The graveyard of communism
“Before many more decades are out these mementos will follow the ideology they so fervently sought to commemorate”
t CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Memento Park is some miles outside Budapest. But with a couple of hours to spare before heading to the airport, I finally managed the detour. The rain was coming down in sheets as the park opened, and my taxi driver lent me his mackintosh and an umbrella so that I could traipse around.
For anybody who hasn’t been there, the Memento Park is how Hungary dealt with the question of what to do with all the statues. The communists were always and everywhere erectors of superlatively awful statuary. Great statues of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, obviously, but also local officials, cast for eternity in their anoraks, trench coats and post-war glasses. And then there is the school of statuary that can still be seen in Pyongyang, presenting idealised workers striding forward. Others reflected Soviet-Hungarian friendship: linked hands holding up a globe, or an archetypical Hungarian worker shaking hands in a friendly fashion with an equally archetypical comrade from his oppressor to the East.
After communism fell, these statues were all transposed to this remote park. At the entrance is the huge monument that now consists (the rest having been pulled down decades ago by the locals) of Stalin’s boots. Frankly, I was disappointed with the orderliness of the arrangements after that. There is the top half of a Lenin on the grass as you go in, but otherwise most of the statues are well situated, arrayed with taste and in proportion. I had hoped that they would be more scatter-gun, sprouting from overgrown grass wherever they had been dropped. But still the sight is a tremendous one. And standing alone amid the downpour the best thing of all was noticing how many of these statues now had cavities, exposing the inner workings of the craftsmen who had made them. Then the realisation that before many more decades are out these mementos will follow the ideology they so fervently sought to commemorate.
These days there is a slightly more bitter taste to all of this than there would have been a decade ago. Not that full communism is likely to return soon. But there are things in the air — in America as much as Europe — causing echoes that ought to be heard more clearly. It is the same note as in all those statues of Soviet workers and leaders: always an arm raised, leading the charge: forward, faster, with more determination. Corbyn, McDonnell and all their gang resound to the cries. Always forward. Never stop, pause or hesitate. Always packed with certainty. But towards where? What is the destination? All we get is the language of Marx with a gloss of antiseptic: equality, equity and fairness. But that’s not it, I think.
I go to the BBC for a discussion on that diverse collection of thinkers from across the political spectrum who have been termed “the intellectual dark web”. Bari Weiss — who wrote a column on this phenomenon, naming me among its ranks — is on the line from New York. The show is Free Thinking on Radio 3. As ever in trying to explain this new concept to established media there is a deliberate attempt to misunderstand what is being discussed. I don’t think that any of the various thinkers named in the New York Times article actually claim to be heretics. Still fewer claim that they have no access to a platform. What they have in common is that all have at some point trodden on one of the recently-assembled tripwires of our societies and paid some price for it. And, having once tripped on that wire, all have shown themselves happy to keep going on to other wires, even when — as with the case of the biologist Bret Weinstein in the US — there has been an actual mob coming for them.
Some of the pushback on the whole concept certainly comes from people who recognise that we live in a sensitive and censorious age, but do not wish (for tribal or career reasons) to get into too much trouble. Which presents a problem. After all, to adapt what I told the BBC, if the most genuinely free, frank and informed discussions are not to occur on the BBC and elsewhere in the media mainstream, where do we expect them to occur? The age of social media presents an answer. But it is one the old broadcasters have been very slow to adapt to.
Talking of being slow, of all the works of literature I have never read, Crime and Punishment is probably the most embarrassing example. I recently picked it up, started reading and couldn’t put it down. A hundred pages in I was so gripped that I felt as though I had committed the crime myself, and from there had to read it in carefully-controlled bursts. Over dinner with a friend I was caught raving about the novel. “It’s like being told how good Beethoven’s symphonies are,” he told me drily. Still, I continue to live in a state of unembarrassed Dostoyevskian evangelism.