About Us | Bookmark Us     

Back in the USSR: reexamining the Soviet past

"Back in the USSR…you don't know how lucky you are…to be back in the USSR…" That ironic refrain from the Beatles' 1968 hit song paints a different picture of the Soviet Union than most would have imagined then or now. Nearly one generation has passed since the fall of the communism in Eastern Europe, and we now begin to see a certain nostalgia developing for those times. USSR t-shirts abound, and we can see people wearing them in London and Paris, just as much as in Riga or Moscow.

One can't help but wonder, however, at this selective memory – people wax nostalgic for the Soviet times that meant horrible pain and suffering for so many. While the sight of a red t-shirt with a Nazi swastika or the lightning-bolt letters "SS" would send shivers up one's spine, that same red shirt adorned with a hammer and sickle evokes nothing less than a smirk. H ow do we remember the Soviet times, and why do we so easily forget or ignore the bitter reality of that regime? Although real vestiges of the former times are rapidly disappearing in these parts, one can still catch a glimpse of the old Soviet Union in various places throughout the Baltics.

Perhaps it is an example of Soviet architecture looming on the horizon, a memorial dedicated to victims of the Soviet terror, or even an entire theme park devoted to Socialist Realist art. The tourism industry in the Baltics is greedily cashing in on the widespread curiosity and nostalgia for days gone by, and finding a variety of ways to offer the Soviet "reality tour" that gives the most vivid picture of life in the Soviet Union. While on the one hand it seems only fair that these new-found entrepreneurs are at least able to capitalize on their countries' suffering, one can't help but wonder whether this Disneyland gloss over the harsh truth goes a bit too far in ignoring the true reality of those times.

The Soviet Realality
Tour In Riga there are many places to revisit the communist past, from the glorious TV Tower – built from 1979-1986, it is the tallest tower in the EU – to the Academy of Sciences, the Stalinist wedding cake building that graces the skyline of nearly every Soviet city, which is still adorned with hammers and sickles on the façade. Across the river from Riga's Old Town lays Uzvaras Park (Victory Park), a huge, green park capped with a monstrous concrete construction commemorating the end of World War II.

While many deplore the monument, either for its aesthetics or what it represents, others revere what it, in their eyes, stands for: the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. At the corner of Stabu Iela and Brivibas Iela sits the massive, looming former KGB building, also known as the "Corner House." While at the moment it remains unoccupied, a small plaque commemorates the victims who suffered torture and interrogation inside. There are several tourist companies currently offering a "Soviet Tour" of Riga, and most of these buildings are stops along the way.

Karostastasta Prison
One place that goes a bit further in conveying the message about what life was like in the Soviet Union is the Karosta prison in Karosta, Latvia, just outside of Liepaja. Karosta is a former military city, built and designed to house members of the Soviet Army and their families. The prison had functioned since 191900 as a detention center for soldiers and sailors. Nowadays actors at the prison attempt to recreate the real experience of a Soviet Prison. The experience is apparently so intense that guests are required to sign a release form, which states that they must "follow the rules." If not, there will be consequences: "in case of disobedience prisoners may be punished (physical exercise, cleaning works, exclusion from the show)."

There is also the option to spend a night in the prison, with all of the experiences that that would entail. W hile some may think that this provides the "ultimate" Soviet experience, one can't help but wonder what kind of experience this really is. Sure, the actors aim to recreate the terror, harsh conditions and frightening experiences of a Soviet Prison. While one may indeed experience those feelings throughout the duration of their stay, the reality is that he or she gets to leave at any time.

Stalin World
Stalin World (or Grutas Park), near Druskininkai in Lithuania, recreates the fantasy-land of the Soviet Union that ideologues proclaimed and promulgated in their propaganda. Visiting this place is as macabre as macabre can be, with jovial Soviet anthems playing in the background, and the sound of happy children frolicking about the humongous playground or co-mingling with the animals at the park's petting zoo. At the entrance one notices that the area is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, meant to imitate the border zone that was virtually impossible to cross during the Cold War days.

This one is passable for the mere price of a few Rubles (well, Litas, actually). A ceremonious walkway leads you past busts of Lenin and other Soviet leaders, directly into the forest. It is here that you will find the playground, cafeteria and petting zoo, and hear children screaming with glee. It is immediately apparent that these colorful jungle gyms are most certainly from the capitalist West, although a few Soviet-looking swing sets appear among them. As the footpath leads you around the park, you will pass several statues and busts of Lenin, Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, Marx and Engels, and former leaders of the Lithuanian communist party.

Perhaps the most unsettling point is a square with an enormous bust of Lenin and Stalin, which the children climb all over, cuddle, pick the noses of, or give rabbit ears to while taking pictures. Vladimir and Joe must be turning in their graves… as much as they might like to, they can't send these rabble rousers to the gulag for such blasphemy. W hile it may seem fun and kitschy to purchase red Young Pioneer scarves at Stalin World in Lithuania, spend an "authentic" night in a Soviet prison, or laugh at kitschy communist architecture, one thing is for sure: it is only those who do not remember those times that can happily participate in this pseudo-nostalgia. Those who can and do remember would most likely rather forget.

By Amy Bryzgel