Budapest: Decline and fall

Lenin et al may have been knocked off their pedestals, but there's a field near Budapest that remains forever Communist. Ben Ross pays a visit

It could never be said that the Communists shirked when it came to erecting statues. These monuments are mighty, majestic symbols of the raw power of what was once the Soviet Union. Which makes their presence here, in a muddy field outside Budapest, all the more surprising.

It could never be said that the Communists shirked when it came to erecting statues. These monuments are mighty, majestic symbols of the raw power of what was once the Soviet Union. Which makes their presence here, in a muddy field outside Budapest, all the more surprising.

The currently much-discussed issue of "regime change" carries with it the idea that in one great, cathartic sweep, the political life of a country can be erased and then redrawn in a new, more attractive image. But the experience in Hungary suggests that the past isn't so easy to forget.

Communist rule ended when the party allowed the first free elections for more than 40 years to take place in March 1990. It was a relatively peaceful transition, especially when you consider the bloody days of the 1956 uprising. After the Soviet tanks rolled in, 25,000 people lay dead. Indeed, the events of 1956 scarred the Hungarian psyche so deeply that you'd be forgiven for thinking that the most potent symbols of Communism – the vast statues that once lined the streets – would join the ideology itself as it was consigned to the dustbin of history. But the statues are still here for people to visit, albeit relocated to rather less exalted positions than the grand plinths that they occupied in the past.

Their survival owes much to Hungary's fierce sense of national history. While a less enlightened nation might have set about their busts of Lenin and Marx with sledgehammers, before cheering crowds, Hungary quietly removed them to a field, put a wall around them, and called it the Statue Park.

The idea came from a literary historian called Laszlo Szorenyi, who proposed a national Lenin Garden, where all the statues of the USSR's first leader would be collected. In the event, the memorial park contains a hotchpotch of statuary, from small reliefs to heroically proportioned, flag-waving soldiers that were intended to symbolise progress and friendship between the USSR and Hungary, but that instead still seem threatening.

Giant statues of Lenin, Marx and Engels greet visitors at the enormous gates, but the inside of the Statue Park seems strangely homespun. There's no back wall to the field (the money ran out), and while a doughty lady in a tiny kiosk takes your money and tries to sell you Communist trinkets, the tinny tinkle of socialist anthems wafts weakly into the air, deflating any sense of grandeur.

Maybe that's all part of an attempt to cut Communism down to size. It happened literally to the statue of Ferenc Munnich, a hated local Communist: the feet are missing, as the result of a toppling in 1990. With its legs now embedded in a concrete block, the statue looks like the unfortunate result of a Mafia hit. Lenin, too, has been taken down a notch or two. Gesturing grandly in his classic pose, he now addresses a patch of scrubby grass.

Perhaps the most impressive piece is the memorial to Bela Kun, a Hungarian Communist who was secretly shot in 1939 on Stalin's orders. A red bronze standing two and a half metres tall, it depicts Kun surrounded by soldiers and workers as he exhorts them onwards.

But this isn't just art, it's propaganda. Although the iconography of Communism is often considered cool in the West, here there's been a real attempt to deglamorise the subject. Tourists have to make an effort to get here (it's 45 minutes from the centre of Budapest) and the accompanying guidebook talks of politics rather than art history. But in this field, these relics of Hungary's Communist past offer a stark reminder of the political and emotional baggage that "regime change" always entails.

The Statue Park (00 36 1 424 7500; www.szoborpark.hu) is in Budapest XXII, at the corner of Balatoni ut and Szabadkai utca. Admission is 600 forints (£1.65) and the park is open daily, 10am-sunset. A direct bus leaves Deak Square, for 1,950 forints (£5.35), including park admission

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