Decades of appalling vandalism nearly destroyed one of the world’s most endangered monuments in Buzludzha, Bulgaria. I draw from my thoughts on politics, culture and the human condition to come to terms with the inevitability of this catastrophe

You’ll think I’m dead, but I sail away
On a wave of mutilation

Wave of Mutilation by The Pixies

The birth of a symbol

On August 23rd 1981, Bulgaria’s Secretary General Todor Zhivkov led the opening ceremony at the Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party. The crowd of dignitaries, soldiers, party members and locals that gathered in front of the imposing concrete building stood in observant silence. All that could be heard was the fluttering of red banners in the crisp mountain breeze sweeping the Stara Planina range, and the voice of the statesman – nearly 3 decades at the helm – booming through the loudspeakers. The Buzludzha peak, upon which architect Georgi Stoilov built the stunning landmark over a period of 7 years, held a very special significance for the people of Bulgaria. It was that peak where Hadji Dimitar, Stefan Karadzha and a band of 30 rebels fought an Ottoman force of 700 in 1868, falling almost to the last man. Their sacrifice inspired a resounding victory a few years later, in 1877, when a joint force of 7.500 Bulgarian volunteers and Russian troops heroically repulsed a series of blistering attacks from a 38.000 strong Ottoman asker at the nearby Shipka pass, a battle that all but settled the quest for Bulgarian autonomy from Ottoman rule. In the summer of 1891, Dimitar Blagojev organised a secret assembly in the area, sowing the seeds of revolutionary Marxism in the nascent Bulgarian state. 90 years on, Zhivkov was dedicating the new mountaintop monument to Blagojev and those forefathers of Bulgarian Communism.

The opening ceremony

The ambitious project garnered broad support from the people of Bulgaria. Much of its cost was met through public subscription, such as the sale of commemorative stamps and pins, or via direct donations. Engineers, artisans and labourers would offer their skills voluntarily. The state apparatus contributed with a construction battalion from Bulgaria’s military, and by – reportedly – docking a small levy from every working Bulgarian’s salary. It was an immensely challenging project : new roads and ancillary infrastructure had to be built prior to moving thousands of tons of materials to the rugged peak, rising at 1400m. The construction of the monument altered the landscape : using TNT, the engineers leveled the mountain top down by 9 metres to create a flat foundation for the structure.

Interior photo by Artin Azinyan

Once finished, the exquisite memorial manifested the greatest achievements of the nation. It was akin to an Acropolis to Bulgaria’s Golden Age of Communism : its stairs and hall were covered in white marble. The roof was lined with copper sheets. Beautifully crafted mosaics covered its walls and corridors, depicting episodes from Bulgaria’s long journey through history. The basement housed an autonomous power plant and its hi-tech control room. The structure’s 70m tower featured two massive red stars – one on either side – made of synthetic ruby glass. Illuminated by 32 spotlights, legend has it that each bright red star could be seen all the way from Greece and Romania ! Little was known at the time, that within the space of 20 years, the imposing monument that once contained the essence of Bulgaria would have transformed into an exquisite ruin, and a scapegoat for Bulgaria’s uneasy relationship with its communist past.

A computer generated render of what the monument looked like from the inside

The death of a Party

The Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party operated for less than a decade after its grand opening. In 1989, the ‘winds of change’ swept across Europe, and communism collapsed. Todor Zhivkov was deposed that year, and Bulgaria embarked on a new journey, steering away from its communist past, toward a new national identity based on Western democracy. Buzludzha was inevitably mothballed : it became a relic from an era that was now seemingly past its due date. As the 90s grew to a close, Bulgaria experienced a period of political and economic instability, until the radical pro-Western government of Ivan Kostov brought forward sweeping free market reforms, aiming to put an end to the country’s post-socialist frustration. Kostov, a pro-EU, pro-NATO economist was unequivocal in leading Bulgaria’s rupture with its communist past. He made a strong statement by securing parliamentary approval to demolish the Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s first Communist leader. It was bulldozed in 1999 over a period of 8 days and nights, a symbolic act that attracted broad attention from state and international media.

Footage from the demolition of Dimitrov’s Mausoleum

In subsequent years, other Communist monuments and symbols would meet a similar fate, particularly in and around Sofia. Somewhere along that wave of de-communisation, the security guards posted outside Georgi Stoilov’s masterpiece on Buzludzha peak were removed. The party headquarters was left unattended for the first time since its conception, as uncertainty about the future of Bulgaria’s politically emblematic monuments intensified.

Inside the Buzludzha Monument

On the day of my visit, I entered the ruin through a hole in the ground. It was at the left of the monument, one of many potential access points to the desecrated headquarters, all invariably leading to its dark basement. There used to be a grate over the rectangular opening that led to a square, metal framed window that once let some light into the underground chambers. The grate was now gone, and and the opening had been sealed with a thin layer of concrete again and again, in a comically futile effort to prevent entry – for each time an effort was made to secure the monument from vandals, someone else would turn up and drill, hammer or hack their way through it. Anyhow, access was possible when we got there. We lowered ourselves down the rectangular window well. There was either a 4 metre drop from there, or a precarious balancing act on a wooden beam spanning two rusting metal shelving units. There was an eerie silence inside the monument, broken only by our laboured breathing. There was the unmistakable smell of abandonment – a cocktail of rust, piss, and wet concrete.

The Entry

I rushed up the stairs to the main entrance hall, and upwards to the assembly chamber. I felt the urge to be there a few moments before anyone else, and experience the gargantuan monument somewhat privately. I was rewarded. I remember how quiet it was, just the echo of my steps rushing up the stairs, small clouds of powdery dust rising after my footsteps. The afternoon sun rays shone through a myriad of gaps in the roof, reflecting on the glass mosaics in a gleaming kaleidoscope of colours. Even at its nadir, the monument looked spectacular, its indisputable emotive power still there despite the scars. I lay on my back in the center of the grand assembly hall, among the debris from the hall mixed with rubbish from campfires and picnics. I took my first photo ; the faded green, red and gold hammer and sickle roundel, surviving nearly unscathed high inside the apex of the decaying dome.

  • My ascent to the assembly hall
  • The hammer and sickle inside the dome of Buzludzha

I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the depressing hulk of what used to be Bulgaria’s most lavish public monument. Soon after it was left unattended in 1999, the looting commenced. The more valuable fittings, such as the copper roof and marble floors, started disappearing first. With time, everything that had any value whatsoever and could be carried away, was plundered : Windows, doors and frames. Lights and wiring. Bathroom tiles and plumbing. Carpets and fabrics. Electronic and mechanical parts from the monument’s control rooms and power plant. Looking for treasure, someone even shot up the red stars on the tower with a rifle to harvest the shards, in the belief that they were made of real ruby. Some say that part of the loot ended up in the homes of government officials. Piece by piece, the Bulgarians were taking back their own, tearing down a beautifully appointed synthesis that once symbolized the high watermark of the Bulgarian nation. The monument was now being routinely defaced, reduced to its constituent materials, sacrificed on the altar of a newfound liberty that had somehow turned sour, vindictive.

  • Mosaics on the exterior walls of the assembly hall were made out of stones from the rivers of Bulgaria
  • Mosaics on the exterior walls of the assembly hall were made out of stones from the rivers of Bulgaria
  • Mosaics on the exterior walls of the assembly hall were made out of stones from the rivers of Bulgaria
  • Mosaics on the exterior walls of the assembly hall were made out of stones from the rivers of Bulgaria
  • Mosaics on the exterior walls of the assembly hall were made out of stones from the rivers of Bulgaria
  • Mosaics on the exterior walls of the assembly hall were made out of stones from the rivers of Bulgaria
  • Mosaics on the exterior walls of the assembly hall were made out of stones from the rivers of Bulgaria
  • Mosaics on the exterior walls of the assembly hall were made out of stones from the rivers of Bulgaria
  • Mosaics on the exterior walls of the assembly hall were made out of stones from the rivers of Bulgaria

The most disheartening displays of vandalism were the ones committed on the beautiful mosaics that adorned the walls of the monument. More than 70 artists had worked for nearly two years to create over 500 m2 of the vivid scenes, using cobalt glass chips in the interior, and stones sourced from the rivers of Bulgaria for the exterior of the grand assembly hall. There were images of labourers, soldiers, children and cosmonauts, alongside episodes from Bulgaria’s resurgence and anti-fascist struggle. Then there were the heads of Communist legends : Marx, Engels and Lenin on one side, facing local proponents Zhivkov, Blagojev, and Dimitrov across. The exquisite mosaics were comparable to the mosaics of emperors, mythical heroes and popular legends seen in Pompeii and Ravenna. The artistic style clearly echoes the frescoes of the nearby Thracian Tomb at Kazanluk : before – and perhaps beyond – their ephemeral political meaning, the mosaics were evidence of Bulgaria’s bonds with the ancient Thracian, Roman and Byzantine artistic heritage of the region.

  • The ornate mosaics inside Buzludzha's assembly hall
  • The ornate mosaics inside Buzludzha's assembly hall
  • The ornate mosaics inside Buzludzha's assembly hall
  • The ornate mosaics inside Buzludzha's assembly hall
  • The ornate mosaics inside Buzludzha's assembly hall

The wanton destruction of the monument continued, even after everything of value had been stripped away. Over the years, a steady stream of curious visitors, urban explorers, film crews and other intruders, each armed with their own intentions, have taken their toll : bonfires and flares have been lit inside the assembly hall. Graffiti and tags have been spray-painted everywhere, some of it directly on the mosaics. Glass and stone chips have been picked away, possibly taken as souvenirs. Around 2018, someone tried to sell bags of glass chips from Buzludzha on eBay. There’s evidence of demolition tools at use, like jack hammers, augers or wrecking bars, piercing, cutting and damaging the monument long after the looting. The beautiful, wavey Socialist Modernist concrete and bronze banner sculptures that adorned either side of the steps leading to the monument were stripped bare, and then reduced to rubble. Parts of the concrete lettering on the building have been detached, and rolled down the peak.

  • Spectacular views of the mountain range from the outer balcony of the Buzludzha monument
  • Spectacular views of the mountain range from the outer balcony of the Buzludzha monument
  • Spectacular views of the mountain range from the outer balcony of the Buzludzha monument
  • Spectacular views of the mountain range from the outer balcony of the Buzludzha monument

A past visitor had used a blowtorch to cut a square hole on the metal door that led to the 70 metre tower. I crawled through the narrow passage head first, tumbling on the other side – nearly losing my trousers in the process. The lifts that once took visitors to the top were long gone, but several flights of rusty service steps were still there. I began my ascent, with the light of my head-mounted torch struggling to penetrate the near complete darkness. The going was steady but slow, as the rusty and broken metal stairs creaked ominously under my feet. After what seemed like an eternity, I reached the upper levels, and found myself at a platform between the monument’s bright ruby stars – or at least what was left of them. Atop the tower, the view of the mountains was simply spectacular. I looked down at the roof : no more protected by its copper sheathing, it had been repeatedly pierced by missiles, perhaps rocks or broken concrete thrown from where I stood now.

  • The view from the top of Buzludzha's tower

Admiring the rugged range from the top, I could sense how the unforgiving mountain weather had contributed to the damage. Covered in snow and ice, lashed by the wind and rain, the brute force of nature was invited to partake in the rape of the defenseless, indefensible monument. The exposed exterior murals were particularly damaged, and only about half of those survive today. The building’s concrete shell eventually suffered considerable structural damage as a result of the constant flooding, freezing and thawing at the peak. The reinforced steel bar of the structure has begun visibly corroding inside the broken-up concrete – an irreversible process known as concrete cancer. Defaced, violated, and weathered to the point of despair, this veritable cathedral to Bulgarian communism was literally falling apart right before my eyes, as I stood there, bewildered by its beautifully wretched sight.

  • The worrisome signs of structural damage at Buzludzha
  • The worrisome signs of structural damage at Buzludzha

Damnatio Memoriae

The rampage had transformed Buzludzha. It felt as it’d been there for centuries, not decades, the victim of an apocalyptic event. Often in history, the pillage or destruction of symbols of past glory was the herald of a new era – like the sacking of Rome by the Goths, or 9/11. I have often wondered about what significant historic change in Bulgaria was heralded by Buzludzha’s unnecessary destruction, but haven’t found a convincing answer. All this certainly happened long after the fall of communism. Many believe that such blind damage could only be orchestrated by certain political entities whose goal was to erase all trace of Communist grandiosity from the monument. It is rumoured that some of the – seemingly – more organised acts of vandalism have been encouraged, or even perpetrated by those associated with Bulgaria’s new elite. But even for an act of symbolic political dismantling – among the many carried out in the former Eastern Bloc – what happened at Buzludzha seems to have taken place well past the cataclysmic events of Bulgaria’s regime change, and seems to have gone beyond what might have been necessary to indicate the nation’s severance with Communism.

Sofia’s lost Monument to the 1300 Years of Bulgaria / image : Eliza Yankova

This wasn’t the only time a Bulgarian monument was allowed to decline to such a miserable state. Sofia’s Monument to the 1300 Years of Bulgaria, a beautiful 1981 Socialist Modernist piece by sculptor Valentin Starchev, has also since collapsed. Its construction quality had been woeful to begin with, and it was literally falling apart by the time it was dismantled – in summer 2017. The monument’s disappearance followed several years of heated debate. The ongoing political and judicial wrangling about its future meant that the crumbling monument had remained fenced off in limbo for several years, leaving it to expire almost naturally. The controversy surrounding Communist monuments seems to be forcing Bulgarian politics to an ambiguous, wait-and-see attitude to conservation. This is characteristic of the country’s precarious political balance : with an estimated half of Bulgarians firmly believing that things were much better when Zhivkov was in charge, and a trade balance with Russia valued in the billions of dollars, post-Communist Bulgarian politics generally go for a more calculated interior posturing than what Ivan Kostov’s bulldozing antics might have suggested outwards. After all, the Bulgarian electorate has swung from left to right, from East to West, and from EU/NATO to Russia several times since the 1990 elections. It’s a situation where being neither here, not there, is a rather wise way to govern.

Todor Zhivkov and his bodyguard, Ivan Borisov (bglegis.com)

No-one seems to have embraced that maxim better than Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria’s conservative prime minister between 2009 and 2021. Borisov used to be Todor Zhivkov’s bodyguard. When graffiti artists playfully defaced Sofia’s Monument to the Soviet Army, repainting its reliefs to resemble superheroes and icons of Western lore (including Ronald McDonald, Santa Klaus and Captain America), his government just cleaned it up – vowing to prosecute the anonymous authors, while taking flak over what others defended as an art intervention against state paternalism. The perpetrators were never caught, and vandalism persisted : it was painted pink in the 2013 anniversary of the Prague Spring, with the phrase “Bulgaria apologizes” daubed across the monument, a long-traveled ripple from Bulgaria’s military participation in quelling the 1968 Prague uprising. And in February 2014, it was painted in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, to celebrate the outcome of the pro-Western revolution there, and so on. Each time, there’s heated debate at the discovery, then the monument is restored to its original state, before a new circle of vandalism and debate begins. After all, Bulgaria is a country that’s still replete with communist art and architecture, so there’s a somewhat established choreography of challenge and reprieve between the state and its disaffected, with everyone tiptoeing around the post-socialist political minefield while avoiding direct confrontation. Perhaps there’s a belief that all this friction will cool down with time. Maybe it will.

Soviet Army Monument, (from top to bottom) February 23 2014, August 21 2013, June 17 2011, March 15 2012, Sofia, Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

Nevertheless, the more offending monuments – such as statues of Communist leaders – have disappeared from city squares over the years, while red stars, communist coats of arms and other insignia have been removed from state buildings. Some of those relics are displayed at the Museum of Socialist Art, a repository for Bulgaria’s marginalized political art in the outskirts of Sofia. Their fate there is exile, rather than outright destruction. In other municipalities of the Bulgarian periphery, pro-Soviet statues and monuments still stand, simultaneously derided and revered in apparent equilibrium. The statue of an unknown Soviet soldier – affectionately named Alyosha – at Plovdiv, narrowly escaped destruction in 1989, and is being guarded ever since. Varna’s Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, has been abandoned, shuttered, and splashed with paint every now and then, but it’s still far from being razed to the ground.

  • The (frequently vandalized) Monument to The Soviet-Bulgarian Friendship in Varna
  • The once endangered statue of Alyosha in Plovdiv
  • Marginalized Socialist art in the outskirts of Sofia

The evidence shows that government actions, pertaining to the management of former Communist monuments in Bulgaria appear to be the result of due process. Often, there’s a posture of light touch, or blatant disregard of those controversial ‘elephants in the room’. Therefore how much responsibility could we genuinely place on the Bulgarian political establishment for the damage caused to Buzludzha? There’s indirect responsibility, perhaps, especially for leaving the monument unattended. The scale and type of vandalism I witnessed at the monument, however, didn’t suggest the state orchestration some (including Georgi Stoilov, the monument’s architect) suspected : if nothing else, it lacked the theatricality of dismantling an icon of the past, such as the media circus that took place during the razing of Dimitrov’s Mausoleum, or the open removal of statues and symbols that happened in the same period. In contrast, the government appears to have acted – however inadequately – to try and make the building safe. There have been warning signs, periodic security sweeps, and the blocking of entry points over and over again. Reasonable steps have been taken towards the futile exercise of keeping vandals at bay. Today, perhaps a little too late, the memorial is under 24/7 surveillance while some essential repairs are being carried out. One can suspect that the government could have done much better to dismantle Buzludzha, if they truly intended to. But no : the razing of Buzludzha happened gradually, away from media spotlight, over a period of several years… with a whimper, not a bang – as TS Eliot would put it.

Buzludzha’s Tepid Pop Art Interventions

Assuming that the destruction wasn’t an act sponsored by Bulgaria’s elected governments, how much of it was an act of politically-motivated individual protest? In the years following the collapse of communism, Bulgaria experienced the most difficult transition to democracy among other Eastern European states : its economy still remains one of the poorest in the European Union, and corruption is rampant, a situation that would make any pro-democracy Bulgarian unhappy with the pace of change. And this situation fuels the rhetoric of those who reminisce of the “good old days”. The two faces of Bulgaria seem mired in this post-communist tug-of-war. Just like the way Bulgaria’s new politics have been slowly bleeding into the old, the various graffiti daubed all over the monument are gradually infringing over its mosaics, one ancient art form replacing another. In Pompeii, graffiti love poems, curses and adverts for prostitution services have survived alongside the doomed city’s elaborate hunting and pastoral scenes of daily life. The new artwork here, however, is more abstract New York wildstyle, and less Pompeii classicism. The story of Bronx in the 70s was one of poverty, marginalization and urban decline. The graffiti culture it gave rise to was a response to this state of flux, an artistic appropriation of the purgatorial environment people were stuck in. In his 1974 The Faith of Graffiti, Norman Mailer applauded the explosion of graffiti art on New York’s walls and subways as a higher form of expression – what he termed “the most germane expression of the possible end of civilization”.

The merciless damage suffered at the Assembly Hall

So could the messages daubed on Buzludzha’s walls be a form of protest at the country’s post-communist funk? After all, vandalism has been part of the process of the fall of communism from the very start. The spontaneous demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989 by jubilant crowds of protesters was the original act of anti-communist vandalism. Yet Buzludzha wasn’t simply a hastily assembled brick and concrete wall built by an occupying power, or an urban jungle where thousands of deprived were forced to live. It was so much different in scope and content, an intricate gem that was – however politically charged – created by and for the people of Bulgaria. Quite sadly, the graffiti art at the monument seemed to be severely lacking the punch or ethic of the subway graffiti in 70s New York or the Berliner-Mauer-graffiti of the 80s.

The Berlin Wall became a canvas for the expression of political protest

Consider this, for example. An urbex / graffiti collective calling themselves The Lurkers are responsible for the much photographed “Lurkers of the world unite” graffiti inside the assembly hall. The paraphrasing of the famous political slogan off Carl Marx’s Communist Manifesto echoes the Bulgarian version of the Internationale displayed in Cyrillic lettering outside the monument. The Lurkers, however, don’t appear to be a group that uses their graffiti art to broadcast a political message. They are a street art collective that capitalize on outwardly radical pop art, aiming to sell you a £60 ($85) hoodie on their checkout. There is no protest here – just typical Communist-chic, Che Guevara tee style commercialization.

  • Checkout Communism
  • Checkout Communism

The more I looked around, the harder I found it to reconcile the graffiti at Buzludzha with the art it has replaced. The monument’s rotting walls and corridors were by now replete with it, ranging from quick sprayed rookie tags to more intricate works. Back then, the monument had been designed to evoke the imagery and ideology of communism. As such, it could readily invite counter art in criticism of the old regime. Instead, what I saw sprayed on its walls was an eclectic mix of politic-ish pop art – a rather shallow mishmash of little acts of defiance, the kind of vague discontent that just cannot be taken seriously. Alongside the rampage at the monument, I found the tasteless graffiti vandalism lacking the ethic of a pure political motive – with one notable exception : the defacing of Todor Zhivkov’s visage, one of the first acts of vandalism perpetrated on the murals of Buzludzha. Well, now – one would think that this is the kind of righteous political act you might have expected from democracy-thirsty protesters. Ironically, the only discernible-as-such political vandalism at the monument was apparently performed by members of Zhivkov’s own party, when they sought to distance themselves from his legacy following his fall from grace in 1990s. After several years of the empty face being daubed over by random graffiti, someone has recently “restored” Zhivkov next to Blagojev and Dimitrov.

There’s another much recorded graffiti next to the monument’s boarded up main entrance. It reads “Communism” in the unmistakable red and white swoosh of the Coca Cola Company. It is crowded by a display of anxiously spray-canned tags and markings, some superimposed over the graffiti itself. I am reminded of Wang Guangyi and his Great Criticism series from 1992. The controversial Chinese artist became known for his composite images of Chinese Socialist Realism superimposed with Western brand names, in the aftermath of China’s ’89 Democracy Movement. Naturally, one of his works features the logo of Coca Cola, plastered with punched out number sequences that look like the ones we see on credit cards. Wang Guangyi stopped his Great Criticism series in 2007, fearing that his own international success (he’s since become one of China’s new generation of millionaire artists) would dilute the original meaning of his art : the concept that political and commercial propaganda is just two different forms of brainwashing. The irony of this conundrum has never been more apparent than at the rotting hulk of the Bulgarian Party headquarters.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, the original hero of New York’s graffiti scene, used his SAMO (SAMe Old shit) tag to criticize the state of society and the art scene of his time. He especially called out the “so called avant garde“, the portion of the art and culture establishment who appropriated radical messages while embracing comfortable middle and upper class lifestyles. To him, graffiti was an escape from this pretentiousness : “..an alternative 2 playing art with the ‘radical chic’ sect on daddy’s $ funds” . Over the years, the haunting beauty of the endangered communist monument seems to have attracted today’s radical chic. Rock bands and film studios have used the monument as a backdrop. A host of performers, visual and graffiti artists, and curious tourists have invaded it en masse in recent decades. I am wondering how many from this army of culture vultures who partook in the dramatic appeal of the decaying “UFO” have done anything at all to try and save it. Thankfully, there have been scholars and researchers who have raised the alarm with urgency, and those respectful observers who have not made things worse than they already were. It’s quite easy to discern who among the many visitors are approaching the monument with humility, and who are there to take advantage, or destroy.

JM Basquiat’s original SAMO Graffiti

Over the years, a new, motley audience has developed, a global niche that’s fascinated by Communist nostalgia. They are thirsty for a deeper understanding of the once mystifying history and culture of the former Eastern Bloc. Art and culture editorials are tripping over each other to present them with the pomp and circumstance of communist culture. The romantic analyses of turbulent post-Communist landscapes, and the splaining the communist utopias, are abound. And so is the photography, the lectures, the exhibitions in MoMa, the prints, the books, the tours, the mass-produced commercial activity. Oh well. Mark Fisher once wrote that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world, than the end of capitalism.

The increased public interest in Sovietiae is met by a body of work that’s pointing to the politically charged character of Communist monuments as the root cause of the abandonment and damage they suffer. This interpretation, however, is based on the assumption that those who seek to damage monuments are guided by their own political conscience, while aided by the expediency of authorities. Can we blame the government, or the supporters of the old regime, or those of the new regime, or to the random tourists that flocked to the peak in recent decades to interact with the mysterious ruin? The truth is, we have all taken our toll, and I am not painting myself out of all this. I traveled to Buzludzha as a tourist. I peed behind the stairs at what used to be the foyer because I felt the urge, I needed to – not driven by any sort of political drive to desecrate Communism at its cradle.

The monument presented with an unhealthy dose of CGI in a 53% Rotten Tomatoes-rated Hollywood production

Indeed, if we were to leave politics aside for a moment, the vandalism committed here is one part straight up looting, and one part visitor eagerness to leave their own mark where everyone else seems to be freely leaving theirs : checking out the desolate beauty of Buzludzha eventually became a mundane episode of mass consumption for the urbex generation – like TikTok trends, or leaving love locks on a bridge. And in many cases, the damage was plainly a barbaric act by those who enjoy smashing up and looting abandoned places, the type of sinister crowd responsible for the irreversible loss of significant locations, such as Belgium’s breathtaking Chateau Miranda, among many others.

Rhythm 0 or how the Public can Kill you

Over the 4 years it took me to process what I saw at Buzludha on that day, I had the chance to consider the entire body of art, architecture and politics that informed its creation and demise. But I also began to reference that knowledge with my own experience of the crime scene I witnessed. It all began to increasingly feel like some lapse of humanity, a manifestation of base instincts that spiraled out of control. My first thought was that Buzludzha, owing to the political ambiguity in post-communist Bulgaria but also its location, was somehow rendered a supplicant monument, inviting a hateful vandalism it became unable to withstand. And that reminded me of a certain person known for expressing that abysmal pain and hatred of the Balkans into performance art.

As Georgi Stoilov and his team of soldiers, artisans and engineers began work on the Buzludzha mega project in 1974, an emerging young artist from neighbouring Yugoslavia was about to perform a controversial ritual that shook the world of art. Serbian artist Marina Abramovic, daughter to Yugoslav partisans Danica Rosic and Vojin Abramovic, had just began experimenting with performances that investigated ritualistic pain, and the limits and limitations of the human body.

Lips of Thomas, 2005

Abramovic’s early work revolved around using self-harm as an art medium. It was very much about coming to terms with her own difficult upbringing in Tito’s Yugoslavia : Growing up, she had to endure the broken relationship of her national hero parents. Hailing from Montenegro, they had both fought as partisans during World War 2, earning prominent positions in Tito’s Communist post-war government. The family dynamics of their union, however, would become a source of constant friction. Her father came from a peasant family, while her mother had a wealthy, ultra-religious Orthodox heritage. Abramovic’s maternal grandmother, who raised her until she was 6, was a deeply religious woman who rejected communism. Growing inside what she once described as Yugoslavia’s “Red Bourgeoisie”, her formative years were a cacophony of traditionalism, orthodoxy, communism, and military discipline. Eventually, her father left the house after a violent argument with her stringent, overbearing mother. The two women continued raising young Marina : she recalls an endless sequence of religious candle-lit rituals, getting beat up for ‘showing off’, or kept under a 10 pm curfew even up to her late 20s.

Her very first performances in Yugoslavia were set to finish before 10pm so she could adhere to that familial curfew. Abramovic used her own body as her stage : in her 1973 performance Lips of Thomas, she cut a red star on her stomach with a razor, whipped herself to oblivion, then laid herself bare on a cross of ice blocks, a possible allegory about the devastating toll that communism and religion had taken on her during her upbringing. Abramovic gripped with these issues time and again, performing her Lips of Thomas ritual in 1993 and 2005, each time adding to the pain and humiliation. Each time, getting closer to some form of understanding.

Lips of Thomas, 1973 (from the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Photography)

In her 1974 Rhythm 5, Abramovich laid herself inside a burning star, in the final stage of a purification ritual staged to confront those overbearing traditions of her past : lying motionless, she literally choked herself in the burning gasoline fumes, losing consciousness for quite some time as the unknowing audience watched on.

Rhythm 5, 1974

Marina Abramovic magnum opus in liminal performance came when she invited the audience to do what they willed with her body in Rhythm 0, later that year. Each and any of 72 items laid out on a table at the Studio Morra gallery in Naples would be welcomed to interact with her body, as she stood there, quiescent, for the next 6 hours :

Instructions.
There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired.
Performance.
I am the object.
During this period I take full responsibility.

Duration: 6 hours (8 pm – 2 am)

Marina Abramovich’s instructions placed on the table at Studio Morra, 1974

The collection of 72 objects included a rose, a feather, honey, grapes, bread, an apple. There were other, more ominous items too : a scalpel, scissors, chains, a metal bar – even a handgun loaded with a bullet. The audience were allowed total freedom to interact with her, and do as they wished. They were gentle with her, at first, hesitant : a touch, an embrace, a kiss. The audience arranged her in various poses, using the items provided as props. But as the performance progressed, and Abramovic remained submissively oblivious to the audience’s attentions, the experiment eventually morphed into something entirely different :

Thomas McEvilley, an American art critic present at the performance remembers : “It began tamely. Someone turned her around. Someone thrust her arms into the air. Someone touched her somewhat intimately. The Neapolitan night began to heat up. In the third hour all her clothes were cut from her with razor blades. In the fourth hour the same blades began to explore her skin. Her throat was slashed so someone could suck her blood. Various minor sexual assaults were carried out on her body. She was so committed to the piece that she would not have resisted rape or murder. Faced with her abdication of will, with its implied collapse of human psychology, a protective group began to define itself in the audience. When a loaded gun was thrust to Marina’s head and her own finger was being worked around the trigger, a fight broke out between the audience factions.

Rhythm 0, 1974

“I still have the scars of the cuts,” she said in a 2010 interview to Sean O’Hagan. “It was a little crazy. I realised then that the public can kill you. If you give them total freedom, they will become frenzied enough to kill you. A man pressed the gun hard against my temple. I could feel his intent. And I heard the women telling the men what to do. The worst was the one man who was there always, just breathing. This, for me, was the most frightening thing. After the performance, I have one streak of white hair on my head. I cannot get rid of the feeling of fear for a long time.”

Abramovic had set out to explore how far people would go if given enough freedom. In the process, she experienced a dark lapse in human behaviour, manifested in the profound violation of her person. As her self-imposed ordeal ended after 6 hours, she stepped out of her performance, and assuming her composure, she began to walk towards the audience. Many of her violators chose to quickly leave, rather than being confronted by her.

Darkness falls

The destructive forces that would come into play during the violation of Buzludzha, were not unlike those Marina Abramovic explored at her harrowing early performances. There has been a seismic mix of competing traditions dogging Bulgaria ever since things changed in 1989. Communism vs nationalism, atheism vs orthodoxy, a complex ethnological and social tapestry : those typically Balkan opposing flows that coexist since time immemorial, creating soul-sucking maelstroms, and heralding violence. Above all, a convenient interchangeability between civic liberty, heroically forged in blood, and an individual, atavistic sense of total freedom, which is also typically Balkan – it is indicative that most languages on the peninsula don’t differentiate between the notions of liberty and freedom : there’s only one word for either meaning. Many locals tend to stretch it to suit themselves, a freedom as celebration of civic emancipation, or as the thin veneer of propriety that masks simmering intolerance. In such an incendiary cultural environment, when certain conditions are met, violence is a stone’s throw from propriety.

  • The looted generator at Buzludzha
  • The looted control centre at Buzludzha
  • The looted control centre at Buzludzha

I recalled the anti-fable of the Turin Horse, an apocryphal story of a man losing his sanity upon seeing a horse, being brutally flogged by its owner, while tied to a cart it cannot pull. Some say that the man witnessing the violent scene was Friedrich Nietzsche : he tearfully embracing the horse, and is so profoundly shaken by the senseless violence, where he begins to lose his sanity at that very moment, never to recover until his death. A similar episode occurs at Fedor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where the desperate anti-hero Rashkolnikov, wakes up to a violent dream of men torturing a horse, tied to a cart so heavily laden it can’t possibly pull. They whip it hard, even across the eyes and face. Rashkolnikov tries to save it by embracing it, but he gets whipped along with it. The harder the horse is being lashed, the more it resigns to its fate, immovable, until it collapses. Rashkolnikov will wake up terrified, and resolves to commit murder. In Bela Tarr’s 2011 movie The Turin Horse, the identity of the horse’s torturers is revealed : according to G.Kerber and P.Ebenkamp, the perpetrators are beings that demonstrate a destructive complacency. They barely exist at a wind-swept landscape that stands in for the edge of humanity, longing for a change that never comes. The flogging of their helpless ward is implied. It is the manifestation of their life’s emptiness, and the subsequent decline of human morality into a cruelty that is as animal as the creature at the receiving end.

Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011)

Such existentially driven violence has its roots in psychology : a decline in morality is a decline of an authority whose nature isn’t purely political. In Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud saw violence as inherent to human nature, an animal instinct that’s constantly repressed by the social and psychological mechanisms of civilized society. He argued that the only things that’s holding us back from behaving like animals, is the presence of laws, but also our own conscience, our sense of guilt. This guilt stems from the effect of parental supervision as children, and as we grow, it transforms into the supervision of wider human communities. But the moment we become unfettered by those powerful authorities, we are all prone to act on our ‘pleasure principle’ – our violent impulses : according to Freud “adults regularly allow themselves to commit wrongful acts that hold out the promise of enjoyment, so long as they are sure that the authority will not learn of it or cannot hold it against them; their only fear is being found out”. William Golding’s Nobel Winning 1954 novel Lord of the Flies is an allegory for this human condition : a group of schoolchildren stranded on a deserted island experience the triumph of the pleasure principle, as the tropes of organised society collapse around them, and human nature takes over – with catastrophic consequences.

From the film adaptation of Lord of the Flies (1963)

In a number of interviews, Abramovic also spoke in Freudian terms of the willful trivialization she experienced during Rhythm 0 : she sought to clarify her own experience through the archetypal image of a woman as a ‘Madonna, mother and a whore’. The rubric is an amalgamation of further Freudian theories: The Madonna-Whore complex, which he once described as the most prevalent degradation of erotic life, is an affliction of love-hate extremes : on the one end of the spectrum, men with this complex will love and venerate a woman as they would a holy figure, however experiencing a diminished sexual desire for her. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the same men will experience a strong sexual desire for a woman, for as long as she is treated in a degraded manner – like a prostitute. Freud explained this simply with the phrase “Where such men love they have no desire, and where they desire they cannot love”. Abramovich also referred to the archetype of Mother, perhaps as a projection of the Oedipal fury of her female audience : a formative, unconscious sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex, paired with hatred for the same sex parent. Abramovich possibly considered that her tormentors – of either sex – acted out on those Freudian impulses with violence when granted the freedom, unrestrained by guilt.

Illustrating the Madonna-Whore, by Frank C. Papé

If we put all these together, could we finally begin to explain the rape of Buzludzha through the lenses of ethnology and psychology? Gender becomes fundamentally important in this view. Like most nouns ending with an -a in Bulgarian grammar, the Buzludzha Monument is quite possibly feminine. Georgi Stoilov himself also once said he considered his monument female : it was built to carry all that mattered about Bulgaria (another feminine entity) perhaps in similar context as the “Motherland” monuments found in Kyiv, Volgograd or Tbilisi. The motherly visual metaphor is not as clear-cut at Buzludzha, a monument that isn’t exactly the statue of a female. But it has the curves and spaces of a motherly womb, and it stands at the birthplace of Bulgarian communism, the very uterus of Bulgarian nationhood. There are other examples of Mother Bulgaria monuments around the country, in Stara Zagora, Pleven, and not least at Stoilov’s own Pantheon Mother Bulgaria in Gurgulyat. And yet, none of these can compete with Buzludzha in scale, location and subtext. Buzludzha, was clearly, and will always be, Bulgaria’s most complex and definitive Mother of a Nation monument ever was.

Approaching Buzludzha as a feminine totem of Bulgarian patriarchy might indeed give as many answers about its terrible fate alongside the complex politics of the region. At first revered and respected as the centerpiece of Bulgarian communism and identity, then hated and marginalized as Bulgarians sought to severe its ties with the post-war status quo, it finally became the center of local and global attention as a result of the abject vandalism it suffered. It all has the same tragic, Freudian aura Marina Abramovich described : the further Bulgarians run from what the monument ever represented, the more the monument shines. And the more destruction is heaped upon it, the more it looks like an act driven by complex psychological processes : this violent iconoclasm is the projection of Bulgaria’s love hate relationship with their own “mother”, and everything she stands for. The collapse of the familiar patriarchy of communism in the 90s created a vacuum where all this formerly repressed, Oedipal drive to destroy what was once revered, has been collectively, and perhaps subconsciously projected at the monument.

I lie among the rubble. Photo by Iain D. Williams

If Bulgarians acted their impulses against their own notions of authority and patriarchy, what assumptions can we make about the psychological profile of outsiders? Well, they represent the anonymous public, who acted by what they perceived as a freedom to act their own impulses upon the monument. It was essentially the same process experienced by Abramovic during Rhythm 0. Freudian notions about gender again make sense : it is an attraction that is reluctant at first, and becomes more destructive as the monument becomes increasingly desolate and defaced, inviting further degradation. Here it is : Buzludzha is a Mother. Buzludzha is a Madonna. Buzludzha is a whore. And such, she has always, unknowingly invited the possibility of a vandalism whose roots are psychological. Politics, the abandonment, everything else becomes just a pretext for this deeply ingrained promise of violence we all carry within.

Buzludzha is a monument that was erected to forever mirror Bulgaria – and forever it will. Despite its many misadventures, the memorial was finally recognized among Europe’s 7 Most Endangered Monuments in 2018, and has since benefited with aid from ICOMOS and the Getty Foundation. Conservation work is currently underway, and hopefully, it will be formally open to the public again before too long, allowing us to appraise it again with out subconscious in check at a controlled environment. Not surprisingly, this great result was due to the dedication and scholarly work of those persons who, captivated by Buzludzha, approached it with the grace and decorum it deserved, rather than with their primal self-serving impulse. They are the persons behind The Buzludzha Monument, the definitive source about the history of the memorial. I am looking forward to see this important European masterpiece restored, and hope that the history it represents, but also its own history, will keep informing and challenging future generations of visitors.

References

Cover photo by Daniel Flach. All photos are © explorabilia, unless indicated otherwise.

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