Stalinist structure in Sofia emerges as central theme in general election campaign
Whenever developed democracies hold a general election, at stake – usually – are pressing issues of the day. Oil, terrorism, immigration. Nuclear weapons. Abortion rights. Inflation. Climate change. The cost of living...
Not in Bulgaria, however. The election campaign – tepid even in Bulgarian standards – ahead of the 2 April ballot, focused on... a pile of stones in central Sofia. In an almost verbatim repetition of the old adage, some political parties bill it a monument to terrorists whereas others see it as a monument to... freedom fighters.
To understand how seriously everyone seems to be taking the Sofia Red Army monument one needs to consider the background. Significantly, one should ponder over the question why it is still standing in the middle of town 35 years after various post-Communist governments of all shades and hues have had plenty of opportunities to knock it down.
The short answer is because no one – least of all the people who are most vocal in demanding its demolition – actually want it toppled. How come?
First, a quick glance at the history books. Though Bulgaria was an ally to Nazi Germany in 1941-1944, it never declared war on the USSR, withstanding German pressure. During the whole of the Second World War and up until 5 September 1944 Bulgaria and the USSR were neutral to each other. However, this did not stop Soviet submarines and aircraft from targeting sites in Bulgaria.
The Red Army entered the Kingdom of Bulgaria on 8 September 1944. It met no resistance and no Soviet solider was killed in action. The Third Ukrainian Front set up base in this country and used it for its impeding thrust westwards. Shortly thereafter, the Bulgarian army joined it.
The only Red Army victims in Bulgaria were pilots who were killed while on missions over Bulgaria prior to 9 September 1944. The other Soviet soldiers who died here were victims of the wounds they got in previous battles or of a variety of incidents ranging from car crashes to methylene alcohol poisoning.
The monuments to Soviet soldiers erected under Communism, however, depict a different picture. They represent the Soviet Army as the liberator of the Bulgarian people from "fascist yoke." Constructing them started shortly after 1944. Most bigger Bulgarian cities have their own Red Army monument. Some individual soldiers who died in Bulgaria were also honoured with monuments.
The biggest and – because it is in Central Sofia – most prominent Red Army monument is a typical example of the "classic" Stalinist style. The initial idea was to build a memorial to the victims of the Second World War on the site. But on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Socialist Revolution in Bulgaria, Valko Chervenkov, the head of both state and the Communist Party and an eminent supporter of Stalin, decided to do something "more grandiose." On 9 September 1954 the park between Eagles' Bridge and Sofia University saw the inauguration of a memorial compound to the victorious Red Army. The monument with its unambiguous symbolism took up 2,000 sq m, or 21,500 sq ft, of the park. The 37 m, or 122 ft, high composition embodied the Communist idea of freedom: a triumphant Soviet soldier raising his submachine gun, a peasant woman with a child, and a worker. The bronze bas-reliefs under the central figures depict the "Great October Socialist Revolution," the "Great Patriotic War" and the subsequent "backup" of the Soviet Army: a bomb thrower, a machine gunner and a female member of the Komsomol. As there were no battles in Bulgarian territory, the 10 stone blocks with bronze wreaths were supposed to symbolise the 10 strikes made by the Soviet Army on Berlin.
The main purpose of the Sofia monument was not to honour the Soviets who had died in the Second World War, nor to immortalise the "thankful" Bulgarians. It went far above and beyond that. It was meant to show to the people of Sofia who was firmly in control – and would remain so for generations to come.
Under Communism the Red Army monument, as well as all other similar structures throughout Bulgaria, was used for carefully orchestrated rallies, speech making and wreath laying. As soon as Communism collapsed the monument fell into disrepair.
In 1993, the Sofia City Council approved a memorandum to have the monument, which it said glorified an occupying army, removed. Russia's embassy in Sofia protested and the plan was halted by order of the foreign minister. The brass inscription reading "To the Soviet Army liberator from the grateful Bulgarian people," which was stolen for scrap metal in the 1990s, was restored in 2001.
The monument, now called mockingly either PSA (Monument to the Soviet Army) or MOCHA (Monument to the Liberating Red Army), is being well maintained with public funds. On 9 May it becomes the meeting place of Russian residents in Bulgaria and local "Russophiles" chanting slogans and waving placards depicting anything from Russians who died in the Second World War to Stalin and Putin themselves. The event is endorsed by the Sofia City Council and is usually attended by the Russian ambassador.
On a few occasion the Red Army Monument has been defaced. Once an anonymous graffiti group painted the main figures in the monument as US superheroes, Santa Claus and Ronald McDonald. When Russia invaded Crimea the monument was painted in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. The MOCHA became a heavily protected site when Putin started the war in Ukraine. A number of Bulgarian police cars surrounded it in anticipation of yet another round of graffiti painting. Three underage teenagers were arrested.
The most recent act of vandalism occurred just as the election campaign was kicking off. An angry citizen, who the media were quick to identify as a supporter of the DB, or Democratic Bulgaria, used a hammer to disjoin the thank-you plaque at the foot of the monument. He explained to the TV cameras that its inscription, "... from the grateful Bulgarian people," was untrue because he, as a part of the "people," did not feel any gratitude. Obviously, the DB hardcore supporters were jubilant. The BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, said they would "defend" the MOCHA with any means available. And Boyko Borisov's GERB rubbed their hands. With the exception of some hardcore DB-ists, Bulgarians do not want to see vandals and destruction. The GERB are a lot more moderate...
Why have the Sofia City Council authorities failed to implement their own decision for 30 years?
Whenever that question is posed, there usually ensues an avalanche of bureaucratic explanations ranging from unclear land ownership to concerns the Russian Embassy may be "irritated." The real reason, as it often happens in the warped reality of Balkan politics, is elsewhere. It is because regardless of their protestations no one wants it removed.
Usually, the demands to have the PSA removed are made in an identical pattern. First some activist expresses their fiery and highly moral determination to have it ditched. Some media associated with or sympathetic to the DB pick up the story and spin it into headline news. Anger is generated: why has the MOCHA not been scrapped already?? Vigilant citizens sign an online petition to have the monument removed. Officials start producing various explanations why the monument cannot be gotten rid of. The story dies down in about three days.
Through the years, the fate of the Sofia Red Army Monument has become a staple of the identity of political parties such as the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the former Communists, and – ironically – the DB, their arch-enemies. The BSP will not have it touched because it is a major emblem for them. The DB will never knock it down because if it does it will plainly be shooting itself in the leg as it will rid itself of one of the main reasons for its existence.
In Bulgaria symbolism – especially symbolism associated with the recent past – is more important than common sense policies or get-things-done approaches. The overwhelming majority of Bulgarians obviously do not care as they are much more preoccupied with their utility bills and the cost of foodstuffs currently higher than in Germany, Britain and France. Because politicians are unwilling or unable to do much about those, they would rather vent the public ire at a pile of stones now called PSA. At least it is easier to understand than the talk of "geopolitical orientation" and "civilisational choices," both darling commonplaces of the DB.
Significantly, the issue of the Red Army monument has much deeper implications than the supposed "anger" of the Russian Embassy and the act of "defacing" public property. Perhaps the ambiguous attitude to such remnants of the Communist past can at least partially explain the great deal of nostalgia Bulgarians feel for Communism or the fact that, according to polls, so many Bulgarians now support Vladimir Putin.