A man on a mission
That mission was apparently to give me a towel. And did he look determined, like a muscled sprinter heading around the last turn and toward the finish line in an Olympic relay race. His face was strained, mouth wide-open, with one arm stretched forward. But instead of a baton in his other hand, he held a giant “towel" that was waving in the wind. He was also frozen solid. As real as he might have looked, he was made of concrete.
“We call him the steam room attendant,” said Irina, my tour guide at Budapest’s Statue Park. “We joke that he looks like he’s trying to give you a towel, but he’s really a communist party supporter waving a banner.”
The towel waver was just one of dozens of communist-era monuments on display at what has to be the world’s oddest theme park. Disneyland may have Pirates of the Caribbean, and Las Vegas can keep its casinos and drive-up wedding chapels, but for sheer, darkly comic entertainment value, I doubt anything tops Statue Park.
Ah yes, communists: Cold War adversaries, modern day irritants in Cuba and North Korea, and builders of some of the most unintentionally funny and forlorn statuary in the world. That Hungarians like Irina have even a shred of a sense of humor about the nearly five decades of oppression the country spent with its national throat pressed against communism’s sharpened sickle, says volumes about Hungary’s ability to refuse to be bound by its past national traumas.
And there have been plenty. This is a country that, after all, backed the losing sides in both World Wars, saw much of Budapest riddled with bullets during the failed Revolution of 1956, and then spent more than thirty additional years as a parking garage for several Soviet tank divisions. With that kind of track record, you might think the Hungarians would have blown up Budapest’s monuments to Vladimir Lenin and other communist “heroes”, and hurled the bits at the Soviet troops when they hit the highway to Moscow back in 1991.
Instead, they decided to do something that would make Karl Marx himself turn over is his ideological grave: they chose to make money off of the valiant-looking monuments to the Soviet soldiers and communist martyrs that were supposed to inspire the Hungarians forward to victory in the great struggle with the West. Entrance to Statue Park costs about $3.00 (based on an exchange rate of 192 Hungarian forint to $1.00), but for $33.00, I took the 3.5-hour Hammer and Sickle Tour offered by Absolute Walking Tours that included a bus ride for the 45-minute trip from downtown Budapest to Statue Park, an English-speaking guide, and a separate tour of a staged replica of one of Budapest’s typical communist-era apartments.
The communists certainly knew how to act absurd during their time in power. These were a people that cherished bureaucracy so much that they required their subjects to carry two different passports; one for visiting other Warsaw Pact countries, the other for the rest of the world on the rare chance that they would be allowed to travel some place beyond the Iron Curtain. Few examples of communism’s ridiculousness are greater than the kinds of statues they built to honor themselves.
Being the capital of a communist country, Budapest wouldn’t have been complete without the necessary statue of Lenin, leader of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. I’ve always found it sadly humorous that the communists felt they needed to put up statues and monuments in their satellite states of leaders and officials who had nothing to do with those countries. Lenin was about as Hungarian as I am; putting his statue up in Budapest would be about the equvalent to the U.S. erecting a monument to Ho Chi Minh along the Mall in Washington, D.C.
As Lenin made it to Budapest, he also made it to Statue Park, standing in that classic Lenin pose with his left hand gripping the lapel of his jacket, and his right hand open and extending out toward what was supposed to be the sunny, egalitarian future in which all of the communist brothers and sisters would harmoniously work together in factories, on farms and celebrate the glory of the worker’s state.
Lenin may have been the star of Statue Park, but he certainly wasn’t alone. Bela Kun, a Hungarian who set up the country’s first communist government in 1919, is also there, on top of a large monument showing him leading a huge force of communists in their revolutionary triumph. I’m not sure what Kun actually triumphed over, because almost as soon as he founded the Hungarian communist party in late 1918, he got himself thrown in jail for treason, and roped Hungary into a brief war with Romania that resulted in the Romanians occupying Budapest. In the end, Kun was executed for not being Stalinist enough for the taste of Josef Stalin.
Communism’s founder, Karl Marx, and his partner-in-philosophical crime, Frederich Engels, are also there, side-by-side in stone. And as stern as the communists thought they might appear, they look more like they were carved out of some black-and-white ripoff of a Japanese anime film.
The park is also adorned with statues of many unnamed communist heroes, such as a soldier resolutely holding a Soviet flag, and representing the Soviets who “liberated” Budapest in World War II. The Soviets would later show how much they loved liberty by destroying large parts of Budapest when they put down Hungary’s 1956 uprising against communist rule.
At the national parliament building, a Hungarian flag with a hole in the center where a communist coat of arms had been cut out, waves over a memorial to the victims and the independence movement that were crushed by the Soviet military The Revolution still looms large over Budapest, yet Statue Park effectively serves as Hungary’s ultimate victory in that struggle, even though it took almost 40 years for that victory to occur.
Our tour ended back in Budapest. A visiting a room was set up to look like the average city apartment during the communist era. Since communism preached equality of the masses, presumably everyone in Budapest lived in one of these gray, drab, spirit coffins, eating goulash and listening to state radio about the evils of the West.
We learned that many in Budapest celebrated living in their communist paradise by tipping back a bottle of pear brandy at the end of a long workday. We sampled some of that brandy and gave a toast to those who made it through communism with their spirits intact.
Read Rex Crum's bio at this link.