, and it is interesting to see pieces that are called one thing based on the pro-Communist version of history versus the Hungarian viewpoint. In 1956, after student demonstrations in Budapest, tempers and passions were running high and the young people revolted against the oppressive government. To the Hungarians, these people were freedom fighters and died heroes. To the communists, this was not an “uprising” but a counter-revolution, and the victims were those who fought for the Party against the subversive counter-revolutionists. Check out the message of this piece:
The students also toppled a massive statue of Stalin in 1956. All that was left standing were his boots.
Under communism, boy scouts and other such organizations without a political agenda were banned. Instead, children participated in “pioneer” programs, which this relief depicts. Sometimes the propaganda is subtle, sometimes it is overt.
I have just given you a tiny sampling of this interesting place. We had a huge advantage because we went with a guide who explained it all to us, and who also had a driver with a van who could get us easily on the outskirts of the city. If you are in Budapest, don’t miss this insightful monument. If you don’t take a guide, be sure to purchase the book which explains the symbolism from the gift shop. If you just walk through it with no context, you won’t understand it. It is something that could be breezed through without thinking twice about it. I think the story of Central Europe is one that should be told more often. Let’s spread the word!