It was 2006 when I first spotted the concrete saucer on top of Bulgaria’s Buzludzha Peak. I was mesmerised not just by the size of it – or its striking juxtaposition against the jagged contours of the mountain range – but moreover by what it represented.
And I’m not talking about communism.
Yes, the Buzludzha Memorial House is generally considered a ‘communist monument,’ and with fair reasoning: the red star built into the tower, the hammer-and-sickle motif that hangs above its auditorium, the faces of Marx, Engels and Lenin painstakingly recreated in mural form inside. From a distance though, seeing it for the first time from some 20km away, none of that was visible. Back then the monument was yet to achieve its viral online fame, and even before I had understood its political context the Buzludzha monument had moved me in ways in which no monument had ever done before.
The Buzludzha Memorial House was never a useful building. It sits in a remote location at an altitude of 1432 metres, battered by fierce winds, buried in snow each winter. The Bulgarians literally moved mountains to build it – in 1974, the peak was brought down by nine metres with explosives in order to create a level building foundation.
The monument’s interior, meanwhile, features only one practical space: a circular conference hall. Most of the other rooms inside served simply to support it; the boiler rooms, generators, lighting desks, lavatories, cloakrooms and air-conditioning systems that were necessary to maintain the illusion, and to shield this surreal arena against the inhospitable elements just outside.
That red star alone, glowing from the monument’s tower, used as much power as 500 homes.
The rationale behind this monument was the very opposite of the practical, utilitarian styles of architecture I’d been surrounded by, growing up – the kinds of buildings and monuments that Britain started mass-producing after the war, and throughout the 1960s. On Buzludzha Peak, the Bulgarians had thrown practicality to the wind and spent 14 million levs (at today’s rates, approximately $35 million) building a structure capable of dumbfounding passersby from a distance of 20km. It was this complete reversal of familiar architectural logic – and not the political branding, the hammers and sickles – that first attracted me to Buzludzha.
Over the next decade I travelled the world. I went to military parades in the former Soviet Union, I explored architectural oddities in the Far East and hunted for revolutionary memorial sites in the Cuban countryside. To date I have visited socialist monuments in more than 30 different countries… and it’s not a political statement when I say the socialists did it better.
At school I had been taught that socialist states (particularly the Soviet ones) were repressive, authoritarian hell-holes where creativity was stifled by conformity. Not far from that very same school, our town’s WWII memorial rose from a grassy hillside; a simple, square-sided obelisk, the same design that appears in practically every town in Britain. Compare any of these British things to the war memorials they were building then in Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union, and it’s not the socialists who appear to be lacking creativity.
Of course, many of these socialist monuments also served roles as physical propaganda… raised fists, guns and flags, powerful Soviet soldiers stamping on Nazi eagles. Particularly in the Classical and Socialist-realist styles preferred by mid-century, post-war socialist republics, political messages were presented with such simplicity that there was no room for personal interpretation.
However, the socialist world would experience a cultural renaissance of sorts, beginning in 1956. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin at the twentieth congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and a wave of de-Stalinisation swept across the Eastern Bloc. The repressive, Stalinist styles of art and monumentation were no longer law. In Prague, the world’s largest statue of Joseph Stalin (part of an ensemble measuring 15 metres tall, 22 metres long) was brought down with explosives; while in the Balkans, in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, as restrictions on artistic expression were relaxed, those mass-produced statues of soldiers, peasants and partisans began to give way to new abstract forms: to a monumental language of wings and flowers and flying saucers.
Suddenly, countries that had previously been denied the freedom of artistic expression were getting drunk on it. They imported the hottest international styles of the era – Modernism, Futurism, Brutalism – and made them their own.
Tito’s Yugoslavia used socialism to unite a federation of multiple nationalities; nations whose more extreme factions led massacres against one another, both before and after the reign of the Yugoslav Communist Party. The abstract style of the monuments built there was intended to show no heroes, no villains, only ideas. Very often they were symbolically composed from multiple segments that never touched, but appeared as one single object when viewed from a distance; an allegory for the federation itself.
These Yugoslav memorials were symbols of life conquering death, of growth and repair; of sadness, sometimes, but always tempered with hope for a better future. Concrete flowers bloomed above burial mounds.
Today, however, many of these monuments are in terrible condition, graffitied and falling apart. It is often easy to see why. In Croatia there are Yugoslav monuments dedicated to the victims of Croatian war criminals; while in Serbia, in the 1990s, Slobodan Milošević tarnished the Yugoslav brand by endorsing ethnic cleansing under the banner of the Yugoslav People’s Army. In neither country do the surviving Yugoslav monuments always offer a particularly comfortable narrative.
In the case of other monuments, it’s their perceived associations that condemn them.
Countless monuments in Bulgaria were built to celebrate the deeds of the ‘Antifascists’ – and it’s a sentiment that really ought not to have gone out of fashion. Even after the Bulgarian government capitulated to Nazi Germany in 1941, a fierce partisan movement existed throughout the country in resistance to what many Bulgarians still viewed as a toxic ideology. Some of those partisans were communists, but the only thing they all had in common was the fact that they didn’t want fascism in their country. Following WWII however, the Bulgarian Communist Party claimed all the credit for the antifascist movement… and nowadays, as a result, monuments to men and women who sacrificed their lives to resist the rise of fascism are very often dismissed as communist junk.
On 24 November 2016 Bulgaria followed the lead of Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and others, by passing a law that bans the display of communist symbols. As a result, a great many monuments designed with the best intentions (though tagged, of course, with the insignia of the ruling regime) have since been classed accessories to a crime. The law dictates that small objects branded with such symbols be removed, while larger ones must be fitted with disclaimers denouncing the criminal nature of the former regime. Like many laws the wording is vague and vaguely threatening; and seeing as most of these monuments are not protected with any official ‘monument’ status now, the safest approach for townships or landowners in doubt is simply to bulldoze them.
For many Eastern European countries, the relics of socialist-era monumentalism represent half a century of work by their finest artists, sculptors and architects. Some of that work is inherently political… yet even that which isn’t has in many cases been doomed to decay, simply for having been stamped with the logo of a failed political experiment. This current trend of neglect and destruction will not change the past, but rather it will simply leave behind a 50-year void, a blank canvas in place of some of the world’s most remarkable achievements in monumental art.
For a lot of these monuments time is already running out. Some of the places I’ve photographed have since disappeared. In many cases, I’m watching them disappear – piece by piece they disintegrate, getting smaller from one visit to the next.
So that’s why I’m doing what I do: I photograph doomed monuments before they vanish forever. I memorialise memorials. In 2015 I began working towards a PhD on the subject, and later that year I offered my first tour of socialist memorial sites in Bulgaria. Now I’m leading tours in eight different Eastern European countries, and the fact that they keep selling out suggests that I’m not the only one to believe these places have value outliving their former political applications.
These objects may not stand for ideas that people today still want to (or should want to) celebrate – but the monumentalism of 20th century socialism was an artistic movement with no parallel. For each of these monuments that is lost, the world becomes just a little bit poorer.
12th July 2018.