Ever thought of taking a picture with Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels? Memento Park, set in a hilly suburb of Budapest in Hungary. The park puts you right in the middle of the Cold War, with a curious and fascinating collection of statues from the communist era.
Prompted by economic stagnation as well as domestic political pressure, Hungary’s transition from communism to democracy and capitalism was peaceful. This revolution came after some some 45 years of communist dictatorship by the Soviet Union. The first democratic elections took place and the Soviet Red Army troops left the country.
However, there was an unforeseen problem that came along with this new beginning for Hungary. Over the course of four decades, the communist dictatorship had established itself very clearly throughout the cityscape of Budapest. What was to happen with the statues, monuments and art from the communist era? Memento Park was the answer.
A gate roughly 1 meter high welcomes visitors to the site. Once inside, Memento Park has two adjacent squares, with a total of 42 statues.
The best known and largest communist monuments were removed from the city centre and brought to the park, with care so as to not destroy them. The park, officially an open-air museum, has statues of Lenin, Marx, and Engels, as well as several Hungarian communist leaders. Other iconic statues include those of liberation soldiers waving flags in their hands.
Founded with an ambition to create a place where Hungarians could commemorate and remember their past, Memento Park nowadays instead draws thousands of foreign visitors, with most guidebooks listing it as a must-see. Hungarians themselves, on the contrary, would in fact rather not be confronted with the monuments of their dark past. For many, the communist era is a painful history, one of oppression and limitation.
Tourism since the end of the communist regime
Once an end finally came to the communist regime in October 1989, Hungary opened its borders and reformed its economy. Tourism was indeed one of the sectors that developed progressively, not only in Hungary but in the entire region. The European Commission estimated in 2018 that the number of foreign tourists to Central and Eastern Europe had tripled between 1990 and 2010: from 33 million to nearly 99 million.
One subsegment within the tourism industry that started to take shape was visiting communist heritage. This red tourism leads visitors to historic places and sites from the communist period.
Red tourism in other countries
Memento Park isn’t the only such park in (eastern) Europe. The Muzeon Park of Arts in Moscow, for example, is the largest open-air museum in Russia with seven hundred exhibited pieces and many Soviet statues.
Similarly, the Grutas Park which opened in Lithuania in 2001, is a sculpture garden of Soviet-era statues as well as other Soviet ideological relics from the times of the Lithuanian SSR.
In other parts of the world, such as in China, red tourism is also booming. The Government indeed began actively supporting red tourism throughout the Republic in 2005. The local Chinese visit locations with historical significance related to Chinese Communism “to rekindle their long-lost sense of class struggle and proletarian principles.”