MONUMENTAL WOES

text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Why Sofia's Red Army monument will likely remain standing for long time to come

soviet army monument sofia ukraine

One of the attractions of the Bulgarian capital, the 1950s monument to the Red Army, may fascinate visitors wanting to take in a remnant of the Cold War, but many locals consider it contentious. Recently Traycho Traykov, who was an economy minister for Boyko Borisov and is now mayor of the Sofia borough of Sredets, voiced his determination to have the monument "disassembled" and some of its many effigies of Russian soldiers and welcoming Bulgarians placed in a museum. Traykov was elected mayor on the ticket of the Democratic Bulgaria alliance, or DB, a small political grouping that casts itself as the mouthpiece of this country's rightwing intellectuals. Though it was associated with Boyko Borisov in various capacities through the years it is currently his chief foe.

A few years ago another Democratic Bulgaria activist, Konstantin "Komitata" Pavlov, now mayor of the Lozenets borough of Sofia, caused a similar media stir by demanding the removal of another Stalinist monument, the much smaller and therefore less conspicuous Red Army sculptural composition at Cherni Vrah Boulevard. Apparently, nothing happened in that case either.

soviet army monument sofia

The graffito reads: "The politicians are trash. The state is lying."

Whenever the issue of Red Army monuments in Bulgaria flares up, which it does periodically and is usually fanned by DB activists, two questions spring to mind. Firstly, what are these monuments glorifying the Red Army and praising the millions of "thankful" Bulgarians doing in Sofia, Burgas, Plovdiv, Varna, Ruse, Sliven, Shumen and elsewhere at all? And secondly, why have various Bulgarian administrations of all possible shades and hues have failed, in the course of 30 years, to consign them where they rightly belong, to the dustbin of history?

In contrast to other countries in Central and Eastern Europe that consider the events during and immediately after the Second World War as belonging to the history textbooks, in Bulgaria they are right at the core of current politics. Did the Red Army's entry into the Kingdom of Bulgaria on 8 September 1944 "liberate" or "occupy" is a question that is being solved on TV screens and at restaurant tables rather than in highschools and universities.

What are the facts? Though Bulgaria was an ally to Nazi Germany in 1941-1944, it never declared war on the USSR, withstanding German pressure. During the whole of the Second World War and up until 5 September 1944 Bulgaria and the USSR were neutral to each other. However, this did not stop Soviet submarines and aircraft from targeting sites in Bulgaria.

soviet army monument sofia

A Bulgarian man carries a Soviet flag and a portrait of Stalin

The Red Army entered on 8 September. It met no resistance and no Soviet soldier was killed in action. The Third Ukrainian Front set up base in this country and used it for its impeding thrust westwards. Shortly thereafter, the Bulgarian army joined it.

The only Red Army victims in Bulgaria were pilots who were killed while on missions over Bulgaria prior to 9 September 1944. The other Soviet soldiers who died here were victims of the wounds they got in previous battles or of a variety of incidents ranging from car crashes to methylene alcohol poisoning.

The monuments to Soviet soldiers erected under Communism, however, depict a different picture. They represent the Soviet Army as the liberator of the Bulgarian people from "fascist yoke." Constructing them started shortly after 1944. Most bigger Bulgarian cities have their own Red Army monument. Some individual soldiers who died in Bulgaria were also honoured with monuments.

Red Army monument in Plovdiv

Red Army monument in Plovdiv

The biggest and – because it is in Central Sofia – most prominent Red Army monument is a typical example of the "classic" Stalinist style. The initial idea was to build a memorial to the victims of the Second World War on the site. But on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Socialist Revolution in Bulgaria, Valko Chervenkov, the head of both state and the Communist Party and an eminent supporter of Stalin, decided to do something a bit more grandiose. On 9 September 1954 the park between Eagles' Bridge and Sofia University saw the inauguration of a memorial compound to the victorious Red Army. This monument with its unambiguous symbolism took up 2,000 sq m, or 21,500 sq ft, of the park. The 37 m, or 122 ft, high composition embodies the Communist idea of freedom: a triumphant Soviet soldier raising his submachine gun, a peasant woman with a child, and a worker. The bronze bas-reliefs under the central figures depict the "Great October Socialist Revolution," the "Great Patriotic War" and the subsequent "backup" of the Soviet Army: a bomb thrower, a machine gunner and a female member of the Komsomol. As there were no battles in Bulgarian territory, the 10 stone blocks with bronze wreaths were supposed to symbolise the 10 strikes made by the Red Army on Berlin.

Red Army monument in Varna

Red Army monument in Varna

Significantly, the main purpose of the Sofia monument was not to honour the Soviets who had died in the Second World War, nor to immortalise the "thankful" Bulgarians. It went far above and beyond that. It was meant to show to the people of Sofia who was firmly in control – and would remain so for generations to come.

Under Communism the Red Army monument, as well as all other similar structures throughout Bulgaria, was used for carefully orchestrated rallies, speech making and wreath laying. As soon as Communism collapsed the monument fell into disrepair.

In 1993, the Sofia City Council approved a memorandum to have the monument, which it said glorified an occupying army, removed. Russia's embassy in Sofia protested and the plan was halted by order of the foreign minister. The brass inscription reading "To the Soviet Army liberator from the grateful Bulgarian people," which was stolen for scrap metal in the 1990s, was restored in 2001.

Red Army monument in Varna

Red Army monument in Burgas

The monument, now called mockingly either PSA (Monument to the Soviet Army) or MOCHA (Monument to the Liberating Red Army), is being well maintained with public funds. On 9 May it becomes the meeting place of Russian residents in Bulgaria and local "Russophiles" chanting slogans and waving placards depicting anything from Russians who died in the Second World War to Stalin and Putin themselves. The event is endorsed by the Sofia City Council and is usually attended by the Russian ambassador.

On a few occasion the Red Army Monument has been defaced. Once an anonymous graffiti group painted the main figures in the monument as a Santa Claus, a Ronald McDonald, a Superman and so on. When Russia invaded Crimea the monument was painted in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. The MOCHA became a heavily protected site when Putin started the current war in Ukraine. A number of Bulgarian police cars surrounded it in anticipation of yet another round of graffiti painting. Three underage teenagers were arrested. Two of them were kept at a police station overnight with no access to either lawyers or parents.

Red Army monument in Shumen

Red Army monument in Shumen

Why have the Sofia City Council authorities failed to implement their own decision for 30 years?

Whenever that question is posed there usually ensues an avalanche of bureaucratic explanations ranging from unclear land ownership to concerns the Russian Embassy may be "irritated." The real reason, as it often happens in the warped reality of Balkan politics, is elsewhere. It is that no one, least of all the likes of Traycho Traykov and Konstantin "Komitata" Pavlov, want it removed.

Traykov and Komitata are not alone. In the past, various other functionaries have voiced similar demands, usually in an identical pattern. First some activist posts on social media his determination to have the MOCHA ditched. Some media associated with or sympathetic to the DB pick up the story and spin it into headline news. Anger is generated: why has the MOCHA not been scrapped already?? Vigilant citizens sign an online petition to have the monument removed. Officials start producing various explanations why the monument cannot be gotten rid of. The story dies down in about two days. Everyone is happy. Some public energy has been let through, Traykov and Pavlov were in the news for a while and their supporters felt reassured. Until next time.

Red Army monument in Sliven

Red Army monument in Sliven

Through the years, the fate of the Sofia Red Army Monument has become a staple of the identity of political parties such as the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the former Communists, and – ironically – the DB, their arch-enemies. The BSP will not have it touched because it is a major emblem for them. If the DB, currently in government, does remove it will plainly be shooting itself in the leg as it will rid itself of one of the main reasons for its existence.

In Bulgaria symbolism – especially symbolism associated with the recent past – is more important than common sense policies or get-things-done approaches. The overwhelming majority of Bulgarians obviously do not care as they are much more preoccupied with their utility bills and the reported sunflower oil shortages. Because politicians are unwilling or unable to do much about either, they would rather vent the public ire at a pile of stones now called PSA.

Red Army monument in Ruse

Significantly, the issue of the Red Army monument has much deeper implications than the supposed "anger" of the Russian Embassy and the act of "defacing" public property. Perhaps the ambiguous attitude to such remnants of the Communist past can at least partially explain the great deal of nostalgia Bulgarians feel for Communism or why so many Bulgarians continue to view Russia and the Red Army as "liberators." 

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