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Lithuania Day 5: Stalin World

Another day, another roadtrip. skidspoppe and I were up and out of the house by 8 AM, heading south toward a resort town called Druskininkai (say "drush-kin-in-kay") where, on the outskirts, lies a park that I had just had to see.

The drive took about 90 minutes and took us to the far southern border of the country. (I continued to be impressed by how small Lithuania really is. You can drive across the country in about four hours east to west, maybe five if the weather is bad. North to south, the drive time is probably about the same.) The road reminded me of the road from I-5 to the Oregon coast: forests broken up by farmland. The only things missing were the signs pointing tourists to wineries and wine-tasting rooms. Most of the signs with arrows were pointing toward small towns. Otherwise, it was more green, rolling farmland and stands of tall, thin trees.

Druskininkai is known in the Baltics and Russia as a major resort town because of its mineral springs. Its main attractions are its spas . . . and the peculiar sculpture park to the east: Gruto Parkas, which some people have dubbed "Stalin World."

Grutas, the place which this park calls home, is a small town with tiny houses, ramshackle places, many of which need paint, with correspondingly small barns. Some of these homes are within mere feet of each other; some are a little more spaced out, but they appear to be haphazardly placed. Grutas is clearly mainly a residential area and doesn't, somehow, seem to have profited from its neighboring, bizarre theme park.

Stalin World
Gruto Parkas is a sort of three-in-one amusement park: part zoo, part kiddy park, and part home for displaced Soviet statues, sculpture, and other Soviet memorabilia. The idea behind the place is to create a living record of the atrocities perpetrated on Lithuania under Soviet governance. Somehow, with the zoo animals lowing mournfully and the kiddy rides all unused so late in the season, each segregated into its own area, it can't project any kind of memorial sensation. The two trails that feature the sculptures are more like an art park, a tribute to the blocky, soulless style of Soviet art and portraiture. Every now and then as you stroll the trail, you can hear the strains of some tinkly Soviet anthem, and the contrast between its happy, martial sound and the descriptions of Soviet enforcement is stark and disconcerting. A canal runs along one side of the park, with reproductions of Soviet watchtowers guarding the park perimeter. Statue after bust after statue features some Soviet hero. Lenin features prominently in these portrayals, shown as, alternately, an intellectual giant with a scroll or book in hand, a visionary with his overcoat wafting out behind him like a superhero's cape, or man of the people with a worker's cap in his hand. Stalin is shown as a stalwart military figure. Other lesser known heroes of the revolution also have places on the trails, men and women with square jaws, marching with determination into a Soviet future.

Here and there along the trail are small indoor museums. One was devoted to detailing the history of Soviet occupation of Lithuania. More than fifty captions tell the story in Lithuanian and in English, so I was able to read some of it. The wall was papered with reproductions of newspapers from the era. Photographs told the story as well. I was struck by how close history is in this place; liberation took place only 20 years ago and, again, I was put in mind of the story of Lina's family and their stay in Siberia. One wall featured relief portrait after relief portrait of Lenin, basically the same profile over and over again. It's the Great Lie in sculpture, a fascist deification of the great leader, squinting toward a grim future. Unnerving.

We navigated the trails in about 90 minutes or so and then, ironically, stopped into one of the several gift shops in the park. I picked up a pin for my bag, but saw shot glasses, flasks, magnets, and key chains all emblazoned with the name and logo of the place, or with portraits of Stalin and Lenin on them. These men would be rolling in their graves at the consumerist culture that now encompasses their legacy here. It's kind of remarkable.

We spent the balance of the day in Druskininkai, roaming its pedestrian thoroughfare. It's mainly a sort of promenade with not much to show except strange little sculptures (a gila lizard, a cartoony eagle, and so on) and well-tended greenery. Skids says that in summer it's lined with artists and craftspeople selling their wares. I'm sure it's more lively than in the dark, damp autumn. The souvenir shops are nothing to write home about. Many of the buildings struck me with their disrepair, places that clearly seemed built to attract the tourist trade, which struck me as just odd. We did see a small, beautiful, blue-and-white Russian Orthodox Church featuring several onion-shaped domes, but were shooed out by a woman who had just mopped the floors. Its exterior was in the midst of renovation, getting a fresh coat of paint and new landscaping.

Back to Kaunas
We headed back to Kaunas after our stroll to meet friends of Skids' for dinner. There was pizza and wine and much pleasant company and conversation. I found myself wishing for more time with these folks, but they had other plans. We had drinks with the previously-mentioned Monika, and then, again, it was time to hit the sack, where I was probably asleep before my head hit the pillow.

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