When you travel through Bulgaria you will most likely be stunned by the sheer number of ugly "heroic" monuments dotting the countryside. They all depict more or less one and the same thing: Soviet soldiers holding submachine guns, local peasants wearing raincoats and flat caps, busty women usually carrying a bunch of wheat stables. Stars, hammers and sickles – the symbols of Communism – are omnipresent, and so are plaques celebrating local partizani, or Second World War Communist resistance fighters. Coupled with the general dereliction and dilapidation of the place you might think you are in Albania of Enver Xoxha rather than Bulgaria of Boyko Borisov.
Yet you know that Communism has all but disappeared from this part of the world 20 years ago, and you might have perhaps been told that the system it created was responsible for killing proportionately more Bulgarians than perished in the Soviet gulag. Are there any monuments to them, you will sooner or later ask yourself.
To understand why pro-Communist statues and monuments in Bulgaria of the European Union and NATO by far outnumber the monuments commemorating Communism's victims is difficult unless you knew at least some of the background. The killings of opponents of the Soviet system started as early as 9 September 1944, the very day the Communists seized power in Bulgaria. Nobody knows how many Bulgarians lost their lives in the first weeks of the "people's democracy," their only crime being their political opinion or their social position. However, the number of victims of the so-called People's Court, which was created to give legitimacy to the murder of politicians, artists, writers and even physicians considered "dangerous" to the new regime, is well documented.
From December 1944 to April 1945 the court issued 9,550 verdicts, with 2,680 death sentences and 1,921 life terms. To understand why the Bulgarian Communists were a lot more cruel than anyone else in Europe at the time one needs to go no further than the numbers: the Nuremberg Trials against top Nazis issued just 17 death sentences. The victims of the People's Court are just a fraction of the number of Bulgarians who suffered various forms of repression during Communism. Between 1944 and 1989 thousands of opponents of the regime were detained, interned or denied education or work advancement. The reasons for the repression were many and varied: accusations ‒ usually bogus ‒ of espionage and plotting against the Communist state, or opposing the forced collectivisation of agricultural land, or disagreeing with the Bulgarianisation policies toward the country's Muslims. Telling political jokes, wearing mini-skirts, having a "bourgeois" past or the "wrong" relatives could all land you in a labour camp. So could listening to Elvis Presley music. The total number of those repressed between 1944 and 1990 is estimated at about 300,000.
But while it was the official policy of the Communist state to erect monuments to its own heroes and events in order to create a kind of history that would, supposedly, live on forever, after Communism collapsed very few people had the money or energy to erect statues or other public signs commemorating Communism's victims.
Sadly, the monuments erected to their memory after the collapse of Communism are few and usually very humble. Bulgaria is still the only former East bloc country to have no museum to the victims of the regime. When in 2002 the so-called alternative Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Church canonised about 120 priests killed after 1944, the officially recognised Holy Synod, still run by former cadres of the Communist-era State Security, objected to the canonisation as "uncanonical".
There is a virtual monument to the victims of Communism, however, at www.victimsofcommunism.bg, with an English version. Now, for the first time, Vagabond brings a comprehensive selection of anti- Communist Monuments from Belene to Nova Zagora and from the banks of the Danube at Vidin to Sofia's Central Cemetery.
The Danubian town where Bulgaria's second nuclear power plant is being built has another dubious claim to fame ‒ the island of Persin. Five kilometres wide and about 20 km long, it is the place where the most notorious labour camp "re-educated" the politically "misguided". The methods employed included hours of hard labour, no food, fifth-world sanitary and housing facilities, torture and no medical care. Dozens of prisoners died in Belene between 1949 and its official closure in 1953.
After that, the camp was reopened twice ‒ from 1956 to 1959, when Bulgarians inspired by the Hungarian revolution needed "reeducation," and from the mid 1980s to 1989, when it was used exclusively to detain Bulgarian Turks opposed the so-called Revival Process. After the fall of Communism a small cross was placed on the island in memory of the victims of the camp. Every spring survivors and relatives gather there for a commemorative service. In 2003, a crescent for the Muslim victims was erected next to the cross. The monuments can only be seen once a year. Visiting the island is forbidden as there is still a prison on it.
SANCTUARY TO THE BLESSED EUGENE BOSILKOV
A few yards from the gates of Belene Prison stands a neat and well maintained Catholic church. The church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Belene is a shrine to the memory of Belene-born Bishop Eugene Bosilkov (1900-1952), one of the most prominent victims of the Communist regime.
Bosilkov took his vows in 1919-1920 and was ordained bishop in 1947. It was a tough time to be a Christian priest, as the new regime was doing everything possible to impose atheism on the population. Bosilkov, however, persisted in visiting even the tiniest parishes. Inevitably, this irritated the atheist government. In 1952, 54 Catholic priests were arrested, tortured and tried for espionage for "Anglo-American Imperialism." Four of them, including Bishop Eugene Bosilkov, were sentenced to death. Bosilkov was executed in the Sofia Central Prison on 11 November 1952. In 1998 Pope John Paul II beatified him. On the walls of the Sofia Central Prison there is a humble plaque in his memory. It says: "As a sign of hope to those who defend and will defend the rights of God and Man."
Two modest plaques and a miniature shrine of the sort you see by the road in Greece are the sole monuments dedicated to the people who suffered and perished in one of the deadliest labour camps in Communist Bulgaria, near Lovech. Established in 1959 beside a rock quarry, it operated until 1962 and, as the camp at Belene was closed, quickly gained notoriety as the most brutal prison in the country.
About 1,500 men and women were detained in it, usually without any court trial. Roughly 10 percent of them did not survive the "reeducation." As the death certificates issued by the prison authorities gave mainly "sun stroke" as the cause of death, the inmates sinisterly nicknamed the camp "Sunny Beach," after the Black Sea resort that was becoming internationally known at the time. Though some of the more notorious camp guards and those who gave them orders were officially prosecuted for crimes against humanity in the early 1990s, the courts failed to produce any prison sentences. Ironically, the best memento for the 1,500 who suffered in Lovech is the Communist sign still visible on the ruins of one of the camp buildings: "Use your break to work."
MONUMENTS TO THE REVIVAL PROCESS VICTIMS
On Christmas Day 1984, in the Turkish populated areas of Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov's regime started something that it mendaciously called the Revival Process. The "Turkish-Arabic" names of about 750,000 Turks (the number according to the census of 1975) were changed to "Bulgarian" ones. The propaganda behind this was the "scientifically" fabricated idea that all Muslims in the country were, in fact, descendants of "Islamised" Bulgarians who had "forgotten" their past and even their language. Therefore, the propaganda claimed, they should return to their "roots" as quickly as possible. Speaking Turkish in public was banned, and passports, birth and marriage certificates, and school registers were replaced with "revived" ones within weeks. Even tombstones were "Bulgarianised" with Bulgarian names sprayed over the Turkish ones. The state spared no effort to enforce the campaign, involving State Security agents, police and the regular army. In spite of this, however, people in some villages and towns had the courage to take to the streets and to demonstrate against the name changes. On several occasions, the tension turned to violence and some protesters were killed. Sources for the exact number differ, however, citing between seven and 24 casualties. After 1989, in the areas where riots happened, water fountains in memory of the victims were built, and plaques erected.
The most impressive memorial of this kind is in the centre of Momchilgrad, in the Rhodope. On 26 and 27 December the town was the scene of one of the first and largest protests against the name changes.
While travelling in Bulgaria you can sometimes spot the odd tiny memorial, dedicated to the victims of the former regime, as here in Nova Zagora.
MEMORIAL TO THOSE EXECUTED ON 1 FEBRUARY 1945
If you are looking for a single day when the Bulgarian political class was decimated with one blow, you get 1 February 1945. On that day the People's Court sentenced to death 67 MPs and 22 ministers who had held office between 1940 and 1944, including the former prime ministers Dobri Bozhilov and Ivan Bagryanov. Also killed were the regents Prince Kiril, Bogdan Filov and General Nikola Mihov, nine secretaries to the palace, publishers and journalists of national newspapers, and 47 generals and senior military. They were shot dead on the same day, beside an unused pit left on the outskirts of the Sofia Central Cemetery after the Allied air-strikes in the winter of 1943-1944, and were buried on the spot. The mass grave was left unmarked and several years later was turned into an ordinary burial ground. In 1995, in lot 124 of the cemetery, a monument to the victims of 1 February 1945 was finally erected. The following year the Supreme Court posthumously repealed the death sentences.
MEMORIAL TO THE VICTIMS OF COMMUNISM, SOFIA
The largest monument to the victims of Communism in Bulgaria is located in Sofia near the NDK, or the National Palace of Culture. It was inaugurated on 11 September 1999, 10 years after the fall of Communism.
Designed by architects Atanas Todorov and Dimitar Krastev, the monument has three sections: a 58 metre-long polished black granite wall inscribed with the names of 7,526 victims of the regime, a 19th Century stone cross and a chapel. The wall with the names is reminiscent of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, designed to reflect the passers-by onto the names of the victims. Commemorative services are held several times a year, on major Christian festivals and dates such as 1 February, when the first mass execution of those convicted by the People's Court was carried out in 1945. Other dates are 16 April, when in 1925 Communist terrorists blew up St Nedelya Church, killing scores of civilians, and 9 September. Near the memorial there is another monument with an anti-Communist aura ‒ a chunk of the Berlin Wall.
The water-fountain in the village of Tranak, near Burgas, is the most controversial monument to victims of Communism. Inaugurated in 1993 by Ahmed Dogan himself, it was dedicated to three Bulgarian Turks who perhaps best illustrate, in a gruesome way, that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. On 9 March 1985 Emin Mehmedali (Bulgarianised to Elin Madzharov), Adbula Chakar (Altsek Chakarov) and Saafet Redzheb (Sava Georgiev) planted a bomb in the mothers-with-children-only carriage of the Sofia-Burgas train. It went off while the train was passing through Bunovo station, killing four women and three children. The assailants were caught, tried and sentenced to death. They were executed in 1988. The water fountain in Tranak became a bone of contention in the 1990s. In 1997 it was removed citing improper planning permissions. Soon afterwards, however, it was rebuilt. The water fountain was finally demolished after a decision of the Supreme Administrative Court in 2009.
TURKAN WATER FOUNTAIN
When travelling between Zlatograd and Kirkovo, in the Rhodope, a strange brown "tourist attraction" road sign will appear on the road: "Turkan Water Fountain," enigmatically. If you decide to make a detour and follow the sign you will end up in the village of Mogilyane. There, between the last rows of houses and the beginning of the plots of arable land, a huge new water fountain stands. It is placed on the spot where, on 26 December 1984, one of the deadliest clashes between Bulgarian police and protesting Turks claimed the lives of three people: a man and a woman in their 40s, and a 17-month old girl, Turkan. The death of the toddler stuck in the common memory and, although the fountain is dedicated to the three victims, it is colloquially known by the name of little Turkan.
MEMORIAL TO THE VICTIMS OF COMMUNISM, VIDIN
Vidin, in the northwest corner of Bulgaria, has the dubious reputation of being one of the most leftist areas in the country. For example, Boyan Chonos (1921-1943), a local partizan , is still venerated in the city and a still surviving cooperative is named after him. The BSP, or the Bulgarian Socialist Party, has maintained a strong position in Vidin since the fall of Communism. In the centre of the city, however, stands one of the few large and well thoughtout monuments to the victims of Communism. The chapel above the waterfront and the Port of Vidin was inaugurated in 2002, as a result of an initiative by the Bulgarian Democratic Forum party. It was designed by the architect Stancho Valkov.