As you get off the yellow bus from downtown Budapest, you can almost hear the statues murmur: "Hey, we've got company. Somebody--Lenin, Marx, Engels--put on some tea. These nice young people have come to visit."
When the Iron Curtain parted in 1989, Budapest had a disposal problem: What to do with the colossal Soviet-era statues that now were bronze persona non grata in the parks and public squares? It no doubt would have been tempting to melt them down into belt buckles, but hadn't Hungarians just come through four decades under people who wanted to erase history?
So instead they built. On a few quiet acres on the outskirts of Buda, the huge statues that once proclaimed, celebrated and threatened now reside quietly in their own version of Assisted Living. They stand within sight of each other now, each in its own space, enjoying an environment that communicates neither veneration nor ridicule but, rather, reflection. To do otherwise, wrote Statue Park's architect, Akos Eleod, "would ultimately be doing nothing more than constructing my own anti-propaganda park from these propagandistic statues."
Though Statue Park (in Hungarian, Szoborpark) is characterized as a "theme park," there are no rides, cotton candy or animatronics. It is remarkably un-tacky. (Well, the gift shop does sell air-filled cans labeled "the last breath of socialism.") You pay only 200 forints--84 cents--to enter, then follow a series of looping paths past soldiers, martyrs and party secretaries, beginning with Lenin and ending with two Army captains who wave goodbye just before the trail terminates symbolically at a brick wall.
Back in Budapest, if you examine the striking Spirit of Freedom monument at the top of Gellert Hill, you may notice that the space in front of it seems oddly empty. "That was a statue of a Russian soldier," said the guide when my wife and I visited. "After 1989, we bundled him up and sent him back to Russia."
"Good for you!" exclaimed one of our fellow Americans on the tour bus.
Well, nice story, but that soldier is actually still in Budapest, out at Statue Park. There he stands, along with the Workers Movement Memorial, the Hungarian Fighters in the Spanish International Brigades Memorial and the Hungarian-Soviet Friendship Memorial. And he stands unmolested. Even though there is relatively no security at the park, the only graffiti on the statues was put there (probably at great risk) when they were still downtown.
"This park is about dictatorship," wrote Eleod. "And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship. Or about democracy, come to that. Or about anything!"
It takes only a few minutes to tour--indeed, you could go there by cab and have the driver wait. But if you rush, you might sense someone saying, "Oh, do you have to leave so soon? I was going to get out the photo album."
Statue Park is off Route 70 (on the way to Lake Balaton) in Budapest's 22nd district. It is open 10 a.m. to dusk every day, except for Dec. 1 to Feb. 28, when it is open only on weekends and holidays. It's about a $20 cab ride from central Budapest, but about $1 by tram and bus. Details: www.szoborpark.hu.
CAPTION: Lenin, far right, and other Soviet-era icons are gathered in Budapest's Statue Park. Above, the author's wife with a friend.