BUDAPEST — On the periphery of Budapest is an open-air museum that houses the Communist-era statues that were toppled, along with the Soviet-installed regime, in 1989. Opened on June 29, 1993, on the second anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary, Memento Park offers the visitor a sobering reminder of how fickle yet tragic history can be, especially at a time when reactionary forces are reemerging in the country, as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán steadily metamorphoses from democratic rebel to autocrat.
The museum is a reminder that Hungary played a key, albeit largely overlooked, role in the process that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall: in June 1989 the foreign ministers of Hungary and Austria cut through a section of barbed wire dividing the nations, allowing East German tourists to cross into Austria — the West at the time, on the other side of the Iron Curtain; the act culminated in an endless stream of Trabants, the now iconic East German small cars, crossing the border on September 11, 1989. This was the thread that ultimately unraveled the Iron Curtain and brought down the Soviet Union two years later.
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Set in an unremarkable expanse of land, the museum looks rather like an orderly theme park, its ambiance defined by sober if stodgy Communist-era aesthetics. While certainly worth a visit, few if any of the museum’s objects (all from the second half of a very eventful 20th century) are memorable. Displaced from their original setting in Budapest, the works are deprived of their monumentality, as if the gloom of a cemetery has descended on the statues. Should they be actors in a play, most would be accused of hamming it up with poses and gestures that inspire more pity than awe.
Although the brief revolutionary government of Béla Kun in 1919 had embraced new currents of radical art, by the time the Soviet Union imposed Communism on Hungary after World War II, officially sanctioned art had fossilized into the drab manifestations of socialist realism. The results include sculptor Pátzay Pal’s 1969 Lenin statue at Memento Park and Segesdi György’s 1971 statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, both true to the dictates of the era.
One exception is sculptor Imre Varga’s 1986 Béla Kun Memorial. Rising above a tight formation of soldiers and workers, Kun, tilting to the right, stretches out his left arm, holding a hat, as in a skyward salute. It may evoke triumph as much as death, which would soon visit him. The soldiers at the base of the monument appear emaciated, hopelessly unprepared to carry bayonets almost as big as themselves to continue their revolutionary struggle.
Yet the museum’s star attraction is its life-sized copy of the boots of the colossal Stalin statue that was torn down in the 1956 Hungarian revolt against the Soviet Union. Even though the boots and the brick plinth atop which they stand are an artistic recreation by the park’s designer, architect Ákos Eleőd, they evoke the long shadow that the dictator still casts, not only on Hungary but on world history.
Driving away from the Park, Stalin’s boots can still be seen in the rearview mirror looming over the monotonous landscape. Uprooted and soulless, the stone and metal statues at Memento Park have long outlived the world that gave birth to them.