The idea for the monument was first pitched in 1958, as a memorial to Russia’s support of Bulgaria during the 1828-29 Russo-Turkish War. During that conflict, the Siege of Varna had lasted for two months. After landing on the coast north of the city, Russian forces established their camp on a nearby hill named Turna Tepe, as they battled the Ottoman forces who held the city.
The monument was to be built on the same spot where the Russian forces had been stationed; and which later became a mass grave for all those who fell in the battle.
Construction of the monument commenced in late 1974, and 27,000 volunteer workers toiled for four years to create the structure and the 400 square metre platform on which it stands.
More than 10,000 tonnes of concrete, and 1,000 tonnes of armature iron were used to create the monument. A large bronze cube was constructed in front of the structure, burning with an eternal flame fed by pipes hidden in the concrete platform beneath.
A total of 180 floodlights were positioned to illuminate the monument at night, so that it would be visible even by ships far out in the Black Sea. Meanwhile, a public address system set up in the park greeted visitors with Symphony № 7 by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
The monument fell into disuse after the political changes of 1989. Today, it is heavily vandalised and has been stripped bare, leaving little more than graffitied concrete and rebar.
Symbolism of the Varna Monument
The Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship represents a gesture of comradeship between two countries, and it was designed to resemble a bird of peace facing out across the sea towards the USSR (at least, in symbolic terms; in reality it is angled more towards Ankara in Turkey).
The figures at the front of the monument show four Russian soldiers, on the right, coming to the rescue of three Bulgarian women on the left. The women hold gifts of bread and salt, as well as Bulgaria's national flower, the rose. These seven statues positioned on the wings measure 11m in height.
Metal letters on the front of the Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, now heavily decayed and partially missing, once read:
“Friendship for centuries throughout centuries.”
The 15-metre wide ‘Staircase of Victors’ includes a total of 305 steps up to the monument itself, and in the surrounding park more than 20,000 decorative trees were planted to represent fallen Soviet soldiers.
Inside the Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship
The Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship is deceptively spacious – the interior consists of numerous passages and chambers which originally served memorial and museum purposes.
The largest space, inside the right-hand wing and with an indented star formed in its end wall, once contained a museum dedicated to the Russo-Turkish War. Inside the left-hand wing, a space with tiered seating served as a small hall for meetings.
A monumental plaque, positioned above the entry staircase and now decayed almost beyond legibility, featured a quote from Georgi Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s first communist leader:
“Friendship with the Soviet Union is as essential as is the sun, air and water for the living creature.”
A series of chambers on the ground floor of the Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship contained a bookshop and library, while a wide staircase beneath the structure leads down into the hill itself. A large bomb shelter, now abandoned, was constructed inside the base of the hill.
A Conversation with Alyosha Kafedzhiyski
A team of three men were responsible for designing the Varna monument – one architect and two sculptors. Two of them have since passed away, but the sculptor Alyosha Kafedzhiyski is still alive and still creating public art from his studio in Varna.
In 2015 I had the chance to ask him some questions about the Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship. Here’s what he said.
“The first thing that happened was for a decision to be made – for the creation of a monument to the Soviet Army. A national contest was then announced. In such a contest, all architects and engineers are eligible to take part. There is a special jury assigned by the Central Committee in Sofia; the institution that evaluated the quality of project proposals.
“There was a particular mania back then to build enormous monuments. A lot of large monuments were built in the 1980s... the monuments in Sofia, Dobrich as well as Shumen. In those times, the political element had a more important role than pure artistic merit. The jury was comprised of proven specialists, architects and engineers, and its job was to find projects with the right balance. There was a first, second and third prize in the contest, as well as monetary prizes... and of course, the winner was burdened with the task to make it happen. I think there were about 10 different projects entered into the contest in Varna – I can’t remember exactly, but it was ours that was chosen.
“I was very young at the time – I must have been around 36 years old when we started. It took us a full year before we submitted our project before the committee. We considered a multitude of plans, as it was a tremendous undertaking... you can probably tell by the size of the monument.
“From there we began a long procedure aimed at eliminating potential errors and clarifying everything down to the last detail: measurements, location and everything else.
“It took us five years to complete it – up until 1978. The monument was to be opened on 7th November, commemorating [Russia’s] October Revolution. Unfortunately there was an accident though, a nearby bridge collapsed and about 30 or 40 people lost their lives. The municipality delayed the opening of the monument to allow the people some time to grieve.
“The monument illustrates a bird watching over the hill. That is why the base is so narrow, while the wings are spread wide. There was an eternal flame in front, fuelled by underground diesel pipes. The fire erupted from a sculpted rock – it was arguably the most beautiful element [of the complex]. There were large bronze letters, now all taken away. Dozens of kilograms of bronze per letter, all stolen. The main door alone weighed three tons.
“The monument was especially impressive at night. It was illuminated, at a great cost, and music was played all around it. There was a library and a bookshop under the main stairs leading up to the monument, but all that is destroyed now. The front of the monument portrayed Bulgarian women on the left side, greeting the liberating Russian soldiers on the right. Each individual statue weighs about 25 tons. That was the theme of this monument – Welcoming the Soldiers.”