Insane Bulgarian Communist Monuments – Size Really Did Matter
Tripping through the Bulgarian countryside in search of communist-era monuments is perhaps the most Western experience I have ever had. The thing is, most people who live in nations that were formerly under the Soviet sphere of influence, would really like to forget that whole communism thing. It’s the original c-word. In contemporary times, most young Bulgarians are hell-bent on absorbing and aping as much American influenced popular culture as possible. The locals can only dream of spring-break in Florida, grabbing selfies with Tiffany and Billy-Ray, punishing Jetski’s, and shot-gunning beers. Ironically, they don’t realise what lays right in their own backyard. For what could be more “Western” than three people who haven’t worked a real job in years, cruising the back roads of a former-communist nation in search of Instagram’s and Facebook posts? There’s only one thing could be more first-world than that – blogging about it. And so, here we are.
Nobody did communist monuments bigger than Bulgaria. Nobody. Sure – Ukraine, Georgia, and a few other ex-Soviet puppet nations built a giant lady-statue or two. But in communist Bulgaria, money was spent on concrete and bricks like a forced-labour-camp buying cold gruel. The Bulgarian propaganda machine skillfully combined architecture and design with enormous wads of cash to produce a collection of enormous “Pametnik” that are about as subtle as a Cadillac in North Korea.
Buzludzha, the UFO shaped former Communist Party Headquarters, meeting hall, and laser-tag arena, is becoming more well known, and currently grabs much of the attention. Infiltrating the iconic concrete UFO perched atop a remote Bulgarian mountain has reached the status amongst urban explorers normally reserved for a tour of Detroit ruin-porn. And, deservedly so. But, Bulgarian communist monuments don’t stop at Buzludzha. Oh no.
Home to the cubist-styled memorial, the “Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria”, the city of Shumen was my first insight into just how determined the communist Bulgarian government was on demonstrating their concrete expertise. The monument at Shumen was built in 1981, designed by Bulgarian sculptors Krum Damyanov and Ivan Slavov, and I really had no idea of the colossal size of this structure. Driving about twenty kilometers out of Shumen, I looked in my rear-vision mirror, and noticed my friend Darmon had that contented grin only a British-born bohemian-freelance-urban-explorer-writer-musician-dark-tourism-expert living in Bulgaria is capable of. “So, Nate, I should tell you, that Transformer’s-esque horse monument you want to see, it’s over there.” I could see it, jutting out above Shumen, from twenty kilometres away. Up close, the Shumen monument is a collection of somewhat menacing cubist concrete statues, housed in a modernist geometric building, positioned atop a hill overlooking the city.
Unlike many Bulgarian communist-era monuments, the Shumen memorial has been well maintained. On the day I visited, apart from being trapped due to a fittingly grim storm (I will never, ever, forget the look on the staunch faces of the statues I sheltered beneath being lit-up by lightning), a wedding party was utilising the memorial for a photo shoot. Not all of Bulgaria’s monuments receive this kind of love and attention. Particularly the more “Russian” of the bunch. Over on the Bulgarian coast in the Black Sea town of Varna, the “Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship”, is now 10,000 tonnes of vandalised concrete and iron being left to decay. Perhaps it has something to do with the message of the monument, often interpreted as “dear strong, brave, and fearless Russian soldiers, please accept these gifts of bread, flowers, and salt from our finest Bulgarian women, seriously, thanks so much, we couldn’t have looked after our poor country without your help, you’re the best”. To top it off, the memorial at Varna was built in a position that faces towards Moscow. Subtle.
Beneath the Varna monument, a long, deep, concrete staircase descends into a dark and long abandoned nuclear bunker, with symbols painted on the wall that appear to be letters. However, it’s not from any alphabet on this planet. I’m not saying Aliens had something to do with this memorial, but I’m sure the History Channel would agree that the evidence of Aliens working with the Russian and Bulgarian Politburo’s is basically irrefutable and conclusive. In the upper section of the Varna monument are various rooms, once used for official communist business, but today used as shelter for the homeless.
Plovidiv, one of Europe’s oldest cities, went the truly abstract route – with the amazingly named “Knoll of Fraternity Memorial Complex”. Slabs of concrete create a symphony of 1974 geometry, layered atop one another to symbolize a Thracian hillock. The Thracians were one of many peoples that have inhabited the ancient city of Plovdiv throughout it’s seven thousand year history. Yes, thousand. The concrete knoll was constructed at one end of a grand soviet-styled boulevard – designed to run through the city as a place to celebrate communist-era “festive activities”. As with the mythical “Memorial to Great Farmers of Potatoes”, the plans for Plovdiv’s spacious boulevard were never fully realised. Today, much like The Bangles, even the “eternal flame” in the middle of the Plovdiv monument has long been extinguished and forgotten about.
click to see an interactive map showing the location of this article
It’s true, these monuments remind the locals that Bulgaria did indeed live through a sinister, murderous, brutal, communist regime, hell bent on the spread of propaganda and oppression. But in the 21st century, perhaps the Bulgarian people can get a bit of their own back, using these symbolic reminders to capitalise on the growing number of international tourists with a strange nostalgia for a time and place that existed in the “West” only though our own government propaganda, which was being distributed at a rate that would make the Bulgarians blush.
In any case, I have visited Bulgaria multiple times over the last year (most recently, just a few weeks ago), and can’t wait to return.
42 thoughts on “Insane Bulgarian Communist Monuments – Size Really Did Matter”
Allow me to be the first to congratulate you on a superlative bit of writing, sir. Your photos from Shumen really came out a treat, didn’t they?
Dude, you should have seen the paragraph I edited out, which basically made it sound like a heavy bro-mance was happening. “Darmon is this amazing guy etc etc”. But I’m not that sort of guy. And then, there’s the whole Phillipa thing. In any case, this was the first of our journeys, the one that started it all, and I look forward to the next. re: the photos, yes, that storm in Shumen really helped things!
excuse my language but seriously fucking sick photography, nate. i have no other words.
kidding i do.
i love the part where you said that the people there have no idea what is in their own backyard. i agree with that statement 100%. i salivate over some of the architecture i see when traveling and the people around me scoff at it.
on a side note, it must really pain you to see how horrible my ‘shot on auto’ photos are on my blog. need to ship you and phillipa up to oslo to give me some major lessons.
Language is not a problem, I’m Australian ;) As for your lessons, no, you will need to come to Belgrade and get some lessons here!
And yes, I find the same thing everywhere – when I posted an article about Novi Beograd, people here told me they never considered it “article-worthy” until a foreigner came to town and pointed it out. Similar reaction in Skopje. It just goes to show how us humans can miss what’s right in front of us, and familiar.
So, yeah, get that Belgrade ticket happening. Early June is almost a 100% certainty that Phillipa, Larissa, and myself will all be here!
definitely will try to get down that way. i can probably work remotely and take a LONG weekend down that way in june. still sad i cant go on a yogypsy trip……this time. :)
There’s always a next time…. or is there? ;)
They know what’s on their back doorstep; all too well. for them it’s not fun tourism But sometimes bad memories
Again really wonderful pictures, but at the same time insanity. Still asking, ho was this possible. Thanks for this.
Cheers Peter, thanks for stopping by again. Yes, it’s just a bit insane… and hard to fathom the scale of these Bulgarian monuments. They do make for fantastic tourist opportunities though!
I am so embarrassed I was in Bulgaria about three years ago and missed every single one of these buildings. I just need to go back to redeem myself!
Let’s do a road trip, G!
The monument are all fairly “remote” – as in, they’re in cities and towns, but you need to travel a bit from Sofia to get to them. Bulgaria has so much to offer, it really put’s a smile on my face whenever I think of my time in that country. And I know there’s so much that I’m yet to see…
I always did sense an anti-communist undercurrent when listening to the Bangles, but had no idea they were so politically active!
although, after listening to the b side for eternal flame (‘death to Zhivkov’) hindsight is 20-20!
You’re a wise man, Mr Santana. I suggest you play the vinyl single of “Death to Zhivkov” backwards, listen to the chorus and you will hear (in Bulgarian) “gruel is good, eat more gruel” repeated over and over. It’s all so clear now!
Awesome in the literal sense of the word. Why more people don’t appreciate this stuff I’ll never understand.
Hey Paul – there are far more fans of this sort of thing that you would believe… lot’s of people with good taste out there ;)
Totally gobsmacked by these photos, Nate. I’ve seen some pretty dreary Communist architecture, and quite honestly, didn’t really think there was any other kind! The shots you got in Shumen look like they could be straight out of a Tolkien novel… very, very cool!
Thanks Steph! I love it when it’s raining and stormy, much like sunrise/sunset it just adds a totally interesting dimension to photos. In Shumen, I couldn’t have had more perfect conditions for photographing this amazing monument.
Crazy! I’ve been to the statue park outside of Budapest, which was cool, but this place takes the cake. So amazing.
It’s pretty wild, Amber. I’ve been to Budapest a few times, and I’m yet to make it to the statue park! Next time for sure…although, I did say that last time ;)
The Balkans train journey sounds amazing, just met a girl who is cycling through the Balkans this summer – I had no idea how incredible the scenery is there, I’m sure it’s just as good if not better by train!
The scenery really is spectacular… not since being in New Zealand have I seen scenery this good. Cycling or train are probably the two best ways to travel though the Balkans.
it has been too long since i checked your site…i am a sucky friend. that shit is awesome….you keep showing me the world old man. its good out there….
You’re one of my best friends, Hal! …and all of my good female friends seem to call me “old man” these days ;) We’ll catch each other in real life sooner or later for sure, somewhere in this big old world… Please say hi to Lil L, I miss my youngest buddy!
You already know how I feel about your skill set when it comes to photography. You paid attention to the masters.
Could you or can you imagine the workers building these? Then back to the architects who drew up the plans, and back to the artists who conceived these? It reminds me of Josef Von Sternberg’s work in the film ” The Scarlet Empress “. The massive scale, the austere beauty. Truly inspiring work. They need to be saved. Should start the YOMADIC GYPSY ART RESCUE LEAGUE .
Hey Laurence, I love how I always learn something new when I read your comments. I’m going to have to check out Josef Von Sternberg’s work. And, yes, we should create some sort of “art rescue league” – especially in the Balkans, they need a lot of help to preserve these beautiful structures.
Generally I’m not a big fan of Communist architecture for its ‘coldness’ and lack of embellishments. However Bulgaria has some very interesting Communist monuments. I find them very grand, eerie and mysterious at the same time! Nate, you really know how to ‘play’ with light and shadow. Great photos!
Hey Bama, always nice to hear from you.
Yes, not everyone is a fan of Communist Architecture, but the Bulgarians certainly had their own unique spin on things. And thanks for the photography compliments – somebody once said “the worse the weather, the better the photos”, or something like that!
Hi Nate, amazing pictures.
I am also a big fan of communist era architecture. Myself, being Polish, brought up in Yugoslavia, I was always fascinated with their architecture. There is some good communist style architecture in Czech and Slovak Republic, as in Poland as well… Ukraine would make your jaw drop off as well.
BTW – if you plan a trip the Balkans again, I was always considering a trip on the trail of SPOMENIKI – monuments dedicated to to Yugoslav partisans from WW2 times. Have a look here for some inspiration:
Fingers crossed for further great pictures and trips around the Balkans
In particular I love the architecture in Bratislava, Slovakia – amazing stuff. I wrote about it here: http://www.yomadic.com/soviet-architecture-hotel-kyjev-bratislava/
One of these days I’m going to get to Ukraine, actually, it’s right near the top of my list. And as for the Spomenik in the Balkans, I’ve already visited a few, and slowly but surely will get to all of them (I hope!)
Really nice that you feel good in my country! There are so many things to see here…really many many things. If you are coming again around write me a mail I would definitely recommend you some stuff and try to find you places to stay if you need.
Great article and amazing pics as always. After reading your article on Buzludzha, I decided to head there and of course was not disappointed. I think we share the same love of communist architecture and Bulgaria is full of it.
You should definitely head to Ukraine, maybe when things have settled down, but the Soviet statues in Kyiv are next level impressive.
Just wondering about your photos here, are you using a lens filter to achieve that faded/rustic look? It makes the monuments look that much more communist.
Would love to know to add that extra layer to my photos while I’m living in Albania.
Hope your enjoying your time in Perth.
Hey Aaron.. now, which Aaron is this?
Would love to reach Ukraine, but yes, perhaps right now is not ideal…or maybe it is ;)
I don’t really use “filters” as such – just tweaking with contrast/white balance/the usual. You can get a “faded” look just by adjusting whites/blacks/contrasts/etc. I use Lightroom to do all of this…
Any questions, fire away!
Nice article mate! You should have come to Stara Zagora to see the Samara Flag momument:
I have never seen the Varna memorial, but I will visit it! And I hated the ugly Plovdiv one, but the ‘flying sauser’ as we call the Buzludzha monument is truly a magnificent sight, can be seen from many, many miles away… Thanks ;)
All this / http://cdn.yomadic.com/wp-content/uploads/shumen-monument-communism-bulgaria.jpg / is a proof that Transformers do exist.
These menacing cubist concrete statues are NOT “communist overlords”. The place is also known as the Founders of the Bulgarian State Monument. The statue with the sword is the statue of the ruler of the Bulgar orda in the second half of the 7th century and is credited with the establishment of the First Bulgarian Empire in 680/681. So … not “communist overlords” they are Bulgarian khans and tsars
I am from Shumen and the only communist thing about “Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria” are the years it has been built. This monument represents the establishment of Bulgaria and we bulgarians are very proud of our history. Nevertheless we have abandoned a lot of monuments and memorials only becuse they represent antiquated conseptions. I like these pictures, I love the dramatic feeling they give me.
Shumen, Bulgaria – my town. The memory is made by the people of the region for themselves to celebrate their stay at this place, at this region where the first two capitals of Bulgaria are. It is defenitely an art, it is made in 1981 and it is full of symbols. If you know where to look at you will see a cross of lights, the mosaic shows the creators of our alphabet, and the man with the sword is Khan Asparuh – the man who came at the same place in 680-681. There is absolutely nothing communist in it, on the contrary it shows strenght and steadynes, and pride!
Hi, do you know now, what is the meaning of allien-codes on the wall inside the nuclear shelter?
Thanks for reply!
Hi Martin, I’m really not sure. I had a local expert with me, and he was also not sure…
In Bulgaria now
Aping American culture ?! You have a too American point of view. The good life is human culture. Not American .
The USA is not very loved here or in many ex Eastern European nations, but many are too polite to say it to an American
For monument at Shumen
A monument can be built in soviet times ; but not be a soviet monument
Ie it defined by being soviet
It may have to pass criteria for funding and being built
Ie water to carry for a look or use
But the artist may not be truly expressing ‘soviet’
Much of Moscow art of the time has this deeper granularity
Hi – have just found your posting about Bulgaria and the country is amazing! I am an Englishman and have been living here for the last 3 years. Every day I find new things out about the place and not just the communist history. This country has SO much more to offer anyone visiting. I went to Bourgas the 1st year I was here and discovered “Aqua Calidae” and the legend that surrounds it is like a fairy tale. The Thracian tombs. The waterfalls and caves that the Bulgarians keep a well hidden secret, and understandably why when you see them. I know of one waterfall complex that is totally natural and my kids would have loved to have climbed all the rickety old bridges that take you round and through the place. What we all need to remember is that Bulgaria is much more than communism. The Tsaravets Fortress has the execution stone where people were literally thrown 100’s of feet into a chasm of the river. Handy to wash the mess away. So many more things here. People really should visit. Especially with summer temperatures in the 40 + degrees celsius! beautiful country and amazing people. Just remember the weird thing, which again has a historical background. A nod of the head means NO. A shake of the head means YES……. Very confusing for an englishman but what is even more confusing is when the head goes round and round…… WHAT THE HELL IS THAT ALL ABOUT!