Lenin lives (and lives… and lives…) in the Antarctic

03/15/2010

I’ve seen a lot of Lenin’s over the course of my travels through the former USSR, from the Lenin my mom remembers standing in downtown Vilnius (now residing in Grutas Park open-air monument and sculpture museum) to the gigantic striding Lenin behind the National Museum in Bishkek Kyrgyzstan. He was moved from in front of the museum to make room for Independence Square. Now he stands overlooking the American University, making his usual grand gesture of benevolence.

However, by far the strangest place he’s turned up is in Antarctica where a plastic bust of the man himself was discovered by explorers in 2007. He stands proudly at the site of an old Soviet base at the South Pole of Inaccessibility. Made from plastic, the Lenin has stood there since 1958 and is, by all reports, in pretty good shape. The man is simply eternal.

Anyways, as soon as the South Pole of Inaccessibility Tourism Association and BIA get their act together I’m positive he’ll be fenced in and farmed out as a prime tourist attraction.

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The Holy Land Experience

03/09/2010

Over the past few years I’ve visited a lot of weird tourist sites in the former Soviet Union in the name of research. Lately, I’ve been researching wacky tourism in North America and came across this: The Holy Land Amusement Park in Orlando, Florida.

I quote: “Experience love. Experience peace. Experience joy. Experience Jesus.”

According to their official website, the visitors to the park can go back in time and experience life as it was in Biblical times. A re-creationist’s wet-dream, the park features the most important parts of the bible acted by professionals: A rather caucasian looking Jesus re-enacts the life of the son of God, including daily crucifixion and resurrection; visitors can experience what life was like for Moses and his children to wander the desert at the Wilderness Tabernacle; and if the kids get antsy, drop them off at the “Smile of a Child” kids play-land. Fun for the whole family, indeed.

I suppose with the actual Holy Land a war zone and the deep distrust in the US of “middle eastern” terrorists, this safe and entertaining option is the way to go. Founded by a Baptist minister Marvin Rosenthal (yup, he converted from Judaism) the park has been protested by the Jewish Defence League as promoting the conversion of Jews to Christianity. Kind of the point of the the life of Jesus, but I digress. What I want to know is when religion became defined as “a thrilling swirl of characters, costumes and colour” and how I missed that memo…

Soviet Town for Sale: the life and times of Skrunda-1

02/25/2010

Inspired by this article: For sale: one communist-era ghost town

Occasionally after a research trip I spend a month or two in Latvia at a translators’ and writers’ house in the small city of Ventspils, on the shores of the Baltic Sea. One afternoon last winter Ieva, one of the administrators at the house, and I climbed into her green Lada Zhiguli and drove out into the Latvian countryside. I’d been talking to Ieva about my fascination with abandoned Soviet-era military sites — the shores of the Baltic made up one of the borders of the USSR and were heavily fortified — and she thought I should see the abandoned city of Skrunda-1.

The drive took about an hour. We travelled along a narrow highway through thick pine forests then made a right hand turn on a marginally paved road that led towards the radiological observatory, visible from the highway. Part of the site was dismantled in 1994 (the radar) and what remains looks like a giant satellite dish and is currently used by Latvian scientists at the International Radio Astronomy Centre. During Soviet times it was part of the early warning defence system and is rumoured to have been used to intercept communications of all sorts.

It is possible to tour the Radio Astronomy Centre but no one was around so we couldn’t go inside and climb to the top of the dish. Instead we got back into the Zhiguli and drove about two kms back towards the highway to the site of the town. About 5,000 people lived and worked in this secret city during Soviet times. There was a chain over the entrance but we just stepped over it. A couple of young Latvian guys were tearing down a building nearby. Ieva asked them what they were doing. They pointed at the bricks piled neatly at the edgs of the access road — “Selling bricks.” During the late 1990s, this site was being considered for an amusement park but now, according to the workers, the crumbling ruins were going to be torn down and allowed to be rehabilitated slowly by nature. According to them the site is quite polluted with heavy metals and leaked oil and petroleum.

We asked if we could explore the buildings. They just shrugged.

All the buildings were in a serious state of disrepair. Any metal objects of any value had long been stripped. This is the case in most of these military installations; scrap metal equals money. There were many broken windows and a lot of evidence of squatters and parties. Racist graffiti, of course. And a lot of faded murals. It was eerie and beautiful and sad. Most of the people who lived here were kicked out very suddenly in 1994 when the Russian military was ordered out of Latvia. A few hundred stayed for four more years to manage the site, but it was fully abandoned in 1998. According to Ieva, many of the apartment blocks, buildings of reasonable quality, were abandoned with furniture and appliances intact. Something could have been done with the infrastructure, but there was no organization, no money, no foresight.

Skrunda-1 was sold to a Russian company last month. There have been rumours that it will be turned into a huge pig farm or a large factory of some kind.

Whatever ends up on that location, it’s going to cost a lot of time, energy and money to remove this relic. Multiply this story by hundreds of kilometres of border land to be protected, throw in the Stalin Line and the Molotov Line and you’ll get a sense of just how militarized the former Soviet region was, and how much clean up there remains to be done.

Soviet soldier who hoisted flag over Reichstag in 1945 dies – thestar.com

02/21/2010

Iconic images are what history is made of. I wonder when Mr. Eastwood is going to make his Great Patriotic War epic?

via Soviet soldier who hoisted flag over Reichstag in 1945 dies – thestar.com.

Neo-Stainism in Contemporary Russia: Exhibit 1, Kurskaya Metro Station

02/18/2010

Tourist in the Kurskaya metro
Originally uploaded by adventures in leninland

This post is inspired by this news story about information booths to be set up in Moscow extolling Stalin’s role in Allies’ WWII victory.

I was in Moscow in November and made a special trip one morning to see the newly restored Kurskaya Metro station. It had garnered some controversial press in the previous months because of the restoration of Stalin’s name on the inscription. The Moscow metro is ornate to say the least; it’s worthwhile spending a few hours just riding the clanking trains and checking out the stations, some of which look like ballrooms, or feature huge murals of soviet workers bringing in the ole sheaves.

The Kurskaya stop is interesting because it has created quite a bit of controversy when the inscription running along the main atrium of the upstairs station entrance was restored to include a reference to Stalin. The inscription is a line from the Soviet anthem (of the Stalin era) and reads: “Stalin brought us up to serve the nation well; he inspired us for labor and feats.”

I talked to a historian and guide at the Gulag Museum in Moscow and according to her, the restoration project was done without consulting the proper offices and bureaucracies responsible for the restoration of public monuments. Her take was that yes, there is some kind of neo-Stalinist movement happening but that most people were against restoring Stalin’s name to the walls of the Station. She also pointed out that the line of the Soviet anthem in question has been re-written several times. The original version sang the praises of Lenin and Stalin had it re-written to praise himself. He also built the Metro so it is only logical that that version was used.

Regardless, the station is exquisite; built around theme of red star stained glass and has two large plaques commemorating soldiers who died in various WWII battles. When I was there I took a photo of a fellow tourist; it’s interesting how quickly a controversial place becomes a tourist attraction. For more information on the controversy read this article by RFE/RL, or this one by the New York Times.

Some photos I took can be found on my flickr site.

Cold Beer and Warm Women: Communist Tourism in Krakow

02/17/2010

I’m currently working on a chapter about Nowa Huta, a suburb of Krakow, Poland. Here’s a brief summation.

Nowa Huta was built between 1949-1954 to support the Lenina steel works. The city was constructed by workers brought in from all over Poland and in 1949, the area was nothing but farmland; by 1954 housed nearly 200,000 workers in one of the finest examples of deliberate social engineering in the world. Described as a “Polish socialism city of dreams” Nowa Huta is now a tourist attraction — a group of young entrepreneurs have formed a company called Crazy Guides, offering communist-themed tours of Krakow that include a visit to an “authentic” communist apartment and a ride through Nowa Huta in a GDR-built Trabant.

According to Jakub, general manager at Crazy Guides, an overwhelming number of people lived normal lives under communism. The conditions were different than in Western countries, of course, but people raised families and had fun just like in the West.

Nowa Huta was one of the most successful communist projects in Poland and one of the goals of the tour is to show that there were, as my guide Eryk puts it, good points to communism.

“Our parents lived through communism. They survived and they had fun. There was fun,” says Eryk. “We grew up under this and it’s really disrespectful to say that it was all bad. People lived, had families. I’m a child of that period. We are all a result of that period. And look at me – I’m a bit twisted, but I’m doing quite well.”

Is what Crazy Guides are doing simply nostalgia tourism? There are definitely elements of nostalgia, but neither Eryk or Jakub believe what they do is simply caterer to a desire to return to an idealized past.

“My parents and grandparents did experience life under communism and we have to live with this reality as well,” says Jakub. “We see communism all over the place, still. In particular in my grandparent’s generation. My grandmother says that everything’s the same, that nothing has changed. Maybe we can travel abroad a bit more, but it makes difference to her. It’s of no advantage. My grandfather sees it this way: in communist times we had warm vodka and cold women. Now we have cold vodka and warm women.”

This brings me to the other half of the Crazy Guides organization, the Crazy Stag, basically Pimp-my-Ride plus a stag party. Crazy Guides provide a pimped out shaggin’ wagon for a stag party on wheels. Extras available include sexy hitchhikers, a bad cop booty call and the option of having the groom-to-be kidnapped by Polish mafia.

Communist kitsch and sex tourism: Welcome to the new Poland.

Check out Crazy Guides online.

Welcome to Lenin Land…

02/16/2010

Hi, hello and welcome to “Adventures in Lenin Land”.

About the project:

This blog is part of an ongoing book project looking at the intersection of history and tourism in the former USSR. Over the past three years I’ve spend a good deal of my time exploring the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, looking at museums and tourist attractions that find novel and controversial ways of dealing with the Soviet legacy. Think Lenin Land, Club Gulag, Bus Tour Chernobyl and Stalin Tours. Think former Soviet prisons turned hostels, “authentic” Soviet apartment tours and Cold War bunkers in Moscow hosting your office party. Think and then re-think Soviet history as you know it.

As I’m working on the book I will be posting out-takes, previews and news links related to the project. I’ll also be streaming photos of my travels (past, present and future) via my flickr account.

Welcome to the wacky world of post-Soviet tourism. I hope you’ll visit again and visit often.

Medeine Tribinevicius