SOFIA'S STRANGE MONUMENTS

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Discover odd stories behind some of capital's statues and memorials

Soviet army monument sofia.jpg

Some monuments impress with their size, artistic value or historical significance, and some have a hidden history to match. Sofia, as Bulgaria's capital, has a particularly high concentration of monuments and statues with unusual backgrounds. Some of these are just oddities and curiosities that add a pinch of spice to otherwise official public art and have become ingrained in the city's history. However, others are controversial and have caused various debates through the years.

Soviet Army Monument

Year: 1954

Sculptor: Ivan Funev and team

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 larger-than-life "thank you" message from the Bulgarians for the role the Soviet Army played, ten years previously, 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 the government to the urban scape, and from the army to the economy.

After the collapse of the regime in 1989, the Soviet Army monument became the focus of controversy and political actions. In short, Bulgaria's so-called democrats want the monument to be demolished as soon as possible, as it promotes a "wrong" version of history. The Soviet Army did not liberate Bulgaria in 1944, they claim. Instead, it turned the country into a Soviet satellite. Moreover, not a single Red Army soldier was killed in action in Bulgaria, so retaining a monument to the Soviet Army in central Sofia is an offence to the Bulgarians and their independence.

On the other hand are various leftists, supported by the Russian embassy. They believe that the Bulgarians should be thankful in general to the Soviet Army for its opposition to Nazi Germany. The Bulgarian government that it helped to topple was a Nazi ally. 

The actions and counteractions between the two groups are impossible to enumerate and have multiplied in the 2010s and 2020s. They usually oscillate between some sort of "vandalism" from the haters designed to gain media and social media attention, followed by noisy complaints from its supporters, careful cleaning by the Sofia Municipality and stepped-up police presence around it. Passions peaked in 2023, when the two groups almost clashed. The city council temporarily fenced off the monument, and the question of whether it should be destroyed was a cornerstone for some of the contenders in the recent local elections. Activists were quick to get angry with the new mayor, Vasil Terziev, for his failure to dismantle the monument in the first week after he took office. Funnily, they were less enraged by the new administration's inability to keep the capital relatively clear after a heavy snowfall.

In their struggle to discredit the monument to the point that it would make it insufferable even to its traditional defenders, conservative leftists (yes, the majority of leftists in Bulgaria are as dedicated to what they see as traditional family values as are rightwing conservatives), the haters claimed that the statue of the Soviet soldier actually represents… a woman. According to rumours, the female artist who designed the statue of the virile victor, Vaska Emanuilova, was gay and gave the soldier some feminine features: a tender face and a pair of breasts clearly visible under the military tunic.

Red Army Ossuary in Lozenets

Year: 1952-1954

Sculptor: Luyben Dimitrov

Is it a monument? Is it an ossuary? Is it a mass grave? Nobody knows! The 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. Predictably, the Russian Embassy protested, claiming any changes to the site would constitute tomb defacement. The verbal clash that followed revealed that... there were no definitive documents about what the monument commemorated, whether there were any human remains interred beneath, and who should be responsible for the whole compound.

Palace of Justice lions

Year: 1981

Sculptor: Velichko Minekov

The pair of bronze lions that guard the grand staircase of the Palace of Justice are known to all residents and visitors of Sofia. They are a popular meeting place and are often in the background of media coverage of protests or important cases taking place at this location. Sometimes they are even used to send political messages. In 2013, for example, one of the lions was painted as a joker, a not-so-subtle mockery of the condition of the Bulgarian judicial system.

Look closely, and you will notice two oddities in the lion statues. The first of these is well known: the gait of the lion on the left is anatomically impossible. Its legs are plainly in the wrong position.

Fewer people have noticed the lions' lack of genitalia. Was this the sculptor's subtle comment on the state of Communist Bulgarian legislature? Hardly. If he had ever aimed to mock the regime, he had aimed higher. When the lions were installed in their places, the building was occupied by the National History Museum and they were meant as a symbolic representation of  Bulgaria and its heroic history.

King Samuil Statue

Year: 2015

Sculptor: Aleksandar Haytov

When the monument to one of Bulgaria's most tragic historical figures, King Samuil (995-1014) was unveiled, the sentiments that it raised had little to do with this historical personality's significance. Samuil was an energetic and talented man who successfully organised a Bulgarian resistance against an increasingly aggressive Byzantine Empire. When the incumbent Bulgarian king died without heirs, Samuil took the crown. He ultimately failed to repel Byzantium, and had the misfortune to see hundreds of Bulgarian soldiers returning from the battlefield blinded by order of the Byzantine emperor. Samuil suffered a stroke and died soon afterwards. Four years later, Byzantium conquered all of Bulgaria.

However, Samuil's monument beside Aleksandr Nevskiy cathedral has little to do with the king's tragedy and pathos. Designed in the now popular "realistic" style, it has all the aesthetic allure of an oversized garden gnome. And... its eyes glow in the dark. Or they used to glow, until the built-in lights died and it transpired that no one had thought of how they might be replaced.

Lion at NDK square

Year: 1934, 2017

Sculptor: Mihail Mihailov

In 2017, a statue of a lion holding a shield with a depiction of the Bulgarian map appeared on the site of the recently demolished 1,300 Years of Bulgaria Monument. The 1,300 Years of Bulgaria had been erected in 1981 and, because of its strange shape and poor quality of workmanship, quickly became Sofia's least liked, to put it mildly, piece of public art. Few people, bar its sculptor, mourned when it was removed.

The lion that took its place was not a new statue, but part of a larger memorial to Sofianites who were killed in the wars that Bulgaria waged between 1885-1918. The memorial stood beside the former barracks of Sofia's garrison. The whole area was demolished in the 1970s to make way for the People's Palace of Culture, or NDK, and the 1,300 Years of Bulgaria monument. The soldiers' memorial, along with the lion, was moved to the National Military Museum and promptly forgotten.

The return of the lion made few people happy. Some people insist that the whole soldiers' memorial should be returned and reinstalled. Greece officially protested against the map on the shield – it includes territories that Bulgarians consider their own, but have been part of Greece proper since 1913. And many are bemused by the decision to place the lion's statue atop a pile of earth. Hence the moniker Kitten in a Litter Box.

Statue of Sofia

Year: 2000

Sculptor: Georgi Chapkanov

The 24-metre statue of a bosomy woman above the Serdica metro station is one of the most misunderstood and contentious pieces of public art in Sofia. It was erected in 2000 to celebrate the new millennium, a large and prestigious project by a famous sculptor designed to send a message to Bulgarians, who were still recovering from the 1990s economic crises, unemployment and hyperinflation. They were looking with hope to a better future, thinking the dark times were over and they now had enough disposable public money for a large, gilt statue in the centre of town.

The fact that there was no public tender for the monument, or that the city was still struggling with problems such as street pollution, rampant crime, bad pavements, aggressive stray dogs and non-functioning street lights did not make Sofia's statue popular with the general public.

People were also puzzled by its aesthetics and symbolism. According to the sculptor, Georgi Chapkanov, the 8-metre woman of gilt bronze represents the ancient Greek goddess of good fate, Tyche. The laurel wreath in her right hand symbolises triumph and the owl sitting on one of her arms represents wisdom, a direct reference to Sofia's name. The statue's crown is in a style known from Antiquity – it imitates the turrets of a fortification wall and was often depicted on heads of deities who protected a certain city.

But many ever-skeptical Sofianites disagreed. They saw it as a pagan interpretation of St Sophia, the Christian saint the city of Sofia was named after. Even the Bulgarian Church protested against the "blasphemy."

Conspiracy theories were quick to pop up, too. Some claimed that the statue's face was modelled after the then mayor's wife or daughter. Other insisted that it depicted the Semitic demon Lilith, or Satan's wife, or the Mesopotamian goddess of lust Inanna-Ishtar, or Isis, or ancient Greek Hecate, or a female version of Mammon, or something Masonic, or simply... death.

Some of these theories are still in circulation today. Amazingly, few people now remember that Sofia's statue replaced a gigantic monument of Lenin, which stood there until 1991, when it was removed following the collapse of the Communist regime. It is now in the Museum of Socialist Art.

Monument to the Unknown Soldier

Year: 1941

Sculptor: Andrey Nikolov

The Monument to the Unknown Soldier near the church of St Sofia has arguably the best of all lion sculptures in Bulgaria. It was made by Andrey Nikolov, an artist who combined Rodin's Impressionism and Bulgarian tradition. 

The monument and the lion were unveiled in 1941, after years of debate and procrastination. The decoration and concept were then quite different to what you see today. The Allied bombings of Sofia during the Second World War damaged the monument, and in 1949 the Communist authorities used its stones for Georgi Dimitrov's Mausoleum. The lion suffered, too, from the political change. As it looked too "bourgeois" to Communists (a standard slur of the time), it was taken away and moved around Sofia before it was stored in the National Military Museum.

The lion was returned to its former place in 1981, when the new Monument of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated. Today, it is a favourite climbing spot for children.

Atanas Burov statue

Year: 2011

Sculptor: Professor Emil Popov

The heavy figure of a man in a coat by the site of the former mausoleum of Communist dictator Georgi Dimitrov can be interpreted as a middle finger to the Communist regime. The man that it depicts, Atanas Burov (1875-1954), was a prominent banker, economist and government minister in interwar Bulgaria. After the 1944 Communist coup he was arrested and basically spent the rest of his life in prison and oblivion.

What is strange about this monument is its sponsor. When the statue was unveiled, multimillionaire Tsvetan Vasilev was the respected owner of the successful Corporate Trade Bank. In the same 2011, Vasilev was declared the second most influential man in Bulgaria, after then Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. It all ended abruptly in 2014, when CTB had to close due to a run on the bank, which collapsed. Tsvetan Vasilev fled Bulgaria and settled in Serbia, becoming a vocal critic of his former pals including Boyko Borisov and politician Delyan Peevski, whose businesses were funded by the CTB.

Memorial plaques for the "saviours" of Bulgarian Jews

Who prevented the planned deportation of about 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War is a question that lacks a definitive answer because – like many other questions in Bulgaria's recent past – the theories it generates are being used to manipulate current politics.

Bulgaria was a Nazi ally at the time, and it did deport over 11,000 Jews from the lands in Macedonia and Aegean Thrace, which Hitler had allowed Bulgaria to "administer" with the promise of "returning" them to Sofia once the war was over. In addition, the sunset years of the Third Bulgarian Kingdom, as the country was known at the time, were marked by the increasing autocracy of King Boris III and a raging civil war between government forces and Communist guerilla fighters. There is little evidence to suggest King Boris III was sympathetic to the Jews or that he tried to outwit Hitler in his deportation requests.

In 1999, memorial plaques dedicated to Bulgarians who acted resolutely to thwart the planned deportations were placed at the Bulgarian Forest near Jerusalem to commemorate the rescue of Bulgarian Jews. The plaques did not survive long. They were removed by order of an Israeli court after protests by relatives of Greek and Macedonian Jews whose deportation to the death camps had been endorsed by the Bulgarian King Boris III, whose name was included on the plaques.

The plaques now in front of the Sofia City Council are replicas of the Jerusalem originals. They are being venerated by the establishment. But Israelis and anyone with a better understanding of 20th century history sees them as yet another proof that Bulgaria has remained perhaps the last former East bloc country not to have over-lived the traumas of the past in its quest for a new national identity.

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