Maybe because Bulgaria hasn’t done much of anything to mark or remember its communist past, I am always interested to see how that past is remembered in other former Eastern Bloc countries. (This discrepancy probably has something to do with the fact that the Bulgarians’ relationship with the regime was much less turbulent than those of other nations.)
Having been born and spent (almost entirely) the first decade of my life in communist Bulgaria, I have a particular kind of fascination with the history of communist regimes. Although I never truly experienced any of the real terrors of totalitarianism, I seem to internalize historical testaments of them more than someone who has lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain for whom they may be more abstract.
And so, I enter the House of Terror in Budapest with a kind of trepidation and the knowledge that I have to see it though it isn’t going to be pleasant. The museum is a memorial to the victims of the fascist and communist dictatorial regimes in 20th-century Hungary. Located on Andrássy út 60, the building that houses it first served as the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis in 1944 and then of the State Protection Authority – Hungary’s secret police between 1945 and 1956.
In the museum’s middle is a kind of atrium where a Soviet tank now stands, surrounded by walls lined with the large, black-and-white portraits of the people who were held captive, tortured and killed in the building.
The museum’s two upper floors, not unlike Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie museum, offer a slightly campy mixture of communist and Nazi paraphernalia arranged in situ with reconstructions, archive video footage, mannequins dressed in uniforms and walls plastered with pop-culture and propaganda posters. Some of the rooms are set up thematically, with a focus on different aspects of the regimes, and others – historically, dedicated to certain periods.
A good illustration of the absurd ways in which the Soviet Union demonstrated its supremacy and grandeur is in the ‘Gulag’ room. The entire floor of the room, probably measuring at least 12 meters in length and 4 meters in width, is covered wall to wall by a massive carpet-map* of the Soviet Union’s network of gulags. The labor camps where many Hungarians died are marked by cone-shaped cases containing artifacts from the deceased.
Things, however, stop being so abstract and become much more real on the elevator descent into the basement. During the excruciatingly slow ride, which takes about 3 minutes to go down only two floors, a video plays of a former guard recounting the process of the executions that took place in the basement. After his account, filled with minute details and told in a matter-of-fact way, I step into the basement wearily.
The underground level of the building is seemingly left mostly as it was, and though it has obviously been thoroughly aired out and cleaned, at this point I have seen enough to make me imagine detecting the smell of death mixed into the basement’s dampness or to think the dark spots on the execution room’s floor aren’t just dirt. In some of the cells, photographs hang over the cots – presumably of the people who were incarcerated there. There is also a room with padded floor and walls, and a solitary confinement space big enough for a person to only be able to stand up in – inducing such claustrophobia that when I try to enter one of the regular cells, I can only go as far as crossing its threshold with one foot, let alone closing the door behind me.
As I step out of the dark museum into the sunny street, I realize the museum was pretty much what I expected. Not pleasant but important to see. And though I’m sure it faces all kinds of criticism, both for the narrative it has chosen to present and the way it presents it, I feel like it is surely better than nothing. Which, incidentally, pretty much sums what has been done in Bulgaria to face and remember the communist past since the Berlin Wall fell more than 20 years ago.
*Taking pictures inside the museum is not allowed. But, what can I say, I’m a risk-taker for the sake of my art.