In February, I went to Bulgaria. After a week spent up in the Pirin Mountains, I spent a few days in the capital eating grilled meat and trying valiantly to learn anything about Bulgaria’s time under communism. I wrote about it more in a blog from the time, but essentially, there is very little anywhere in Sofia that addresses that period of Bulgaria’s history. We visited Sofia’s National History Museum and wandered around the entire building before reaching the final room and realising that the museum just stops in 1946. Seriously. There is nothing in the National History Museum that references any of the years between 1946 and now. It was weird and so, so fascinating.
A cursory Google confirmed that Bulgaria is notoriously quiet about its communist history, and that the only spot in the whole city that acknowledges that time is the Museum of Socialist Art, which has a courtyard full of all the communist statues from when Bulgaria was part of the USSR. We visited the museum and I was completely taken with the austere collection of Soviet statues that graced the museum’s small garden.
Anyway, I was researching activities in Budapest to prepare for my upcoming solo weekend, and I came across Memento Park. Memento Park is a small museum, some six miles from the city’s centre, where all the old communist statues are now housed. I was sold.
Sometimes there are moments that reaffirm the essence of who you are. Choosing to wake up early on a Sunday morning and take four different public transport vehicles away from the action in order to look at old statues as a storm rolled through shows me that, however odd, getting deep into these ideas and questions is truly what I want to do. Is that eclectic? Maybe. But the beauty of travelling alone was that I could spend Sunday morning doing exactly what I wanted, even if that was finding this eerie park.
The location of Memento Park feels like a metaphor for Hungary’s uncertainty about their own communist history; out of the way, hard to access, but oppressive when you get up close and still very much present in the periphery. Budapest is altogether more forthcoming about their views on the USSR – they have a museum dedicated to telling the stories of Hungarians under communism and it’s called the House of Terror, which tells you all you need to know about their position on the whole thing. But merely saying “it was terrible” doesn’t delve too deep into the causes, controversies and lasting ramifications of such a divisive, turbulent period that spanned over four decades. Having the most visceral, tangible reminders of this period tucked away in a difficult to reach museum speaks volumes as to how accessible the powers that be in Hungary want this history to be.
In order to reach Memento Park, I had to take the metro, a train and two buses. It took over an hour, but eventually, I was spit out onto a plain sidewalk with a few other earnest tourists. We shuffled along the street together, making our way to large compound down the road, assuming that that had to be the place. The air was humid and dark clouds lay on the horizon; a storm would pass through only an hour later. The entrance to this redbrick courtyard was marked by a huge pair of iron boots, which I would later learn are all that is left of the enormous Stalin statue that was pulled down during an uprising. I was greeted by an impossibly cheery man, his demeanour confusing given that it was 11am on Sunday, it was about to rain, and he was greeting a smattering of people at a forgotten museum. But he gave me my ticket and waved me through to the main attraction.
The space was altogether too large for the old statues. The statues themselves were plenty imposing – one of them must have been ten metres tall – but there were not enough to populate this museum. I wandered around in solitude; there were enough statues and open space that we could be alone with each of the artifacts. There was almost no information, just a tiny metal placard in Hungarian. I walked around quietly, my feet crunching on the pebbles.
The park seemed to me to be overall neutral toward what happened – unlike the House of Terror. Yes, there was a freshly grown and maintained red star of flowers, which suggested some ongoing sympathy with the regime, but the park’s location and relative obscurity speaks more to how forgotten these statues are supposed to be. Even in Memento Park, they were presented without comment, by a cheerful man in an empty courtyard. There was a small exhibition in an adjacent building, which detailed various resistance efforts and showed a documentary about how the regime made films to train informants.
I can only speak from my limited experiences in Eastern Europe, but to me, this region and each country in it certainly seems conflicted about this period of their past. The most striking, evocative mementos are shoved into forgotten corners, because what do you do with items of this nature? What do you do with statues that are both visceral reminders of a traumatic time and historically significant pieces of art? I understand why the government is loath to destroy them. No matter how much we might all want to, we can’t simply erase difficult parts of our history, especially when there are plenty of citizens alive today who were there and remember it. I wonder too if national sensibilities are conflicted; whether parts of Hungary think communism was barbaric and whether others secretly long for that time. The refusal to destroy these figures, but also a refusal to engage with and explain them, speaks to a country undecided, who don’t know what story they want to tell about that time – though I suppose these old, forgotten statues tell a story by themselves.