Communist headquarters turn into parliament
"Where is the parliament?" A couple of months ago anyone asking this question in Sofia would have been pointed to a butter-yellow neoclassical building at one end of the Yellow Brick Road. Imaginatively, it resembles the Paris Opera House and has the Belgian national motto, "Unity Makes Strength," above its main façade, looking onto the statue of a 19th century Russian tsar on horseback. This was the place where Bulgarian MPs used to gather to do whatever they were supposed to do.
A person asking the same question today might get a more confusing answer, such as "Which parliament – the old or the new one?" and even "Do you mean the former Party House?". The reason for this confusion stands at the other end of the Yellow Brick Road. There, in a massive tower of grey stone, sits the new home of the Bulgarian National Assembly.
The two parliament buildings could not be more different. The old one was built in 1886, at the height of the national enthusiasm that followed the previous year's unification of the Principality of Bulgaria and the former Ottoman province of Eastern Rumelia. In the following decades this elegant confection witnessed Bulgaria and its people enduring regional and world wars and transitioning from democracy to authoritarianism to totalitarianism and back.
Construction of the Party House and the Largo in the 1950s
The new parliament building appears overbearing and forbidding. It bears all the hallmarks of its time as the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party, or the BKP.
Built in 1954, the Party House was a grandiose propaganda piece designed to epitomise the strong grip the Communist Party had over the political, social, economic and even personal life of the citizens of the People's Republic of Bulgaria. Just 10 years had passed since the BKP took power, on 9 September 1944, in a Soviet-backed coup, and from there the party managed to deal with both internal and external opposition, to turn the Bulgarian economy upside down, and to transform the country into the USSR's most loyal satellite.
The location of the BKP headquarters was selected for a reason. Beneath it lay the ruins of ancient Serdica and medieval Sredets, indicating continuity. Before construction started, the site had been covered with the remains of pre-war businesses, houses and hotels destroyed in the 1943-1944 Allied bombing raids. Erecting the BKP's headquarters in such a place conveyed a clear message: Communism in Bulgaria was historically inevitable, the final stage of human evolution, the end of history itself. Resistance to it would be futile.
Under Communism, officially organised rallies would start at the Party House and would pass by the Georgi Dimitrov mausoleum. Top Communist officials would wave at the masses from its balcony
The Party House was also physically distant from the National Assembly, to underline the largely ceremonial role that institution had in Communist Bulgaria.
The architecture of the Party House and the administrative and public buildings of the so-called Largo compound around it was also heavy with symbolism. The so-called Stalinist Baroque style was all about vast empty spaces brooded over by towering buildings with massive colonnades adorned with reliefs of five-pointed stars, sturdy labourers and statuesque farmers and workers. Uniformly grey, with narrow windows that hinted at hidden power, it was meant to induce in passers-by a feeling of helplessness and insignificance in the face of the omnipotent state and the party that controlled it.
As the headquarters of the Central Committee of the BKP, the Party House was the pièce de résistance of the Largo. Designed by the architect, Petso Zlatev, it covered more than an acre and had three kilometres of corridors. A red five-pointed star, Kremlin-style, shone from the top of its 70-metre spire. The building was designed to withstand a powerful earthquake and had a bunker, connected by underground corridors to the nearby mausoleum of the Communist dictator Georgi Dimitrov, providing a secure getaway for the top BKP officials.
The whereabouts of the Party House five-pointed star remain unknown
The coat-of-arms of Communist Bulgaria, along with a hammer and sickle, adorned the façade. There were also more curious details. The corn cobs on the façade, for example, reflected the initiative of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to introduce American hybrid maize to Communist agriculture. The interior decoration was on a par with the exterior: all polished marble, expensive carpets and intricate plaster mouldings.
For the next 35 years the Party House was where Bulgaria's destiny was decided – a status made official by Article 1 of the 1971 Constitution that stipulated the "leading role" of the BKP. Few people had access to the inner sanctum of the Communist Party. The only way for ordinary Bulgarians to guess how the in-fighting in the Party House was going was to read between the lines of the official press, and to take note of which comrade was absent from the Mausoleum balcony during the mass rallies on 9 September.
In those years, the Party House experienced just one major change. In 1984, a new five-pointed star was installed on its spire. Made of red glass, it was 3 metres in diameter and was lit from the inside. It looked just like the one in the Kremlin, but smaller.
When Communism collapsed following an internal coup on 10 November 1989, the Party House suddenly turned from a mysterious and terrifying centre of power into a lightning rod for public attention and pro-democracy rallies.
The 26 August 1990 fire made the Party House unusable for years
In June 1990, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP, the heir of the BKP, won the first free election in Bulgaria since 1940. The pro-democracy opposition was disappointed by the results (some still claim the elections were rigged) and became ever more vocal in its call for de-Communisation. The BSP apparently got the message and on 17 July, the government decided to remove the embalmed body of Georgi Dimitrov from the Mausoleum. This was duly done the same night, and the dictator's remains were moved secretly to the Party House through the infamous underground corridors. The corpse was then buried at Sofia Central Cemetery. This was the first and last time that the secret connection between the two most emblematic Communist buildings in Sofia was ever used.
Pro-democracy activists, for their part, claimed the area by the Party House as their protest ground. While the BSP enjoyed plush offices in the former BKP headquarters, the protesters set up a tent camp outside, known as the City of Truth.
In August 1990, pro-democracy MPs called for the removal of Communist insignia from public spaces. Their main target was, of course, the red star that still adorned the spire of the former Party House. On 26 August crowds gathered around the building and when night fell, a fire broke out inside the Party House. It ravaged through it, destroying almost 100 rooms and blackening the façade.
Traces of a hammer and sickle are still visible on the façade of the new Parliament building
Who started it remains a matter of contention. The authorities blamed the protestors and swiftly dismantled the City of Truth on the same night. The opposition insisted that the arson was an inside job designed not only to discredit the protest, but also to provide a smokescreen for agents destroying sensitive documents from the BKP archives, which were still kept in the Party House.
The 1990 Party House drama ended on 4 October, when the five-pointed star was taken down by helicopter in a spectacular airborne operation. The present whereabouts of the star are unknown, but its predecessor was presented to the Museum of Sofia and is now in the Museum of Socialist Art.
Ever since, the national flag has flown from the spire of the former Party House.
The idea to move the Bulgarian parliament into the former BKP headquarters was first voiced in 1995. The old neoclassical building was now considered too small and uncomfortable for the National Assembly administration. After an initial overhaul and cleaning of the blackened façade, some of the parliamentary administration moved there, in the 2000s. The most blatant Communist symbols were also removed from the façade, including the hammer and sickle and the five-pointed star above the main entrance.
It was Boyko Borisov's second government (2014-2017) that decided to finally make the big move. A renovation on a grand-scale dragged on for much longer than planned and the costs ballooned from the projected 18 million leva excluding VAT to 44 million leva. The most impressive transformation was in the grand assembly hall, whose old plaster-heavy ceiling was replaced by a modern tessellated roof.
Stalinist-style worker and farmer still sit on the pediment of the Council of Ministers, the former Communist Ministry of Heavy Industry
Meanwhile, the main entrance of the former Party House became a favourite spot for protests. It not only had symbolic value but was also centrally located at the intersection of three major roads, close to the Council of Ministers and the Office of the President (which are in the former homes of the Communist-era Ministry of Heavy Industry and Ministry of Electrification, respectively). The steps have been claimed by all sorts of protesters: from mothers of disabled children asking for better care and underpaid nurses to environmental activists to the 2013 protests against Plamen Oresharski's government to those who believe that the new child protection law is designed to make possible the forcible adoption of Bulgarian children by "gay Norwegian couples."
On 2 September 2020 the Bulgarian MPs sat for their first meeting in the brand new assembly hall in the former Party House. They were greeted by yet another protest, this time against Boyko Borisov's government.
The transition has many critics. Some are disappointed with the quality and cost of the overhaul, while others bemoan the fact that, 30 years after the collapse of Communism in Bulgaria, traces of five-pointed stars and hammers and sickles are still visible on the former Party House façade. The more radical even call for the demolition of the building's spire and tower.
Tellingly, unlike Khrushchev's corn cobs, the motto "Unity Makes Strength" is missing from the façade of the former Communist Party House, now the new Bulgarian National Assembly.