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FEATURES 08 May 17

Painting Monuments Stays in Vogue in Bulgaria

Whether it’s vandalism or art, Bulgarians are still daubing monuments in bright paint to strike political points and ‘reclaim’ the public space.

Mariya Cheresheva
Grafitti at the monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party at mount Buzludzha. Photo:Zoipman/Flickr

It took 27 years, and much controversy, to complete the plan to build a memorial to the victims of Bulgaria’s Communist regime in the city of Burgas. It was finally unveiled this March.

Only a month later, on May 1, International Workers Day, it met the dawn covered in graffiti, featuring the face of Georgi Dimitrov, the Bulgarian Communist leader and head of the Communist International, the Comintern, from 1935 to 1943.

Prosecutors are investigating the act, which many have called an insult to the memory of the 300 or so citizens of Burgas who suffered under Bulgaria’s one-party regime.

The memorial of the victims of the Communist regime in Burgas, covered with the face of Georgi Dimitrov. Photo: burgas24.bg

The vandalization of the memorial was nothing new for Bulgaria, however. Covering monuments in this country in paint – mostly those from the Communist era – has turned into a kind of popular art form as well as a medium of political expression.

The trend peaked in March 2014, when the Monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia was repainted three times in one week.

Another Soviet monument in a nearby park was transformed into a huge martenitsa – these being the little red and white dolls made of inter-twined woolen threads that people exchange on March 1.

Ivaylo Ditchev, a professor of cultural anthropology at Sofia University, told BIRN that such acts were a form of self-expression.

“In Communist times those monuments were heavily guarded. Now people have appropriated them and do whatever they like,” he said.

Art, politics – or both?

The anonymous repainting of the soldier figures on the Monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia as pop culture icons like Superman, Ronald McDonald and Captain America in 2011 was undoubtedly the best-known such action.

The repainted monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia. Photo: timfootman/flickr

Pictures of the work of an anonymous artistic collective, Destructive Creation, went around the world, drawing applause from art lovers and furious condemnation from Russia in equal measure.

It also provoked a wave of follow-up acts, which made use of the monument to express various political messages.

In 2013, the monument was coloured pink with a sign in Czech reading “Bulgaria Apologizes”, referring to the participation of Bulgarian forces in the Soviet-led operation in 1968 that crushed the “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia.

In 2014, as tensions escalated in Ukraine, it was repainted again, this time in the colours of the Ukrainian flag.

The official attitude to such actions is confused. The law in Bulgaria classifies vandalization of monuments as a crime – hooliganism.

But a Sofia court in 2014 refused to take any action against two activists who painted a statue in front of the Bulgarian Socialist Party’s headquarters, qualifying it as a legitimate expression of political opinion.

A member of Destructive Creation, speaking on condition of anonymity, told BIRN that “the easiest way is to qualify all those acts as vandalism. We are not trying to convince anyone of the opposite.”

But the same artist insisted on a difference between simply scratching something on a monument, or destroying it, and transforming it to redefine it in a new way.

The “message” sent by repainting the Soviet army monument “was not against the victims of World War II and their families. It was targeting propaganda, and the way it changes without the people actually changing,” he explained.

“In the same way that the Red Army was the hero before 1989 [when the Communist system fell], now it is the West,” the artist added.

“Our critique is against the fact that the figures have remained the same – we did not replace the soldiers with Superman and Captain America … we just changed the colour of their clothes,” he continued.

The situation of Bulgaria was similar – it had just been repainted in fresh colours, he suggested.

A ‘problem’ with historical memory

Professor Ditchev said Bulgaria has a problem with historical memory because it is very difficult to reach a consensus on such sensitive topics as the country’s Communist past.

“What I see is a battle between ones [pro-Communists] and others [anti-Communists]: you paint ours, and we will paint yours monuments], which contradicts the very idea of the monuments,” he said.

At the same time, Ditchev said such acts should not be taken too seriously, as “monuments are not what they were in the 19th century” when their symbolism was taken more seriously.

“This is a way for young people to gain control over the public space. Contemporary art is interactive – this is the modern world,” he said.

The anonymous artist that BIRN spoke to acknowledged that since the original pop-art revamp of the Soviet army monument, a wave of copycat acts had followed.

“We do not consider this as bad. Clearly, we unleashed a new way of expressing dissatisfaction with certain things,” he suggested.

At the same time, he admitted that his art collective, whose projects now focus on improving the public environment, has given up using paint. It prefers to “dress up” monuments instead.

“The problem is not with vandalizing monuments – they can be restored. We have greater problems in Bulgaria – like the lack of any sense of collective ethics and community,” the artist concluded.

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