Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Day 16. The Soviet Bunker Experience

When John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote the lyrics, “Back in the USSR, you don’t know how lucky you are, boy,” they had evidently never been held captive in a Soviet bunker, situated six metres underground, in the middle of a Lithuanian forest.

Though the author of this article can claim differently; on an overcast Easter Saturday afternoon in 2011, the April winds ripping at the sides of the car, myself and another journalist were delivered to what was potentially the most freaky, hilarious and just slightly sadistic tourism event currently available in Lithuania, possibly Europe; 1984, The Soviet Bunker experience.

On the outskirts of Vilnius, out passed the rural hamlet of Neminciene, lies the extraordinary site of this reality-themed survival drama. What occurs out there is a three-hour long torture, sorry, tour, of what life was like in the times of Soviet occupied Lithuania.

Not simply life on the street though. A group of talented actors, (including a well-trained wolfhound) who seem to relish their roles as Soviet foot-soldiers a little too much, guide you into the labyrinthine maze of a former hidden TV station, which for all dramatic purposes becomes a Soviet bunker. Visitors to the fully interactive show get to live through the exclusive experience of being kidnapped, threatened, interrogated, scientifically prodded and fed sausages, in the depths of a KGB hostage facility. And all this comes over twenty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Some might say, “Well isn’t that why Communism was abolished? So we don’t have to live through such unpleasant ordeals?”
Indeed, the question must be asked. Why dredge up such horrendous real life events, and replay them over and over to audiences of school kids, Spanish tourists and Litho locals who received a ticket as a booby prize on their buck’s night?
“The Soviet Union was a horror. But it was also absurd and funny,” told former Lithuanian television producer, and creator of the attraction, Ruta Vanagaite. “The absurdity of the system: you wouldn’t have believed it existed, that people could survive in it. I think in this show we have a perfect mix of the horror and the absurdity of it.”

As we drove out to our destination in Miss Vanagaite’s fairly fancy four-wheel drive, she explained to me how the show was designed to illuminate the terrifying events of the past, an aid to preventing them being pushed underneath the education systems rug.
“Teachers who bring their children out here, they praise it. They often say the realties of the Soviet Union should be taught more. Children come here in school groups, unknowing and laughing, then they are surprised at how scary and ferocious it is. They say, ‘We are so lucky to live in freedom and independence.’”

As she pulled off the main highway out toward Neminciene, I began to gulp in trepidation of what was to come. Scary and ferocious? Was I so wrong thinking I would be writing a light-hearted story recounting an offbeat and wacky tourist attraction? Possibly, especially as I watched how Miss Vanagaite’s eyes shone with surprising glee as she described how visitors have reacted toward the show in the past.
“We had one man, from Belarus, who went totally hysterical. He called the local police. When they asked him, ‘So how did you get here?’ he said, ‘I bought a ticket!’” She laughed contently while I shook in my seat.
“People come out of it saying, ‘it was horrifying.’ They say, [the actors] were shouting at me, the dog was barking at me.’ The dog is our best actor,” she nodded, apparently envisioning the gleaming fangs of the prized wolfhound, and then added, “In every single group, we have had someone fainting.”

It must be said, she has pulled together an authentic troop of players for the drama. The actors, a small but dedicated motley crew of shaved heads and intense glares, come from various backgrounds as well as theatre, including professional policemen, and actual interrogators from Soviet times.
“They know all the tricks from KGB era,” Ruta claimed. But she was tight-lipped on releasing the names of all of the Soviet Bunker actors, as she believed it would counteract on the play’s authenticity.
If it was to be one hundred percent realistic, down in the cell of the Soviets, would the actors then be Russian?
“The Russian actors would not appear, as they think it (the play) is too anti-Soviet. I approached the entire cast of a Russian drama theatre, and they all refused,” Miss Vanagaite lamented. “But it is not anti-Soviet. We are not recreating the Soviet Union. We are just recreating the hell.”

A hell which many people would rather, “forget than revisit it,” as she put it.
Few Lithuanians of older generations choose to come to the Soviet Bunker experience, as the reality behind it is just too raw and real to for them to laugh about.
“I have Lithuanian friends who have said, ‘no, we remember it all too well’. They would not come here,” she said.

As she continued to roll out the horror tales of peoples reactions from being down in the bunker, (almost as if they were a prerequisite for entrance; like hearing spooky ghost stories before stepping foot in an abandoned house) I realised the village setting had all but diminished, and given way to towering birch trees. We were arriving at our destination.
“It’s only psychological,” she went on, “The bunker can cause claustrophobia. That’s why it’s very easy for people to break, and for their will to be broken. It’s because, once you’re down there, there’s no way out; just like in Soviet Union.”

As we veered from the forest road, into what looked like a concrete relic from Chernobyl, I began to wonder if perhaps these tales were simply scare tactics, aimed at the naïve journalists.
If at this point I had known within a few hours I would be slapped about, prodded, asked to remove my shirt, had a bag of (albeit, phoney) drugs planted on me, and forced to write a confession by a KGB operative who looked like a henchman from The Sopranos, I would have reconsidered.

The building itself was a remarkable find on behalf of the Soviet Bunker creative team. Constructed during the Cold War and completed in 1985, the bunker was kept as a secret, out in the woods, 25kms from Vilnius. Its original purpose was to house a secret backup TV station, to be used for emergency broadcasts if a nuclear attack ever erupted from the USA.
“The bunker was built near railway tracks and near the water, so in case of a nuclear war the workers out there had everything they needed,” Miss Vanagaite informed.
Officially named “Dom tvorchestva” (or, “House of Creation”) in early blueprints, the bunker was run by Lithuanian Film and Television and supplied employment for up to fifteen people, including plumbers, electricians, cleaners and guards. Yes, out in the middle of nowhere, the bunker still has hot water and electricity. This was a major reason for the Soviet Bunker team to choose the location, as there was no need for outside generators to be brought in. The Bunker team only rent the location though; the site is still owned by the state. So how does its real estate value look? Could the bunker potentially be sold off by the state?
“What would anybody do with this concrete monster, six metres under the ground?” Ruta questioned. Utilise it as a fake KGB stronghold to scare school children perhaps?

The crowd of the day’s tourists were bustling in, exchanging amiable glances and drinking down cups of the complimentary barley-ground coffee on offer (on the way to the bunker, we had stopped at a petrol-station where Miss Vanagaite had warned me, “Better get a coffee here. At the bunker, it’s only Soviet coffee”).

Sitting around sipping on hot mugs, sounds of Russian balalaikas strumming from the speakers, an uneasy peace took hold of the room. This was too calm. Though the paraphernalia adorning the walls- the metallic casts of Lenin and the severe black and white poster of notorious Lithuanian Soviet first secretary, Petras Griskevicius- gave you a grim inkling of what was to come, everything was still in a state of quiet.
Scanning the room, the ceilings mould-bitten and the lights flickering, I realised we had slipped into a time warp. The clock hanging above the Union flag still ticked, but otherwise we had become part of a frozen movie set, unmoved since 1984.

Seeing the dazed state of their guests, staff of the attraction swiftly thrust pens into their hands. A document was held out in front of us, demanding signage before we were allowed entrance into the bunker. A document which specified, among other rules, “In case of disobedience participants may receive psychological or/and physical punishments.”
Gulp. Staring at the world map on the wall which displayed the Baltic region in a uniform green, distinctly lacking in borders, I began to feel we were about take a glimpse into a life where many brave independence fighters had gone before us.

Before the ink was dry, the Soviet guard (played by revered Lithuanian actor, Irmantas Jankaitis) marched into the hall, a look of deep disdain, mixed with the remnants of a possible hangover caused by Lenin’s birthday the night before, across his face. The star wolfhound, muzzled as he was, entered alongside him, and immediately began wincing and barking, yanking on his leash held tight. The guard opened his mouth and let forth a torrent of Russian orders. You knew the event had begun.
“From once you enter, you have no rights,” Our translator, Ignis, relayed to us from what the guard was yelling. We were then sworn in as citizens of the Soviet Union. As soon as the red flag was raised, we were in; marched off by the actor/guards to meet our pretend fate in the bowels of the Soviet bunker.

As of being taken down into the bunker, I won’t explain everything of what happened. It would be too much to fathom, the depths of which they went to recreate this Soviet hell. At over three hours, the actors performed marvellously, miraculously even, as they melted into their roles, screaming, jeering, poking, and taking evident relish in it all.
I will of course say a few things; firstly, about the madness and the monotony reflected of the Soviet era. We, the inducted citizens, were forced to run through a maze of corridors, up and down stairs, and seemingly round in a loop again. We were trained against nuclear disaster and war, by placing rubber gas masks over our faces, which made us look like a group of disfigured elephants. We were forced to carry piles of trash from one bench to a second equally useless bench, and then back again, as the Soviet bunker team bid to convey to us the pointless trivialities of past Communistic ‘work ethic.’ And of course, the outrageous slurs continued to rain on the paying guests, by the seemingly omnipresent guards.

The irony of the expedition began to sound itself in all to true a form; the idea of a Soviet prison as a venture for reality tourism. People chose, in their own wishes, to enter and be trapped in this zone, a place in time which for so many years, people had been trying to escape from.
In a dimly lit subterranean room, the smell of old tobacco engrained in every corner, a KGB interrogator (and a wonderful actor) worked his paranoid scare tactics upon the people. As this was going on, a deep melancholy sunk into my mind.
I had suddenly recollected the photographic image of a man I had never met, a Lithuanian man who was held prisoner and eventually killed by Soviet forces in 1954, named Jonas Zemaitis.

For anybody who has visited the Museum of Genocide Victims (often known as the KGB museum) in Vilnius city centre, you might have seen a photo of Mr Zemaitis hanging upon a crumbling wall in one of the cells in the building’s basement.
Zemaitis was an important figure to Lithuania throughout the Soviet occupation of the country. He was a leader of the post-World War Two resistance movement, and “the most outstanding commander in the guerrilla war,” explained an extract taken from a book about his life.
Mr Zemaitis lead the battle for the independence of his country, established the pivotal ‘Lithuanian Movement for the Fight to Freedom’ (the LLKS), in 1948, and was, among many other things, a personal friend of my (then young) grandmother, Lithuanian immigrant and writer, Elena Jonaitiene.
In 1953, Zemaitis was captured and arrested by Soviet forces. After a year of interrogations, a Baltic military tribunal sentenced him to death by shooting.
In court, when he was allowed to make a final statement, he said, “I, like all like-minded people, consider that the Soviet Union intruded upon our country by force. I consider this step by the Soviet government unlawful.”

And there we were, in a basement replica of the horrors forced upon Lithuanians during the Soviet Union, learning, watching, amazed that this atrocity could have ever taken place in real time. At the end of the three hours plus in the bunker, weary though happy, we were given a bite to eat and a certificate stating we had made it.

Everybody was given a Soviet souvenir, and we made our way towards the exit. As the iron gates clanked open, the wolfhound docile now, a burst of late afternoon spring sunlight washed over us like water.
In the car driving back towards Vilnius, the sun setting around our vista, a cheery Miss Vanagaite, who would be spending Easter painting eggs with family, asked me, “And how does the freedom taste?”
I could only sit there and contemplate how lucky we really were; and how about now, it would probably taste something akin to a nice, cold, capitalist beer.

(Unedited version of an article which appeared in The Baltic Times on May 26, titled "Trapped with no way out.")

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