WAR & PEACE IN CENTRAL SOFIA

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Military Academy, gardens emerge as one of capital's hidden gems

military academy sofia garden fence.jpg

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 artificial lake: it is hard to believe that one of Sofia's quietest and most delightful parks belongs to an institution inherently connected to state-sanctioned... violence. Welcome to the Military Academy.

The park was created in 1907 after the design of Friedrich Grünanger, a Transylvanian Austrian architect who was very prolific in Bulgaria at the time. It surrounded the then Military School that was housed in a fortress-like building, constructed in 1888-1894. The pond was also part of Grünanger's design. It had a the shape of a capital letter Ф, which in the Cyrillic is the first letter in the name of the then ruler, King Ferdinand I (1887-1918).

The lake

Ever since, the compound had reflected, in one way or another, the high and lows of the Bulgarian army.

The need for an institution for training Bulgarian officers arose as soon as Bulgaria reappeared on Europe's political map after five centuries of Ottoman domination, in 1878. Initially, the young and inexperienced Bulgarian army relied on foreign commanders, most notably Russians. Impressively, it won its first war, with Serbia in 1885- 1886, led by low – and mid-rank Bulgarian officers.

In the early 20th century, the Military School was already seen as insufficient. The nation, led by the ambitious King Ferdinand, was getting ready to fight for more Bulgarian-inhabited lands that were still under the Ottomans. The Military Academy was officially established in 1912, but it welcomed its first cadets as late as January 1915.

The fortress-like main building of the Military Academy was designed by Václav Kolář, a Czech architect who created Sofia's first urban plan in the late 19th century. Seen from above, the building has a shape of a giant E, the first letter in the name of Eleonore, the wife of King Ferdinand

In the short time between, Bulgaria had already fought in two Balkan wars, and had dramatically lost the second of them. Soon after this, it would join the Great War, and would lose again.

The two so-called national catastrophes that Bulgaria suffered in 1913 and 1918-1919 were a heavy blow for the nation and its army. The 1919 Neuilly-sur-Seine Treaty mandated a token Bulgarian military force. The officers, understandably, were upset as many of them were made redundant. In the years to come, they became a radical player in local politics. They organised bloody coups, supported authoritarian governments and even threatened the new king, Boris III (1918-1943).

The military's grasp on the government peaked in the early 1930s. Eventually, Boris III outmanoeuvred the rogue military, and the period saw increased investment and attention in the modernisation of the Bulgarian army. The Military Academy expanded its activities and its compound was transformed. A new building was constructed next to the main one, to house the academy staff. The road that led from the entrance to the main building was named Alley of Victories and was adorned with 90 small columns. Each was dedicated to a battle won by the Bulgarian army from the state's creation in 681 to the Second World War. Beneath each, soil from the respective locations was buried in empty shells. A grand staircase, called Alley of Commanders, was constructed between the pond and the Academy's main building. It used to be adorned with the bronze busts of all directors of the school and the academy until 1934.

The official entry to the Military Academy and its garden, on Evlogi and Hristo Georgievi Boulevard

The most curious – and famous – part of the Military Academy compound also appeared back then, in 1933-1934. When you look closely at the fence, you will notice that it is made of... rifle barrels.

According to an urban legend, the fence was an ingenious solution concocted by the Bulgarian government in the aftermath of the disastrous 1919 Neuilly Treaty and its requirement for disarmament. If need arose, the legend goes, the barrels would be easily removed from the fence and fixed on actual rifles, ready to fire again.

In actual fact, the 1,997 barrels in the fence of the Military Academy came from weapons used by the Bulgarian army in the 1885-1886 war against Serbia – a symbol of the capability of the young Bulgarian military to prevail by the skin of their teeth. After the Second World War, Bulgaria fell firmly in the Soviet sphere. Its army was organised along Soviet principles, and most of its pre-war military elite was either killed or forced to leave the army. The curriculum of the Military Academy changed accordingly and included a political faculty that trained officers in Marxism-Leninism and its military use. In 1967, a monument to the academy's namesake, revolutionary Georgi Rakovski, was erected on the premises, for the centenary of his death.

This statue of a lion used to stand in the garden of the Military Academy

The collapse of Communism in Bulgaria, in 1989, signalled a stressful period for Bulgaria, and its army that in the 1990s suffered from underfunding, understaffing and inability to continue in its old ways. The country joined NATO in 2004. The Military Academy dropped its political faculty and reorganised its structure. Today, some of its programmes are for people who do not plan to pursue a military career at all.

In 2010, a significant part of the Military Academy was opened to the public. Soon afterwards, a couple of monuments were added – to revolutionary Vasil Levski and war hero Colonel Boris Drangov.

For most of the visitors of this green, a little unkempt park in the heart of Sofia, its appeal is chiefly in its tranquillity: no dogs and cyclists are allowed there. For now, the general public is not allowed to visit the well preserved offices of King Ferdinand and the grand hall in the main building, where he would meet foreign dignitaries and host lavish parties, or Rakovski's monument.

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