MESSAGE FROM THE TOP

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

There is more to Bulgaria's hilltop Communist monuments than famous Communist Party House at Buzludzha

buzludzha.jpg

Visual propaganda was key to promoting the Communist regime in Bulgaria between 1944 and 1989, and large-scale monuments on prominent heights played a crucial role. Massive, expensive and impressive they sent a clear message to the citizens of the People's Republic of Bulgaria about the inevitability of Communism, the eternal nature of the Bulgarian nation and its gratitude to Grandfather Ivan, a misnomer used, usually affectionately, for both Russia and the USSR.

The grand Communist Party House at Buzludzha is the most famous of these, but there are more to discover, both in urban areas and on mountain peaks far from the crowds.

THE ALYOSHA, PLOVDIV

In Bulgaria, any monument to the Red Army that represents a single soldier is traditionally called Alyosha. Until 1989, many large cities would have their own Alyosha monument at a central and/or prominent location.

plovdiv

The Alyosha in Plovdiv is the most famous of these. The decision to build it was taken in 1948 and the monument was unveiled in 1957. The 10.5-metre-high granite statue looking symbolically eastward, to the USSR, was modelled after a real Soviet soldier, Alexey Skurlatov. Post-1989 a debate on whether to demolish it began. 

In the 1990s Christo, the US artist of Bulgarian origin, had plans to "pack up" the Alyosha, but he never received permission from the local authorities. In 2013, during a political stunt, the monument was wrapped in a red shroud and a black kerchief was put over the soldier's face. 

One thing should be kept in mind when considering monuments of Red Army soldiers in Bulgaria. While Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany, it never sent troops against the USSR. When the Soviet forces entered Bulgaria proper and backed up the 9 September Communist coup, they did not meet any resistance. No Soviet soldier died in battle in Bulgaria. Consequently, the Red Army monuments that still dot this country should be seen more as propaganda than as true memorials to actual victims of war. 

CREATORS OF THE BULGARIAN STATE, SHUMEN

Supposedly the largest monument of exposed concrete in Europe, the Creators of the Bulgarian State near Shumen features statues of early medieval Bulgarian rulers and a huge mosaic dedicated to the political, cultural and military might of the First Bulgarian Kingdom. 

shumen

The idea of building a monument on top of the Shumen Plateau dates back to 1977, when the government spent lavishly on public projects and festivities to mark the upcoming 1,300 years of the foundation of the Bulgarian state. 

Shumen was chosen because it was close to the ruins of Bulgaria's first mediaeval capitals, Pliska and Preslav, because the commanding position of the plateau would render the monument visible for miles around and because of the "need" to send a "patriotic" message to the ethnic Turks who made up a large proportion of the local population. 

The monument is 70 metres high and 140 metres long. 2,400 tonnes of reinforced steel and 50,000 cubic metres of concrete were used in its construction. The most imposing element is the 1,000-tonne lion made of 2,000 pieces of granite that adorns the highest part of the structure. 

The monument was inaugurated, in the presence of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov himself, in 1981. 

After the collapse of Communism funds for its maintenance ran out. In 2006, one of the hooves of Khan Asparukh's horse fell off, but it was later restored. 

Today, the monument is frequented by locals who walk their dogs and jog around the massive structure, while newlyweds take their wedding photos there. Japanese tourists are ordinarily bemused by the coincidental resemblance of the structures to manga characters.

ARCH OF FREEDOM, TROYAN PASS

Reaching 1,525 metres, the Troyan Pass is the highest in the Stara Planina mountain range. It is so difficult to negotiate by car that it is usually closed in winter. At its highest point the road passes by the 1,595-metre Goraltepe Peak. A giant monument with a shape that some Bulgarians associate with a pair of pants hung out to dry adorns the peak. The larger-than-life statues on it depict "Russian and Soviet liberators," Bulgarian freedom fighters, and beautiful women greeting them.

troyan pass

The 35-metre Arch of Freedom looks as if it must be glorifying a crucial battle fought for Bulgaria's independence, but in fact no battle was ever fought there. The sole purpose of building the Arch of Freedom at this particular spot was its impressive and highly visible location.

RUSSIAN LIBERATORS MONUMENT, NEAR YAMBOL

The Bakadzhik heights near Yambol are only 514.6 metres in altitude but the plain around is so flat that they are visible from far away. 

yambol

This was one of the reasons why the 37-metre Russian Liberators Monument was erected at Bakadzhik, in 1987. The monument was to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War that restored Bulgarian state after five centuries of Ottoman dominance. During the conflict, the Russian army had used the heights as a camp and had set up a military hospital there.

A Russian soldier, a Bulgarian freedom fighter, a mother with a child: the allegorical figures on the Russian Liberators Monument emphasise the role Russia played in Bulgaria's freedom and the strength of Bulgarian gratitude a century later. The addition of a Soviet astronaut, called at the time "cosmonaut" throughout the East bloc, is more baffling. It was to mark the achievements of the Soviet and Bulgarian space programmes and science. The young woman that hovers at the top of the monument symbolises Bulgaria's bright future. 

Blending 19th century Russia with the Soviet Union in a single monument was not unique to Bakadzhik's memorial. It was a common theme in Communist Bulgarian visual propaganda. The message? By invading Bulgaria on 8 September 1944, the USSR had saved the Bulgarians from "monarcho-fascism" (as Communists called the regime of King Boris III), just as Russia had come to the rescue from the Ottomans in 1878. Bulgarians should be eternally grateful for both liberations. 

It worked. Under Communism, Bulgaria was the USSR's most loyal satellite. Even today many Bulgarians believe that their country can only benefit from stronger ties with Russia – from natural gas supplies to tourism to maintaining "traditional," Eastern Orthodox values.

BULGARIAN-SOVIET FRIENDSHIP MONUMENT, VARNA

Symbolically shaped as a radar installation pointing towards the Black Sea and the Soviet Union, the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship monument in Varna was built by 27,000 volunteers and inaugurated in 1978. It is 23 metres tall and 48 metres wide, featuring statues of Soviet soldiers and Bulgarian women welcoming them. A bomb shelter was built at its base. 

varna

After 1989 the monument was abandoned. The "eternal fire" that used to burn there was extinguished. Today hardly anything is left of the "Friendship From Centuries and for Centuries" inscription. The monument has been vandalised and is sometimes used as a location for political activity. In 2012, colourful hoods were put on the heads of the statues to express support for the members of Pussy Riot incarcerated in Russia. 

The Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship monument continues to be symbolically charged. The highest flag poles in Europe, at 52.5 metres each, were installed near it and at present the flags of Bulgaria and the EU are raised there. 

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