Bulgaria's ugliest sculptures may be dangerous to both body and soul
You can't miss them: hulking monstrosities of bronze, stone or concrete that tower over town squares, parks and public buildings all across Bulgaria. Once part of the Communist regime's propaganda machine, these monuments to past heroes and future dreams now rank among the most potent reminders of Soviet ideology and its megalomaniacal aesthetics. Some have disappeared – the Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum in Sofia was blown to pieces in 1999, The Alyosha in Pleven was torn down, and many busts of Lenin have disappeared, most likely sold for scrap metal. Yet, the biggest – and ugliest – monuments remain, as icons of a past era, the current government's reluctance to deal with its Communist past and the general public's overall lack of interest dictated by its preoccupation with survival. Created in true Stalinist style, they are usually placed where they best dominate the surrounding land- or cityscape. To understand them, you need to be conversant with Communism's amalgamation of revolutionary romanticism, cult of personality, nationalism and blind faith in the future. So let us take a stroll through Bulgaria's top 10 most hideous totalitarian monuments.
MONUMENT TO TODOR ZHIVKOV
Artist Professor Sekul Krumov
Stats 1974/2001; bronze; 2.6 m, or 8.5 ft, high
The late Communist leader Todor Zhivkov (1911–1998) is the only dictator in Eastern Europe who created a monument to himself but then knocked it down six years later, in 1987. Twenty years on his grateful fellow citizens, in recognition of their hometown hero and his lavish patronage, erected a new memorial in a specially made garden at the entryway to Pravets. The statue of Zhivkov – whom locals affectionately call Tato, or Daddy – is one of the first things you see when you enter the town. President Georgi Parvanov, then still leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, was on hand to unveil the monument amidst much fanfare on 8 September 2001, in celebration of the 90th anniversary of Zhivkov's birth. The statue itself was recycled; it was originally carved in the early 1970s, when Zhivkov's cult was at its peak. The sculptor, Professor Sekul Krumov, first displayed it in 1974 in a now infamous exhibit. Curators had placed a bronze head of satirist Radoy Ralin directly opposite Zhivkov's statue, and according to witnesses at the exhibit's opening, the humorist appeared to be sneering at the party leader. The next day Radio Free Europe gleefully reported that the bust of Ralin, a known critic of the regime, was looking down on Zhivkov. The scandal ended with Ralin's head being moved elsewhere in the building, whereas the statue of Tato was condemned to storage rooms for nearly three decades – until Krumov donated it to the town of Pravets.
BORDER GUARD WITH DOG
The Kapitan Andreevo border crossing with Turkey is the only thing most people associate Svilengrad with. The monument – modest in both size and effect – appeared in the town's small park in the 1970s for no particular occasion, presumably to emphasise the close connection between the border police and the local population. The border guard and his noble hound – apparently a kind of German shepherd trained to catch "saboteurs" and defectors trying to flee into Turkey – are looking in opposite directions.
Where 20 Pozitano St, Sofia
Artist Lyubomir Dalchev
Stats 1970s, bronze
This composition depicts Communist partizani, or guerrillas, waging a heroic campaign. It is in a highly symbolic location – in front of the headquarters of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, heir to the Bulgarian Communist Party. When the monument first appeared, the building still belonged to the Union of Active Fighters Against Fascism, a powerful government-sponsored organisation whose task was to guarantee the best jobs, education and housing for its members and their relatives and friends. For the job, the union commissioned Lyubomir Dalchev, a talented sculptor whose works are in galleries and parks across the country. Despite his exceptionally successful career in Socialist Bulgaria – he had two workshops, numerous commissions and a good reputation – Dalchev emigrated to the US in 1979 having been accused of creating decadent art. He never returned to Bulgaria. He died in 2002.
THE 300TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE CHIPROVTSI UPRISING
Artist Marko Markov
Stats 1988, concrete and marble
Located 30 km, or 19 miles, from Montana, Chiprovtsi is a hilly town with a pastoral ambience. It has three claims to fame – colourful local carpets, (now disused) pits and the unsuccessful 1688 Chiprovtsi Uprising against the Ottomans. The Communist regime, which in its final months was fixated on past glories, heartily welcomed the 300th Anniversary of the uprising as an occasion to adorn the landscape with yet more Socialist art. In September 1988 the town got its own marble square featuring a gigantic monument "in honour of Chiprovtsi's heroism and self-sacrifice" in characteristic 1980s Bulgarian sculptural style. The town hall, with its Revival Period architecture, and the Socialist Miners' Club provide an eclectic backdrop for the monument's stylised rebels. Sculptor Marko Markov is famous for representing Bulgaria at the 1964 Venice Biennial along with Stoyan Venev, Nayden Petkov, Velichko Minekov and Svetlin Rusev.
Artist Professor Ivan Neshev
Stats 1987, iron
Koncheto, as the locals call it, was created for the 1987 visit of the Diplomatic Corps to the city. The Socialist government used to organise PR tours for foreign dignitaries to show off its accomplishments and, possibly, in an effort to ward off premonitions of the Socialist system's impending collapse. As a rule, feverish construction preceded the delegations' arrival. In the case of Blagoevgrad, in 19 tumultuous months – during which every citizen over the age of 18 "donated" 45 days of volunteer labour – the city was outfitted with a new party headquarters (it now houses the American University in Bulgaria), a library, a central square, a courthouse, hoRSEa clinic, a sports complex, a brand-new sewage system, and new telephone and electrical wiring. The facelift's price tag was 192 million leva. The Bulgarian Communist Party went to great lengths to ensure that Socialism's awesome power would impress the foreign ambassadors. Of course, the transformation of the landscape wouldn't be complete without a monument or two – one in the central square and another, a horse symbolising the city, on a pedestal installed along the city's ring road.
THE ASENEVTSI MONUMENT
Where Veliko Tarnovo
Artists Professor Krum Damyanov, architect Georgi Gechev
Stats 1985, 62 tonnes, concrete, iron
The vandalised feet of Mother Bulgaria, a detail from The Asenevtsi Monument
The gigantic monument located on a picturesque peninsula above Yantra River and offering a panoramic view of Sveta Gora Hill and Veliko Tarnovo's Old Town took only nine months to build. Quick construction allowed the Communist Party to celebrate, in its characteristically pompous style, the 800th Anniversary of Tarnovo's establishment as Bulgaria's mediaeval capital. The Bulgarian nation's glorious past is symbolised by the Second Bulgarian Kingdom's four greatest rulers – the brothers Asen and Petar, famed for their successful revolt against Byzantium in 1185–87; their brother Kaloyan, who decimated the Crusaders in 1204; and Ivan Asen II, who stretched Bulgaria's boundaries to the shores of three seas. Seen from afar, however, the four battle-ready horsemen pale in comparison to the sculpture's central element – an enormous sword rising up from amongst them, representing mediaeval Bulgaria's might. The monument was built by Krum Damyanov, Bulgaria's most prominent sculptor of historical monuments at the time. Despite the composition's bellicose symbolism, the spot is a favourite meeting place for Veliko Tarnovo's students.
SOVIET ARMY MONUMENT
Artist architect Dimitar Mitov and associates
Stats 1954, granite, metal; the main statue stands 37 m, or 121 ft, high; the complex covers 2,000 sq m, or 21,528 sq ft
On 9 September 1954, to honour the 10th Anniversary of Bulgaria's Communist revolution, the regime unveiled a monument to the victorious Soviet Army in the centre of Sofia. Its peak features a composition symbolising the Communist idea of freedom – a jubilant Soviet soldier waving a submachine gun, accompanied by a village woman and her child, and a Bulgarian worker. The sculpture is the work of Vaska Emanuilova and Mara Georgieva. Also prominent sculptors Lyubomir Dalchev and Ivan Funev were among the artists who created the statues around the plinth, featuring scenes from the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Bulgarians' joyous reception of their Russian brothers-in-arms. Until the beginning of the 1980s, these images used to live side by side with animals from the city zoo. The brass inscription "To the liberating Soviet Army from the thankful Bulgarian people" was stolen in 1990 – only to be replaced in 2001. In 1993 the Sofia City Council voted to get rid of the monument that honoured an occupying army, but then Interior Minister Viktor Mihaylov prevented its destruction. Today the monument remains an integral element of the cityscape. Its walls are covered with graffiti, concerts regularly take place at its foot, and the broad square in front of it is a Sofia skater's paradise – much to the chagrin of local leftists who periodically clean up the graffiti and commemorate 9 September 1944, 9 May 1945, 7 November 1917, and sometimes rally here just to voice their frustration with democracy and capitalism.
1,300 YEARS OF BULGARIA MONUMENT
Artists Professor Valentin Starchev, architect Atanas Agura
Stats 1981, iron, concrete
To coincide with celebrations of the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of the Bulgarian state, this monument, in the shape of an abstract banner towering above the surrounding landscape, was built in eight months. The haste shows. The workmanship was so poor that tiles from the marble facing began falling off just weeks after it was inaugurated. Starchev created a hodgepodge of symbols not exactly typical of Socialist Realism – it combined the Golden Age of King Simeon, a grieving woman and a young worker, and, now illegible, witticisms from Vazov, Botev and Levski. All this was supposed to represent the development of the Bulgarian state. Todor Zhivkov despised the monument so much that he changed his daily commute to avoid passing by it. Sofianites have showered it with dozens of mocking nicknames, the kindest of which is the Falling Messerschmitt. A favourite gathering spot for drug addicts, the monument has been crumbling ever since, and has been fenced in for safety concerns. Heated debates over its future and its political, aesthetic and public safety significance are made worse by confusion about who owns this artistic hot potato. It continues to crumble as teenagers rollerblade around it and practice their tagging.
for the Victims of Fascism and Capitalism 1923-1944
Artists Professor Valentin Starchev; architects Bogdan Tomalevski, Nikola Angelov and associates
Stats 1981, concrete, stone
This monument embodies the force of the Communist propaganda machine. Tonnes of concrete dominate the alley leading to the beach in Burgas' Maritime Garden. Its appearance was part of grandiose celebrations marking Bulgaria's 1,300th Anniversary that the Committee for Culture and its leader, Lyudmila Zhivkova, daughter of Todor Zhivkov, organised across the country. Unlike other monuments built during the campaign, this one glorifies death. Despite its macabre symbolism, until 1989 the Pantheon – as locals call it – was a prime place for Socialist rallies. Here schoolchildren were inducted into the Communist Party's youth organisations, the Chavdarcheta and the Pionercheta. The composition's mastermind, sculptor Valentin Starchev, currently teaches modelling at the University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy, and his CV lists dozens of monuments across the country. Yet he proudly points to the ossuary in Burgas as a fine example of a well planned and executed monument, as it isn't falling to pieces like many hastily assembled Socialist installations. Diehard lefties continue to place flowers at the Pantheon every 9 September, the day of the 1944 coup that brought the Communists to power. In the rest of the year the wide concrete path in front of it is a training ground for Burgas' budding skaters, rollerbladers and parkourists.
FOUNDERS OF THE BULGARIAN STATE
Artist Professor Krum Damyanov, architect Georgi Gechev and associates
Stats 1981, concrete, stone, granite
Perched on a hilltop, this massive monument consists of eight concrete blocks and can be seen for miles around. It is yet another megalomaniac project celebrating Bulgaria's 13 centuries of existence. To reach it, you climb 1,300 steps that start in Shumen's city centre. In one of the 1,000 underground chambers a time capsule contains a message to future generations; above is represented the history of the First Bulgarian Kingdom. The complex's creators boast that all of the most important figures in Bulgarian history from the 7th to the 10th Centuries have been included. In fact, its images of Bulgaria's medieval rulers Asparuh, Tervel, Krum, Omurtag, Boris I and Simeon bear an uncanny resemblance to manga comic-book superheroes, which perhaps explains why Japanese tourists love stopping here to take pictures. As a crowning glory, a 1,000-tonne lion sits at 52 m, or 172 ft, above the complex. According to the curators, the butterfly near its tail symbolises the Bulgarian state's various metamorphoses. For many years, the monument used to be a favourite site for weddings. Now, instead of brides, you're more likely to find its pathways filled with foreign tourists and local joggers. For personal safety the latter are careful to give Han Asparuh's horse a wide berth, as in February 2006 one of the hooves fell off unexpectedly. Now few would risk being Socialist art's victim.