Saturday 29 November 2014, 3 pm. The GPS says we have reached our destination. We are in the middle of the forests of Nemenčinė, 25 km away from Vilnius. Are you sure it’s here? It is freezing cold, there is just an old building that seems desert and is decorated with a banner that talks about the Congress of the Communist Party. It all looks pretty dodgy.
At the entrance stands a KGB man with an extremely aggressive German shepherd dog. We are urged to remove our jackets and wear a gulag-style wadded cotton jacket.
Suddenly arrives the Major who immediately starts yelling at us. ‘Here you are in the Soviet Union!’. ‘You are nobody!’. He is vomiting insults, obscenities, and vulgarities at us, and makes us feel like we are just meaningless pieces of shit. This will last for 3 hours. It is all pretty shocking. One of the men in our group cannot bear this – he decides to leave and wait outside.
The whole show is in Russian language, and fortunately I don’t understand much more than 20% of the verbal diarrhoea I am exposed to; but I do understand 100% of the non-verbal intentions and this is already hard enough.
The concept: 3 hours long, we are taken back to the Soviet Union, as mere citizens-comrades. All the ingredients are there to make us become authentically Sovietic:
- it starts with a goosebumps-giving flag-raising ceremony while the Soviet Union anthem is playing
- we are taken to a room to practice praising the regime and the leaders, repeating formulas as ‘Proletarians of all countries unite’ as loud as we can, and applauding endlessly
- we are taught some basics of military and defence discipline, such as standing straight, answering respectfully to the Major (‘Так точно!’, ‘Yes sir!), and wearing a gas mask
- we end up unfairly accused of being enemies of the people by the KGB and feeling our descent to hell during the instruction
- and relentlessly, we are all being abused, brutalised, humiliated
Everything of course is a show. It was started several years ago by an artist, Ruta Vanagaite. Everything is performed by actors who are playing their roles incredibly seriously:
- The main actor is the Major. Honestly, we all are aware this is a show – but this man is such a fantastic performer, one who would be perfect as a stand-alone comedian (in the same way as the ‘crazy YouTube Hitler of Timur Vermes) that you may sometimes forget that this is fiction. Horribly rude, despising, misogynistic. He has great attention to detail and calls to order those not standing straight or only answering ‘Yes’ instead of ‘Yes sir’.
- The old KGB instructor. One that properly terrorises the audience. He seems to come straight from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Spine-tingling.
- The German shepherd dog, incredibly ferocious, who constantly, aggressively barks. Turns out, at the end of the show, that this is a cutie doggie, who plays around with the guests. But when he is at work, you’d better not come too close to tickle him!
- There is also the old nurse, authentic Soviet character, who constantly oscillates between feminine softness and hysterical intransigence of the system she represents. Never would I offer my trust to such person, I’m sure she would betray me as soon as she can.
There are also details that are actually really funny, albeit in a bitter way. The Major regularly makes us run like madmen in the corridors of the bunker, yelling at us, and every time the guard and his ferocious dog are hidden in a corner – when you pass along the dog tries to jump at you and barks fiercely, scaring you to death. Other funny detail: whenever someone refuses to obey, they are sent to the dungeon for a dozen of minutes – and the poor comrades actually miss this part of the show. Another one: during the whole Soviet anthem, the dog is barking off-beat, hilarious musical moment.
But what is this really about?
These were 3 quite painful hours for many of the participants. And yet, only 3 hours. Not even our real life but a show. We were not physically brutalised. We did not really go into the dungeon and while the dog was barking it did not actually bite us. We were wearing a warm wadded cotton jacket while many citizens from the Baltic States were deported to Siberian snows with dancing shoes. This experience, although horrible, was not even a snapshot of what life has been for millions of Soviet citizens. A form of propaganda for the younger generations to know about what happened in the past.
That being said, it is probably too soon for Russia to share my analysis. On the Soviet Bunker’s website, there are links to many different articles from the international press, but none is Russian, and a quick Google search in Russian language is not giving many laudatory results – some question the historical authenticity of the show and mock tourists who pay money to be insulted, without really discussing the educational value. Maybe one day, once Russia will have cut the umbilical cord with the Soviet Union and the KGB, and will be managed by a leadership who will finally express official resentment and apologies for the crimes of the Soviet Union, maybe then Russia will understand, and help the world understand, the difference between anti-Soviet and anti-Russian propaganda.
Personally, what I loved about this experience, is the message it conveys, and the way it does so. This is how life was, just a few decades ago. Do we want to forget about it? Do we want to pretend it never happened? The fact that the show was done in a realistic way to educate, but with a sarcastic touch to press right where it hurts but leave the audience the opportunity to externalise the pain with a dose of laughter, is something that I find brilliant – a much smarter way, I reckon, than the too serious Exhibit B.