Have Bulgarians found new meanings for their Communist-era monuments?
Sofia, with its numerous parks, is not short of monuments and statues referring to the country's rich history. In the Borisova Garden park for example, busts of freedom fighters, politicians and artists practically line up the alleys. On some of those, like the 19th century revolutionaries and national heroes Vasil Levski and Hristo Botev, people still lay flowers.
Towards the back of the park stands a tall obelisk. The so-called Brotherly Mound dates from 1956, when Borisova Garden was called Freedom Park. The monument is a tribute to the Bulgarian partizani, or guerilla fighters, who between 1941 and 1944 fought against the Nazi-allied Bulgarian government. Seventeen prominent partizani killed in this period were buried there. Each September, the mound also gets covered in flowers, as Bulgarian Communists and Socialists celebrate the anniversary of the 1944 coup that installed a Communist government in Bulgaria.
Whereas in Western Europe, the Americas and Africa, movements like Black Lives Matter, Cecil Rhodes Must Fall and generally wokeism are stirring heated debates on whether or not to remove colonial monuments and statues, it seems that Eastern Europe has already dealt with its contested monuments and statues.
In 1990, at the outset of the Promyanata, or The Changes, Bulgarians toppled statues of Communist leaders and smashed Communist signs like the hammer and the sickle that were prominently displayed at public spaces. In Sofia, an activist threatened to set himself alight if the large red star was not removed from the tower of the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party. In the early 1990s Bulgaria started a half-baked decommunisation process. Top Communist apparatchiks were sued, but never sentenced, the sinister State Security was dismantled, and in 2000 a special law declared the regime criminal. However, today many feel that it was not enough. Calls for "decommunisation" and lustration remain a rallying cry for a small, but very vocal group in Bulgaria.
The controversy is visible in Bulgarian public spaces. The great majority of monuments and statues from the times of Communism still stand at squares, gardens, parks and historical locations across the country. Some have been transferred to depots and museums. In 2011, Sofia opened a Museum for Socialist Art. It is modelled on the Musée des Monuments Français which was born during the French Revolution when intellectuals tried to preserve objects of art from iconoclasm and destruction. The openair section of the Museum of Socialist Art displays statues, the exhibition halls house paintings. Contrary to its peers in Budapest, Moscow and Prague, which are mainly fairground attractions, Sofia's museum is serene and puts the accent on artistic value. The driving force behind the museum was the then minister of culture, Vezhdi Rashidov. Like the founder of the French Monuments Museum, Alexandre Lenoir, Vezhdi Rashidov is an artist, a sculptor, who started his career under Communism.
The massive statue of Lenin, which used to stand right across Sofia's Party House and which was replaced by a statue of Sophia, in 2000, dominates the museum's plot. Like the garden of the French Monuments Museum, half of the openair part looks like an Elysian Field of men held in high esteem during Communism: Lenin, Dimitar Blagoev – the "grandfather" of the Bulgarian Socialist movement, Georgi Dimitrov – the first Bulgarian Communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov, who ruled between 1956 and 1989. The other half contains splendid works of art, like Lyubomir Dalchev's The Republic (1974).
Upon its opening, Sofia's museum faced the same criticism as its French predecessor at the time. Critics wondered on what basis the works were selected and feared that the museum would become a place of pilgrimage for nostalgic Communists. The curators argued that when displayed together and out of their original context the statues would lose their ideological impact and therefore become harmless.
In the 2010s, citizens and underground art groups turned Sofia's Soviet Army monument into a blank canvas for spreading political messages. In 2023, Sofia City Council voted that the monument should be removed but left it to the government to decide how, when and whether to actually move the monument. In a protest, supporters of left-wing parties attacked Sofia City Council's building with eggs and red paint
Bulgaria's half-baked decommunisation has created a void in the public space, as if half a century of history has been erased. In Sofia, the empty spot where once the mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov stood makes this void physical. New statues of prominent people repressed by the Communist regime, such as entrepreneur and politician Atanas Burov, and of Ronald Reagan, who is credited with the collapse of world Communism, only underline the void.
Yet, Sofia still displays statues from its Communist past. The authorities tolerate them because they deem their subjects to be neutral: peasant women, workers, mothers, playing children. Such statues are usually realistic in style. Many are in peripheral spaces. Statues in more experimental styles are mostly in the Sofia City Art Gallery.
Russia's annexation of Crimea, in 2014, reinvigorated the polemic about Soviet memorials all over the countries of the former East bloc. Bulgaria is a special case. During the Second World War it was a Nazi ally, but the tsarist regime was far from the textbook definition of fascist. It was toppled on 9 September by a political coalition backed by the USSR and its Red Army.
In Sofia, politicians and political organisations repeatedly ask for the demolition of monuments that glorify the events of September 1944, most notably the Red Army Monument, built in central Sofia in 1954. Monuments such as the one at Cherni Vrah Boulevard, in the Lozenets area, are billed an "ossuary" by the Russian Embassy, which argues as such it cannot be demolished. Russia is extremely sensitive to such issues and never fails to protest. Therefore, demolishing or removing Soviet Army monuments in Bulgaria is ethically, legally as well as diplomatically seen as at least delicate.
The authorities of former Communist countries apply various techniques to decrease the importance of contested monuments. Bulgaria is not an exception. The grand alley, which led to the Brotherly Mound in Borisova Garden, was removed in the early 1990s. A meadow now exists in its place and trees obstruct the vista on the monument. Around the tall Soviet Army Monument ramps serve local skaters. The underground station opposite the Red Army "ossuary" is named European Union.
On the bas reliefs of the Brotherly Mound several figures lack body parts and accessories. At the time of the French Revolution, one of the intellectuals who wanted to preserve objects of art from iconoclasts coined the term vandalism. Have the Soviet-era monuments become the equivalent of the French royal vaults which had to be moved to a museum?
Much of the controversy is due to the changing view of the Soviet Army's role in the Second World War. To many East Europeans, it turned from a liberator into an occupier. According to sociologist Henri Lefebvre, monuments inherently embody a "horizon of meanings": a specific or indefinite multiplicity of meanings, a shifting hierarchy in which meanings become interchangeable.
In 2016, the Bulgarian parliament voted on first reading an amendment to the 2000 law that declared Communism a crime. The amendment banned Communist symbols from public display. In cases of already existing structures, such as the Soviet Army Monument, an accompanying sign should provide context. The amendment still has not made its way in the law, but people spontaneously provide context themselves. In 2011, the monochrome soldiers of the Soviet Army Monument were colourfully painted as American comics heroes. Below, graffiti read "In Step With Time." The artistic intervention was quite intelligent: swapping one Big Brother for another. Its authors were a group of urban artists, Destructive Creation, whose motto says: "Through strong creative manifestations, old destructive attitudes and understandings are broken."
The Republic, 1974, by Lyubomir Dalchev
The Soviet Army Monument frequently is the scene for interventions which refer to international politics, mostly when Russia is concerned. After each action, there is a reaction from the Russian Embassy and leftist organisations, who protest against the "vandals." The monument gets cleaned a few hours later, people caught in the act of "vandalism" may be arrested by the police. Soon afterwards, graffiti and tags reappear on the monument, including a swab of yellow and blue paint that were sprayed with a drone after Russia invaded Ukraine, in 2022. From a showcase of Bulgaria's gratitude to the Red Army, the monument has evolved into a canvas for criticism.
Why, indeed, is there need for a statue to glorify what it depicts? Why cannot it denounce? The Bulgarian word for monument is pametnik; it means a thing that helps one to remember. Today, one can remember an occupation instead of liberation. Removing more Communist statues would deepen the void of an important historical period.
Yet not all interventions are artistic or intelligent, and not all graffiti are an act of creative destruction. On the Soviet Army Monument someone recently engraved a swastika on the sole of a soldier's boot. In the City Garden, people have managed to paint blue and yellow the statue of Atanas Burov. Over the inscription of the Brotherly Mound – a quote by national poet Hristo Botev, someone has cladded in red the letter Z, the infamous symbol of the Russian army in 2022. The monument's central statue – two Bulgarian partizani – have been painted in Ukraine's national colours.
Behind the monument, people have left pieces of chalk. Please, feel free to provide context. There is really no need for chopping off body parts.
*Mike Diliën, who has lectured and done research in Spain, Italy and Argentina, works for Belgian national health insurance