During the past 20 years Bulgaria has gained notoriety with an unusual tourist attraction. No, it is not the Kazanlak roses, not the mushrooming "medieval" fortresses being erected from scratch with EU money. It is a former Communist "house-monument," perched on a mountain within the Balkan range, that is inevitably in the top three of the various Strange Tourist Attractions sites on the Internet. Visitors from as far as Alaska, Austria and Australia brave the trip to the barren mountain top, ignoring the posted police orders to keep out, and find their way into what is essentially very dangerous rubble to enter and take a glimpse at one of the most seminal sites in present-day Bulgaria, an epitome of both the futility of its 45-year-long experiment with Communism and of its inability, for almost 30 years, to come to terms with its totalitarian past.
The Alaskans, the Austrians and the Australians are oblivious of the pain some of the Communist-era related memories cause in many Bulgarians with direct experiences of Communism. They are also at a loss what to make of the melancholy for the "good old days" that gains increasing popularity with many Bulgarians old enough to remember Todor Zhivkov's times when "everyone had a job" and "all families could take a month of holidays every year."
Domestically, the Buzludzha monument both unites and disunites. Had this been some other European country where ideology does not ordinarily get in the way of free enterprise, the Buzludzha House-Museum would have been turned into a money-making machine. A Pay & Display car park would have been organised, touts would have sprang up dealing in badges, coffee pitchers and red-star sporting fur hats, and someone would have been selling entry tickets at 10 euros per head. But Bulgarians are not like that. The past causes as much, possibly even more, acrimony than the present. And the future is nowhere in plain sight.
What is Buzludzha? Here is a synopsis of how the "Flying Saucer" appeared on top of this 1,441-metres-above-sea-level peak in the Stara Planina.
The Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party, as was its official name, was constructed in 1974-1981 on the spot where Dimitar Blagoev, the 19th century founder of Bulgarian social democracy, clandestinely held the first party assembly. The Bulgarian Communist Party was born from it, and the late 20th century top Communists cherished their own tradition. By showing continuity with the past they wanted to ensure continuity in the future.
The investment needed for the huge mountain-top building amounted to 14 million leva, an astronomical sum in those days, but the Communist government found an easy solution. All working Bulgarians were made to make "voluntary" contributions of half a lev towards the project…
Georgi Stoilov, a top architect at the time, created the blueprint for a building that was both modernist and brutalist. It was meant to be seen from miles away. Its message was unequivocal: the Communist Party has been around for 100 years and it will go on being around for eternity.
The actual works was given to the Bulgarian People's Army Construction Corps, essentially free labour performed by army conscripts. The dimensions of the memorial were overwhelming. Its round conference hall was 42 metres in diameter and 14.5 metres tall. Next to the main building stood a 70-metre-high tower decorated with a 12-meter-tall red star, supposedly made of "rubies" imported from the Soviet Union.
Some of Bulgaria's most prominent artists were entrusted with the interior decorations. Those included Velichko Minekov, Valentin Starchev and Yoan Leviev. The mosaics in the assembly hall included portraits of Marx, Lenin and Todor Zhivkov while the murals in the corridors extollеd "peaceful labour." The titles of the various artworks were self-explanatory: A Figure of Those Who Burn in Struggle Eternally; Workers of the World, Unite!; Fifth Congress of the BKP; Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, and so on.
The memorial house was inaugurated personally by Todor Zhivkov on 23 August 1981, just a couple of months after the death of his daughter, Lyudmila Zhivkova, whom he had made minister of culture. In the following years the house-monument would be maintained, at significant costs, but would rarely see the mass gatherings its founding fathers had envisaged.
The collapse of the regime in 1989 turned Buzludzha into an anachronism. It became the target for anyone who wanted to express their negative sentiments for the regime or, pressed by the economic crisis and destitution, was in search for any scrap material. As Todor Zhivkov was pulled down from his position as the supreme party and state leader, the party leadership decided to scrape his face off the mosaics.
Young Bulgarians strive towards bright Communist future, a mosaic from the Buzludzha monument
In 1992 the building was nationalised along all other BKP property, and consequently started to fall apart. The aluminium window frames were lifted for scrap metal, the window panes were broken, the furniture got carried away. Some people used shotguns to shatter the red stars in the hope some rubies would fall down. However, it emerged that the stars had actually been made of red glass. In the course of just a few years the building, which had been supposed to epitomise the triumph of Communism in Bulgaria, turned into a ghostly ruin.
Interestingly, the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, the heir to the erstwhile Communists, continued to organise its annual rallies in front of the monument. It continues to do so to this day.
Yet, except in August, when the BSP is active, the building stands empty but for the Alaskans, the Austrians and the Australians.
At present, the Buzludzha monument is in very bad shape. No maintenance and active plundering for so many years have left it in danger of collapsing. The Stara Zagora local government, which is in charge of it, has recently installed a uniformed policeman to keep watch on anyone who tries to get in. Whether that man is doing any meaningful job is dubious as eager visitors always find a way to eschew the entry ban.
Through the years there have been various ideas to reopen the Buzludzha memorial. Those have ranged from reconstructing it into a hotel (perhaps similar to the new establishments in Albania that have converted Cold War-era concrete bunkers into hotel rooms) to a museum of Communism. None of those have been followed up on, and have consequently been consigned to the dustbin of history.
In late 2018, however, a major international foundation showed interest. Europa Nostra, whose honorary president is Placido Domingo, the star tenor, proposed to have the monument revamped at an estimated cost of 7.5 million euros. The Europe Nostra report billed Buzludzha a "unique feat of engineering," and a "masterpiece of architecture and art, obviously of pan-European stature, owing to its history, remarkable characteristics and many options for future utilisation." The project's main aim is to preserve the monument "as is," making it safe for visitors, rather than reconstructing and rebuilding what has irretrievably been lost to the elements. Significantly, the project insists proper care has to be taken not to "politicise" the new-old monument and to prevent it from becoming yet another emblem of the failed ideology that erected it in the first place.
However, not to politicise a thing like Buzludzha in a country where everything, from the construction of new air trams in the mountains to the quality of the pavements in Central Sofia is nothing but politics, is a bit out of step with current realities. The vitriolic domestic debates that ensued only illustrated the inability of the majority of Bulgarians to see history for what it is - and try to make the best rather than the worst out of it.
Perhaps surprisingly, some of the democracy and free enterprise proponents in Bulgaria, including a rightwing political party, emerged as the most vocal critics. According to them, Buzludzha was a symbol of a dictatorship that ruled ruthlessly for 45 years. It should not be made an attraction for "dubious" tourist interests.
Ironically, the people who say they have embraced free enterprise and democracy may derail a project essentially designed to turn a dark and ominous symbol of Communism into a… free enterprise venture that can make money. Ideology rather than sound economic sense may again prevail.