- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 4, 2003

GRUTAS, Lithuania — Fourteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is still a far-flung corner of Europe where statues of Lenin and Stalin loom over passersby, Soviet marching songs blare out of loudspeakers, guards stare down from watchtowers and barbed wire fences prevent prisoners from escaping.

Fortunately for the inhabitants of Grutas, these painful reminders of communist rule have been consigned to a controversial open-air museum on the edge of this tiny village in southeast Lithuania.

Dubbed “Stalinworld” by the foreign media, Grutas Park has the dubious honor of housing the world’s largest collection of Soviet statues. There are more than 75 sculptures of communist icons such as Lenin, Stalin, Marx and Engels in various heroic poses.

They once stood in town squares across this heavily forested Baltic country, a hated reminder of Soviet rule. But after Lithuania wriggled free of Moscow’s clutches in 1991, the statues were torn from their pedestals and the newly independent state was left with the dilemma of whether to crush or conserve them.

After a heated debate in parliament, the government opted for the latter approach and invited tenders for a sculpture park in 1998. The competition was won by Viliumas Malinauskas, a former national wrestling champion known locally as the “Mushroom King.”

The 61-year old, who made his fortune exporting mushrooms to the West, set about recreating a Soviet gulag on a reclaimed swamp near the Polish and Belarus borders.

He built a moat and barbed wire fence around 500 acres of private forest, erected look-out posts around the perimeter of the park, wired up dozens of speakers to pump out Soviet propaganda and laid down over a mile of winding trails from which visitors may admire the statues.

For Mr. Malinauskas, whose father spent 10 years in a Siberian labor camp, the idea was to create a memorial for the hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians who were killed, deported or exiled under 50 years of Soviet rule.

Critics of the park accuse the burly businessman of trivializing history and creating an unlikely cross between Disneyland and a Soviet gulag.

“The Grutas Museum is the peak of cynicism, a mockery of the thousands of totally innocent civilians who were murdered, tortured and deported to the gulags of Siberia,” says Ona Voveriene, head of the Lithuanian Women’s League.

Local councilor Leonas Kerosierius describes the exhibition as “immoral and illegal” and compares it to an “out-of-door Marxism-Leninism university.”

Although he has scaled back some of his more ambitious plans — such as shunting visitors around in cattle cars similar to those used to ship prisoners to Siberia — Mr. Malinauskas has little time for his detractors.

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