Demolition of huge Communist-era monument turns as controversial as monument itself
In the summer of 2017, after years of debates, projects and protests, Sofia looked as though it would finally part with one of the most controversial monuments of the period referred to as Mature Socialism (roughly, the 1970s and 1980s in Communist Bulgaria). Everyone knows the monument in question: it is the 35-metre-high angular construction of granite plates and metal, crowned with ghostly statues and disintegrated slogans, in front of the NDK in central Sofia.
Ironically, the name of the monument slated for demolition is 1,300 Years of Bulgaria.
The monument appeared on the square of the NDK, or National Palace of Culture formerly known as the Lyudmila Zhivkova People's Palace of Culture, in 1981. According to the original idea of its author, sculptor Valentin Starchev, the shape, the statues and the slogans the monument represented "the evolution of the Bulgarian spirit."
At the base of the sculptural composition there was a statue of King Simeon the Great, under whose rule Bulgarian culture and state experienced a golden age. Above him, a Pieta embodied the periods of stagnation and struggle for survival under foreign dominations. The bright future was represented by the statue of The Creator. The slogans included quotes by 19th century national hero Vasil Levski ("Time is within us and we are within time") and poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev ("He who falls in fight for freedom shall live forever more"), and the first line of the anthem dedicated to Cyril and Methodius, the creators of the Slavic alphabet, by Stoyan Mihaylovski ("Walk on, revived people…").
The project was ambitious and so were the deadlines.
Struggling with an impossible schedule, the sculptor and the construction workers spent 24 hours a day on the site, but the monument was still unfinished on its ribbon-cutting day, the top not yet clad in granite. The builders came up with a last-minute solution and covered, Potemkin village-like, the empty spaces with plywood painted to resemble stone.
This was the first of many setbacks that turned the 1,300 Years of Bulgaria into what is arguably the most unpopular object of public art in Sofia.
The deadlines were met, but no one actually liked the piece. According to an urban legend, Todor Zhivkov himself was so shocked by what the overwhelming majority thought was an eyesore that he ordered his driver to never pass by the monument again. Ordinary Sofianites were quick to come up with alternative names for the monument, all of them obscene. "The Fallen Messerschmitt," a reference to the exceptionally ugly Second World War German warplane, is the only one fit for print. The subterranean level of the monument was, for its part, dubbed the NDK Catacombs.
The Law of Gravity, too, was against the monument. Due to the speedy construction and the tight deadlines, a year after its opening, the 1,300 Years of Bulgaria started to disintegrate. By 1989 it had already deteriorated badly, its subterranean level becoming a haunt for drug addicts and homeless people. Some of its metal parts were stolen for scrap.
In the early 2000s, the 1,300 Years of Bulgaria was already so dangerous that a fence was erected around it. In the 2010s the most dangerous parts of the monument were taken down as the debates for its future continued. A list of suggestions included, but was not limited to, the transformation of the monument into a climbing wall, an LED installation, or an educational centre, or the replacement of the original sculptures with one of Khan Asparuh, the founder of the Bulgarian state. The most radical idea was that the monument to be destroyed and the memory plates with the names of the soldiers of 1st and 6th Infantry Regiment of the Sofia Division, which were taken down during the construction of the NDK and its square, to be restored in its place.
In the summer of 2017, debates were abruptly stopped as the Sofia City Council ordered the monument's demolition. Again ironically, some people protested. Apparently one of them threw a Molotov cocktail at the crane installed to dismantle the monument. The crane burnt down, and the demolition was halted. By the time this journal went to press, whatever remains of the 1,300 Years of Bulgaria is still where it has been since 1981.