Tourist Tips: Sightseeing in Sarajevo

I think Bosnia is Europe’s best-kept secret.  Someday, I believe this beautiful country will be filled with tourists, so I almost hesitate to write this post of encouragement.  However…for those who are interested in visiting Sarajevo, here are my…

Top 6 Sightseeing Recommendations:

  1. Baščaršija –No tourist will miss Baščaršija, or the old city, which is designed in the Ottoman Turkish style.  In the middle of the narrow stone streets one finds Sebilj, which is a wooden fountain that sits in what tourists call “Pigeon Square.”  Take a drink from the fountains located around the city because Bosnia has very high quality water that comes fresh from the surrounding mountains. Baščaršija is the best place to drink a strong Bosnian (Turkish-style) coffee, to eat ćevapi with a side of kajmak, or to buy hand crafted copper souvenirs.

    Sebilj

  2. History Museum (Historijski Muzej, Bosne I Hercegovina) – Visitors should go to the History Museum when they first arrive, which is located across from the train and bus stations.  This museum hosts a permanent exhibition on the siege, which provides a better insight into the country’s recent history.  The exhibition is small and tasteful, and visitors follow a chronological path from the breakup of Yugoslavia.  Photos show how the city looked during the war, displays explain every day life during the siege, and a section devoted to the life of children during this time is particularly moving.  The museum is located not far from the Holiday Inn where journalists stayed during the war, which sits on the former “Sniper’s Alley.”  (Zmaja od Bosne 5, 08:00 – 15:00 daily, Tickets: 2 km)

    History Museum, Siege Exhibition

  3. Latin Bridge and Museum of  Sarajevo 1878 – 1918: This bridge, which was formerly called Princip’s Bridge, was the location of the spot from which Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on 28 June 1914.  The museum, which is right next to the bridge, better explains the event which triggered World War I and Sarajevo during the Austro-Hungarian period (1878-1918) in general.  The museum is small but worth seeing.  (Zelenih beretki 1, Mon – Fri: 10:00 – 16:00; Sat: 10:00 – 15:00, Tickets: 2 km)

    Latin Bridge

  4. Jewish Museum (Muzej Jevre BiH): This museum is housed in the Old Synagogue.  The building did not suffer much damage during the war because it is set back in a courtyard, and it actually protected collections from other museums.  The displays explain the fascinating history of the Jewish Community in Bosnia through the Communist period.  This community is a special interest of mine and I was fascinated to learn more about their history in the country, especially from their arrival in the mid 16th century through the 19th century (Read here and here).  My only complaint is that the museum does not talk about the important humanitarian role the Jewish community during the war.  Nearby visitors can walk past the Markale Market, which was the site of two massacres during the war, the second of which prompted NATO air strikes.  (Velika Avlija bb, Mon – Fri: 10:00 – 16:00; Sun: 10:00 – 13:00, Tickets: 2 km)

    Inside the Jewish Museum

  5. Alija Izetbegović Museum: I was very curious to look inside this small museum which is housed in an old town fort and dedicated to the former president (1st president) of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The museum victimizes the country of Bosnia, and praises the leadership of Izetbegović and his “intellectual contributions” like the Islamic Declaration.  Mostly, the museum is like a shrine, containing valuable gifts from other world leaders, his old uniforms, and quotes of praise for his leadership.  Since this museum requires a walk up a steep hill, go a little bit further to the old fortress for a great view of the old city and river.  Walk through Kovači Cemetery where Izetbegović himself is buried.  (Ploca, Seasonal hours, Open at 10:00 daily and closed on Sundays, Tickets: 2 km)

    View from above Kovači Cemetery

  6. Vrelo Bosne: Even a short trip to Sarajevo should include some of the breathtaking Bosnian nature.  The best way to enjoy the forests and streams surrounding the city is to visit Vrelo Bosne, which is a national park located at the source of the River Bosne on the outskirts of Sarajevo.  The park is filled with paths and over streams, waterfalls and ponds.  There are a few cafes nearby, and this shady spot is perfect in the summer.  The park is an easy tram ride away from the city center until the end of the line, and then for 15 km, a horse drawn carriage will deliver you to the park itself.  The 25 minute tram ride is also a nice way to see the different neighborhoods of Sarajevo out the window on the way.

    Vrelo Bosne

Enjoy Sarajevo!

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Language Lessons

Many of my friends and family from home ask me the same question:  What are the differences among the Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian languages?  I understand their confusion, because last year I studied Serbian language at the Centre for Serbian as a Foreign Language at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia.  Lately I speak of my commitment to improving my Bosnian language skills now that I live in Sarajevo.  Most people in the United States still think of the language as Serbo-Croatian, and always I carry a pocket Croatian dictionary in my purse.   This probably sounds confusing to many people, so here is a brief explanation for clarification.

For centuries, the dialects of the South Slavs have developed independently with slight regional variations.  By the mid-19th century, writers and linguists worked to standardize the language, and they began to call the unified language Serbian-Croatian (or Croatian-Serbian).  In 1918, the first Kingdom of Yugoslavia named the language Serbo-Croato-Slovene, making the previous efforts to create a supranational language official.  In 1929, the names of the country and language were changed to Yugoslavia, in order to eliminate ethnic divisions among the people.

Communist Yugoslavia did not solve the language issues, but it suppressed ethnic tensions to some extent.  In 1954, groups of Serbian and Croatian intellectuals signed the Novi Sad Agreement, which stated that Serbs, Croats, and Montenegrins speak the same language with some differences in pronunciation.  Many Croats were uneasy with this declaration, and viewed it as Serbia’s attempt to assert political dominance over the region.  Following the political pressures in the 1980s and 1990s, the forced merging of the languages ended, and speakers called the language whatever they wanted.  The wars surrounding the breakup of Yugoslavia emphasized differences among the people, and language politics became very important.

It is impossible to provide a short explanation of language politics in the former-Yugoslavia.  However it is most important to state that Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Montenegrins can easily understand each other, despite the different names for the language.  In a recent B92 article, a Croatian linguist states that everyone in Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro are speaking the same language.  She speaks of how emphasis on small regional language differences is a mask to spread political intolerance.

Constantly, I am reminded of my Serbian professor who told me that in the former-Yugoslavia, the small differences matter most to people.  Although everyone can easily understand one another, language is an important factor of national pride.  In Bosnia, everyone has the right to education in their “own language”  and differences are emphasized.  In Serbian schools, children are taught in Serbian in  the Cyrillic alphabet.  Similarly, schools with Bosniak Muslim or Croatian majorities emphasize their own regional dialects and spellings. For example, Serbs say uvek and Bosnians say uvijek (always), gde and gdje (where), lepo and lijepo (beautiful).  The differences are hardly noticeable in conversation, but greatly matter to teachers and parents when it comes to educational and classroom settings.

In conclusion, most people would agree that the people of these four countries speak the same language.  Internationally, this language is usually called Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian to be as politically correct as possible.  International organizations are working to ease the tension over language in the Bosnian education system.  For my own purposes, it does not matter that I studied Serbian language last year and now I live in Bosnia.  For the purposes of my CV however, I can say I speak three languages when I really speak only one.  🙂

My collection of books- Serbian dictionary in Cyrillic, Bosnian dictionary, pocket Croatian dictionary, Serbian workbooks, Bosnian workbooks.....

For more information, please read the recent B92 article on linguistics here. (In Serbian)

Also, wikipedia provides explanation on the differences between Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian here.

Sarajevo Film Festival Review

Without wishing to sound redundant of the film descriptions on the website, I would like to point out a few regional films that I saw last week at the 2010 Sarajevo Film Festival. As previously mentioned, the festival holds a large international appeal, with visitors and films from all around the world.  The festival was well organized, and tickets ranged from 2.5-7 euros.  Based on my interests, I mainly watched films from Southeast Europe.

Na Putu

In my opinion, the idea for the plot of Na Putu (On the Path; Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Germany and Croatia, 2010) was extremely interesting.  The film portrayed a young couple Luna and Amar, very much in love,  living in Sarajevo and trying to have a baby.  Although from Muslim background, they do not attend mosque or practice their religion.  After getting fired from his job, Amar accepts a well-paid job at a Wahhabi commune.  The viewers watch as this fundamentalist Muslim community influences Amar’s personal beliefs, and inevitably, his relationship with his wife Luna.  I found the character development to be very weak in this film, and it is hard to believe Amar’s drastic transition.  However, the film is valuable in that it teaches something about the Wahhabi community in Bosnia, and how they clash with the moderate Muslims in the country.  Although I am not very familiar with this group, the film prompted me to do a little investigation.

The fundamentalist Wahhabi movement is a radical group which preaches a ‘pure Islam.’ It originated in Saudi Arabia in the early 18th century and preaches religious intolerance towards other religious groups, including moderate Muslims.  Wahhabi Muslims first came to Bosnia during the war to fight on the side of the Muslims, and many have remained in the country since.  They preach about a traditional Islam, have some schools around Bosnia, and even have operated a terrorist training camp in Southern Serbia.  According to one article, there is a growing number of Al Qaida sympathizers in Bosnia.  According to another article, Islamic studies experts consider this group a threat, and that most of their support comes from Saudi Arabia.  The article also states that according to intelligence sources, Five of the ‘9/11’ attackers had served as Wahhabi sponsored fighters in Bosnia.   Although I cannot comment on the accuracy of the portrayal of this community in Na Putu, I felt that the film provided a fascinating insight into the lives of Wahhabi Muslims in Bosnia.

Zajedno (Together), a documentary from Croatia (2009), featured other underrepresented communities in the region.  The film seemed rather low-budget, and it mainly consisted of interviews about the relationships of different people and couples.  For example, a lesbian couple is followed, and one can see how they act differently in Zagreb than in a smaller town in Croatia.  Many people are not accepting of their relationship.  The film also centers around members of the handicapped community in Croatia, and their limitations in society.  This film was not my favorite, but was valuable and even funny at times as various couples commented about love and relationships.

A Scene from Sevdah za Karima

I found Sevdah za Karima (Sevdah for Karim, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Croatia 2010) to be a gem of the festival.  The cinematography was artistic and interesting, and the character development believable and subtle.  Viewers witness the feeling of despair that young adults had in Bosnia immediately after the war.  The film centers around Karim, a Muslim man from Sarajevo.  He seems to be in his twenties right after the war finishes.  He is a failed philosophy student, trying to provide for his sister.  Despite the fact that his parents were killed by a mine during the war, and that Karim himself lost a leg from a mine, he took a job clearing mines in the mountains of Bosnia.  Obviously, this was not an easy film to watch.  The whole audience held their breath as Karim and his colleagues cleared mine fields.  They were not always successful at this highly dangerous job.  Karim had many friends who got mixed up in drugs and violence after the war.  Also, many of his friends from work decided to take jobs with the US military deployment in Iraq.  As a young person currently in my twenties, I thought about what I would do if I were in the position of the characters in this film.  Sevdah za Karima shows how the war continued long after the peace agreements were signed.

A novel by Slavenka Drakulic

Lastly, the best film that I saw from the region last week was Kao da me nema (As If I am not There, Ireland 2010).  The film was based on a book by my favorite author, Slavenka Drakulic.  She is a journalist and author from Croatia and has written many books and articles about the region.  I respect her ability to include just enough personal information into her writing about life in the former-Yugoslavia.  Her books are extremely insightful and well-researched, but they are enjoyable and read like novels.  This film was based on the book As If I am not There, which is called “S” on the English translation.  S. is the initial of the main character of the book… a young teacher in her 20s from Sarajevo, who accepts a job in a mountain village school in Bosnia.  One morning she wakes up and is told to board a bus and leave her home.  Women listen as the men in the village are killed, and they are forced to board buses and live for many months in a camp run by Serbian soldiers.  The film follows this school teacher, as she was selected for the “Women’s Room” in the camp, subjected to constant rape and violence.  The story shows how she survives this horrible part of her life, and how she deals with the emotional aftermath.  The novel and film both begin with this aftermath – S. is in a hospital in a foreign country, trying to deal with her newborn, unwanted child, that only instigates horrible memories.

I felt privileged to watch this film at the festival.  Many of the actors were present, and my idol Slavenka Drakulic herself.  It was actually the first time she herself saw this film based on her book.  Sitting in the theatre, I have never in my life felt so affected by a film.  I felt completely paralyzed in my chair, unable to turn away from the horrible actions taking place on the big screen in front of me.  In fact, a noticeable amount of people actually left the theatre, unable to watch.  Despite the difficulty of this film, it was perhaps the most powerful film I have ever seen and I would recommend both the book and the film to anyone interested in the wars surrounding breakup of Yugoslavia.  Usually I like books better than the films based on books, but I felt that in this case, both the film and the novel had something different to offer.  In the book, readers witness more character development as they read the most intimate thoughts of the main character.  A film cannot provide such detailed thoughts.  However, the visual aspect of the film forced the viewers to watch the events taking place.  Although the book described the same horrible events, I was able to keep some distance while reading that I was unable to maintain while watching the film.

All in all, I immensely enjoyed the film festival, and I hope to attend next year.  Films from this region are not so accessible in the United States, and this was a great opportunity for me to watch some of the best films from Southeast Europe with English subtitles.

Introducing the Annual Sarajevo Film Festival

Sarajevo is filled with anticipation for the annual international film festival that begins today July 22 and lasts until July 31, 2010. The festival will take place earlier than normal this year because Ramadan is in August, and they are expecting about 100,000 visitors for the event. Tourists have arrived in the city, posters advertising the festival hang in every shop window, and men are hard at work setting up outdoor stages and rolling down red carpets. The program is mainly focused on Southeast Europe but will feature films from around the world, and several theaters around the city will show the films all day long.

The website boasts that this is the 16th year of the event, but those from the city know that the festival has a longer history. According to the website, the festival was founded in 1995 after the siege, and the cultural event helps to “recreate civil society” in the city. However, film students from the city tell me something different. The festival did in fact take place during the siege and was organized by Haris Pašović, a theater and film director from Sarajevo. Pašović organized the first Sarajevo film festival in 1993 called “Beyond the End of the World.” The city had no food, water or electricity, let alone projectors and screens to show films. Somehow by petitioning the international community, Pašović received around 200 films from around the world. He found a projector and a generator, and hundreds of people waited out front of the National Theatre for tickets, despite the constant sniper fire around the city.

In the article he wrote in Oslobodjene newspaper that accompanied the festival program in 1993, Pašović addresses the city under siege and the people being annihilated. After comparing the genocide of the Bosnian Muslims to the Holocaust and Jews, he writes “Sarajevo is the city in which the world of the twentieth century, the world to which we were born and brought up, has died. In other places the dying is taking place. Here we live beyond the end of the world.” This statement reflects the title of the festival, and he describes the fundamental human need for art, even (or especially) at a time of war. He states that being constantly close to death means longing for things like art and love in the strongest way.

Pašović did not worry about picture quality or sound at the 1993 Sarajevo film festival. The list of international supporters was very long, and the organizers stated in their newspaper program that they “could not promise anything.” It did not stick to the schedule, and many of the promised films and guests did not show. In 1993, there was no glamor, parties or red carpet. This is a striking contrast from this year’s festival which will honor special guest Morgan Freeman, and other stars will be whisked off to Dubrovnik for post-festival parties. The glossy program and efficient box offices today seem well rehearsed after many years of this annual festival. The organizers of the festival have changed, and so they write that the festival began 16 years ago and they do not mention its start in 1993. I wonder how the “Beyond the End of the World” festival felt for people of the city- they risked their lives for a bit of culture in a time of war, and heard gun shots outside as they watched films from around the world. I am happy for the city of Sarajevo, that they have come so far since the end of the war, and that they host such a well-attended international event. However, as I walk around the city and see artsy foreigners claiming to be emerging directors with their bold clothes and oozing confidence, I cannot help but to wonder about the humble beginnings of the festival in 1993.

Sources:

Sarajevo Film Festival Website

Haris Pasovic- The City Engaged

International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam

Hjorth, Daniel and Monika Kostera, ed.  Entrepreneurship and the Experience Economy.  Copenhagen Business School Press, 2007.  (Found on Google Books)

Note:  I will be attending films from this region, including Years Eaten By Lions, Sevdah for Karim, On the Path, As If I am Not There, Together, The Flood/Kapitalism, I Even Met Happy Gypsies, as well as Lebanon.  The website contains a synopsis for each film.  I look forward to writing about Southeast European film in a later post.

11 July 1995

I would like to acknowledge the victims of Srebrenica since yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the tragedy.  Yesterday afternoon as I sat in a crowded cafe in Sarajevo, I watched the extensive news coverage of the memorial events at the site a couple of hours away.  Around 50,000 people gathered in Srebrenica, including many world leaders and the presidents of all the countries of the former-Yugoslavia.  They buried 775 victims next to the 3,749 bodies already in the cemetery. Leading up to the ceremony, 5,000 people marched for 68 miles through the Bosnian mountains.  This march takes place annually, and the participants walk the same journey (except backwards) that around 15,000 people took to escape the mass killings.

Burial of victims on the 15th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre

Not surprisingly, the United Nations cowardly did not send any representatives to the anniversary ceremony.  During the war in 1995, the UN declared Srebrenica a safe area for civilians, but this “protection” resulted in the largest mass murder since World War II. Fifteen years ago, 30,000 Bosniak Muslims sought refuge in Srebrenica, but the Republika Srpska forces arrived and made the Dutch peacekeepers let them inside. The Serbs sorted out the Muslim men and boys and killed over 8,000 of them in a massacre. A few months later in an effort to conceal what happened, the Republika Srpska army dug up the mass graves and moved the victims. The bulldozing tore apart the bodies, causing some victims’ remains to be spread across different sites. Many bodies still have not been found.

Thousands participate in the annual peace march before the anniversary

Thousands participate in the annual peace march before the anniversary

While fixated on the news coverage of the political speeches, flashing images of coffins and people overcome with emotion, one story stood out to me in particular. I learned about the project of a German NGO to build a memorial for the victims and to point blame at the UN for the massacre. Called the ‘Pillar of Shame,’ the monument is certainly not subtle. Its design features massive letters U-N made out of plexiglass, which are to be filled with 16,744 shoes representing the 8,372 victims. It will measure eight meters high, and the shoes will even have a few spaces that look like bullet holes. As the campaign in Germany for shoe donations from around the world continues, the huge collection was placed in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin this weekend for the anniversary. A small version of the letters was placed on top of the pile. When completed, the final monument will stand on the hill next to the memorial center/cemetery in Srebrenica, which opened in 2004. The Mothers of Srebrenica, a Bosnian organization for families of the victims, will decide the names of Western politicians and military leaders “to shame” by including their names on the monument. Construction should begin in May 2011.

Berlin's tribute to the victims of Srebrenica

I feel that the strongest aspect of this tribute to the victims of the massacre is the idea to include the shoes. After visiting Auschwitz/Birkenau a couple of times while living in Krakow, the part that resonated with me the most was the room that showed the personal belongings taken from camp prisoners. It would be impossible to see this display of collected shoes, or the chopped off hair in a huge pile, or the pile of eyeglasses without feeling sick over the sheer number of these objects reflecting the number of victims. Perhaps this is the origin of the idea for the inclusion of shoes in the forthcoming Srebrenica memorial. Using everyday objects to represent the number of victims will be a powerful statement in itself.

However, I am rather uneasy about the memorial’s blatant assignment of blame. These massive letters will completely change the landscape of the site and in my opinion, distract from the cemetery and memorial already in place. When I visited the memorial last year, I was overcome by the amount of names written in a stone semi-circle in a similar fashion to the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC. The number of pristine white headstones was overwhelming and even on that particular afternoon last summer, they were burying victims. Seeing the temporary headstones of the latest burials and the way the graves extended up the hill as if they ran out of space for everyone was truly a powerful sight. In a few years, people who visit the memorial will only be able to look at the massive U-N monument which will take the focus off of the victims themselves.

Pointing blame at the UN is understandable, but I think writing names of individuals who did not intervene is a step too far. The whole world knew about the war in Bosnia and ignored the tragic events that took place. Is it really necessary to list individuals? I do not think this feature of the plan should be included because I think its unfair and unnecessary. Since the purpose of this tribute is to assign blame, it should only refer to the UN or other big collective groups that should have intervened in Bosnia. In my opinion, a better option would be to blame the world in general for allowing genocide take place.

The list of victims at the Srebrenica memorial site

No monument, no matter how big or angry, will ease the pain of the relatives of the victims. With the Chief of the Republika Srpka army during the war Ratko Mladic still at large, justice cannot take place. Several of the speeches at the ceremony yesterday stated the urgency of his arrest and trial. The people of Bosnia cannot move forward with their grieving while knowing that a man responsible for so many deaths is still alive and free in the world. The assignment of blame should come from the Hague trials for the war criminals, not from an eight meter high monument.

The powerful images from the news combined with my discovery that the Bosniaks who live in Sarajevo are very willing and open to talk with me about the war provided a powerful first few days of my relocation to Bosnia. For more information or to support the Pillar of Shame project, please visit the website provided below.

Sources:

Pillar of Shame project website

Article on Anniversary Ceremony

Balkan Insight article about Pillar of Shame

Conflicts of Ostalgie: Budapest’s Statue Park

After World War II, the Soviet Union’s political, economic, and military consolidation of Central and Eastern Europe was enforced through a highly visible ideological campaign.  Symbols of change and progress were constructed in the form of buildings, bridges, and towers adorned with the Red Star of Communism.  Posters of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin ushering in a utopian future hung in classrooms and factories, while statues of triumphant workers reflected that under the Soviet regime, art was used as a tool to educate the masses about the rewards of a collective society.  Other propagandistic monuments honoring the Soviet Army’s triumph over Nazi fascism were seen in every park and city square throughout Russia and the Soviet bloc countries in the post-war era.  These public works were blatantly symbolic of a new future.

Entrance to Budapest's Statue Park

The fate of these monuments in the post-Communist era, that is, after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1991 fall of Communism, differed in each country of Central and East Europe.  Focusing on the monuments of one place, Budapest, one can examine the collective memory of Hungarians through memorialization of their recent history.  This former Soviet bloc country has dealt with the symbols of its Communist past in the form of an open-air sculpture museum called Statue Park. Many Hungarians have found this to be a useful though problematic solution for what to do with their Soviet era statues, which reflects collective memory of Hungary’s unique history during the Communist period.

Propaganda Poster of Comrade Rakosi

Hungary is a special example on which to focus because of its history during Communism, which began with practically a dictatorship and ended with relatively good living conditions in comparison to neighboring countries. Mátyás Rákosi, the chief secretary of the Communist Party during the Stalinist period, exercised totalitarian rule over the country and ruthlessly persecuted innocent people deemed to be “state enemies” with his special police force.  No other leader was trusted more by Stalin, and Rákosi developed a cult of personality with his images and statues spread throughout the country to remind everyone of his “wisdom”.

With a failing economy, poor living conditions, and virtually no freedom of speech, student demonstrators attempted to regain control of their own government with both large and small demands during the 1956 Revolution. In addition to demanding the removal of the Soviet troops and insisting on the right to free press, Hungarian revolutionaries insisted upon many symbolic changes, such as the replacement of the Soviet military uniforms with the old Hungarian style uniforms, the restoration of national holidays, and the coat of arms switched back to tradition.  Visible symbols are extremely meaningful and as in the words of George Schöpflin, the ‘use of flags, monuments and ceremonies is not a superfluous extravagance, but a central component of identity creation and maintenance”.  Although the Revolution worked for a short time, within weeks the Soviet Army regrouped and returned to control Hungary with a vengeance.  Many of the demonstrators were killed or injured, and after the Soviet Union regained control, thousands were imprisoned for having participated in the rebellion, and over two hundred people received the death penalty.  Until the fall of Communism in 1991, the records of this Revolution were hidden in Hungary and Hungarians were not permitted by the government to mention the events that took place in 1956.

1956 Hungarian Revolution

By the mid-1960s, life in Hungary improved with János Kádár as prime minister. He conducted a great deal of counterrevolutionary terror in the beginning years of his political office, but he also reorganized and reformed the Communist government.  In contrast to Rákosi, Kádár worked under the motto of “who is not against us is with us” and populations of other communist countries looked at developments in Hungary with envy.  He produced a set of economic reforms and allowed peasants to own private plots of land and to sell their products at uncontrolled prices in an open market.  The country’s economy thrived and Hungary had many goods and amenities not available in neighboring countries.  Greater value was placed on public opinion and human rights improved.  Often the period under Kádár with its mix of ideologies is referred to as “goulash communism” which is a witty pun on the national dish with many ingredients.

This unique communist history of Hungary influenced the debates that emerged over what to do with the Soviet-era monuments that still spread throughout the capital city Budapest in 1991. Statue Park, one solution to the Soviet monument problem, is a physical manifestation of the mixed feelings Hungarians have towards their communist past. Budapest’s post-Communist city authorities were divided over the question of what to do with the most visible symbols of the old Soviet regime.  Numerous statues and monuments stood throughout the city honoring both Soviet and Hungarian Communist leaders and many suggestions were proposed for how to handle these symbols”.  One group campaigned to have all of the statues removed in order to cleanse the city of Communist traces.  A more extremist group threatened to blow up the statues if they were not taken away.  Yet another group thought the statues should remain in their respective places as reminders of Hungary’s experience with the Communism, which helped to shape its history.  There were many residents of Budapest who did not care one way or another.

In December 1991 the General Assembly of Budapest reached a decision.  Each individual district of Budapest would decide for itself which of the statues were to be removed and which would remain in place.   This process exemplified the new democracy in Hungary.  If a district opted to have the statues removed, they would not be destroyed; rather, they would be relocated to Statue Park, the new sculpture park on the outskirts of the Budapest. The cost of relocation was estimated at an exorbitant $616,000 due to the sheer size and massive weight of the Soviet style public sculptures.  However, Budapest city authorities predicted that these costs would be recovered by the financial gains of a sculpture park that could tap into the huge foreign tourist boom that the city was experiencing since the fall of Communism.

Ariel View of the Design of Statue Park

A competition called for designs for Statue Park, and the Hungarian architect Arkos Eleod was chosen democratically through a juried selection process.  Eleod’s intention was to create a park both politically and artistically neutral, neither celebrating nor condemning Communism.  His purpose was to acknowledge the statues as part of the history of Hungary.  Eleod did not want to create a park to express his own anti-propaganda message, as he did not want to erase the original meanings of the sculptures.   Although Western critics have unfairly labeled Eleod’s park a “theme park,” Statue Park was intended to be and succeeds at being an open-air museum that thoughtfully commemorates a significant aspect of modern Hungarian history.

Statue Park, built on a half-acre of land in southern Budapest, opened to visitors in 1993.  Despite its name, the open-air museum contains more than just statues.  It consists of a wide variety of monuments from the Communist period, most dating from after the 1956 Revolution. Of the forty-one sculptures in the space, seventeen are statues or busts, thirteen are memorial plaques and the remaining eleven are metal or stone monuments.   Situated near the entrance of the Park are the sculpted boots from the Stalin monument that the 1956 revolutionaries demanded to be removed and ultimately chopped down at the knees.  For several days after the Revolution, Stalin’s disembodied boots symbolically stood on their pedestal, as they do today near the entrance of Statue Park.

Stalin's Boots Through the Entrance of Statue Park

The carefully designed Statue Park assigns these re-located massive statues new meanings.   Considerable attention was given to the organization of the Park so that it would avoid looking like a dumping ground for old memorials.  The design and layout contains many references to the Soviet period.  Statues of Marx and Lenin stand within an imposing façade at the entrance.  The red brick structure mocks Neoclassical Socialist Realist architecture, a style that aimed to make Russia “a natural successor to classical architecture but on its own legitimate terms”.   The Park itself is arranged with figure eight-shaped pathways that radiate off one central straight pathway.  The statues and monuments are displayed around these figure-eights. In the center of the Park, there is a flowerbed that forms the shape of a Soviet star.  Whichever direction visitors walk, they are led back to the same starting point.  The central pathway that abruptly leads to a brick wall is essentially a dead end. This obstacle, along with the whole layout, according to historian Duncan Light, represents the “dead end” that Communism represented for Hungary.

Based on Western museum models, Statue Park is owned by the city of Budapest but operated by a private company.  The company charges a small admission fee and manages the modest souvenir shop. The shop sells t-shirts with anti-Communist slogans, lighters depicting Lenin’s face, CDs of Communist music, as well as assorted candles, postcards, and posters.  One poster, as a spoof on the cartoon South Park, features Communist figures Lenin and Stalin standing in what is labeled “East Park”.  Such clever merchandise tempts the many Western visitors to the Park.  Yet the souvenirs are not the only reason tourists come to Statue Park. Many foreign visitors come to this unusual tourist attraction to gain a deeper understanding of Budapest’s history.  Their seriousness is revealed by the fact that they must seek out a bus to travel about 30 minutes from the city center to get to the Park, located in an out-of-the-way district of the city bordering a working class, industrial suburb.

Graveyard for Fallen Monuments, Russia

Graveyard for Fallen Monuments, Russia

Statue Park, while unique in many ways within Central and Eastern Europe, is not the only park of its kind in former Communist countries.  Both Russia and Lithuania have placed their respective Communist statues in parks as well. Neither the Russian nor the Lithuanian park functions as an outdoor museum, and the Russian park does not appear to be as well planned as Statue Park.  In Moscow, Russian officials placed some Communist-era monuments in a park named ‘Graveyard for Fallen Monuments’.   Here, a few Communist statues are haphazardly displayed among hundreds of other monuments that have little to do with the politics of the Soviet era, many perhaps commissioned during Lenin’s public art campaign in 1918.  All the statues have been removed from their original locations and dispersed throughout a grassy field.  This carefree atmosphere detracts from the Communist statues, which are inexplicably placed next to sculptures of cats, Ghandi, and other subjects.  The seemingly arbitrarily chosen and arranged statues suggest to visitors that Russia is brushing over its Communist history.

The Lithuanians have taken a more methodical approach with their outdoor statue display called Grutas Park.  Coined “Stalin World” by the locals, the park presents Lithuania’s Soviet-era statues along a beautifully landscaped path surrounded by lush trees and a lake. In addition to this open-air display and an outdoor gallery, Grutas Park is also host to an amusement park, a playground, a campsite, and even a zoo.  In this context, the Communist statues become part of a “Disneyesque” entertainment park, which in turn diminishes the seriousness of the Lithuanian effort to memorialize its history.

Grutas Park, Lithuania

James Young studies the ever-evolving relationship between a state and its memorials.  He writes that, “on the one hand, official agencies are in position to shape memory explicitly as they see fit, memory that best serves a national interest.  On the Other hand, once created, memorials take on lives of their own, often stubbornly resistant to the state’s original intentions”.   Although speaking of Holocaust memorials, these sentiments are true for the memorials in Statue Park.  The Communist authorities created the Soviet-era statues in Statue Park for propagandistic reasons.  In post-Communist Hungary, new meanings are assigned to these “leftovers” that reflect the new independent state.  Statue Park, the carefully constructed site of these statues, acts as a memorial in itself.  As Young explains, “New generations visit memorials under new circumstances and invest them with new meanings” .  Statue Park allows for a location for this act of collective identity construction.  As a place to reflect, the park shows Hungarian’s mixed feelings of the country’s recent past.

A preliminary interpretation of Budapest’s Statue Park asserts that the creation of such a park reflects Hungary’s confidence in the post-Communist era.  The Park suggests that the country is accepting of its past and wants to remember this critical period in its history.  Despite Hungary’s initial debate over what to do with the Soviet-era monuments throughout Budapest, there was surprisingly little protest over the construction of Statue Park.  This acceptance of the Park reflects the country’s history of “goulash communism”, which was a mix of ideologies and not communism in the strictest sense. Although Hungary had a harsh dictator for the Stalinist era, by the mid-1960s life in the country improved in comparison to neighboring countries.  With this history of political extremities, collective memory of communism in Hungary reflects mixed sentiments, as shown in Statue Park.    The National History Museum in Budapest, another popular tourist destination, seems to take a similar stance of acceptance of communism, but one that is also tempered with historical amnesia.  Opened in 1996, the museum contains a gallery that includes patriotic posters, a statue of Stalin, and displays on the gradual collapse of Communism over many decades.   The artifacts are presented as symbols of how Hungary overcame Communism but with little mention of the hardships the country endured.

Upon further consideration, Statue Park also represents how Hungarians are uneasy with their communist history.  The Park was built on the outskirts of Budapest, so that only the most dedicated of tourists will visit.  The statues were removed from the most prominent locations around the city to the periphery.  Although the park was carefully designed, the location alone shows that Hungarians are not entirely accepting of their communist past. Although the economic situation in Hungary prospered after the mid-1960s and many consumer goods were available that were non-existent in neighboring countries, people did not have the freedom of expression of a democratic society.  For example, people were not allowed to speak of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 throughout the communist years or they would be considered subversive.

Statue Park promotes this multi-faceted way of remembering the Soviet period, as the sculptures carry meanings from their original contexts in the streets of Budapest and assume new, more critical meanings from their placement in the Park. Some native Hungarians are perplexed and even saddened that Statue Park draws such tourist appeal.  Perhaps these are the Hungarians who wish to ignore or erase the Communist period of their history.  However, other Hungarians are attracted to the nostalgia the Park offers.  For decades, Communism was the only life they knew.   Germany has a term for this sentiment: ostalgie.  The word, which is a combination of ost for east, and nostalgie for nostalgia, describes an East German longing for items that were no longer sold after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East and West Berlin.  Some East Berliners missed specific food brands and old television shows, which led a re-unifed Germany to cater to this market, despite the fact that these products symbolize oppression under a former Socialist regime.

With regard to Statue Park, this concept of ostalgie comes into play most overtly with the souvenir CD of Communist propaganda songs that is sold at the gift shop and played over the loud speakers in the Park itself.  The shop originally released the CD, which satirizes the Soviet era and presumably expresses disdain for that time.  Ironically, the album is loved by young Hungarians and reached number one on the Hungarian music charts.  This suggests that feelings towards Communism in Hungary are not only complex and but that the meanings of Statue Park and its merchandise are far from monolithic.

Statue Park Logo

Statue Park can be seen as an ideal way for a country like Hungary to at once remember its past and look to the future.  Statue Park symbolically overcomes the Soviet era without ignoring it completely.  The outdoor space keeps the memorials in a contained area removed from the city center.  Hungarians and foreign visitors who were once confronted constantly with the Communist statues throughout central Budapest must now make a special trip to the outskirts of the city to seek out the experience.  Tourists can make the trip, as can nostalgic, curious, or historically conscious Hungarians.  By displaying the individual memorials in a closed-off space, far from their original locations, the Park allows Hungarians to preserve their history but also put it in its place.  Although Hungarians remain ambivalent and divided about Statue Park and their own unique Communist history, they are confronting their past in ways that suit their cultural needs and political ambitions.  Statue Park, in its strategically chosen location and well-thought out design, reflects Hungary’s desire to compartmentalize its past while forging ahead with its future.

Click below for a list of my resources for this post…

statue park bibliography

Assessing the Purpose of this Blog

Today I was reminded that some people are very skeptical of blogs and I found myself questioning the purpose of this site.  About eight months ago, I started to write with very low expectations in terms of readership.  No one is more surprised than I am to see that there were over twenty-eight thousand visits so far, and after more than forty posts, I think this is a good time to question my objectives.

Looking through my past entries that differ greatly in topic and style, I certainly consider some more successful than others.  When I first moved to Poland and began writing, it was impossible to overcome my perspective as a tourist and this is reflected in early posts on museums and Krakow in general.  Some of my later posts merely point out an artist that I love, such as Dan Perjovschi, or a book that I could not put down, like Love Thy Neighbor by Peter Maass.  Although I was hardly critical, these entries were meant to make recommendations to others with similar interests, and later even influenced some brief correspondence with both the artist and author.  My family at home loved reading an entry explaining Polish Christmas traditions, and writing it certainly put me in the holiday spirit.  Sometimes although not often, I just feel like sharing a funny video with my East Europe-loving friends, like The Estonians, or I am happy to see that people worked very hard to compile a bibliography specifically on Bosnia, and I want them to have as much publicity as possible.  Entries on Ante Pavelic or the Jewish community in Bosnia took on a historical perspectives and after my vacation to the Baltics, I felt like making some hostel and restaurant recommendations to other travelers.  None of these posts are meant to seem very original, but they reflect what I am thinking about or considering at a particular moment.

Least successful posts are the results of moments of excitement, like when I first thought about education in Bosnia.  Readers probably wondered what point I was trying to make in the stream of consciousness found in Teaching Nationalism.  Although the post is not very successful in itself, this initial brainstorming led me to my master’s thesis topic, which is on the international involvement in education reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Later I would excitedly come across an interesting article about the new textbooks in Kosovo, and with only one source about the study, my post ends up summarizing.  This is probably not so useful.  Sometimes I am responding to current events in the region and merely adding to the mainstream media already available, as in the case of the post Arbeit Mach Frei (after the sign was stolen from Auschwitz), or A Long Road for Serbia… (after Serbia finally submitted its EU membership application).

On the other hand, I am particularly proud of some of my posts.  For example, Child of a Dictator explored the life of Valentin Ceausescu, discussed recent history of Romania, and commented on a news story from Bucharest all in one entry.  A Need for Truth is my most clicked on post, and it combines personal experiences with many current issues in the Balkans, and expresses my hopes for the future.  Writing about my experience in the Tolerance March in Krakow generated some interesting commentary from readers, as did Waste of Space, on the Parliament Palace in Bucharest.  My mouth watered as I wrote about barbeque in the Balkans and my friends seemed to enjoy reading the descriptions of burgers, so sometimes I think a little fun is okay.  Also, it was a pleasure for me to speak with Savo Heleta after reading his book.  This conversation provided a nice addition to the site, as well as a memorable experience in my exploration of Bosnia.

So…what exactly is my point with this site?  I’m certainly not trying to present myself as an academic or authoritative source on the subject matter, and some posts are more original than others.  Sarah, a PhD student who blogs at Café Turco wrote about the sense of community that stems from blogs like this one that has a small audience.  Her site provides a great model for me in the way that she combines personal experience with well-researched articles.  Mark O’Hoare (Greater Surbiton), a professor and author of several books on the former Yugoslavia, teaches me a lot through his highly analytical and academic articles.  A friend of mine who writes in Spanish at Balkanidades impresses me and amuses me with his insightful thoughts on the intricacies of society in the Balkans.   Also, I have connected with other master’s students (Historiographic Anarchy) and travelers (Gina’s Polish Complex, Jeff Warner).  Sometimes its lonely having a marginal interest like the former-Yugoslavia, but writing this blog has made me realize that other people share my passion, and I learn a great deal from these connections.

Reading over past entries made me assess my goals with this website.  Because I am constantly and enthusiastically reading about this region, I will continue to recommend my favorite books, artists, Balkan meat dishes, and tourists destinations, hoping to spread my love of East Europe.  Eventually I would like to develop a page of resources on the internet for others interested in these topics.    Also, I would like to continue to connect with other people interested in the former-Yugoslavia, and East/Central Europe in general.  I strongly encourage comments and criticisms, which can be added to the left of each entry.   Also, I would like to track my own learning as I try to navigate through this field.  As the title implies, this site reflects my educational and personal journey.  I spent four months living in Serbia and I am now in my tenth month living in Krakow.  Soon I will move to Bosnia to stay indefinitely, and I look forward to learning and experiencing much more in the region in the near future.  Although currently a novice, I would like to challenge myself to comment on politics in the region and to be more critical in my writing.  Expressing my opinion on this site (even with varying degrees of research or success) has taught me a lot so far.  Someday in the future while living and working in Bosnia, I hope to look back on these early entries and cringe at my naivety. For now, I will continue this project and keep on learning.

Thank you very much to those reading, and as previously mentioned, feedback is always very helpful.

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