by Elena Kodinova; photography by Anthony Georgieff, BTA

Bulgarian Communism's hottest symbol lies rotting behind the former Sofia Public Baths

party house sofia in the 1980s.jpg

At the end of the summer of 1990, less than a year after the collapse of Communism in Bulgaria, parliament passed an act providing for all Communist symbols in the country to be removed. The Supreme Council of the Bulgarian Socialist Party agreed to take down the big red star from the roof of the Party House.

Perched on the spire of the Stalinist monstrosity right in the heart of Sofia - officially known as the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, but popularly referred to as the Party House - the five-pointed star was one of the top symbols of the regime. It shone eerily in the dark, and ordinary people believed the propaganda that it was worth millions of leva as it had been manufactured out of pure synthetic rubies.

Getting rid of it, however, took longer than the successors of the Communist Party had promised. The public became impatient. Two people announced that they would set themselves on fire if the star was not removed by 8.30 pm on 26 August 1990. The deadline passed and the dissident poet Radoy Ralin and opposition MP Yosif Petrov appeared on Bulgarian National Television to appeal to President Zhelyu Zhelev to force the Socialist Party to remove the star and placate the angry crowd gathering at the Party House. One of the national trade union leaders gave an ultimatum – if the red star was not taken down, the crowd would attack the building.

Attacked it was – and also set on fire.

In the early 1950s: No star yet

In the early 1950s: No star yet

The rest, as they say, is history. The building survived, and no one was ever charged for perhaps the boldest act of vandalism in Bulgaria's recent past.

The bone of contention – the red star – was not taken down until 9 October 1990. Using a helicopter, the whole operation lasted three minutes and took place in front of an eager crowd and many journalists.

But the red star would soon be forgotten. Preoccupied with constant political bickering, food shortages, hyperinflation and a war raging in next-door Yugoslavia, Sofianites had little time to dwell on the fate of the five-pointed star. Then, just a few years ago, those passing by what used to be the former Municipal Bath House, situated behind the Banya Bashi Mosque, began to notice something red, and quite out of place. Approaching the ramshackle fence, you could see... the Party House red star. It is in a state of severe dilapidation. Holes gape where red "rubies" used to sit, and the metal framework is covered in rust. Yet the silhouette, so well known in the past, is impossible to mistake.

It is important to note that this red star is not the one taken down by that helicopter back in 1990. The star rusting away in the yard of the former baths is the original star that adorned the building from its construction in 1954 to 1987. In 1987, two years before Communism collapsed, the ruling apparatchiks decided to install a bigger and more modern star that could be illuminated from within; a star that would rival the one in the Kremlin.

In the 1970s: With its shining star

In the 1970s: With its shining star

The original star was dismantled and brought to a warehouse near Iskar Railway Station. Years later it was donated by parliament to the Old Sofia Museum. It was transferred to the backyard of the baths several years ago, when the museum was moved to the bath premises.

The new star of the Party House was made in the Soviet Union from high quality red glass and cost the Bulgarian state more than half a million rubles. Designed by Russian experts with the help of the Bulgarian architect Professor Ivan Ivanchev, it weighed 1,300 kg and was 2.5 metres wide.

Less than four years later, the "pride" of the Communist establishment was spirited to the plains of Dolni Bogrov, a village on the outskirts of Sofia. Аfter a couple of hours it was transported by lorry back to the Party House. It could only fit into the garage of the former Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, being too big for any other structure. The truck carrying it couldn't get through the door with the star on board, so the driver let the air out of the tyres to lower the height. The gold which coated the metal skeleton was removed and sent to the Bulgarian National Bank. It weighed almost two kilograms.

Later, in the 1990s, the star was offered to the Old Sofia Museum. The management refused to take it and nobody knows what happened to it next. Maybe it was broken down into smaller pieces and sold as scrap metal.

In 1990: Farewell to the star

In 1990: Farewell to the star

When the star disappeared a number of rumours about its fate surfaced. According to one theory, the star was made of rubies which were used to pay off Bulgaria's external debt. Another suggested that the star was taken back to Russia.

In the absence of this iconic star, the older one is now gaining the attention of ordinary Bulgarians. Sometimes people scale the twometre high fence around the Old Sofia Museum and take a piece of it as a souvenir.

Most of them think that this is the same star that was taken down in 1990. For them it is almost like having a piece of the Berlin Wall.

In the 2010s: A flag instead

In the 2010s: A flag instead

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.


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