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Features 05 Jul 17

Bulgarians Divided as Capital Scraps Communist-Era Landmark

Despite protests by artists and activists, the Sofia municipality is determined to remove a highly contested monument to ‘1,300 Years of Bulgaria’ from the centre of the capital. 

Mariya Cheresheva
BIRN
Sofia
The removal of the monument started on Monday. Photo: BIRN

"Why are you photographingthis face-ache?" a stylish-looking middle-aged man asked a young photographer, who was frantically taking pictures of the ruined and controversial Communist-era monument, called  “1,300 Years of Bulgaria,” in Sofia on Tuesday.

“This is not a face-ache, this is art!” the young man replied and continued to document the grim remains of the 35-metre figure, whose removal from the garden of the National Palace of Culture was officially started by the municipal authorities in Sofia on Monday.

The dispute between the two strangers was a mirror image of the public controversy over the giant figure, whose removal has drawn protests from artists, architects and citizens calling for its conservation.

“The moment for restoring and strengthening the monument passed long ago, and those are the facts,” Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova, from the main centre-right GERB party, said on Tuesday.

The Mayor explained that the sculptures from the monument will be moved to the National Museum of History.

However, the supportive metal construction, deemed dangerous by the authorities, will be scrapped and recycled, providing “additional resources for the Sofia municipality”.

Fandakova quoted documents, according to which the monument, by the sculptor Valentin Starchev, was qualified as unfinished even before it was unveiled in 1982.

On the site of the removed statue the municipality will restore a memorial to soldiers from the first and sixth infantry regiments, which occupied the site before the ambitious “1,300 Years of Bulgaria” project was erected by the former Communist regime.

A story of decay

The National Palace of Culture, or NDK.Photo: BIRN

The monument to 1,300 Years of Bulgarian history was constructed in just eight months in 1981 as a part of the ruling Communist Party’s initiative to open a National Palace of Culture, known as NDK.

This remains the biggest cultural and congress centre in the country, occupying 123,300 square metres of central Sofia.

The 35-metre monument, made of metal and concrete, includes huge concrete blocks and seven-metre-long brass figures, representing the past, the present and the future of Bulgaria.

The figures symbolise Bulgarian letters, gratitude to fallen national heroes and the creative energy of the ordinary worker. Fragments of thoughts and poems of prominent national heroes and poets feature on the body.

Since it opened, the fate of the monument, typical of the Modernist movement, has been far from glorious, however. Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s longtime communist ruler, disliked it and held himself apart from the project.

Many Bulgarians also found it ugly, and it quickly received humorous nicknames in urban folklore, the most popular of which was “the hexagonal pentacock”, owing to its untypical shape.

Only a few years after it opened, the monument started falling apart due to the poor quality of the materials used in the construction and the short period of execution of the massive project.

Since the Communist regime fell in the early 1990s, the process of decay has escalated, as the structure was not maintained and was left to fall apart.

Over the past few years, the monument was surrounded by fences, protecting passers-by from being hit by falling objects.

By that same time, however, the monument had become a part of the urban subculture of the Bulgarian capital, with its metal fences painted over with colorful graffiti, and skaters using its concrete surroundings for extreme sports.

But after years of discussions about its fate, in December 2014 the Municipal Council decided to remove it and restore the former military memorial in its place – and the execution of that decision officially started on Monday.

Cheers and boos for the monument’s removal

The fences around the monument painted over with grafitti in 2008. Photo: Michael and Sarah Braun Hamilton/Flickr

Just like its very existence has always done, the decision to get rid of the concrete monument is deeply controversial.

Since 2014 a number of professional organisations and informal groups have signed protest letters, including the Union of Bulgarian artists, the Union of Bulgarian architects, the Chamber of Bulgarian Architects, the informal group of architects and urban planning activists, Grupa Grad, members of the Institute for Contemporary Art, and others.

The author of the monument, Valentin Starchev, challenged the decision in court, but the Supreme Administrative Court dismissed the appeal in 2016.

In its latest letter to the Sofia municipality, in June, the Union of Bulgarian artists called the removal of the monument from the garden of the National Palace of Culture - which will host Bulgaria’s EU Presidency in the first half of 2018 - “absurd”.

“The privilege for Bulgaria of presiding over the Council of the European Union is a great occasion to rethink the need to preserve our national memory, history and culture,” the organisation said.

On June 27, activists formed a live chain around the monument and compared its imminent removal to the destruction of cultural heritage by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Many, however, have cheered the move to remove the statue from the centre of Sofia, owing to its questionable aesthetics and its relationship to the controversial communist past.

“All I can imagine is this ugly monster not being there and having a garden with flowers instead. It would be far more beautiful,” Georgi, a lawyer, who was wondering why anyone would photograph the monument, told BIRN.

But Radoslav Parvanov, the young photographer, who had just come back from studying arts in London, could not disagree more.

“By not preserving and wiping away this historic period, we are leaving a hole that cannot be filled in by anything,” he told BIRN.

“I am here to see and photograph this monument for the last time,” he lamented, explaining that his aim was to document a “historical mistake that should not be repeated in future”. 

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