Communist Bulgaria

SOFIA'S STRANGE MONUMENTS

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.

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BRUTALIST BULGARIA

A white mammoth dominates the upper part of Boulevard Todor Aleksandrov in central Sofia. Its massive, concrete surfaces are imposing. Looking from the lower ground of the Serdica station, the building, Unicredit Bulbank's headquarters, resembles a giant ocean steamer which is about to crush the Largo, the vast space surrounded by the Stalinist Council of Ministers, the Office of the President and the former Communist Party House, now parliament.

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DEAD POETS SOCIETY

It has become a commonplace that a nation can be understood best by the sort of treatment it give its poets rather by its military victories or GDP levels. This notion may be a bit outdated in a world run by social media where electronic "devices" by far outnumber fountain pens, and where a "content creator" makes more than a teacher of literature. But it is still at least indicative. Bulgaria, whose writers and poets have been translated into English only sporadically, is a case in point. On the one hand, it is very proud of its literary heritage.

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WHAT WAS THE SEPTEMBER UPRISING?

Raised hands, bodies frozen in a pathos of tragic defiance: Bulgaria, especially its northwest, is littered with monuments to an event that was once glorified but is now mostly forgotten. It took place 100 years ago, yet researchers disagree on how to label it. Some call it an uprising, a word that evokes the gravity of organised and targeted efforts to achieve a clearly set goal. For others, it was an ill-fated rebellion of a handful of peasants foolish enough to believe the sweet talking of a political power outside of Bulgaria, Moscow's Communist International.

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LONG LIVE RED ARMY MONUMENT

Other angry citizens have taken to the park, where the MOCHA is situated. They have set up tents threatening they will defend with their bodies the pile of stones which they see as epitomising the victorious Red Army's fight against Nazism, for which the Bulgarian nation should be "eternally grateful." In the agencies of the state pen-pushers of all shapes and sizes scurry to manifest why the Red Army moment cannot be dismantled, at least not in the foreseeable future.

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SORRY FATE OF BULGARIA'S 'SCIENTIFIC-TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS'

Bulgarians are present in many fields of modern science and engineering, from medicine to space exploration, pushing new boundaries and breaking new grounds. If you have not heard much about it, it is because the great majority of them work for foreign universities, scientific institutions and R&D teams. As a result of the decades-long neglect of the fundamental and the applied sciences and of engineering in Bulgaria, academically gifted Bulgarians go abroad the moment they graduate from secondary school.

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WALKING ON FIRE

One of the emblematic sights associated with Bulgaria is a group of barefoot men and women clad in traditional village costumes dancing over live embers. This is nestinarstvo, or firewalking, a supposedly Christian rite, where firewalkers dance themselves into a trance and eschew the perils of fire.

Now firewalking is performed at tourist locations and even in restaurants, but the only place to see the real thing is in the village of Balgari in the Strandzha. It happens on the night of 3 June, the high day of Ss Constantine and Helena.

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LA VIE EN ROSE

A plant that everyone knows but few have seen in real life: by selecting the oil-bearing rose as its unofficial symbol, Bulgaria has made an odd choice. This particular variety does smell divine but is not particularly beautiful. Its attar is vital for the global cosmetic industry, yet its production and sales make a tiny spec in the Bulgarian GDP.

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LAPSE OF TIME

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.

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VELIKO TARNOVO DELIGHTS

Perched on a twisty meander of the Yantra River, where the hills of the Danube Plain meet the northern slopes of the Stara Planina, Veliko Tarnovo has unparalleled topography in Bulgaria, and possibly the Balkans. Traditional 19th century houses cling above the steep river bends, connected by alleys and steps that defy both gravity and everyday convenience – but living in Tarnovo has never been about convenience.

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BULGARIA'S FORGOTTEN RACE INTO SPACE

The mission of NASA's Space Launch System that aims to bring back humans to the Moon in 2024 is just the latest piece of space exploration news. The USA, China and Elon Musk are trying to figure out how to colonise Mars, Korea has developed its own rocket, and besides producing stunning photos of distant galaxies the brand new James Webb Space Telescope is searching for inhabitable exoplanets.

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SURPRISE, SURPRISE IN... PERNIK

When you plan a trip in Bulgaria, Pernik is rarely on the list (except for one event, more on this below). An industrial behemoth of the Communist era that fell on hard times after the collapse of the planned economy post-1989, the city is known for its uninspiring urbanscape of factories in different states of dereliction. Its residents now often commute to nearby Sofia – less than 20 miles away, and have the dubious reputation of spending weekend nights in local clubs where fights are de rigueur.

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BUZLUDZHA LIGHTS UP AGAIN

The Flying Saucer, which in recent years has become one of the Top 10 world monuments for urbex, or dark tourism, was constructed in the early 1980s. It was designed to celebrate the Bulgarian Communist Party, in control of this country from 1944 to 1989. It was supposed to withstand the ravishes of both time and nature for several hundred years, as the Communists, who had commissioned it, thought they would be in power eternally.

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WHAT FEEDS BULGARIAN NOSTALGIA FOR COMMUNISM?

Some years ago the Pew Research Center in Washington DC produced a survey indicating the levels of nostalgia in Bulgaria surpassed by far longing for the past everywhere else in the former East bloc countries. How come? Why would the citizens of what today continues to be the European Union's poorest, most corrupt and least free state want to return to a nebulous and increasingly distant totalitarian past? What differs the modern Poles, Czechs and Romanians – not to mention the former East Germans – who have long forgotten about Communism from their peers in the southern Balkans?

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BULGARIA'S COLD WAR PLANES

In the spring of 2022, Bulgarian military aircraft used during the Cold War suddenly became hot news. Should Bulgaria offer its old Soviet MiG- 29s to Ukraine, or shouldn't it? The debate went beyond the usual division between "hawks" and "doves." For some, sending the MiGs would help Ukraine to defend itself against an aggressor. For many more, including the Bulgarian president, himself a former fighter pilot, such a move would leave Bulgarian airspace unprotected, as some recently purchased US F-16s were yet to arrive.

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MONUMENTAL WOES

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.

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SHABLA: HIDDEN GEM TUCKED BETWEEN SEA AND LAND

Some cannot get enough of its beaches, beauty spots and tourist amenities, while others lament that much of its calm and pristine nature has been lost to overdevelopment. History lovers point out that the ancient Thracians, listed among the forefathers of modern Bulgarians, were masters of the choppy waters of the Black Sea long before the Greeks arrived and settled along its coastline, in the 7th-5th centuries BC. Foodies can talk at length about the superior taste of its bonito, turbot and sprat.

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DARK TALES IN BELENE

Belene is a backwater of a town on the Bulgarian bank of the River Danube. It is inhabited by less than 8,000 people. Yet, for more than one reason, its name is known to all Bulgarians.

To some, it is the location of a planned nuclear power plant whose failure to materialise illustrates how corruption and incompetence in post-Communist Bulgaria can ruin what was to become a major power engineering project. To others, it is synonymous with the most atrocious crimes of the former Communist regime.

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PREFAB SOCIETY

With the mountains for a backdrop and amid large green spaces, uniform apartment blocks line up like Legos. Along the dual carriageway, 7km from the centre of Sofia, the underground comes above ground: Mladost Station.

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