Reliving recent history at Memento Park

What now remains of Stalin's famous statue in Budapest. The boots are now visible in Memento Park.

What now remains of Stalin’s famous statue in Budapest. The boots are now visible in Memento Park.

Representing the great and infamous moments of a country’s history is always a delicate process, especially if those memories are still fresh in the minds of the citizens. Once Hungary regained its independence, it would become interesting to see what the country’s decision makers would do with the Soviet relics which dotted the landscape of central Budapest. Whitewashing the memories from history would do little to help the country’s recovery from Communism but, it still remained an issue as to what to do with these statues of imperialism.

Memento Park is not ‘hidden history’. In a way, it can be seen as ‘unadvertised history’. It is not on the bus tours which so many visitors take to get a look at Budapest, and it rarely comes up in conversation as a place to visit in the Hungarian Capital. After a trip which takes the bones of 30 minutes from Central Pest, one arrives in a landscape more akin to the Soviet stereotype than the boutiques and restaurants of the city centre.

The dry heat and dust around the park allied with the small houses which dot the rural scenery give the statues more meaning. Walking around Budapest can give you a false idea of the current state of the Hungarian economy. It is only 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell and a lot of people outside of the Capital have not been so lucky.

The Monument to the Hungarian Socialist Republic.

The Monument to the Hungarian Socialist Republic.

Getting the tone right at this Park would be difficult, as designer Akos Eleod explained around the time of its opening in 1993: “I had to realise that if I used more direct, more drastic, more timely devices for constructing the park- as many people expected- that is if I had built a counter-propaganda park out of these propaganda statues, then I would be following the prescribed ways of thinking we inherited from the dictatorship.”

The monument at 56ers Square in Budapest, where Stalin's giant statue once stood.

The monument at 56ers Square in Budapest, where Stalin’s giant statue once stood.

As you leave the Park, you could be forgiven for ignoring the most powerful statue of them all. High on a red-bricked pedestal, lie the boots of Stalin’s statue. The other five- or so- feet of the former Soviet leader, which is missing from the display, evokes vivid images of the struggles of the protestors in the 1956 Revolution as they tore down this deeply meaningful symbol.

Anne Applebaum explains the scene at Felvonulasi Ter on October 23, 1956, in her book Iron Curtain (2013): “After a few futile attempts to pull the statue down with ropes, a platoon of workers arrived with heavy machinery- the cranes were borrowed from the city’s public transportation department- and metal- burning equipment. They hacked away, the crowd chanted, and the statue began to shake. Finally, at precisely 9.37 pm, Stalin fell.”

Stalin's statue before it was toppled in 1956.

Stalin’s statue before it was toppled in 1956.

The rest of Stalin’s statue lived a much different existence, as is explained by Reuben Fowkes (2002): “The Stalin statue was dragged the next day through the streets of Budapest to Blaha Lújza Square, where it was broken up into pieces by souvenir hunters. One of Stalin’s hands was taken by the actor Sándor Pécsi, who, after the restoration of Soviet power, buried the relic in his garden where it remained until the late 1980s. It was eventually unearthed and bought by the Hungarian History Museum for 40,000 forints.”

The rest of Stalin’s body, hidden from view at Memento Park as a result of those demonstrations, manages to stir more feelings than an untouched artefact could otherwise have done. This piece of Hidden History is a symbol of the Hungarian struggle against the Soviets, a struggle which would continue for another 33 years.

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