OF SHPAGINS, TANKS AND ALYOSHAS

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria remains only former East bloc country to maintain monuments to Red Army

sofia red army monument

Unlike other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which removed, stashed away or demolished most remnants of their Communist past as early as the 1990s, Bulgaria is a curiosity. It continues to maintain at least a dozen monuments to the Red Army. Some are gargantuan and placed in various top locations in bigger cities, some are small and unobtrusive. Urbexers and lovers of quaint and bizarre trivia will be bemused to discover that none of these remnants of the Communist past in actual fact commemorate any... real-life story.

Why, then, were they erected? First, some history.

Though Bulgaria was an ally to Nazi Germany in 1941-1944, it never declared war on the USSR. 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.

Monument to four dead Soviet pilots near the village of Kondofrey, near Radomir

The Red Army entered on 8 September 1944. 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 thrust westwards.

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 either 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 very different picture. They represent the Soviet Army as the liberator of the Bulgarian people from "fascist yoke." Massive and heroic, they usually hold a Shpagin machine gun. Constructing them started shortly after 1944. As many as seven bigger Bulgarian cities have their own Red Army monument. Real or imaginary individual soldiers, who died in Bulgaria, were also honoured with monuments.

Red Army monument in Sofia, detail

These monuments represent the Red Army as a liberator, but especially in recent years they have created many controversies. Some Bulgarians perceive them as an expression of the Bulgarian gratitude for the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany. However, others claim they depict invaders who brought a dark regime to Bulgaria by force.

While the events during and immediately after the Second World War are seen by other former Warsaw Pact states 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 high schools and universities.

Here is an overview of the better known Red Army monuments in today's Bulgaria. So, hurry to see some good old Communist-era art before it gets consigned to the dustbin of history as it was in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and elsewhere.

Soviet Army monument, Sofia

When the 45-metre monument of a Soviet soldier, a Bulgarian fighter and mother with a child appeared in central Sofia, in 1954, it served two purposes. According to the regime's propaganda, it was the Bulgarians' larger-than-life "thank you" message for the role the Soviet Army played, 10 years earlier, in the coup that made Bulgaria a Communist country. The monument's second purpose was even more significant: to serve as a visual reminder of the USSR’s eternal presence in all spheres of Bulgarian life – from sports to education and from the military to the economy. It was meant to thrust down the throats of millions of passers-by who was, and would, remain firmly in control – for good.

After the regime's collapse, in 1989, the Soviet Army monument became the focal point of scandals, political actions and controversies. In short, Bulgaria's new-fledged democrats wanted the monument to be demolished as soon as possible, as it promoted a "wrong" version of history. The Soviet Army did not liberate Bulgaria in 1944, they claimed. Instead, it turned the country into a Soviet satellite. Moreover, not a single Red Army soldier was killed in action in Bulgaria. Keeping a monument to the Soviet Army in central Sofia was an offence to the Bulgarians and their independence.

On the other hand are the leftists, tacitly supported by Russia's embassy. They believe that the Bulgarians should be thankful "in general" to the Soviet Army for its fight against Nazism.

The debate, which often turns acrimonious, remains alive to this day.

The question of whether the Soviet Army monument should be destroyed is at the core of the agendas of some latterday political parties. Activists for the rightwing PP-DB, or Changes Continued-democratic Bulgaria, insist it should. The leftist BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, and especially Vazrazhdane, or Revival, counter it shouldn't.

In late 2023, things changed. The main sculpture group from was cut into pieces and removed, supposedly for "restoration." The Sofia City Council failed to provide a proper press release, so new rumours picked up momentum. According to some, the Red Army monument will be refurbished and reinstalled. According to others, it is unlikely it will ever me reassembled the way it was, and the area in one of the capital's most beloved parks will remain in a state of limbo for many years to come.

Red Army 'Ossuary,' Lozenets, Sofia

This statue of two Soviet soldiers was placed by Cherni Vrah Boulevard, in Lozenets, in the 1950s and for most of the time no one paid it any special attention – until the 2020s. Then, the neighbourhood's mayor decided that it should be moved to the Museum of Socialist Art. The Russian Embassy protested, claiming any changes would constitute defacement of a tomb. The clash that followed revealed that there was no evidence about what the monument commemorated, whether there were any human remains interred beneath, and who should be responsible for the whole compound.

Plovdiv

In Bulgaria, the monuments to the Red Army that represent a single soldier are traditionally called Alyosha. The one in Plovdiv is the most famous. The monument was unveiled in 1957. The 10.5-metre-high granite statue looking symbolically eastward, to the USSR, was modelled after a real Soviet soldier, Alexey Skurlatov.

In the 1990s the late Christo, the US artist of Bulgarian origin famous for packing up the Reichstag in Berlin and Central Park in New York City, had plans to "pack up" the Alyosha. The Plovdiv City Council dawdled, and Christo and his team gave up. In 2013, during a political happening, the monument was wrapped up in a red shroud and a black kerchief was put on the soldier's face.

The hill, whence the Alyosha looks down from, is a popular spot for locals from young couples to dog walkers to followers of the mystic teachings of Peter Deunov dancing their paneurhythmy dances at sunrise.

Burgas

The 18-metre-high Red Army monument that defines central Burgas was built in 1952-1953. It consists of a tall pillar with a Soviet soldier on top, and a lower part with reliefs depicting how locals greeted the Soviet Army in September 1944.

The narrative the monument tells has nothing to do with actual fact. No Russian soldier ever died in Burgas, not in action. At least a dozen Russians did die, in 1944, when they got poisoned with methylene alcohol which they drank from an industrial tank.

Shumen

Shumen, in Bulgaria's northeast, is famed for its grand-scale monument Founders of the Bulgarian State. Inaugurated in 1981 for the 1,300th anniversary of Bulgaria's foundation, it depicts the major pagan and Christian rulers of the country in the first three centuries of its existence, when its capitals were in nearby Pliska and Preslav.

The Soviet Army monument, erected downthrown in 1948, is a lot less imposing. Shumen was one of the first major Bulgarian towns where the Red Army entered on 8 September 1944. Not far from the Soviet monument is another monument celebrating Bulgaria's accession to NATO, in 2004.

Ruse

The monument to the Soviet Army in Ruse was erected in 1947. It is pretty standard for Bulgaria – a figure of a Soviet soldier is centre-stage, and at the pedestal there reliefs depicting battles and happy Bulgarians greeting the Russians.

Varna

The Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship monument is the largest you can get in Varna. It is located on top of a hill where, until 1958, the fraternal mound of "fighters against fascism and capitalism" had been situated (it was later moved into the Maritime Garden). The monument was built by 27,000 volunteers and inaugurated in 1978.

The monument was symbolically shaped as a radar pointed at the Black Sea and the Soviet Union. It was 23 metres tall and 48 metres wide. It included statues of stern Soviet soldiers and loving Bulgarian women welcoming them. A bomb shelter was built at its base.

After 1989 the monument was abandoned. The "eternal fire" went out, and hardly anything is left of the "Friendship From Centuries and for Centuries" inscription. The monument has been vandalised and is sometimes used as the location for political actions.

The Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship monument continues to be symbolically charged. At present, the highest flag poles in Europe, 52.5 metres each, were installed near it. The flags of Bulgaria and the EU are raised there.

Silistra

The Red Army started its invasion of the Kingdom of Bulgaria on 8 September 1944, at Silistra on the River Danube. In 1969, for the 25th anniversary of the event, a monument showing attacking soldiers was installed in the town's pleasant riverside garden. Twenty years latter, the monument got a peculiar addition – a T-34 Soviet tank, the actual vehicle that was the first to enter Bulgarian territory.

Tutrakan

In the middle of Tutrakan, an inconspicuous town on River Danube, there stands an elevated military boat. It was erected in 1984 to commemorate "the eternal and invincible friendship between the fraternal Russian and the Bulgarian people, and stands as a new symbol of that friendship."

Here is the historical event that inspired the monument.

On 4 September 1944 a Soviet military boat alighted at the Bulgarian shore of the Danube, at Tutrakan. Its captain requested the Bulgarian port authority to provide food for his men who were on the Romanian side of the river. They complied.

The Soviet Union declared war on the Kingdom of Bulgaria on the following day.

The boat that was installed to commemorate this case of "cooperation" was not Soviet but belonged to the Bulgarian Navy.

Kula

Opposite the impressive remains of a Late Roman fort, the sculpture of a heroic woman marks a fraternal mound for dead Red Army soldiers in Kula, in Bulgaria's northwest. Thirty-five names were written on the commemorative plaque. In 1944, the German Nazi forces retreating from Greece set up a front, in Zaychar and Negotin, today in Serbia, against the advancing Red Army. On 14-15 September fighting broke out. The dead were subsequently buried in Vidin, Kula and Bregovo.

Pleven

Pleven is the only city in Bulgaria to have entirely knocked down its Red Army monument, in the early 1990s. Pleven's Alyosha used to stand right in front of the railway station. Whatever remains of it is now stashed away in the backyard of the local history museum, a former barracks

Sliven

The monument to the Red Army in Sliven also contains an ossuary to 66 Soviet soldiers who died in September 1944-April 1947, according to the inscription. The monument was inaugurated in 1949 on a hill near the town and is 12 metres high. Until 1947, Sliven was the headquarters of the Soviet occupying forces in Bulgaria

  • 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

WAR & PEACE IN CENTRAL SOFIA
Squirrels and small children frequent unkempt alleys under towering oak and beech trees; а romantic wooden gazebo is often decorated with balloons forgotten after some openair birthday party; melancholic weeping willows hang over an empty artif

SOFIA'S BEST-KEPT SECRET
In 1965, Dimitar Kovachev, a biology teacher from the town of Asenovgrad, was on a field trip to Ezerovo village.

WHAT IS DZHULAYA?
How often do you hum, while driving or doing chores, Uriah Heep's song July Morning? Is it on your Spotify?

MYSTERY CAVE
Bulgaria has its fair share of intriguing caves, from the Devil's Throat underground waterfall to Prohodna's eyes-like openings and the Magura's prehistoric rock art.

RHODOPE'S MANMADE LAKES
Owing to its geological history, the Rhodope mountain range – in contrast to the nearby Rila and Pirin – lacks any impressive Alpine-style lakes. However, where nature erred, man stepped in.

IS RACISM IN BULGARIA ON THE RISE?
"We are fascists, we burn Arabs": the youngsters start chanting as soon as they emerge from the metro station and leave the perimeter of its security cameras.

HOW WOODROW WILSON AND CHARLES DARWIN CAME TO SOFIA
The names of foreigners, mainly Russians, are common across the map of Sofia – from Alexandr Dondukov and Count Ignatieff to Alexey Tolstoy (a Communist-era Soviet writer not to be confused with Leo Tolstoy) who has a whole housing estate named after him.

EMBRACE THE PAST
Picturesque old houses lining a narrow river and tiny shops selling hand-made sweets, knives and fabrics: The Etara open air museum recreates a charming, idealised version of mid-19th century Bulgaria.

JESUS CHRIST ASTRONAUT
Christ was an alien. Or if He was not, then four centuries ago there were UFOs hovering over what is now southwestern Bulgaria.

VARVARA'S IRON TREE
Agroup of friends meet each summer at the seaside, a small community who know one another so well that boredom becomes inevitable, and so do internal conflicts. And death.

TAILLESS CATS AND MADMEN MAKING POLITICAL DEMANDS
Descendants of millennia-old rites, the scary kukeri, or mummers, are the best known face of Bulgarian carnival tradition. Gabrovo's carnival is its modern face: fun, critical, and colourful.

LET'S PICK SOME ROSES
Both high-end perfumes and more run-of-the-mill cosmetics would be impossible without a humble plant that thrives in a couple of pockets around the world, the oil-bearing rose. Bulgaria is one of these places.