Forgotten Communist Monoliths of Bulgaria - Atlas Obscura

Forgotten Communist Monoliths of Bulgaria

article-imageThe derelict amphitheater of Mount Buzludzha as it appears today (photograph by Darmon Richter)

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The Bulgarian Communist Party, who ruled this Eastern European nation from 1946 until the fall of communism in 1989, was not without its critics — and a large proportion of those numbered amongst the party’s own subjects. Today, most Bulgarians are keen to forget their nation’s communist years, and move on into the 21st century. But as they do, the monoliths of that former regime still cast down long shadows from Bulgaria’s mountains and hilltops.

The Bulgarian Communist Party oversaw the construction of more than 150 large stone, steel, and concrete monuments, spreading the full length and breadth of the country; from Vidin in the west, to Varna in the east. The majority of these adhered to the same cubist style that underlined Stalin’s own architectural initiatives in the Soviet Union — the socialist-realist style, as it would be later dubbed.

In subject matter, however, the sculptures varied greatly.

A good number of Bulgaria’s communist monuments were built to celebrate connections with Moscow, either the role that Russia’s army played in delivering Bulgaria from Ottoman rule during the Russo-Turkish Wars of the 19th century, or in the 20th century, when Stalin again offered Bulgaria the hand of friendship in the form of Soviet affiliation.

Statue of Russian Admiral F. F. Ushakov at Cape Kaliakra (photograph by Darmon Richter)

A graffitied communist monument in Shumen (photograph by Darmon Richter)

It’s interesting (and perhaps unsurprising) to observe now, how Bulgaria’s pro-Soviet monuments have been allowed to fall into the worst states of repair — neglected, defiled, graffitied. Meanwhile, monuments built in the same years, by the same hands, in the same style, and yet dedicated to Bulgaria’s own history, are cherished to this day.

The statue of the revered 19th century Bulgarian philosopher-poet Hristo Botev, for example, stands clean and well-maintained as the revolutionary gazes thoughtfully across the town of Kalofer in the south. In Shumen, the “Monument to 1,300 Years of Bulgaria” has been beautifully preserved, featuring a ticket office, guided tours, and even serving as a popular venue for weddings.

Bulgaria’s “communist monuments” then, have only their origins in common. While all of them were built under a communist regime using the materials and styles made popular at that time, it seems that many are no longer deemed communist in nature or ideology. The Bulgarians, wisely, are picking the best relics of a (largely) bad time and re-appropriating them, recasting these impressive sculptures into the long, complex and — at times — tragic narrative of their collective past.

To list all of Bulgaria’s surviving communist-era monuments here would be near-impossible. Instead, consider this a tasting session. Here are six of the country’s most impressive communist ghosts, some beloved, some despised, and relics all of an age that many would rather forget.

Monument to 1,300 Years of Bulgaria, Shumen

Towering over the city of Shumen in the east of Bulgaria, the memorial complex of the Monument to 1,300 Years of Bulgaria — alternately known as the “Founders of the Bulgarian State Monument” — rises out of a mountain plateau at a height of 450 meters above sea level.

article-imageBulgaria’s founding fathers (photograph by Darmon Richter)

The structure is formed from a series of interlacing scenes and statues, encased within a cage of vast concrete pillars — pillars that close to form an awning high above a central marble-tiled courtyard. Designed by the local sculptors Krum Damyanov and Ivan Slavov, the monument was opened by the communist government in 1981 to celebrate the anniversary of the foundation of the First Bulgarian Empire in 681 AD; and, no doubt, to closer associate their own regime with that beloved golden age of Bulgarian history.

Bulgaria’s founding fathers appear to emerge from the very bricks themselves, and the imposing monument can be seen from as far as 20 miles away.

The grand staircase approaching the memorial at Shumen (photograph by Darmon Richter)

An ancient Bulgarian ruler with warhorse (photograph by Darmon Richter)

Another figure emerges from the stone (photograph by Darmon Richter)

The Shumen memorial complex is larger than it looks… (photograph by Darmon Richter)


Park-Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, Varna

Based on a design first conceived in 1958, the “Park-Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship” didn’t rear its seven concrete heads until 1974 — when 27,000 volunteer laborers were recruited into what would become a four-year construction project in the port city of Varna.

The Park-Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship pictured in the 1970s

A communist rally outside the Varna monument

Locally-based sculptors Evgeni Barǎmov and Alyosha Kafedzhiyski worked with leading state architect Kamen Goranov to create a unique monument celebrating Bulgaria’s love for Moscow, for Russia, and for the Soviet Union. Perched on an artificial hill at the edge of the city, the monument points across the Black Sea towards Russia and measures 48 meters across, 23 meters high. During those years, the city of Varna itself was briefly renamed “Stalin.”

The “Park-Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship” was built on the site where the Russian army made their camp as they fought to liberate Bulgaria from Ottoman rule during the First Russo-Turkish War (1828–1829). The 11-meter tall figures positioned along the “wings” of the structure depict Russian soldiers coming to the rescue of Bulgaria’s women, who offer in return gifts of bread, salt, and flowers.

Before the collapse of Bulgarian communism, the monument was lit each night with 180 floodlights positioned in the surrounding park. Each of the park’s 20,000 trees represented a fallen Russian soldier, while a series of loudspeakers would play the “Leningradsky” movement from Shostakovich’s seventh symphony.

An inscription on the front of the monument, now all but faded from both sight and memory, read: “Friendship for centuries throughout centuries.”

Approach to the monument (photograph by Darmon Richter)

Detail of Russian soldiers (photograph by Darmon Richter)

Bulgarian women bearing gifts of gratitude (photograph by Darmon Richter)

A Soviet-esque star inside the hollow monument (photograph by Darmon Richter)

Another chamber inside the Varna monument (photograph by Darmon Richter)

View from the top observation deck (photograph by Darmon Richter)

Looking out across the city of Varna (photograph by Darmon Richter)

Detail of Russian faces cast in concrete (photograph by Darmon Richter)


Monument to the Soviet Army, Sofia

In Bulgaria’s capital of Sofia, a 1954 monument dedicated to the Red Army of the Soviet Union has become, in more recent years, a veritable forum for counter-cultural political expression.

Placed atop a high pedestal, a Soviet soldier stands between a Bulgarian man and woman; around the pillar, other military compositions look out across one of the city’s main parks. It’s a popular spot with the youth culture of Sofia, and so perhaps it’s no surprise this Soviet memorial has become a punch-bag for young Bulgarians who feel less than empathic towards their nation’s former overlords.

article-imageThe slogan beneath the figures translates as “Up to Date” (via Creative Commons)

In June of 2011, one of the memorial scenes was painted over by unknown artists, to recast the Red Army soldiers as comic book characters — Wolverine, Superman, Captain America and the Joker amongst them. Since then the trend flourished, with the Soviet figures decorated in colored balaclavas mimicking those worn by the controversial Russian protest group Pussy Riot; and later, in the Guy Fawkes masks favored by hacker organization Anonymous. In 2013, the monument was painted pink to commemorate the anniversary of the “Prague Spring.”

Most recently, in February 2014, an anonymous artist once again transformed the Soviet soldiers — this time painting the central figure in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, to show support for the revolution in Kiev. 

Sofia’s “Monument to the Soviet Army” (via Creative Commons)

The monument in 2014, sporting the Ukrainian colors (via Creative Commons)


Memorial to the Defenders of Stara Zagora, Stara Zagora

In 1977, a 50-meter monument was unveiled in the southern city of Stara Zagora to commemorate the 100th anniversary of a fierce battle for independence.

Officially titled the “Samara Banner Memorial to the Defenders of Stara Zagora in 1877,” this particular memorial complex honors the Bulgarian volunteers who fought against the Ottoman forces here, alongside troops from the Russian city of Samara.

article-imageThe iron-inlayed courtyard beneath the monument (photograph by Darmon Richter)

After six hours of conflict, the battle was lost — the Bulgarian and Russian fighters were forced into a surrender, powerless to prevent the massacre that would follow. Over the course of the next three days the city was burnt to the ground. By the end of the battle, the death toll in Stara Zagora and its neighboring villages numbered 14,500.

The monument, designed to resemble the Samara banner blowing in the wind, stands now on the site of the former Russian command post. The figures of a Russian officer along with six Bulgarian volunteers — one for each of the units who joined the Russian forces — stand solemn watch over the city below.

A Russian officer emerges from a concrete block (photograph by Darmon Richter)

Detail of Bulgarian volunteer fighters (photograph by Darmon Richter)

The soldiers look out over Stara Zagora (photograph by Darmon Richter)

The banner of Samara blowing in the wind (photograph by Darmon Richter)


Hillock of Fraternity, Plovdiv

The south of Bulgaria was once ruled by the ancient Thracian kings, and there remain a number of royal burial mounds spread far and wide across these grassy plains. In the city of Plovdiv, a 1974 monument set out to recreate the grandeur of those ancient burial grounds in the form of the “Hillock of Fraternity.”

article-imageLooking across the memorial courtyard (photograph by Nate Roberts, via Yomadic)

Unveiled on the 30th anniversary of Bulgaria’s Socialist Revolution, the memorial complex at Plovdiv is shaped like a vast, concrete wreath. Inside, it contains the interred remains of partisan fighters from the Plovdiv region.

The Hillock of Fraternity has sadly fallen into disrepair in recent years. An eternal flame that once burnt inside this 90-meter installation has long since been allowed to die, and nowadays the outside of the monument bears the scars of graffiti and neglect. 

View inside the Hillock of Fraternity (photograph by Nate Roberts, via Yomadic)

The tomb of the fallen partisans (photograph by Nate Roberts, via Yomadic)


House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Mount Buzludzha

High up on the windswept peak of Mount Buzludzha — a location which, at 1,440 meters above sea level, marks the near-perfect geographic center of the country — stands the largest and most imposing of Bulgaria’s communist ghosts.

The “House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party” was opened in 1981, a colossal concrete saucer accompanied by a tower which rises to a height of 107 meters (351 feet). The project was dedicated to Bulgaria’s 1878 liberation from Turkish rule, and in particular to the bloody battle that raged in nearby Shipka Pass, where a 30,000-strong Ottoman horde was defeated by a small garrison of Russian soldiers and Bulgarian volunteers. 

The House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party in the early 1980s

The central amphitheater of the Buzludzha monument

The observation deck inside the outer rim of the saucer

Detail of a mural depicting the Red Army marching into battle

The design of the building was created by Georgi Stoilov, while more than 60 Bulgarian artisans were recruited to work on the painstakingly detailed murals inside. The project cost more than 16 million Bulgarian Levs (about $11 million), much of which the Bulgarian Communist Party managed to source from its own citizens in the form of “suggested donations.”

In its heyday, the Buzludzha Monument was like nothing else on this planet. Even now, it commands breathtaking views across the Balkan Mountains, the outer rim fitted with a circular observation deck that once featured thick glass windows. The building also benefitted from a comprehensive heating and air conditioning system, powered from a boiler room in one of the basement levels.

The central amphitheater, a space used for important meetings and political rallies, featured tiered marble seating and a circular ceiling lined in beaten copper. Murals on the walls depicted Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Bulgaria’s own communist leaders, in between illustrated scenes of battle, industry and harvest.

Today, the harsh climate of the Balkans has left the monument in poor shape. The Cyrillic characters across the front of the building, that once spelt the words of the socialist hymn “The Internationale,” are falling away to leave blank, grey concrete; the emblematic hammer and sickle set into the ceiling of the auditorium now gazes down forlorn upon a scene of ruin and decay.

The road to Buzludzha (photograph by Darmon Richter)

View across the memorial plaza (photograph by Darmon Richter)

Detail of Cyrillic lettering on the building’s exterior (photograph by Darmon Richter)

The breathtaking view from Mount Buzludzha (photograph by Darmon Richter)

Inside the red star at the top of the Buzludzha tower (photograph by Darmon Richter)

View from the top of the tower (photograph by Darmon Richter)

Looking down onto the saucer (photograph by Darmon Richter)

The House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party (photograph by Darmon Richter)

Darmon Richter is a freelance writer, photographer, and urban explorer. You can follow his adventures at The Bohemian Blog, or for regular updates, follow The Bohemian Blog on Facebook.