Lithuanians let visitors in on a bitter history
VILNIUS, Lithuania - Shivering in the depths of a moldy bunker with militia men barking curse-laden orders and dogs nipping at you is not most people's idea of fun.
But "1984: The Survival Drama" isn't most people's idea of a performance, either. Set in a former nuclear bunker on the outskirts of the city, the interactive drama is designed to immerse visitors in the terror tactics once employed by the KGB, the national intelligence and security agency of the Soviet Union.
Until 1990 Lithuania was a full, if wholly unenthusiastic, member of the Soviet Union and subject to the worst whims and excesses of Moscow. Thousands suffered arbitrary arrests, brutal interrogations, torture, and sentencing to frozen Siberian gulags.
Yet today, nearly 20 years since Lithuania regained independence, attitudes about Soviet times have mellowed, and there is even a creeping nostalgia. This rose-tinted tilt on history remembers subsidized housing, full employment, and universal health insurance while forgetting the barren shelves, Orwellian state control, and, as the performance highlights, the brutal activities of the KGB.
Nostalgia isn't the only problem. Many Lithuanians are too young to remember Soviet times or were born after communism fell in 1989.
The interactive drama "acts as a vaccine" against both the nostalgia and lack of knowledge, says producer Ruta Vanagaite.
Most of the visitors to the former bunker complex where the performances are held are school groups. "This isn't a theme park; the experience is serious and forces people to think about history in a way that museums or books can't," Vanagaite says.
She's right. When there's a 6-foot-tall Russian spitting expletives in your face as you fumble with your gas mask, it's a historical experience you'll remember.
The experience isn't for the faint-hearted. Our multinational group of 15 is bused to the site from central Vilnius and, after a 20-minute ride through isolated pine forests, our first order of business on arrival is to sign a disclaimer agreeing to "psychological and/or physical punishments." We're issued threadbare work coats before being handed a cup of barley coffee, just what communist countries short on cash would have drunk.
But there's not much time for coffee. A bull-sized captain strides into the room dressed in a Soviet overcoat spattered with red stars and a crisp cap emblazoned with the hammer and sickle. Flanked by a tough-looking militiaman, he barks at us to "drop the cups and get out in the [expletive] yard, quickly."
As we stumble outside, we're greeted by a pair of militiamen, this time brandishing leash-straining Alsatians. They shove a few individuals from the crowd and give them a hands-on-the-wall pat down and, frighteningly, let the dogs get an up-close sniff. After we are muscled into a line-up, the captain gives us a crash course in Russian. We're continually drilled in "yes sir," "no sir," and marching orders, while anyone not mustering up enough energy is screamed at to try harder.
Obviously part of the challenge is to remember that this isn't real. The soldiers are actors, and participants can just laugh the experience off. However, anyone even breaking into a smirk is treated to a dressing down. The bullying and intimidation are genuinely unnerving and everyone in the group keeps their eyes firmly fixed on the floor. The sense of unease is so pervasive that as we're frog marched down into the bunker, two in our group of "detainees" head back to the bus.
The bunker makes a convincing backdrop. Originally built as an emergency transmission station for use in the event of a knockout nuclear exchange with the United States, today it's a claustrophobic labyrinth of damp concrete walls, anonymous metal doors, and cracked Cyrillic lettering.
The first stop is the Red Room. The ceiling and floor are painted red, and a collection of communist propaganda lines the walls. Dominating the room are busts of Marx and Lenin as well as snapshots of Soviet leaders. The captain flicks on a television and treats us to a rant by Leonid Brezhnev on the evils of capitalism, prodding us to clap in the appropriate pauses. The Soviet leader (from 1964 until his death in 1982) moves on to five-year plans and tractor production, after which we're expected to pass a pop quiz on the key figures.
Our brief taste of brainwashing is followed by some hard labor in the near pitch black basement of the bunker. While being harassed by militiamen, we're ordered to shift piles of broken electrical rubble across a dank hall. As our pile reaches its peak, one of the guards asks us whether we know why there is no unemployment in the USSR. He informs us, "because we make one man dig a hole and another man fill it, and, if he won't, we fill it with him." He then orders us to move the rubble back.
The most distressing room in the experience is the KGB room, a small, office-like room lighted by a single desk lamp. Forced to face the wall, all that participants can see is the shadow of the stalking KGB agent creeping along behind us. Suddenly the agent pulls someone from the lineup and forces him into the room's single chair. He is accused of crimes against the motherland, and the agent tells him that unless he agrees to inform on family and friends, "you'll be beaten every day . . . you'll never see your family again and they'll never know where you went. We'll tell them you ran off to the West with a prostitute."
The shaken participant quickly scribbles his signature and is immediately asked to snitch on someone in the group who will be sent for punishment. The whole scene is played out to the soundtrack of someone outside the room being beaten with a leather whip. The tension is palpable.
The experience takes just over two hours and includes forced runs in gas masks and a disturbing trip to a Soviet-era doctor. Throughout, participants are verbally abused and humiliated, and the strain does take a mental toll. As we're finally ushered into the Soviet-era shop to pick up some period toilet paper or canned herring, everyone is exhausted.
Obviously, the experience only touches on the ordeal of those who were whisked away by the KGB, and it isn't without its critics. Some say the drama trivializes the past, while others say it cashes in on the suffering of victims.
Yet anyone who has spent a few hours in the bunker cannot fail to see its value. The power of drama is a formidable tool in helping people to understand events and, perhaps more importantly, to remember them.
Rory Boland can be reached at email@example.com.