Curing Soviet Nostalgia at the Gulag Theme Park

Cease Fear, Freedom of Speech, Violence

“Thus it is that we always pay dearly for chasing after what is cheap,” Aleksander Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, following his decade-long imprisonment in a gulag. Participants who pay the 15 euro entrance fee to partake in a three-hour mock USSR experience in a Lithuanian forest 25 km from Vilnius might be thinking the same thing.

Upon arriving at the Soviet Bunker, participants put on a quilted cotton jacket, the sort worn by prisoners in gulags, and are handed a steaming cup of caffeine-free barley coffee. Whatever “fun” one might be having ends with the final sip of ersatz; participants are quickly forced into the bunker, and are required to run through the underground labyrinth wearing gas masks and shouting pro-Soviet slogans in Russian.

Then there’s a mandatory medical inspection, a possible interrogation session managed by former KGB soldiers and barking German shepherds, and forced manual labor, all designed to mimic the experience of life under the thumb of the Soviet Union. Unless you want to get whipped with a leather belt, or made to salute the USSR flag, you must fastidiously follow the rules, which include no giggling or smiling. “In case of disobedience, participants may receive psychological or physical punishments,” the waiver warns.

Lithuania was a republic of the Soviet Union for fifty years. Between 1944 and 1953, 5% of the population was forcibly relocated to settlements in Siberia, thousands more became political prisoners, and most of the country’s resistance fighters were sent to the gulags. For owner Rūta Vanagite, creating the Soviet Bunker is nationalistic. “There are still so many in Lithuania who have the illness of Soviet nostalgia, so we started this show to help them to recover,” Rūta Vanagite told in 2008.

Trauma is required for recovery to ensue, and so near the end of the experience, all participants are held up against a wall at fake gunpoint while soldiers scream in your ear. Someone in your group (or you) will be hauled off to another room to be shot and killed, under the pretense of committing a petty crime. Later, when the jackets are off and everyone is safely above ground, you’ll be offered a plate of tinned beef and a shot of vodka. It might just taste like freedom.


Photo by Petras Malukas (courtesy of Soviet Bunker).