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Tracing the many connections between the "best amusement park in the world" and the Russian occupation of Crimea.

  • Jun 30 2022
  • Pablo Santacana Lopez
    (Madrid, 1991) is an art researcher and architectural designer co-founder of Spanish art collective Vendedores de Humo and member of Berlin-based platform decolonizeM21. He is associate researcher at the FH Erfurt and phd candidate at the Bauhaus University Weimar.

It's August 15th, 2014 in the former office of Tsar Nicholas II, which is in the imperial summer residence of the Livadia Palace, three kilometers away from Crimea. Vladimir Putin is photographed with Philippe de Villiers: a French politician, leader of the Mouvement pour la France party and founder of the international Puy du Fou theme park chain. Putin has invited de Villiers to the Kremlin to discuss the future opening of two new Puy du Fou branches. One in Moscow,[2] as well as a second in the recently-occupied territory of Crimea. While there have been no announcements by the company regarding its Russian expansion, it has meanwhile opened a new branch in Spain, taking advantage of the neo-nationalist wave that exploded in the country after the Catalonian sovereignty conflict.

Seven years after that meeting, Puy du Fou has become the second-most visited theme park in France. It has been crowned multiple times as the "Best amusement park in the world".[3] Seven years after that meeting, the Crimean peninsula is still occupied by the Russian military forces, unfolding an armed conflict that has already caused over 4,000 deaths[4] and 6,500.000 displacements.[5] While we witness such an escalation of violence, it is worth analyzing the many connections between this ongoing military conflict and the increasing popularity of Puy du Fou. How did we get here?

Puy du Fou began in 1977, when Philippe de Villiers decided to purchase the ruins of a Renaissance castle in the French village of Les Epesses in order to create a historical spectacle that staged local history from the point of view of a soldier in the Vendée War. Neither the location nor the topic of the spectacle were chosen by chance. Vendée was a strongly Catholic, counter-revolutionary region where conservatism has prevailed from the French Revolution up until today. The show, titled "Cinéscénie", was staged at the time by over four-hundred reenactors who are also volunteers with the association which is directed by de Villiers. The success of the spectacle gradually grew to the point that in 1989, de Villiers expanded his pseudo-historical business model from the small theater to a 55-hectare theme park, which was based on similar living-history shows. Puy du Fou has grown ever since, and currently encompasses 60 shows, 25 restaurants, 5 themed hotels and a congress center. The human labor behind the original French park still relies on a smaller number of seasonal employees and its 3,600 unpaid volunteers – referred to as puyfolais – who work motivated by the idea of divulging French culture through living history.[6] De Villiers claims the authorship of all shows for himself, as well as their co-direction together with his son, Nicolas, along with the park’s director general, Laurent Albert. De Villiers is known in French politics for his continuous Islamophobic, homophobic, anti-abortion and pro-military statements. He recently requested to ban the Islamic veil in public spaces [7] and supports homophobic comments made by the far-right French presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, who claimed that the deportation of homosexuals during the Second World War from France was a “legend”.[8]
His political inclinations towards the far-right have been claimed by many experts to influence the rhetoric he uses to conduct his historical shows, where little historical accuracy can be found. Even if members of Puy du Fou repeatedly state that “they do not work as historians”,[9] they nevertheless rely on dramatized historical events for added value, thus playing constantly with ambiguity and contradiction. Whereas Puy du Fou continuously wish to present historical facts “without didactic pretensions”,[10] it simultaneously aims to promote biased narrations of the past.

Coming back to the expansion plans in Crimea, de Villiers explicitly stated that the aim of the park is to "promote the history of Crimea as part of the long history of Russia", so as to effectively justify Putin’s occupation of the region.[11] Philippe de Villiers is right about one thing: he does not want to use his theme parks to narrate history as historians do. He wants to write it as the kings, generals and emperors that are represented in his shows once did. The connections made clear between the theme park, its owner, and the Russo-Ukrainian conflict are shared between the members of the de Villiers Family. While Nicolas has inherited the direction of the Puy du Fou group, his older brother, Guillaume de Villiers, currently acts as the manager of the Russian branch of the international real estate group Barnes. Barnes Russia specializes in renting out luxury properties in the French Riviera and Lake Geneva to Russian oligarchs and state officials. According to Euromaidan Press, the headquarters of Barnes Russia are coincidentally located in the same building as the election committee of Yedinaya Rossiya, Putin’s political party.[12] Another relative, Pierre de Villiers (Philippe’s brother), is the former chief of the French army’s staff, and was involved in the attempted sale of two warships to the Russian military forces, which was halted by president François Hollande due to the Russian occupation of Crimea. As a result, France had to compensate Russia with over a billion euros for breaking the already-signed contract.[13] Years later, Pierre de Villiers resigned from his military position due to disagreements with the current French president, Emmanuel Macron, in relation to a possible increase of the military budget. In other words, the fanaticism of the de Villiers family for warfare not only relies on mock-up battles staged as historical replicas, but is rather rooted in present reality.

Outside the family, friends and partners of Puy du Fou continue to demonstrate the ties between the theme park and the Kremlin. The decision to expand Puy du Fou in Russia could be explained by the willingness of Russian oligarchs to invest their fortunes in claiming a history that would justify and perpetuate their privilege. It’s the case of Konstantin Malofeev, who in 2014 provided over 420 million euros that were necessary for building both theme parks.[14] Malofeev is head of the authoritarian Russian media group Tsargrad, and is the founder of different opaque organizations, such as the “Safe Internet League” and the ultra-Orthodox, Saint Basil the Great Foundation. Malofeev has been on the list for personal sanctions imposed by the US, EU, and Canada since 2014.[15] He is also on an international wanted list, accused of creating illegal paramilitary groups. The 2014 partnership between Puy du Fou and Malofeev, who chairs the Society for the Development of Russian Historical Education Double-Headed Eagle,[16] gives definitive proof that the theme park's so-called “anti-didactic” ambitions are pure bullshit. His various positions not only promote entertaining reenactments, but the reinstating of the monarchy in Russia, with Putin eventually crowned. Andrey Afanasiev, another member of the group, stated it clearly at their 2018 conference: “What has Russia done in the last thirty years? It has resurrected an empire and chosen an emperor”.

Whether in Crimea, Vendée or Toledo, the biased representation of historical battles and oppressive regimes needs to be scrutinized in-depth. While there haven’t been official statements around the extension of Puy du Fou into the Russian continent, it is still clear that these stories shouldn't be forgiven or forgotten. Next time you attend the cybernetic fireworks at Puy du Fou, think about Mariupol.


Banner: Screenshot of the website page of Puy du Fou's shows offer.

    [1] This is a reversion of the Puy du Fou original slogan "L'Histoire n'attend que vous" (History is waiting for you).
    [2] The Moscow Times, French Politician to Build Historical Amusement Park in Crimea, 15.08.2014
    [3] 28th Annual Thea Awards Recipients, Announced on 11.16.2021
    [4] Statista Research Department, Civilian Deaths Related to Russia-Ukraine Conflict 2021, 3.03.2022
    [5] International Organization for Migration, Almost 6.5 Million People Internally Displaced in Ukraine, 22.03.2022
    [6] Deléan, M. Le juteux business de la famille Villiers au Puy du Fou, Mediapart, 31.08.2018.
    [7] Euro Islam, Philippe de Villiers “Prohibit the Veil in all Public Spaces”, 02.11.2006
    [8] CNEWS, Eric Zemmour attaqué par six associations anti-homophobie pour contestation de crime contre L’humanité, 23.03.2022
    [9] J. A. Aunión, La Historia Hecha Espectáculo, El País, 21.08.2022
    [10] Rodríguex, F. J, Las directrices históricas de 'Puy du Fou', La Tribuna de Toledo, 05.08.2018
    [11] Chazan, D. French politician defends plan for Crimean theme park, 16.08.2014
    [12] Euromaidan Press, How Putin influences French policy, 07.09.2014
    [13] BBC, Russia Mistral: Hollande denies striking compensation deal, 31.07.2015
    [14] RFI, French conservative aristocrat defends plans for Russian theme park, 16.08.2014
    [15] Council of the European Union, List of persons and entities under EU restrictive measures over the territorial integrity of Ukraine
    [16] RusLetter, Double-headed eagle Konstantin Malofeev, 20.11.2019
    [17] Grove, T. Czar Vladimir? Putin Acolytes Want to Bring Back the Monarchy, The Wall Street Journal, 13.12.2018



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