In 1877, Bulgaria’s 500-year occupation by the Ottoman Empire ended with a battle at Mount Shipka. The Russian Empire army supported Bulgarian soldiers to overcome the Turkish forces, leading to the establishment of the third Bulgarian Republic. It is commemorated by the Monument of Freedom, Shipka:
By complete coincidence, 14 years later, Bulgarian socialists assembled in secret on neighbouring Mount Buzludzha to establish the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party – the forerunner of the Bulgarian Communist Party.
Bulgaria’s independence was to be short-lived, and in 1946, it once again found itself under the control of another superpower – the Soviet Union. A few years later, when communism was blooming and the Bulgarian Communist Party was looking for somewhere to build its headquarters, Mount Buzludzha seemed like a pretty excellent place for it.
The biggest of Bulgaria’s over 150 communist monuments, the UFO-shaped structure, evoking subtle associations with the otherworldliness of communism, was designed by architect Georgi Stoilov. Its erection took 8 years and saw the efforts of Bulgaria’s leading artists and 6,000 ‘volunteer’ workers. The 15,000,000 BGN (or $35,000,000 in today’s terms) construction of the so-called Home-Monument of The Bulgarian Communist Party was entirely crowd-funded through suggested donations collected from the Bulgarian people by state officials. For the people, by the people. It landed on Mouth Buzludzha, 1441m above sea level, in 1981 – on the 1300th anniversary of the founding of the first Bulgarian state. A time capsule was buried in the foundations of the structure to share the profound wisdom of communists with future generations. Here it is in all its terrifying glory:
It was abandoned in 1989 when communism fell, and has been left to decay ever since. Access to the building was sealed in 1992, when the assets of the Bulgarian Communist Party were distributed to the government.
The 12 km road leading to the monument has similarly been left to decay, and the tarmac was heavily potholed and eroding at the sides, making it impossible to drive at a speed faster than 25km/h. But after a bone-jarring and jaw-clenching half-hour climb, we were rewarded for our efforts as the monument swung into view. It’s hard to imagine that it looked any more sinister during communist times:
We walked up the many intimidating stairs that led to the building with trepidation and awe. We’d been looking forward to visiting it since the beginning of 2014 when in the space of six months we saw pictures of it by two different photographs at two different places. The first was a photo by Timothy Allen at the Travel Photographer of the Year exhibition in London, which was followed by a photograph of it in a little art shop in Montmartre, Paris. The latter now adorns one of our living room walls. Finally seeing it in the flesh felt surreal.
The concrete structure was fully intact, but it was leaking water at its seams, in some places heavily. It’s not difficult to imagine it collapsing completely at some not too distant point in the future. We walked around the building, dodging the rivulets of water and admiring the absolutely stunning views across the mountains:
As the entrance was firmly locked, we had to find the secret alternative access point used by previous visitors and by those whose voices we heard faintly echoing from inside the monument.
And then we saw a pile of rocks underneath a sheet of metal that had been torn away from the wall – the sophisticated entrance to the HQ 2.0 of Bulgarian Communism.
Alex chickened out – entrances made from piles of rocks aren’t yet established in her native Britain – but I persevered. By squeezing into the little hole in the wall, I managed to get inside the building onto a dark and scary-looking staircase. Two flights of stairs and a few intensified heartbeats later I was in the dome-shaped auditorium of the building:
As this derelict structure unfolded in front of my eyes, I felt overwhelmed with its beautiful ugliness. Being inside this building which was so fragile and dilapidated now but so awe-inspiring and deified once was surreal:
Its wrecked mosaic walls, ruined floor and collapsing ceiling felt like a symbol of the ruins of communism, but also of the Bulgarian society destroyed by communism.
The walls of the auditorium are decorated by 550sqm of mosaic murals which depict the bread and butter of Bulgarian communism – from its ideological fathers and leaders, Engel, Marx and Lenin, to the events leading to the establishment of the Bulgarian Communist Society. The ceiling of the dome-shaped structure is adorned with two pentagrams – the Bulgarian and Soviet stars shining brightly in the sky of communism.
The corridor surrounding the auditorium is adorned with mosaics depicting the peaceful labour of society – the moral obligation and eternal aspiration of every good communist:
Since 2011, ownership of the monument lies with the Bulgarian Socialist Party. Its future is uncertain with popular opinion divided between demolishing the building and restoring it. The only generation which was both born and brought up during communism, that of my parents, supports the destruction of the monument – maybe because they see it as a symbolic revenge for their stolen youth, maybe because they cannot believe that communism can have any historical value, or maybe because they’re angry or ashamed of their past. I remember visiting nearby Shipka a few times as a child on school trips, and despite Buzludzha’s looming presence on the landscape it was never discussed by my teachers.
Internationally, the monument has garnered its fair share of interest, attracting visitors and media attention from all over the world – in our case, a group of Romanian bikers, who were visiting Buzludzha on a day trip.