Budapest has not forgotten its recent troubled past. The Cold War effectively ripped Europe in two with its divisive ‘iron curtain’ line, and Hungary was a flashpoint in this major conflict. For Budapest was the scene of a crushed revolt against the USSR-endorsed Hungarian ‘People’s Republic’ in 1956, which resulted in Soviet oppression for decades to come.
There are several reminders across Budapest that Hungary was once a satellite state of the Soviet Union. One such place, which is a bit of a trek to get to from the city centre, but definitely worth it, in my opinion, is Memento Park. This has to be the most unique outdoor museum I have ever visited – bizarrely humorous and unnerving at the same time.
The park is a surreal outdoor collection of socialist memorabilia. It’s gathered and displayed with the stated purpose of acknowledging Hungary’s oppressive, cold war past, but also to affirm it has now superseded all that, as proven by arranging it all in one convenient place for tourists to gawk at.
It’s unsettling indeed to think these monuments were lining Hungarian streets as recently as the early 1990s. I found that the sheer scale of these relics is mind-boggling, combining overbearing propaganda with social realism to form disconcerting wholes. They were tools of propaganda in their time, of course; now, displayed as they are, they look like a sad joke. A present-day version of Ozymandias.
Statues aside – and yes, there are ones of Lenin, as well as a replica of the ‘boots of Stalin’ (the rest of the statue having been pulled down in the 1956 uprising) – other highlights of the park include a disused barracks with exhibits providing context to Cold War Budapest, a telephone booth that plays speeches from 20th Century Dictators and an East German Trabant car in which you can sit and pretend to be an oppressed East European citizen.
If all that sounds rather weird (or even tasteless?), then you’d be right. It’s a commodification of the Cold War in an easily-consumable, theme park-esque package. Whether you agree with Eleod’s sentiments or not that such a package is of intrinsic cultural value, there is no doubt that the Memento Park experience is a decidedly unique one.