ON STAGE: Actors, quite convincingly, play the roles of Soviet KGB guards as they put their ‘victims’ through the paces of everyday life in the bunker.
VILNIUS - 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 meters underground in the middle of a Lithuanian forest. The author of this article, though, can claim differently.
On an overcast Easter afternoon, 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 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 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 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 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,” said 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.”
She explained how the show was designed to illuminate the terrifying events of the past, an aid to preventing them being swept underneath the education system’s 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.’”
I gulped in trepidation. Scary and ferocious? Was I wrong thinking I would be writing a light-hearted recount of an offbeat and wacky tourist attraction? Possibly, especially as I watched Miss Vanagaite’s eyes shine gleefully 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 wolfhound, and then added, “In every single group, we have had someone fainting.”
She has pulled together an authentic troupe 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 theater, from professional policemen, to actual interrogators of Soviet times.
“They know all the tricks from the KGB era,” Ruta claimed. But she was tight-lipped on releasing the names of all the Soviet Bunker actors, as she believed it would counteract on the play’s authenticity.
If it was to be completely realistic, would the acting Soviets 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 theater, and they all refused,” she lamented. “But it is not anti-Soviet. We are not recreating the Soviet Union. We are just recreating the hell.”
Few Lithuanians of older generations choose to come to the Soviet Bunker experience, as the reality behind it is just too raw and real. “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 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 realized we were arriving at our destination. “Once you’re down there,” she went on. “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 these tales were simply scare tactics. If at this point I had known within a few hours I would be slapped about, prodded, asked to remove my shirt 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 by 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, 25 km 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,” Vanagaite informed.
Inside, a crowd of the day’s tourists were huddled. With everybody sitting about, drinking barley-ground coffee, sounds of Russian balalaikas strumming from speakers, an uneasy peace took hold of the room. This was too calm, though the paraphernalia adorning the walls - the metallic casts of Lenin - gave you a grim inkling of what was to come.
At this stage, a document was presented demanding signage before we were allowed into the drama. It specified, among other rules, “In case of disobedience, participants may receive psychological and/or physical punishments.”
Gulp. I began to feel we were about take a glimpse into life where many brave soldiers had gone before us.
Before the ink was dry, a Soviet guard (played by top Lithuanian actor Irmantas Jankaitis) marched into the hall, a look of deep disdain across his face. The star wolfhound, muzzled as he was, entered alongside and began barking, yanking on his leash held tight. The guard opened his mouth and let forth a torrent of Russian orders. The event had begun.
“From once you enter, you have no rights,” Our translator relayed to us from what the guard was yelling. We were now citizens of the Soviet Union. The red flag was raised, and off we were marched by the actor/guards to meet our pretend fate in the bowels of the Soviet bunker.
As for being down in the bunker, I won’t explain everything that happened. It would be too much to fathom, the depths they went to, recreating this Soviet hell. At over three hours, the actors performed marvellously, miraculously even, as they melted into their roles, screaming, jeering, poking, and taking pleasure in it all.
I will say a few things 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. We were trained against nuclear war. We placed rubber gas masks over our faces, making us look like a group of disfigured elephants. We were forced to carry piles of trash from one bench to another, then back again, as the Soviet bunker team bid to convey the pointless trivialities of Communistic work ethic. And all the while, outrageous slurs continued to rain on the paying guests, by the omnipresent guards.
The irony of the expedition began to sound itself: the idea of a Soviet prison as a venture for reality tourism. People chose, by 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 brilliant actor) worked his paranoid scare tactics upon us. 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 center, you might have seen a photo of Zemaitis hanging upon a crumbling wall in one of the cells in the building’s basement.
Zemaitis was an important figure to Lithuania throughout their Soviet occupation. He lead their battle for independence, 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 emigrant and writer, Elena Jonaitiene.
In 1953, Zemaitis was captured and arrested by Soviet forces. After a year of interrogations, a 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, amazed 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 rewarded with a bite to eat and a certificate stating we 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.
Driving back to Vilnius, a cheery Vanagaite, who was to spend 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.
For more information on the bunker, visit www.sovietbunker.com