Earlier this week, I came across this article on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty site. The article describes how the Museum of Political Oppression in Dolinka, Kazakhstan, formerly head of the KarLAG prison camp system through which hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens passed during the Stalinist-era terror, had recently begun conducting ‘night time tours’. To provide vistors with an ‘authentic’ Gulag experience, the article went on to describe how:
“… actors performed a mock interrogation scene in which a young woman is pressured to denounce her father. The group also witnessed performances that included an inmate who was hanging by his hands while being mistreated by a guard. To have a better taste of being a prisoner at KarLAG, the visitors were also offered gulag-type meals. The museum initially planned to offer visitors the chance to become “Stalin-era prisoners” for one night, but museum director Svetlana Bainova told RFE/RL the plan was scrapped following a request by local officials. She said the officials argued that such an experience could scare or even psychologically traumatize the participants”.
The photo gallery that accompanies the article shows that the museum’s exhibition hall contains a number of informative displays including prison files and information about the impact of the great Soviet famine of 1930-33, while the Hall of Remembrance pays tribute to those individuals who died in KarLAG. However the photos also depict real life ‘actors’ – museum employees – playing the roles of prisoners undergoing interrogation. torture and demonstrating hard labour, while others play the role of the uniformed prison guards.
I must confess to feeling somewhat uncomfortable at the thought of this. I realise that dark tourism (or ‘thanotourism’, defined by the iDTR as ‘the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which have real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme’) will always be a subject that evokes controversy. Sites that commemorate and educate about the ‘darker’ aspects of human history play an important role – speaking as a ‘tourist’ who has actively visited numeorus such sites including Auschwitz Birkenau, The Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin and the controversial TerrorHaza (Museum of Terror) in Budapest, I do agree with the often cited argument that while visiting the sites of former attrocities can be a rather harrowing experience, the experience can help bring these historical events alive in a very different way from studying academic texts, or even reading the memoirs of those who experienced these terrible events first hand. As a historian, I recognise the importance of ackowledging, remembering and commemorating the darker aspects of human history, as well as celebrating our more glorious achievements. And – stepping down from the moral high ground and speaking as a realist – I also understand that ‘money talks’. Economic benefits must be taken into consideration, as popular demand for thanotourism is potentially lucrative, with high visitor turnover injecting much-needed cash into the local economy. But does the Museum of Political Oppression risk crossing the line between education and scandenfreude? Having actors playing the part of tortured and exploited GuLAG inmates and offering tourists the chance to experience ‘authentic Gulag conditions’ feels like unneccesary theatrics, designed to create an environment akin to a macabre theme park, which is particularly dangerous given that the horrors of the Stalinist-era remain within living memory for many today, including those who experienced the hardship and suffering of KarLAG first hand and survived to tell the tale and out of respect for the memories of the many who lost their lives.
However, the Museum of Political Oppression is not the only Gulag-related ‘attraction’ to blur the boundaries. Grutas Park sculpture park (also known as ‘Stalin’s World’) in Lithuania, combines extensive exhibitions featuring Soviet sculptures, artwork and museum artefacts with a mini-zoo (‘fun for all the family!’). The park also features a recreated Gulag camp, complete with wooden paths, guard towers and barbed wire fences, among its exhibits, but original plans to transport vistors to the park packed into a ‘Gulag-style train’ were blocked. In 2006, Igor Shpektor, Mayor of Vorkuta – one of the most infamous outposts of Stalin’s Gulag where over two million deportees passing through the camp 1932-1954 – was criticised for plans to charge foreign tourists over £80 per day to ‘holiday’ in an ‘authentic’ Soviet-era prison camp. Shpektor’s plans to renovate an abandoned prison complex, complete with watchtowers, guards armed with paintball guns, snarling dogs, rolls of barbed wire, spartan living conditions and forced labour were condemned by camp survivors as ‘sacrelidge’. But Shpektor defended his plans, arguing this would provide a much-needed cash injection for the depressed Vorkuta region as: ‘The chance of living in the Gulag as a prisoner is attractive to many wealthy foreigners … A whole trainload of people turned up in autumn last year wanting to go to such a concentration camp, for money”.
In 2006, a re-created Stalinist-prison camp near Vilnius, Lithuania hosted 400 students from 19 EU countries in a role playing exercise designed as a ‘live history lesson to foster deep reflection of the common past of European nations and people’. During their stay in the camp:
“The students are “forced” to travel for one hour in an “authentic Soviet truck ZIL157K” to a forest bunker … Then, for the next two hours, they live through the experience of being “political prisoners”, which includes being interrogated by NKVD (security service) officers, shouted at and insulted by the guards. The roles are performed by professional actors. The “excursion” ends with the announcement of Stalin’s death and subsequent amnesty.”
Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that a couple of hours of role-playing equates to the ‘authentic’ reality experienced by Gulag inmates, many of whom endured lengthy sentences spanning several years or even decades, having been interred for imaginary or fabricated crimes, not knowing if they’d ever live to see release, or what the fate of their families had been. Some of the student participants seemed to agree, with one participant (rather worryingly!) commenting that:
“I think that everybody can do this. We really enjoyed the deportation day, but I would prefer something more difficult, with more blood and maybe lasting for one week and not just one day.”
So, why does the idea of ‘experiencing’ the Gulag – an instrument of repression, fuelled by brutality, where millions of Soviet citizens lost their lives – hold such appeal for many people? Would you want to spend ‘Saturday night in the Gulag’? What limits – if any – should be applied to the ‘performative aspects’ of tourist attractions such as these?
On 18th April I visited London to attend “Europe” Then and Now, the second annual Central Europe Symposium hosted by UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), and organised in conjunction with the Austrian, Czech, Slovakian, Slovenian, Polish and Hungarian UK Embassies.Full details about the symposium are available HERE.
The symposium consisted of three panel discussions covering a range of issues broadly related to ‘The Question of Europe’, ‘Economics and the Moral Society’ and ‘Culture and the Public Sphere’.Some challenging but timely questions were posed throughout the day, with lively discussion and debate reflecting on the problem of defining ‘Central Europe’. experiences of post-socialism, European integration and the impact of the current financial crisis.
I’ve written a reviewed of the symposium for the journal New Eastern Europe and you can read my thoughts on their website HERE.
I’ve been following International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield on Twitter for quite a while now – I enjoy his insights into daily life aboard the ISS and particularly enjoy the photographs he regularly posts. Last week he posted the following photograph of Berlin at night, which generated widespread media interest:
Commander Hadfield’s photograph, taken from the ISS, 200 miles above the earth, illustrates that even more than
The divide is caused by different methods of streetlighting, a hangover from the Cold War division of the city, with the fluorescent lamps of western Berlin causing a brighter, whiter glow and the sodium-vapour lamps in the eastern part giving off a softer, yellowish hue. Hadfield’s photograph was widely circulated on Twitter, and featured in mainstream media including the Guardian, Telegraph and Spiegel Online, Speaking to The Guardian Christa Mientus-Schirmer, a member of Berlin’s city government commented that ‘although we’ve made a lot of progress in the 20 years since the wall fell, we haven’t had the money we would have liked to equalise the two parts of the city’. City authorities have since confirmed that they plan to replace the old sodium lights with electric lamps as part of a gradual drive to reduce energy consumption.
Last weekend (6th-7th April) I attended the 2013 BASEES/ICCEES European Congress held at Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge. Unfortunately, teaching responsibilities and other constraints meant I missed the opening afternoon/evening on Friday 5th and the final panels taking place on the morning of Monday 8th. This was my third year as a participant at BASEES (you can see my report on last year’s conference HERE) and it was also my second year live tweeting from my twitter account @kellyhignett using the official conference hashtags: #euroiccees #basees. The annual BASEES conference brings together researchers working on all manner of topics related to Slavonic and East European studies, past and present, and has quickly become one of the highlights of my conference calender! The broad theme of this year’s congress was ‘Europe: Crisis and Renewal’, which encompassed a range of panels covering topics as diverse as cultural conflict in late Imperial Russia, re-thinking Cold War Eastern Europe, contemporary Balkan politics, the economics of Central Asia and the politics of healthcare in the post-Soviet space. As in previous years, the biggest problem I faced was trying to decide which of the intriguingly-titled panels to attend!
The first panel I attended on Saturday 6th focused on ‘New Perspectives in Cold War Studies’. In addition to great papers about East-West interaction during the Cold War by Sari Autio-Sarasmo and ‘Interactive Socialism’ by Katalin Miklossy, I particularly enjoyed Melanie Ilic’s paper, discussing her experience of interviewing and recording the life stories of several high profile Soviet women. Melanie’s new book Life Stories of Soviet Women will be published this August, featuring an impressive range of interviewees include one of Khrushchev’s daughters! She is also currently editing a collection relating to the ethics of oral history and memory studies, which I am contributing a chapter to, in relation to my own work on petty criminality in late-socialist East Central Europe.
A second panel, ‘New Research on Cold War Eastern Europe’, also contained an interesting mix of papers.Andru Chiorean discussed the ways in which new archival evidence is prompting a re-evaluation of role played by the Romanian censorial agency in regulating the output and content of publications after 1948, highlighting the need for researchers to incorporate the perspectives of both censor and victim. Patrick Hyder Patterson delivered a fascinating paper about socialist brand packaging in the East bloc, followed by an interesting discussion about the ‘afterlives’ of these brands, many of which are remembered fondly today (think Ostalgie and the film Good Bye, Lenin!). I’ve read Patterson’s book Bought and Sold: Living and Losing the Good Life in Socialist Yugoslavia and can recommend it. Finally, Kristian Nielsen argued the need to reconsider the economic aspects of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik.
I particularly enjoyed both keynote speeches on the Saturday evening, given by Sabrina Ramet and Luke Harding. First up was Sabrina Ramet, whose talk ‘Religious Organizations and the Legacy of Communism in East Central Europe’ was insightful and engaging. Ramet began by linking calls for ‘re-evangelisation’ in post-communist east Europe with the popular desire for a return to more conservative social norms including discouraging divorce, contraception, abortion and homosexuality. She also discussed how the post-communist religious resurgence gave rise to a form of ‘gigantomania’ in the former East bloc, with the construction of elaborate places of worship, religious icons and statues (including massive figures of Mother Theresa and Jesus – with three different cities (one in Slovakia, two in Poland) all competing to build the world’s largest statue of Jesus and the world’s tallest cross erected in Macedonia!). The bulk of Ramet’s paper however, focused on the evidence of widespread collaboration between various religious leaders and the secret services that have emerged with the opening of communist-era archives. The available evidence shows numerous instances of Orthodox priests in Romania passing information gleaned from the confessional to the Securitate, while Ramet suggests that 10-25,000 Catholic clergy acted as informants in Poland, while also acknowledging that there were some cases of ‘fake files’, planted to implicate innocent priests. After a quick break for refreshments during the wine reception (always a conference favourite!) and dinner, I returned to listen to Guardian Reporter and former Russian Correspondent Luke Harding discussing the experiences that formed the basis of his book Mafia State, in conversation with Glasgow University’s Stephen White. Harding too, was a very engaging speaker, likening his experiences in Russia to a bad spy thriller, but ‘without the Aston Martin or the beautiful Bond girls’, and describing Putin’s Russia as a ‘clever, adaptive, post-modern autocracy’ where corruption has flourished. The informal conversational style worked well, and was followed by a range of lively, probing questions from the audience.
I was up early on the bright and sunny Sunday morning to present my own paper, entitled ‘Doing Drugs Behind the Iron Curtain‘, alongside a fascinating paper about naratives of Kosovan wartime exile and Albanian nationalism, given by Erida Prifti and Nicholas Crowe from the University of Vlore in Albania. My own paper was taken from a longer article I’m currently working on, which will be completed and submitted for publication this summer. This article explores levels of drug abuse and the development of domestic drug markets in East Central Europe between 1960s-1980s. In a nutshell though, the key points of my BASEES paper were as follows:
- Although the regimes in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland all noted rising levels of drug abuse from the 1960s this was largely denied and downplayed through a campaign of misinformation, censorship and propaganda
- However, this official policy of ‘silence and inaction’ not only had negative consequences with regards to the lack of information, education, legislation and specialist healthcare available for drug addicts, but in many ways also faciitated the development of a thriving domestic market for the production and supply of illegal drugs.
- The two main sources of supply were narcotics acquired from state healthcare (either via forged prescriptions or stolen by staff in hospitals, pharmacies and Doctors surgeries) and domestic production of a range of opium and amphetamine based drugs, including Pervitin (Czechoslovakia) and Kompot (Poland), which were sold on the black market.
- By the 1980s more organised, professional criminal networks began to operate in the drugs trade, which, according to law enforcement reports, was increasingly dominated by ‘professional manufacturers and pushers’. I’ve also discovered evidence of international links with the wider global drugs trade, including gangs operating in the Middle East, South America, India, West Africa and Turkey, who were engaged in a range of drug smuggling operations through the East Bloc and across the Iron Curtain, although the domestic market in East Central Europe remained dominated by domestically produced and soirced drugs until the collapse of communism in 1989.
Before travelling home late on Sunday afternoon, I was also able to attend panels on ‘History, Narratives and Politics’, comparing contemporary Poland and Russia, and ‘Opposition, Terror and Imprisonment in Interwar Russia’, where I particularly enjoyed Ian Lauchlan’s discussion about the rise and fall of notorious Soviet Security chief Felix Dzerzhinsky and Mark Vincent’s insights into the fascinating subject of Urki (criminal) courts in the Soviet Gulag camps, as protrayed in memoirs written by former camp inmates.
Finally, I’d like to send a special shout out to the team from online magazine Crossing the Baltic, who I was lucky enough to meet at the conference. Check out their great website HERE, and you can also follow them on Twitter @CrossingBaltic !
This charming little tale is the oldest surviving Romanian animated film, dating from 1927. ‘Haplea’ loosely translates as ‘Simpleton’. H/T to Alex Drace-Francis and Darren Reid for drawing my attention to this, via Twitter!
Renowned American jazz musician Dave Brubeck talks about his experiences of performing in the communist block in this excerpt from a previously unreleased interview in 2008. Accompanied by a charming animation by Patrick Smith.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
19,000 people fit into the new Barclays Center to see Jay-Z perform. This blog was viewed about 120,000 times in 2012. If it were a concert at the Barclays Center, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
In 2012, there were 27 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 80 posts. There were 85 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 55 MB. That’s about 2 pictures per week.
The busiest day of the year was September 7th with 48,406 views. The most popular post that day was The Curious Case of the Poisoned Umbrella: The Murder of Georgi Markov.
Visitors to The View East came from 184 countries in all! Most visitors came from The United States. The United Kingdom & Canada were not far behind.
THANK YOU & HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM THE VIEW EAST! We’ll be back with many more blog posts in 2013.
As 2012 draws near a close, the global economic downturn continues to cast a long shadow, and in recent weeks I have seen a number of media reports discussing ways in which the current austerity measures are impacting on this year’s festive celebrations. During the 1980s, communist Romania were undergoing their own enforced ‘age of austerity’, as leader Nicolae Ceausescu sought to pay off Romania’s foreign debts. While shortages were commonplace across the Soviet bloc throughout the 1980s, in Romania the situation was particularly bad, with strict rationing of even the most basic foodstuffs, electricty and gasoline enforced from 1981. By April 1989, Ceausescu announced that Romanian foreign debt had been repaid, but this had come at the cost of enormous deprivation for the Romanian people. Rising popular discontent meant that by Christmas 1989 the Romanian Revolution was in full swing: Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled from power and on Christmas day 1989, Nicolae and his wife Elena were both executed after a military tribunal found them guilty of crimes against the state.
The following song, a christmas carol parody, was popular amongst Romanian children during these hard times:
A Romanian Christmas Carol (1980):
Father Christmas we do beg
Bring us butter, bring us egg.
If you ever come on foot
Bring some cabbage, or beetroot
If your bag is large enough
Add some maize and garlic cloves.
Christmas Father don’t miss either
The potatoes and the flour.
Should you come, though, in a sleigh
Don’t forget for the New Year
Toilet paper that’s so sparse,
To wipe at least our arse!
(From: Centre For Romania Studies)
Merry Christmas & Seasons Greetings from The View East!
From 7 – 10 November I visited Gdansk, at the kind invitation of the European Solidarity Centre. I was participating in a conference, ‘Europe with a View to the Future‘, which was organised by the ESC in collaboration with the journals New Eastern Europe and Nowa Europa Wschodnia (both of which I’ve previously contributed articles to), the Jan Nowak-Jezioranski College of Eastern Europe and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Unfortunately I arrived too late to attend the welcome reception on 7 November, which included the launch of Professor Jeffrey Goldfarb’s new book ‘Reinventing Political Culture‘, however I was up bright and early the following morning to join my fellow conference delegates! The second day of the conference opened with a short talk and a film showing about the European Solidarity Centre, which was founded in 2007 with a focus on preserving the heritage of the Solidarity movement and promoting its relevance for future generations. Rather fittingly, this session took place in the historic BHP Hall at the Gdansk shipyards – in the same room where, following the strike action of August 1980, the Gdansk Agreements (which led to the establishment of the independent trade union Solidarity) were signed, and since August 2010 the site of an exhibition about the Solidarity movement. From 2014 however, the ESC will be based at a new site nearby and so conference delegates were treated to a tour of the new building, which is still very much under construction – this was the first conference I’ve attended where I’ve been asked to don a hard hat and tour a construction site!
The new Centre sounds like a fantastic project – designed to function as a cultural and educational hub (the conference organisers spoke of their desire for the new ESC to act as a ‘Gdansk agora’), the new building will house an interactive museum about the history of the Solidarity movement and the collapse of communism in Poland and across Eastern Europe, a multimedia archive and library and will organise and promote cultural and educational initiatives including exhibitions, concerts, conferences, workshops and seminars. I’d certainly like to visit again when it opens in 2014! You can read more about it HERE.
We then moved to the Old Town Hall for the main conference discussion which consisted of two panels, the first on the theme of ‘Solidarity in a Contemporary Europe’, the second debating ‘Europe as Seen from the East’. The panels were delivered in a ’round table’ setting, which was a nice touch, providing another nod to the legacy of Solidarity and the famous round table talks that led to the collapse of communism in Poland in 1989. I participated in the first session, ‘Solidarity in a Contemporary Europe’, which related to the likely future of the European Union, in light of the current Eurozone crisis, the ongoing ‘bailout’ negotiations and mounting questions about European integration. I spoke about the historical evolution of the European project and also discussed British attitudes towards the EU – a hot topic coming at a time when all three of the major UK political parties are publicly seeking to ‘reposition‘ their policies regarding Britain’s place in the EU, Foreign Secretary William Hague recently claimed that the British publics’ disillusionment with the EU is ‘the deepest its ever been’ and Prime Minister David Cameron has emphasised the need for reform, renegotiation and the increasing likelihood of some kind of referendum on Britain’s future in Europe. Other panel participants also provided interesting insights from German, Polish and US perspectives on European integration and our panel was followed by a lively question and answer session!
The afternoon panel, ‘Europe as Viewed from the East’ was equally interesting, with panelists discussing contemporary Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian perceptions of ‘Europe’ and debating the extent to which EU membership is still viewed as an attractive prospects by its eastern neighbours today. We ended the day with a well earned drinks reception hosted by a local art gallery, perusing a photographic exhibition documenting last years Moscow protests and listening to Tatiana Kosinova discussing her new book ‘Polish Myth’, which explores links between communist-era dissident movements in Poland and the USSR, drawing on information taken from interviews conducted with several former dissidents, before enjoying dinner in a waterfront restaurant in the old town. This was an interesting and stimulating conference, and I’d like to take the opportunity here to thank the European Solidarity Centre for their hospitality.
After the conference, I had a day free to see some of Gdansk before flying home. I began by heading back to the shipyard, the birthplace of the Solidarity movement, where I visited the Monument of the Fallen Shipyard Workers. Also built as part of the 1980 Gdansk Agreement, to serve as a memorial to the 42 shipyard workers killed during the protests that took place in December 1970, this was the first monument to the victims of oppression to be erected in a communist country. I passed through the famous shipyard Gate no. 2 (still displaying a replica copy of the ’21 demands’ hung on the gate by the striking workers in 1980 – the original boards are UNESCO protected – combined with the addition of a Solidarity-themed souvenir kiosk!) and revisted the BHP Hall to take a more leisurely look at the Solidarity exhibition there. I also visited the Roads to Freedom Exhibition (dedicated to the history of the Solidarity movement and the collapse of communism), housed in an underground bunker! After lunch I visited the Amber museum which is housed in a beautiful fourteenth century gothic building on Ul. Dluga, wandered through the centre of the Old Town (past Lech Walesa’s office in Zielona Brama), strolled along the waterfront and enjoyed browsing the amber stalls set up on the charming Ul. Mariacka as dusk fell, stopping only to refuel with some pierogi ruskie and a beer!
Gdansk old town is utterly charming, a peaceful and picturesque space which belies the cities’ turbulent recent history. Virtually destroyed during WWII, the medieval buildings were painstakingly restored and rebuilt during the 1950s and 1960s (with similar post-war urban restoration projects undertaken in other Polish cities, including the capital Warsaw). Even today, just a few steps out of Zielona Brama, the remaining ruins of the old Granaries visible just across the river on Spichlerze illustrate the level of destruction wrought here less than seventy years ago.
A few photos follow, for those who are interested.
Earlier this month I visited Vilnius, to participate in a conference, ‘The Soviet Past in the Post-Soviet Present’, organised by Melanie Ilic (University of Gloucestershire) and Dalia Leinarte (Vilnius University). The conference centred around exploring the implications of using oral testimony, memory studies and life writing when researching aspects of everyday life in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The two day conference comprised a fantastic mixture of interesting and thought-provoking presentations on a diverse range of research projects relating to broader themes including identity construction, gender, nostalgia and trauma studies. I delivered a paper entitled ‘Conversations about Crime in Communist East Central Europe’, focusing on my own use of oral testimony during my research into crime in late-socialist era East Central Europe, and the resulting question and answer session was pretty lively, giving me lots of food for thought about popular perceptions of morality and criminality under communism! In addition to a series of 20 minute papers delivered in the ‘traditional’ conference style, we were also treated to a reading from the transcript of an interview-style conversation between Barbara Alpern Engel and Anastasia Posadskaya, two scholars who conducted several interviews for their seminal study A Revolution of Their Own: Voices of Women in Soviet History (Boulder, Colorado, 1998). This was followed by a question and answer session with Barbara Engel herself, who joined us live via Skype.
I stayed on for an extra day to explore Vilnius after the conference ended – as I only had 24 hours there I confined myself to exploring the Old Town and surrounding areas, but still found plenty to see and do and I’d certainly recommend visiting if you have the chance! Vilnius itself was lovely, thoroughly charming and quietly cultivating a relaxed ‘shabby chic’ feel as the post-communist renovation of the city’s stunning architecture gradually continues (Vilnius Old Town gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2004), combined with more modern developments. The contrast between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Vilnius was particularly apparent when looking out across the city from the top of Gediminas Castle:
This contrast was also visible when wandering around the city, as the more ‘modern’ feel of the broad streets and designer fronted stores along Gedimo prospect juxtaposed with the more traditional narrow, winding, cobbled roads leading past the smaller souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants snaking down Pilles Street and throughout the University quarter.
Of course, I visited several of the main tourist attractions including the Cathedral, the remains of Gediminas Castle, St Annes Church (along with several other beautiful churches) and the Dawn Gate. I also enjoyed sampling some traditional Lithuanian cuisine!
Vilnius also had a very ‘arty’ feel to it, something that was particularly apparent as I wandered through Uzupis, a bohemian city district that declared itself an independent republic in 1997! However, I also enjoyed stumbling upon the street art dotted around the old town, and was intrigued to spot several trees that appeared to be ‘dressed’ in brightly knitted jumpers. I know we’re heading into autumn and that the Baltic winter is notoriously cold, but do the trees really need cosy knitwear?! A quick enquiry on Twitter when I returned informed me that the tree jumpers were an example of ‘yarn bombing’ or ‘guerilla knitting’ a form of urban art that I hadn’t seen before!
The quiet, relaxed feel to Vilnius belies its turbulent recent history, however. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the visit for me was exploring some of the lingering traces of Soviet occupation. This was most evident in the Soviet-era kitsch on sale in the many flea markets and souvenir stalls set out (similar to that I’ve seen elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc) and the tall Soviet statues which remain proudly standing at the four corners of Žaliasis tiltas (Green Bridge), over the river Neris.
However, there is an argument to be made that the brutal nature of Soviet occupation means that the psychological legacy rather than the physical traces of communism lingers longest for many Lithuanians. With that in mind, one particularly striking aspect of my time in Vilnius was my visit to the Museum of Genocide Victims, an extensive exhibition housed in the former KGB headquarters on Gedimo prospect, which charts the oppression and suffering of the Lithuanian people under successive foreign occupations between 1939-1991. The exhibition takes you through periods of successive Soviet (1940-1941), German (1941-1944) and Soviet again (1944-1991) occupations, although the Nazi occupation receives a lot less attention that the years of Soviet domination – this is a sobering tale of suffering and oppression, charting partisan warfare, collaboration, opposition, dissent, imprisonment and mass deportation.
The final part of the exhibition guides visitors down into the basement, formerly used as a prison by the KGB, where visitors can tour the cells, prison exercise yards and even visit the former ‘execution room’. By now, I think of myself as something of a veteran visitor to such sites – I regularly read and teach about the ‘darker aspects’ of totalitarian regimes, and have visited Auschwitz, the Stasi Headquarters in Berlin and Budapest’s ‘Museum of Terror’ in recent years. However, the tour of the former prison still affected me on a personal level (more so, I found, than similar visits in Berlin and Budapest, but less than my visit to Auschwitz , which was emotionally draining, an experience I previously blogged about HERE). There was something about the heavy feeling that settled in my stomach while my footsteps echoed down the dark, dank, narrow corridors (the fact that I was entirely alone in an otherwise deserted basement prison probably contributed to this!). I felt increasingly unnerved and unsettled as I peered through the cell doors to view the ‘punishment cells’ set up to demonstrate how prisoners would be forced to stand on narrow platforms surrounded by icy water for hours on end (inevitably to plunge into the freezing water when they lost their balance or lost consciousness); illustrating how prisoners condemned to isolation were incarcerated alone in cramped, dark boxes for days (and sometimes weeks) on end and how padded walls were installed in some cells to block out the sound of cries of pain from prisoners subjected to physical torture. All of this was accompanied with information about various individuals who had spent time (and sometimes even died) whilst in the prison. I’d certainly recommend visiting the museum if you are in Vilnius, but I must confess that I was glad to escape out into the fresh air and the sunshine when my tour ended.