GOING, GOING...

by Stamen Manolov; photo illustration by Rick Hibberd

At stake is... a pile of stones crowned with some metal sculptures officially known as the Soviet Army Monument

soviet army monument.jpg

The cops by far outnumber the construction workers wielding chop saws inside a ladder hoist. There have been no press releases, nor the obligatory information signs to tell the public what's going on. The area has been cordoned off. No media are allowed behind the metal fences.

Ahead of Christmas, the park in front of Sofia University, once known as Freedom Park but now bearing its restored name of Prince's Garden, looks like a melee zone.

A few hundred feet away, the Bulgarian National Assembly has ceased to function as various lawmakers quarrel, sometimes violently, what to do.

At stake is... a pile of stones crowned with some metal sculptures officially known as the Soviet Army Monument, but mockingly referred to as MOCHA. To understand why Bulgarians are so deeply split about the fate of this Stalin-era sculptural monstrosity one needs to consider the background.

The Soviet Army Monument was erected in the 1950s for two reasons: to show then Communist Bulgaria's "eternal gratitude" to the Soviets, who "liberated" the erstwhile Kingdom of Bulgaria from its pro-Nazi war-time government, and to thrust down the throat of the general public – in case anyone had any doubts – who was firmly in control. Unlike similar monuments in Berlin, Vienna, Bratislava and elsewhere, the ones in Bulgaria (though the Sofia MOCHA is the most prominent, there are Red Army monuments in Plovdiv, Vаrna, Burgas, Ruse, Sliven and so on), there were never any battles in Bulgaria. The MOCHA is not an ossuary or a war cemetery. Though it was a Nazi ally, Bulgaria never declared war on the USSR. The Soviets did, on 5 September 1944, and marched into this country unopposed. What Soviet soldier perished in Bulgarian territory died in either traffic accidents or unrelated events such as methylene alcohol poisoning.

During Communism, which was supposed to have ended in 1989, the Soviet Army monument was an obligatory stop in the Communist-organised public rallies then called "manifestations." Teenagers were taken their by schoolmasters "to pay respects." Newly-weds were supposed to lay flowers at the feet of the "liberating" Soviets.

With Communism gone, the MOCHA fell into disrepair. In the 1990s the Sofia City Council decided to dismantle it, but in the following 20 years failed to fulfil its own decision. The reasons were as many and as varied as things can get in Bulgaria. Some asserted the Russian Federation, the heir to the Soviet Union, would be infuriated. The more cunning politicians understood that the Soviet Army monument had turned into a very convenient voodoo doll where people of all political inclinations, both rightwingers and Communist-era melancholics, could go and vent their frustrations without causing any significant harm to the political status quo.

With Putin's invasion of Ukraine the issue of the Soviet Army monument in Sofia assumed completely new dimensions. Opponents of Putin, including the ruling rightwing "non-coalition" of Changes Continued, Democratic Bulgaria and Yes Bulgaria, slammed the MOCHA as a symbol of Russia's aggression. Some political parties, including the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, and Kostadin "Kostya Kopeykin" Kostadinov's Revival were quick to respond any alteration of the existing monument would be nothing short of a "restoration" of Nazism. Predictably, the two groups are at their throats.

The official theory circulating in the media is that the MOCHA is being disassembled for "restoration" works as it had become unsafe.

No one has an idea what to do with the plot of land if the thing disappears completely. And everyone fears the "restoration works" may be just another tongue-in-cheek term for the ultimate destruction of the Sofia Soviet Army monument.

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