Photographer takes in heritage of Black Sea city, and finds... freedom
Despite some researchers' claims that Bulgaria's largest city on the southern Black Sea coast is ancient (related in some way to... Troy), most would agree that Burgas is quite new.
The first poverty-driven settlers came here at the end of the 19th century, only to find themselves in a swampy, malaria-infested area fit for little save fishing. Burgas began as a maze of squalid streets, randomly built harbour warehouses and tumbledown buildings. It took 13 years to approve the first town plan with its 289 small neighbourhoods and seven parks.
Burgas did develop, however – faster than most other Bulgarian cities, including the then new capital Sofia.
This happened largely thanks to the determination and zeal of its vibrant and at times extremely multicultural community. Bulgarians, Turks, Greeks, Russians, Armenians, Jews, Wallachians and many others used to live side by side in a truly cosmopolitan city. They were driven by capitalism, industrialisation and their desire to make money – a little Brooklyn unseen anywhere in the Balkans at the time except Salonika.
Looking at The City of Burgas Jubilee Book 1878-1928, it emerges that the city was top notch at the time. Its harbour was large, and its traffic accounted for a third of the Bulgarian Kingdom's foreign trade. At least a dozen dailies were published in Burgas, and there were Belgian, British, Dutch, Finnish, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Romanian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish consulates.
A court report from the 1920s provides evidence of the port city's cosmopolitanism. "In a case brought before the Burgas District Court, the accused, a Russian, was represented by Bulgarian, Armenian, and Greek solicitors. The plaintiff was Russian, and the prosecutor was Czech, a Mr Mracek. The Bulgarian pleaded in his tongue, the Armenian used Turkish, and the Greek spoke in Greek. The wronged Russian gentleman spoke in Russian, while the prosecutor, who spoke none of these languages at the beginning of his appointment, elected to plead in French. Fluent in all five tongues concerned, Judge Petar Uvaliev responded to each party in the tongue of their choice.”
The outcome of this case has been lost in the mists of time, yet it illustrates that Burgas was probably Bulgaria's most dynamic city at the time. A great many of its citizens were fluent in French due to the forceful marketing of the Pension Française, and the city displayed all signs of having adopted Mediterranean culture as its own. The surrounding lakes echoed to the growth of industry such as the Italian South would not see for at least five more decades, and commerce boomed.
When the Communists came to power on 9 September 1944, Burgas was a flourishing European town. That is when things rapidly took another turn. Seized by an envy born of deprivation, the new rulers set about with megalomaniacal fanaticism, turning Burgas into a "showpiece Socialist community." Translated into everyday language, this meant declaring war on heritage, ringing the city with a forest of multi-storey pre-fab projects, and developing heavy industry that spread environmental malaise around the entire bay.
Multiculturalism slowly came to an end. Most of the Jews emigrated to Israel, most of the Turks went to Turkey, most of the Greeks had already resettled in Greece.
The madness reached its peak in the 1970s and 1980s, when a Communist mayor destroyed the historic Town Hall with... an army tank. Fearing intervention from the National Institute of Cultural Monuments in Sofia, he ordered the tank to demolish the magnificent fin-de-siècle edifice under cover of darkness... A similar fate befell Burgas' covered wholesale market, and a large part of the city centre gave way to a high-rise hotel. Several streets around the Maritime Gardens were also destroyed to make room for a thoroughfare.
What little remains of Burgas's erstwhile heritage and atmosphere has been the subject of a local photographer, Galina Usheva. Usheva has roamed meticulously the streets of Burgas, using her camera to document and breathe new life into the ghosts of old Italianate buildings, many of which have been left in various stages of dilapidation. There are many and diverse reasons for this. One of them is neglect, ignorance and sheer stupidity. Another is the many heirs to the erstwhile owners never being able to agree what to do with the property of their ancestors. Yet another involves the old trick to wait until a listed building collapses and then erect a flashy multi-storey estate on the plot...
Galina Usheva, who is first and foremost an artist rather than an urban planning critic, takes no stand regarding the reasons. Instead, she is fascinated by the charm of the times gone by, amplified by the disarray of construction packaging – some of which in a state of dilapidation comparable to that of the buildings it is supposed to conceal. By exploring the interplays of light, the bizarre shapes and the gentle chiaroscuri, Usheva asserts, she has found her own freedom as an artist.
The Finding Freedom exhibition by Galina Usheva was originally on display in her native Burgas. However, it holds meanings that are relevant to the whole of post-Communist Bulgaria's urban heritage.