Inside Bulgaria's Forgotten Monuments
To us Brits the word ‘monument’ conjures up images of dry historical figures sitting atop concrete plinths. To us monuments are rarely interesting, never mind inspiring. In communist Bulgaria however, they did things a little differently. The incredible structures that were built to honour their infamous ideology are truly awe-inspiring architectural works of art. Twenty five years on, they lie crumbling and forgotten.
Today’s EU Bulgaria is a far cry from the former member of the Communist block. Those same monuments, once symbols of the proud achievements of the people, are now symbols of a past and a party that many would rather forget. As a result these vast concrete structures sit atop mountains, look out over towns and lie dormant by road sides, invisible and unloved, nature is slowly reclaiming them. Like historical elephants in the room, their vast concrete structures are disintigrating before the eyes of anyone who is willing to see them.
I took a tour across Bulgaria with Darmon Richter to see the most impressive of these monuments. What I discovered was nothing short of incredible, beautiful and humbling.
Balvan Monument to the Partisans
This monument was built to honor the partisans who defied their government’s allegiance to the Nazis during WW2, going underground to fight against them, eventually working with the Soviets to overthrow them at the end of the war. Sounds like a worthy bunch to honor right? Well, the problem lies in the way the monument was framed. Although the partisans who fought the Nazi’s were not all members of the communist party, when the Communists came to power after the war, they adapted history to make themselves look like the sole liberators of the country. As such it’s seen as a part of Bulgaria’s communist past and ignored.
When it was built, the monument was situated high up beside a busy road. It had a large parking area and a long stepped approach. However, a new road was built behind it and the old road was closed. As a result, the monument is now some distance from the passing cars and faces away from them, still looking out over its overgrown causeway and the road that once served it eager visitors. Today it has no visitors (except groups of Monument Geeks of course!).
Varna Park Monument of the Bulgarian Soviet Friendship
Although never part of the USSR, Bulgaria was behind the iron curtain and it’s communist party very much allied with the Soviet Union. This monument on a hill overlooking the coastal town of Varna, was built in 1978 and honors the relationship between the two countries, which dates back to the 1870’s when the Russian empire helped Bulgaria to overthrow their Ottoman rulers.
Today however, Bulgarians would rather not celebrate this ‘friendship’; the two giant flagpoles at the base of the monument now fly the Bulgarian and European Union flags. But at the same time Bulgaria does not want to upset Russia (which lies just a few hundred kilometers away by sea) by demolishing it. And so, it remains, looking out over the water to Russian lands, in a state of disrepair.
Interestingly the monument apparently houses a nuclear bunker below it. We managed to get into the tunnel which runs down into the bunker, but doors at the end were welded shut, preventing us getting any further. Varna is said to have a large tunnel network running underneath the city, connecting key strategic points. It’s no rumour either, take a walk along the park by the beach and you can see the entrances to these tunnels, large enough to drive a car into. It would not be a stretch to imagine that the tunnels below the monument are also connected to the rest of the network.
The Buzludzha Monument (AKA Flying Saucer)
This was the one we had all been waiting for. The monument, built in 1981 on the site of a bloody 1877 battle between Bulgarians and the Ottomans, is in fact dedicated to a secret gathering on the same mountain in 1891. This gathering led to the formation of the Bulgarian Socialist party, who would later govern the country under communism. Suffice to say, that is not something that modern Bulgaria wants to be celebrating.
The monument itself is absolutely immense. It once housed huge ceremonial celebrations and includes a 100m high tower which sits as the highest point in the region. Designed by famous Bulgarian architect Georgi Stoilov, it was to be the jewel in the communist monument crown of Bulgaria. And having been inside the now vandalised and crumbling structure, I can only imagine it must have been just that.
Despite the ruin, it is still a thing of immense beauty today. The colosseum is huge and enough of the colourful mosaics remain to imagine how it might have felt when it was in tact, while the view from the top of the tower is simply mesmerising.
Yet it is difficult to truly enjoy the experience of being there. Of course it’s exciting and compelling; scrambling through the hole in the side to gain access, descending into pitch black basements and climbing the 18 stories of ladders to reach the top of the tower, you feel like a true explorer. But, at the same time it’s difficult to comprehend why something of such astounding beauty and incomparable rarity, could be left to ruin in such a brutal manner. How can historical ideology be so toxic as to prevent the preservation of something so clearly deserving of being treated as a national heritage site?
But...not all Bulgarian monuments are born equal
You might think that given the toxicity of the communist label, any monument built by the communists will have been treated the same way. But, this is not the case. Infact, some of the best maintained monuments in the country were built by the communists. The difference is that these monuments do not celebrate communism or the Soviets. They celebrate Bulgaria.
One example of this lies in the town of Schuman; the Monument to the Founders of Bulgaria. Also built in 1981 into the side of a large hill, this monument celebrates the 1300 years since the country's founders first set foot on the land. Climb to the top of the 1300 steps and you will struggle to find a difference between this and other monuments left to rot. It uses the same concrete cubism as the other communist built monuments of that era. It has vast interiors (which unfortunately we were not able to gain access to) and stunning views. The difference is that it does not hold any reference to communism. No hammer and sickle icons and no mention of the partisans. In the language of Bulgarian monuments, it seems that this is all that separates a monument from being loved, and being forgotten.
The line between an object of incredible beauty being celebrated, and it being forgotten, lies not in its inherent value, but in the ideas that it represents. Political ideology and historical mistakes appear to hold far more weight in the minds of people, who would rather forget the art of their past than re-imagine it for what it is: a demonstration of man’s incredible creativity and practical ability.
See it for yourself!
If you are interested in doing a tour of Bulgaria's incredible Communist monuments, check out the one I joined: Bulgaria Arkitektour, run by urban explorer and historian Darmon Richter.