Welcome to Stalin World: Terror, Tourism, and Soviet Art

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, March 5, 2003

When Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin died 50 years ago this March 5, Leningrad was celebrating its 250th year. Now the old Russian capital is called St. Petersburg again, and for its 300th anniversary the Baltimore arts establishment is throwing a party: Vivat! St. Petersburg, a month-long celebration of Russian culture. While neither Stalin nor Soviet art have been featured, the dictator and state-sponsored work from the former U.S.S.R. no doubt left impressions on Baltimore’s large community of immigrants from the former Soviet states. They, too, were largely left out of the Vivat! parade.

With Vivat! winding down and Stalin’s death day upon us, the time is ripe to showcase official Soviet art. But where does one go to find it? Near the Baltic spa town of Druskininkai in Lithuania, about 75 miles southwest of its capital, Vilnius. Here is Grutas Park, opened on April Fool’s Day in 2001, styling itself as the world’s only “attempt to accumulate and duly exhibit the relics of Soviet ideology.” Dubbed “Stalin World” by the press, the sculpture park exhibits 86 Soviet-era works, many of them damaged by crowds as the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s.

When in the planning stages in 1999, Grutas Park was met with protests and hunger strikes in Lithuania. Yet the park has hosted more than 300,000 visitors so far, and a debate over Soviet tourism as a whole–of which Stalin World is as fine an example as one can hope to find–has begun in Baltic newspapers. Even in Western academia, where official Soviet art has long been dismissed as worthless, its cultural value is, in some corners, being reassessed.

When asked, many in Baltimore’s Soviet-immigrant community, tens of thousands strong, said they would rather not remember Stalin or reconsider the severely constrained artistic expressions he and other Soviet leaders permitted. But some were willing. Artists, in particular, shared their thoughts after looking at images of Grutas Park that were brought back last fall by Baltimore artist and photographer John Ellsberry. Most reacted with a shrug.

“Maybe when people are not afraid of communist regime . . . they will be interested to see these images.” –Gennadiy Gurvich

“It’s funny stuff,” chuckles Noi Volkov, a ceramics maker and painter who moved here from Odessa, Ukraine, in 1989, when he was already an established artist in his early 40s. “It’s just government propaganda. A group of members of the Communist Party took the power and they want to have this power as long as possible. It’s why they say art must be way under control and about just one idea. The idea? That the communist regime is the greatest regime in the world. That’s it.”

Official Soviet art is often seen, like the U.S.S.R. itself, as an outgrowth of the paternalism that long characterized Russian culture. Stalin, like the czars, bred a cult of personality around himself, lording over his nation like a conqueror over the vanquished. But the czars’ patronage underwrote a more “democratic” arts environment, Volkov says, while Stalin stoked and shaped the creative class to pay homage to the state’s ideals–Stalin’s ideals–and brutally oppressed those who tried to express anything else.

Stalin held sway over the U.S.S.R. and Soviet art until his death in 1953; his monomaniacal cult of personality would outlive him long. In the mid-1950s, Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev denounced “how the cult of the person of Stalin has been gradually growing,” becoming “the source of a whole series of exceedingly serious and grave perversions.” Soon after, the Soviet Union began removing many of the publicly displayed statues of Stalin, which helps explain why Grutas Park has only two sculptures of the regime’s most infamous icon.

But even after Stalin’s era passed, the centralized Soviet approach to the arts never ceased. It was immortalized in the Soviet constitution: “The state concerns itself with protecting, augmenting, and making extensive use of society’s cultural wealth for the moral and aesthetic education of the Soviet people, for raising their cultural level.”

Art, in other words, was used to shape and mold the populace rather than as a means of self-expression. For 74 years, the Soviet regime used this legal foundation to fuel the production of prodigious quantities of anonymous official art and persecuted artists who didn’t make use of the approved style, Socialist Realism, typified by the realistic yet idealized renderings of Soviet leaders and stoic workers found at Grutas Park. “They lived very hard lives,” says Noi Volkov of the nonconformist artists. “Some died. Some went to jail or mental clinic and spent very poor life, full of difficulties. Terrible life.” Volkov knows of these hardships from first-hand experience. He was held and interrogated by Soviet police for two months for his illegal artistic activities, he recalls, and underwrote his unofficial art endeavors by making and selling ceramic clocks on the black market. “This clock is very popular,” he says, pointing to a timepiece on a bookshelf in his studio. “It helped me live probably 10 years.”

“I don’t think Russian art would be where it is now were it not for these images.” — Nino Leselidze

In 1917, when the Russian Revolution brought czarism to its knees, monumental statues of previous Russian leaders were destroyed by fervent masses. In 1991, when the Soviet Union crumbled in a series of bloodless coups, its statues, too, were toppled. Ten years later, Grutas Park started to put some of the Soviet remains on display. “This is not a show park,” writes Grutas Park founder Viliumas Malinauskas, a Lithuanian pickled-mushroom exporter, in the first issue of the park’s newsletter. “This is a place reflecting the painful past of our nation, which brought a lot of pain, torture, and loss. One cannot forget or cross out history, whatever it is.”

Elena Volkov (no relation to Noi), a 27-year-old photographer and recent Maryland Institute College of Art graduate originally from Kiev, Ukraine, says, “It surprises me that this would happen in Lithuania. . . . The Baltic countries always resisted the Soviet regime, so it is interesting that someone is collecting Soviet sculpture there.”

Norton Dodge, a longtime collector of Soviet art from Mechanicsville, fills in the history. “The Baltics were taken over two times by the Soviets,” he says. “First they were under Stalin, then Hitler, then Stalin again. Under Hitler, 30,000 to 50,000 Baltic intellectuals, including many artists, were taken to camps in the Urals. Then, when Stalin came back in, tens of thousands more were sent to camps in [eastern Russia]. So it was a very rough beginning with the Soviet situation in the Baltics.”

Visitors to the Grutas Park are given an eerie taste of totalitarianism upon first arriving. Just past the entrance is a railroad cattle car–a grim reminder of how unfortunate Soviet citizens were hauled off to worker camps. Authentic Soviet mortars from World War II greet kids entering the park’s playground, and a boardwalk trail meanders through a dense pine forest and bogs. A moat-like canal, electrified fences, and mock guard towers with loudspeakers broadcasting tinny Soviet marching music help re-create the feel of a Siberian gulag. Here and there are clearings in the woods, filled with immense Soviet-era sculptures.

The squeals and squawks of Stalin World’s petting zoo are more appealing than the sculpture to Regina Buloviene, a bed-and-breakfast owner from Vilnius who served as an unofficial guide for Ellsberry’s visit. “I like the ostriches better than the old statues,” she said laughingly.

“They lived very hard lives. Some died. Some went to jail or mental clinic and spent very poor lives, full of difficulties.” –Noi Volkov

Back in Baltimore, Nino Leselidze, a 23-year-old photographer whose family moved to Baltimore in 1992 from Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, looks at the Stalin World images and thinks first and foremost that “people were getting brainwashed by this propaganda.” But she still believes “they have value–historical value at least. And also technical value. Technically, they are very well done. But historically, the people growing up now, the younger generations, they should know the history. So [Grutas Park] would be a very good way to learn and see, because they are not growing up with these images anymore.”

Leselidze also attaches a grander importance to these images in the development of art in Russia. “I don’t think Russian art would be where it is now were it not for these images,” she says. “Even though it was propaganda, it helped people get into another frame of mind and make different kinds of work.” The monolith of Socialist Realism, Leselidze suggests, pushed artists to find room to breathe in other, more experimental styles that have since been lumped together as Soviet nonconformist art.

“I can’t be very much surprised because this is what I grew up with,” Elena Volkov says dryly while looking at images from Grutas Park. “A collection of such sculpture at one place, it can be very depressing. But if this type of art served the country, I can’t call it useless.

“During [World War II], it really inspired people and helped people to overthrow the Germans and deal with the humongous power of the Nazis,” she continues. “After that, it was like, ‘We defended ourselves and we won the war, and this is what helped us do it and so we are going to continue in this direction.’ And it was all about the happy life that we were building–this is our future and everybody’s happy. The only bad aspect of it is that it eliminated other forms of art.”

Gennadiy Gurvich, a ceramics maker and designer who moved to Baltimore nearly six years ago from Belarus, says Stalin World’s value is akin to that of the miniature models of communist icons his Russian real-estate agent displays in his office. “I ask him, ‘Why are you collecting that?’ And he answer, ‘This is best medicine for nostalgia,'” Gurvich says. “So [Grutas Park] is to treat the mentality. Because many people grow up in the Soviet era and they have communist mentality and they can’t change in so short a time. Because, you know, this new period for former Soviet republics is not so good. And when they come see this exhibition, maybe it is like a treatment for them.”

“This type of art served the country . . . the only bad aspect of it is that it eliminated other forms of art.” –Elena Volkov

Gurvich has another idea, though: “Maybe when people are not afraid of communist regime, they will be interested in what happened in the past. And maybe they will be interested to see these images. So maybe it is all for a commercial idea, to sell [tickets] to monuments.”

And that may be the nicest thing about Stalin World. At five Lithuanian litas–about $1.50–admission is light on the wallet. The weighty part is what that buys: a bizarre trip through the iconography of Soviet repression, full of reminders of power gone amok amid lies and terror.

“After the revolution, Lenin came to power,” says Noi Volkov, giving a thumbnail sketch of his view of Soviet history. “And he killed a lot of people. And after Stalin came to power, he killed more people. A couple of generations become very much afraid. They remember everything.” On the 50th anniversary of Stalin’s death, perhaps too many don’t remember. And that, Volkov says, is what makes Stalin World worthwhile: “Like Gennadiy [Gurvich] said, it is best medicine for nostalgia.”

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