FALLEN MESSERSCHMITT

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Monument to Bulgaria's past gets transformed for future

1300 years of bulgaria monument 2.jpg

There is hardly a visitor to Sofia who has not crossed the vast square in front of the National Palace of Culture, or NDK, and not gasped at the sight of this strange structure that looks as if coming straight out of an urban nightmare piece of sci-fi.

Rising 35 metres from the ground, the tall thing curls somehow at an angle in the air, ending up looking somewhat like a wing. Ghostly human-like figures crawl and pose on its granite surface, where holes gape, revealing the rusting skeleton of steel. Huge metal characters form slogans, their meaning unintelligible, as most of the letters are missing. The base is off-limits, protected by a metal fence covered with colourful graffiti left over from some national street art contest. Sometimes, huge advertisements for mobile phones hang from its top.



This is actually a monument, and its official name is "1,300 Years of Bulgaria." It appeared on the square in 1981 as a grandiose addition to the opening of the newly-built NDK. The original idea was allegedly imposed on the sculptor Valentin Starchev by Lyudmila Zhivkova, then minister of culture and daughter of the Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. The monument, according to Zhivkova's Socialist New Age beliefs, should represent the "eternal spiral of creativity, spirit and development." 



Following these instructions, the artist created an angular spiral with figures representing the crucial stages in the evolution of the Bulgarian "spirit." At the base, the image of King Simeon's Golden Age of the 9th Century symbolises the nation's great potential for creating culture. The so-called Pieta figure embodies the periods of stagnation and struggle for survival. The bright future, however, is always present in the huge worker's statue at the top of the monument. Starchev called it "The Creator."



The structure's symbolism was enhanced with slogans by Bulgaria's most famous 19th Century revolutionaries. There is Levski's "Time is within us and we are within time," and Botev's "He who falls fighting for freedom never dies." There is also "Walk on, revived people...", taken from a late 19th Century song dedicated to Cyril and Methodius, creators of the Bulgarian alphabet.

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. Despite all their efforts, 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 it with plywood camouflaged to look like stone.

This was the first of many setbacks experienced by "1,300 Years of Bulgaria" in the 30 years of its existence. Within days more followed.

The public was not taken with its appearance – or with the expense involved – and within a fortnight had coined a handful of imaginative nicknames. Most of them are four-lettered words – a pity, indeed, we can't publish then as at least two of them manage to combine numbers, geometry and a particular part of the male anatomy. Probably the only one that we can put on the page is "The Fallen Messerschmitt," a reference to the exceptionally ugly Second World War German warplanes. The nicknames have stuck, and most people passing by the monument know it as the "Five-Angled Seven-****," or the "Five-Angled" for short, or the Messerschmitt, rather than as "1,300 Years of Bulgaria."

1,300 Years of Bulgaria Monument

It was not only public opinion that was against the monument. Gravity was, too. The tight deadlines led to shortcuts in the original construction, and sloppy building practices. As a result, the "1,300 Years of Bulgaria" monument started to disintegrate less than a year after it was finished. No one bothered to patch up the structure.

By 1989 it had already deteriorated badly. Overwhelmed with economic difficulties, people stopped paying any attention to it. Its subterranean level, once mockingly nicknamed "The Catacombs of NDK," turned into a rubbish dump, the haunt of the homeless and a meeting point for drug addicts. The granite slabs continued falling off, and many of the metal parts were stolen and sold for scrap.

In the early 2000s the site was so dangerous that a fence was erected to stop people entering the Catacombs. This fence was soon turned into a graffiti canvas and the debate about what to do with the structure waxed and waned. Some proposed that it be torn down on the grounds that it was both ugly and dangerous. Others suggested a complete restoration or adapting the remains into a new structure, such as a water cascade or a climbing wall. Valentin Starchev defended his creation, giving rise to rumours that he still had copyright over it and that it could not be demolished without his consent.

Meanwhile, the monument became the metaphorical playground for a variety of of eccentrics. One Feng Sui specialist, for example, blamed the bad karma of Bulgaria on the insensitively designed and located Messerschmitt. Scores of youngsters attempted to break through the fence (easy enough) and to climb up the monstrosity (difficult and dangerous). Some of these daredevils got stuck half-way up, necessitating the intervention of the fire brigade to get them down.

Others, including the three children who climbed the Messerschmitt this summer, succeeded. Their feat was filmed and broadcast on the Internet, causing an outcry. This expedition probably sealed the fate of the monument as, days after the successful ascent, Sofia City Council decided to remove the steel structure and granite slabs of the upper part of the monument by the end of the summer.

At the beginning of August the removal of the most dangerous parts of the monument started, resulting in about 1,000 tons of scrap metal. Architect Starchev admitted to the media that the "1,300 Years of Bulgaria" with its 1980s looks was not now "up to the times" and accepted the council's idea of re-imagining it once more. This coincided with the frantic work to finish the construction of a new underground station, just meters away from the Messerschmitt. Public discussions about the monument's future are planned to start anew.

However, there are objections. On the very day that the first bits of the monument were removed, the Bulgarian Artists Union issued a declaration. Its members objected to the dismantling because it "would be a crude breach of all the principles of any democratic society, where all important decisions should be taken by the competent authorities." The union also objected to any public input into the future fate of the monument, noting that "the decisions for the design of monuments are taken by qualified persons and conform to the highest moral and aesthetic principles, which are brought about by people of the highest erudition and the highest understanding of the culture of the visual arts." The union is also openly against any changes to the Fallen Messerschmitt monument, stating that it was ahead of its time and still bears its erstwhile "epic aura." The missing parts revealing the construction just give it a modernist twist.

America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

WHO WAS LYUDMILA ZHIVKOVA?
Her father's daughter who imposed her own mediocrity on Bulgaria's culture? Or a forbearing politician who revived interest in Bulgaria's past and placed the country on the world map? Or a quirky mystic? Or a benefactor to the arts?

CATHOLIC BULGARIA
In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to Bulgarian King Kaloyan to offer an union.

RHODOPE IN FULL BLOSSOM
The Rhodope mountains have an aura of an enchanted place no matter whether you visit in summer, autumn or winter. But in springtime there is something in the Bulgarian south that makes you feel more relaxed, almost above the ground.

BIZARRE BULGARIA
There are many ways to categorise and promote Bulgaria's heritage: traditional towns and villages, Thracian rock sanctuaries, nature, sun and fun on the seaside, and so on and so forth.

KARLOVO
Karlovo is one of those places where size does not equal importance.

SILENCE OF SHARDS
Pavlikeni, a town in north-central Bulgaria, is hardly famous for its attractions, and yet this small, quiet place is the home of one of the most interesting ancient Roman sites in Bulgaria: a villa rustica, or a rural villa, with an incredibly well-preserv

BULGARIAN EASTER
How to celebrate like locals without getting lost in complex traditions

BULGARIA'S TOP 10 SMALL TOWNS
Small-town Bulgaria is a diverse place. Some of the towns are well known to tourists while others are largely neglected by outsiders.

BORDER ZONE VILLAGE
Of the many villages in Bulgaria that can be labeled "a hidden treasure," few can compete with Matochina. Its old houses are scattered on the rolling hills of Bulgaria's southeast, overlooked by a mediaeval fortress.

WHO WAS GEO MILEV?
Poet who lost an eye in the Great War, changed Bulgarian literature - and was assassinated for his beliefs

SEEING DEVIL IN DEVIL'S BRIDGE
In previous times, when information signs of who had built what were yet to appear on buildings of interest, people liberally filled the gaps with their imagination.

URBEX BG, PART 2
If anything defines the modern Bulgarian landscape, it is the abundance of recent ruins left from the time when Communism collapsed and the free market filled the void left by planned economy.