||Issue Date: 5 / 2010
James Michael Dorsey
The noted philosopher George Santayana is best remembered for saying, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Budapest remembers it past quite well. While most countries that fell under the umbrella of Soviet occupation have chosen to put that part of their history behind them, Budapest, Hungary has decided to present it on a grand scale.
Memorial in the park, which
remains unfinished to this
Click image to enlarge.
The Russians have long had a taste for epic memorials to war and military conquests, and when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Budapest, as a satellite of their vast empire, was full of giant bronze statues to that failed system.
Most of these giant statues were torn down and destroyed, but a few far thinking individuals realized, distasteful though it might be that they are also a part of their heritage, and the idea of creating a central park to display them took hold. The prevailing idea was Santayana’s own, to present history head on with the idea that by remembering it, such a time would never be allowed to happen again.
The first mention of such a park was published in an article written in 1989 by literary historian Laszlo Szorenyi. The new democratic regime liked his idea, but ran into a firestorm of public protest when it was first openly suggested that these monuments be preserved.
Understandably many people had suffered terribly under that regime and were against any preservation of its memory, but history won out, and in a compromise, land was set aside in the 22nd district, in a small field called Tetenyl Plane, far enough from the central city to mollify opponents to the idea.
An open competition was held and the architectural studio of Vadasz and Partners won the commission with Akos Eleod chosen as primary architect. It was left up to the local government of each district in the city to decide which statues would be added to the project, and in the end 41 monumental works began the exodus from all over Budapest, to their new home.
Memento park, or Statue Park as most locals refer to it, opened in 1993 but due to lack of funding, it remains unfinished to this day, a work in continual progress. When I arrived, I was struck by the bleakness of the large field, laid out in a rough oval design and surrounded by rather stunted shrubbery and scant trees.
The isolation of the place immediately seemed appropriate to the feeling of the times represented within, and helped me feel empathy for the mood of the people who lived through it.
Facing directly opposite the main entrance is a small scale reproduction of the original reviewing stand that once held a gigantic statue of Joseph Stalin and from which the dictator himself held court during the massive May Day rallies. During the Budapest uprising of 1956, which the Soviets brutally repressed, that original statue was toppled and destroyed, leaving only the dictators massive boots on top of the platform. During the revolt, those boots were draped with the flag of free Hungary, and today those boots, six feet tall, are the first thing one sees when arriving at the park.
Inside the main entrance, the statues are aligned in three massive figure eight patterns, situated around a central path that houses a large circle full of grass with a massive red star made of brilliant flowers; a reproduction of the park that once sat directly in the center of Clark Adam square in Budapest, and served as the main entry way to the city’s main bridge over the Danube River.
From a distance, the gigantic size of these monuments is deceiving, and it is only when you stand next to one that their true epic dimensions are realized.
A bronze Joseph Stalin stands atop a pedestal, arm raised while proclaiming to the masses, while a thirty foot tall peasant runs with arms outstretched overhead, carrying the flag of the Russian army. A towering soviet soldier, holding an automatic rifle stands as silent sentry, holding the flag of the red army. This particular statue at one time stood in front of the Citadel, a massive stone fortress on top of Gellert Hill, overlooking all of Budapest, where the KGB used to interrogate prisoners.
There are busts and half busts and large groups of figures gathered together. Their inscriptions are all in Czech so I needed a guidebook to decipher them, but all proclaim special achievements by “heroes” of the Soviet era.
There is even a small gift store full of military memorabilia where you can purchase a KGB coffee mug or a Karl Marx T-shirt. A poster hangs on one wall, showing Joseph Stalin in front of two large golden arches with the caption, McDictator! I priced a Soviet army hat and found a Made in China” label inside. “The irony of this is not lost when you consider that these despots who once railed against capitalism are now raking in tourist dollars from their images imprinted on souvenirs. Perhaps it is a little Communist karma?
The park also contains a tiny museum and in one small room an aging black and white film plays over and over. It is a KGB training film that was shot during the cold, war and today is more entertaining than threatening, almost like a cartoon. I was told this was an actual film used to train Soviet agents in the fine art of breaking and entering, message encryption, disguise techniques, and all the other necessary ingredients that went into being a spy during the post World War two years.
In the film you follow two agents as they go about the business of infiltrating the “Capitalist West.” It was all shot with such serious demeanor I found myself chuckling at their antics. If, in fact, it is true, then it is no wonder their regime collapsed, and in today’s world of “Reality” television, it would make for a great sitcom.
As a child growing up in the west during the cold war, I remember images of these very statues from the evening news as I watched events unfold in real time. I was too young to truly understand what was happening then, but recall my father, who had fought in the Second World War, crying as we sat in front of the television in our warm and safe home watching countries he fought to liberate becomes enslaved once again.
I was more attuned to the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe than most kids my age because my school mate was from Budapest and told me chilling stories of how his family slipped out of the city at night with only the clothes on their backs while dodging tanks that rumbled through the city.
They made it to America with nothing, and had to rebuild their lives from the ground up, and hearing this from one who lived through it impacted me greatly. As one who knew only freedom, I also that knew one day I would have to go and see these places to truly understand what it is like to be a prisoner in ones own country.
My wife and I were alone the day we went to Memento Park except for one little man who was there by himself. He was standing in front of one particular statue of a Soviet infantryman. It towered over him and brought to mind the famous image of a Chinese man confronting a tank in Tiananmen Square. Obviously this statue held great memories for him as he remained there the entire time my wife and I walked through the park, rooted like a tree, eyes focused on the face of the statue.
dedicated to Karl Marx.
James Michael Dorsey
Click image to enlarge.
When we passed him I saw a single tear run down his cheek and knew he was grappling with old demons on this day. Perhaps he was one of the very freedom fighters who had appeared on my TV screen so many years before.
While I can never really know what it is like to have a foreign power in charge of my country; to stand in front of these gigantic monuments, being dwarfed by them, I had for the first time some sense of feeling overwhelmed by a malignant force such as these people had to endure.
Before this park opened there was much local opposition, mainly from older people who lived through those times and did not want such a constant reminder of their past, but as an outsider, I am extremely grateful that it exists.
To me, that little man who was crying and all those like him are the real monuments; heroes who endured and are still here, while the iron curtain has faded into the fog of time.
By putting these statues front and center, the people of Budapest are saying, “never again.”
If you go
The park is located in Budapest (Hungary) 22nd district (Southern Buda), corner of Balatoni út and Szabadkai utca.
Public transportation is available. From Kosztolanyi Dezso ter (Kosztolanyi Dezso square) take bus No.150 to Campona. The bus departs from in front of building No.9. Start time mon-fri in every 20 minutes (10, 30, 50), sat-sun in every 30 minutes (00, 30). The ride to Memento Park is ~25 min. Day passes, BKV-tickets (290 HUF) and Budapest Cards are valid.
Alternatively, from Kelenfoldi PU (Etele ter by Kelenfold Railway Station) Volanbusz Station (behind Metro 4 construction area), take the bus departing every 15 minutes from gate No. 7-8 to Diosd-Érd. The ride takes 10 minutes. Get off at "Memento Park" stop.
Day passes and Budapest Cards are NOT valid on "Volan" buses. Tickets are available at the Volanbusz Station.
To access Kosztolanyi D. ter or Kelenföldi PU (Etele ter) take one of the following means of public transportation:
A) Tram No.49 from Deak ter (Deak square, Metro No.1, No.2, No.3) > Astoria > Kalvin ter > Fovam ter (Central Market Hall) > St.Gellert ter (Tram No.41, No.56) > Bertalan L. u. > Moricz Zsigmond ter > Kosztolanyi D ter (CHANGE TO BUS No.150 to Memento Park) > or go further to Kelenfoldi PU
B) Bus No.7E, No.173E from Ferenciek tere (Metro No.3) to Kosztolanyi D ter (2nd stop from Ferenciek tere) > or go to further to Kelenfoldi PU (6th stop from Ferenciek tere)
Direct bus transfer from downtown Budapest daily at 11 a.m. (also at 3 p.m. in July and August). The bus leaves from Deák tér (accessible by Metro lines No.1, No.2 and No.3), from the bus stop that has a Memento Park sign on it. Cost is 3.950 HUF per person (for students or with a Budapest Card only 2.450 HUF).
Traveling by car, the Park is located on Road No. 7 (also called No. 70 or "Balatoni út") at marker 7. (7 kilometers from the Budaörsi út "Ostapenko" intersection and 5 kilometers from the Diósd turnout of M0.)
Traveling on foot, the park is a 20-30-minute walk from Kamaraerdő (terminal of tram 41) through the woods.
James Michael Dorsey is a frequent contributor to The World
and I Online. He is an explorer, writer and photographer who
has traveled extensively, and the author of Tears, Fear &
Adventure: 30 Years of Travel Off the Beaten Path. His
work can be seen on the Web at jamesdorsey.com