After the political changes of 1989 in Bulgaria, society’s split narratives concerning Communist monuments never reconciled. Despite that, the government continues to maintain and protect some of the most controversial memorials. This project analyzes how Bulgaria’s “double liberation”, once from the Ottoman Empire and then a second time from fascist forces, has played a vital role in reinforcing a sense of indebtedness and brotherhood towards Russia. By building a database and creating a visualization consisting of mapping and timelines, the project analyzes the connection between history, government, and monuments.
The political changes of 1989 ignited a fire across many states in Eastern Europe, sparking discourse on topics relating to historical memory and national identity. Post-1989 governmental leaders felt an imminent obligation to reevaluate historical figures and events, and to erase the remnants of the past 45 years, which had been marked by cultural colonialism.
Fundamentally, because public monuments were a tool utilized for propaganda and for reinforcement of collective identity, they bore the brunt of the ideological shift across Eastern Europe. Memorials to students who stood in the path of tanks, to soldiers who bore the deepest wounds of war, to parties that built national history. The people esteemed as heroes in the eyes of some, yet condemned as malefactors in the eyes of others. As a result of the political changes, they were paved over. Renamed. Blown apart. Uprooted. And yet, some of them remained. Many factors played into these decisions, but a prevalent one was the state’s relationship with the Russia throughout the years.
Bulgaria, in particular, has had a peculiar relationship with Russia since the XIX century. Bound by Slavic roots, comparable tongue and common Orthodox religious views, the two nations had many reasons to coexist peacefully, and to find allies in one another. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 has been largely interpreted and represented as a “Liberation War” in most Bulgarian history books – a war that led to Bulgaria’s liberation from “Ottoman slavery.” This First Liberation of the nation led to the reinforcement of a sense of indebtedness and brotherhood between Russia and Bulgaria throughout the years, especially with the arrival of the Red Army, which marked the Second Liberation of Bulgaria. This time, the nation gained freedom from its own fascist government.
This distinctive relationship between the two nations – the two “brothers”, along with the 1992 Treaty of Friendship of Cooperation between the two states, play a vital role in the government’s treatment of Soviet monuments.
Nedyalka Vasileva (2013) believes that monuments embody “a desire to preserve in time something as fragile as human memory, capturing it in solid material to fix it, so it can remain unchanged for posterity.” Because of their nature, monuments are bent for governmental purposes (Clark, 1997). In the period 1944-1989, the communist regime in Bulgaria produced an astonishing amount of memorials commemorating individuals, historical events and ideals. In accordance to the similar political bondage of art in USSR, the monuments in Bulgaria were state-funded, public, and directed to a mass audience. In fact, they served primarily as visual symbols of power (Michalski, 1998, p.107), which is why they emerge as highly contested once the hands holding this power switch.
Through monumental propaganda, the Soviet managed to establish a parallel world in Eastern Europe, built by heroes and heroines who embodied political ideologies. Monuments were built in the name of laborers, dedicated communists who exhibited exemplary behavior, nameless soldiers, and the courageous, liberating Red Army. It can be argued that the victory over fascism in 1941-1945, best reinforced through the building of countless World War II memorials, was one of the main unifying factors of the Russian national identity (Smith, 2008), and “the constitutive story defining the Russian position in Europe” (Lehti, 2007, p.141).
However, after the fall of the Soviet Union and its preceding decline of power, this liberation from fascism came to be viewed by post-Soviet states as an even more severe occupation that subjugated dozens of nations and millions of people. Rejecting the ideological values that these monuments represented, it was to be expected that these post-Soviet governments would strive to wipe away the scars of the Red Army’s presence. The socialist regimes had warped public representation of history, construing national identities that had been forced onto the citizens – “volunteers” building monuments, “volunteers” joining the army, “volunteers” helping the party. But in all actuality, most of the acts of these “volunteers” were merely a mechanism of the state’s oppression of non-conforming citizens.
After the fall of communism, citizens were no longer forced to conform. This is the reason why immediately following the liberation from Soviet occupation, society (and consequently governments across Eastern Europe) split into three different narratives in relation to monuments (Traykov, 2014). On the one side, there was the demolishment of monuments, while on the other – the maintenance. And in between them stood their commercialization.
Bulgaria was chosen as the central focus of this paper for a plethora of reasons. First and foremost, Bulgaria was undoubtedly one of the USSR’s closest allies, along with China and North Korea. Although the state was never formally part of the Soviet Union, it was an indelible part of the Eastern Bloc, and the Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov had significant ties with Stalin.
Additionally, Bulgarian history had paved way for a stronger sense of brotherhood because of the peculiar “double liberation” occurrence. The Red Army entered Bulgaria in 1944 when a major part of the population already held the Russian nation in high standing. That being said, it was convenient for the new government to re-establish itself as the successor of the Bulgarian liberators, and to mark the second liberation from fascism as historical truth.
Even after the ideological changes of 1989, the Bulgarian government signed a treaty for friendship and cooperation with the Russian Federation in 1992. Whereas many post-Communist states were acting malevolently towards the Soviet architectural heritages and symbols of power, the Bulgarian state chose to maintain and protect the most controversial monuments. This continued as a trend throughout the years, leading to present day issues: while some countries are undergoing decommunization attempts, such as Ukraine, Bulgaria’s current prime minister Boyko Borissov has actually been creating programs for financing restoration of communist landmarks.
The Bulgarian state largely focused on the maintenance and protection of such monuments, but in order to understand this decision, one must examine other post-Soviet countries’ responses to controversial issue.
When the regime in Hungary fell, the new government took on a rational, structured approach to dealing with the highly contested monuments, by designing a sculpture park on the outskirts of Budapest. Memento Park, established in 1993, brought together 42 Soviet monuments, which had been uprooted from their locations on streets and squares across Budapest after the fall of communism. Didacticism prevails at the entrance of the statue park, where a large plaque quotes a verse from the famous poem by Guyla Illyes, “A Sentence on Tyranny”, which condemns ‘bombastic and deceitful statues’ (Michalski, 1998). This move can be seen as a compromise more than anything else — a clear rejection of the Soviet national identity, but also a salvation of architectural heritage, a refusal to completely erase history (Esbenshade, 1995). Another scholar, Hedvid Turai (2009), agrees that the Hungarian Statue Park represents “an intellectualising attitude to the sculptures put into a newly created context, which deprives the statues of their threatening effects and leaves them as no more than the mementos of a former era.” According to him, the state compromised by commercializing the monuments and creating a park, which served as a memento of the past, and additionally as a tourist attraction, which benefited the state.
Other countries, however, were not willing to take such favorable actions towards controversial remnants of the past. Estonia was a clear example of this with its decision to demolish hundreds of Soviet monuments as a result of Estonian independence being undeniably linked to the Soviet Union (Kattago, 2008). It is important to note that while they are linked, that link is inevitably negative due to the playout of history in the Baltic sea region. Whereas on Bulgarian territory the communist government’s establishment of Soviet monuments emphasized on Bulgaria’s XIX century independence, the regime in Estonia did the opposite: it demolished monuments commemorating Estonian independence. The Soviet essentially attempted to erase physical memory of the Estonian War of Independence, by destroying these monuments and cemeteries (such as the Narva Garrison Cemetery, the memorial to those killed in the war of independence). Thus, we can conclude that monuments are linked to the creation and destruction of national identity. This ultimately led to the post-1989 government’s decision to take down Soviet monuments — a clear symbol of oppression of society.
The Bulgarian case is significantly different — a stark contrast to the Estonian one. Instead, the communist government approach to Bulgaria’s independence is one of “brotherly help” (Vukov, 2006). National leaders cleverly use the idea of a “double liberation” as a basis for reinforcing Soviet national identity and fostering a better, stronger relationship between Socialist Bulgaria and the USSR. Post-1989, with the signing of the 1992 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Bulgaria and Russia (the legal inheritor state of the Soviet Union), according to Clause 14, monuments were to be maintained and protected by the government, despite the controversy that plagues their existence.
In fact, according to Anatoliy Shchelkuno, the General Consul of the Russian Federation (in Varna, Bulgaria): “There is no other country in the world that maintains as many monuments of Russian soldiers as Bulgaria does. Bulgarians treasure the memory of the Russian army — there are over 400 monuments, streets and squares named after servicemen who fought for Bulgaria’s liberation. This gratitude is an example of rational behavior, of spiritual union between two nations that are connected through Orthodoxy, literacy and complicated but heroic history.”
Initially, this research project dealt with contested Communist monuments in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, and the ways in which their treatment in present times is tied to change in national identity and ideology. However, this project’s time limitations did not allow for such a big scope, which is why the project was narrowed down to a single Eastern European country: Bulgaria.
Bulgaria’s unusual treatment of Soviet monuments has been digitized through the supplementary platform at www.ussrremnants.wordpress.com. Using sources from the internet, such as Wikipedia databases, and books such as Forget Your Past by Nikola Mihov and Russian Monuments from the Liberation War (accessed online at http://ruskipametnici.com/), I gathered informations, such as inscriptions, photographs, and history of the monuments. I acknowledge that this database is incomplete, given the short time in which this project was created, but the data was gathered logically: I picked the most controversial Soviet (Second Liberation) monuments in major Bulgarian cities, and researched corresponding First Liberation monuments in these same half dozen cities.
The tools used for the visualization and digitization of the data were Google’s My Maps and TimelineJS, embedded on the WordPress.com platform. These were minimalistic tools which allowed for presentation of thoroughly gathered information in a simple, unconvoluted, easy-to-maneuver way. These benefits came hand-in-hand with certain cons, though: although I found no fault in TimelineJS, Google’s My Maps had limitations in its layering options. Still, I created a map that featured several layers of data, so that the user has the ability to choose how the data can be displayed.
The website contains information greater than the one presented in this paper. It provides an interactive map, which presents Soviet and Russo-Turkish memorials in relation to one another, and offers data about establishment, commemoration, inscription, and even photographs gathered from different sources. There are four categories: sorting by time period, by year of establishment, by commemoration, and by which social narrative they fall into, based on my research findings and conclusions. Every layer of the map has its own benefit: for instance, by sorting based on period, users will be able to observe First Liberation monuments and Second Liberations monuments in juxtaposition to one another. Utilizing the other available options, they have the opportunity to track the establishment of Soviet monuments after the Second Liberation, to compare the differences between who the First Liberation and the Second Liberation commemorate, and to reach a general idea about which monuments are being defaced by society, and which are respected and maintained.
There are also two time-lines: one that follows the establishment of major Soviet monuments in Bulgarian territory, and how they are linked to the “double liberation;” the other depicts society’s three split narratives concerning Soviet monuments, based on the treatment of the Monument to the Soviet Army in the capital city Sofia.
The idea of the national enemy is undeniably a part of the formation of national identity — after all, the Soviet victory was hailed as an “anti-fascist” victory for a reason. In Bulgaria, however, the fascists were not the only national enemy created by Russia — less than a hundred years before that, the Ottoman Empire embodied the bane of the collective national pursuits. The Bulgarian nation’s experience under the Ottomans turned into an indelible part of the formation of nationalism during the Revival period.
Following the first liberation of Bulgaria, the notion of Ottoman occupation (or “Turkish Slavery”) was deeply ingrained in national ideology and education. The slavery narrative was enhanced by the representation of the Revival period (1762-1878) as a symbolic period of awakening from darkness not only in art and culture, but also in scholarly work. Thus, the XIX century period served as the birth of the nation — a fundamental part of which was the re-birth from the dark ages of Ottoman rule. From then onward, the language of history books was cleverly utilized to affirm an enslaver-liberator dichotomy in order to reinforce the notion of Russia as a liberating force. The usurpation of Bulgarian territories into the Ottoman Empire in the XIV century was illustrated as “Turkish enslavement” — not a conquest, presence or occupation — but an enslavement, which constituted Russia as a liberator. This idea continued to be solidified when the Red Army entered Bulgaria, in order to reinstate the concept of a double liberation. As a result of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, commonly referred to as the “Liberation War”, Bulgaria gained its independence from the weakening Ottoman Empire. As such, gratitude for the liberator became an indelible component of the nation-building process. To this day, despite the lingual transition from “Turkish Slavery” to “Ottoman occupation” in history books, the slavery narrative continues to take place in public discourse, and depict Russia as Bulgaria’s brother, who arrived in times of need. Not surprisingly, it is still the core of ethno-nationalism and it lent itself to a strong nationalist sentiment during the debate around the transformation of the Monument to the Soviet Army.
With the arrival of the Red Army in 1944, the new regime started a process of tightening the bonds between the two brotherly states. This formation was characterized through the illustration of a Second Liberation, this time from the Bulgarian fascist government. This resulted in the powerful myth of the “double liberation” – the notion that Russia first liberated the Bulgaria in the XIX century, and then, a second time, in 1944. That is how the party-state’s official historiographers rewrote the events, and utilized this new historical reality — this propaganda — in education and in art.
Until 1989, grandiose Soviet monuments were forged out of steel and bronze and stone on squares and streets across major cities in Bulgaria. Although they commemorated the Red Army, many of the inscriptions contained elements pertaining to the First Liberation – the Russo-Turkish War. In fact, some of the most controversial Soviet monuments were built by thousands of “volunteers” at sites where major Russo-Turkish War battles took place, which ultimately reinforced the double liberation and the sense of indebtedness and gratitude of the Bulgarian nation. A clear example is the Apriltsi Memorial Complex, built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the April uprising, which was a crucial part of Bulgaria’s First Liberation. Not coincidentally, the memorial was built on the Manyovo Bardo hill, where one of the bloodiest battles of the Liberation War took place. Quite similarly to that, the Monument to the Three Generations in Perushtitza was created — also to commemorate the 100th anniversary — with its 70-foot long sculpture composition celebrating the Liberation War of 1877-1878, the Communist uprising of September 1923, and the “Socialist revolution in Bulgaria” in September 1944.
Because such monuments were built on sacred and symbolic national spaces, they were immediately imbued with piety and praise (Outhaite, Ray 2006). And if of the Bulgarian nation truly appreciated the First Liberation by Russia, it would not stand against the Second Liberation by the Soviet Union.
Despite the government’s attempt to link and continuously reinforce the two liberations, there are still differences in their representation. A trend among Second Liberation (Soviet) memorials is that they are all rather universal: commonly, it is the whole army being commemorated, or the unnamed soldier, or a T-32 tank. Rarely were concrete people mentioned or praised. First Liberation memorials, on the other hand, are distinctively local and individual, depicting concrete soldiers who have played an important role in the liberation of the local community. Because of this, the sense of gratitude is much stronger in relation to the First Liberation than it is the Second: consequently, this is the reason why many of these Second Liberation monuments refer back to the First Liberation — in order to make the monuments more grounded in local history, and increase their influence on the public mass through this link.
After the political changes 1989, the Bulgarian government still maintained its ties with the Russian Federation. In fact, in 1992, a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed between the Bulgaria and Russia — the legal inheritor state of USSR. According to Article 14 of this treaty, the Bulgarian government was to claim responsibility for the maintenance and protection of cultural and architectural heritage relevant to Russia across Bulgarian territory. The fact that the government agreed to these terms shows that the gratitude to Bulgaria’s “brother” continued to influence the state’s decision even after the end of the occupation.
Despite the state’s compliance, society’s views on Soviet monuments were not reconciled. Largely, three prevalent narratives existed: the nostalgic (anti-fascist), the anti-communist, and the commercial. Based on the treatment of some Soviet monuments in the present day, it can be said that these categories of society still exist today.
Those who engage in the anti-communist narrative see the presence of monuments as signifiers of the horrors of communism. In the face of numerous “Alyosha”, they see the shame of foreign domination and cultural colonialism. The presence of these monuments in post-Soviet public space has a stable, unambiguous historical meaning: as a visible manifestation of Soviet political power, these monuments continue to function as an affront to those who have suffered from abuse and violence throughout 1944-1989. According to these rather vocal perspectives, the Soviet monuments deserve nothing short of demolition (Valiavicharska, 2014). To them, the double liberation is either nonexistent, or irrelevant. The Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia, for instance, signifies the competing narratives and discourses about the Bulgarian historical experience. A case which unequivocally represent this anti-communist narratives goes back to February 23rd, 2014, when the monument was spray-painted overnight with the message “Glory to Ukraine!”. Clearly, this was a politically fuelled instance in which that represented part of society portrayed Russia as an imperialist power that was undeserving of Ukraine. Regardless of Russia’s “double liberator” status, it was seen as a country that had violated another one’s independence — similarly to how the Second Liberation can be viewed — and the monument was ultimately vandalised in direct response to this.
The second narrative is the nostalgic one, linked to the “double liberation” of Bulgaria by Russia. This part of society sees the presence of Soviet monuments as a signifier of Bulgaria and Europe’s liberation from fascism. This narrative dominates the ideals of the people who lost from the transition to capitalism — primarily the older generations who grew up during Socialism, but have been ultimately left to yearn for its impossible return. The generational changes have definitely affected what is remembered and praised, for not many people of the younger generation agree with the nostalgic narrative. As the survivors and veterans who experienced World War II die out, and the folks raised alongside the pioneer organized movements grow old, so does its support. Still, people can be found critiquing vandalism on monuments, and on several occasions, they have gone as far as physically ensuring the safety of the monument. On Victory Day in 2015 (9th of May), when the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia was at the peak of its political controversy, members of the club “Red Power” spent the night patrolling the area to protect the memorial from “vandals and desecration.” As a result of this, the people who wanted to vandalize the monument were unable to, and they instead, they spread an edited image on the internet, which depicted the soldiers with bloodied hands.
The last narrative is one of commercialization, and commodification of Soviet monuments. The people who believe in this idea try to find meaning in the monuments, in accordance to the demands of present-day tourism. After the de-industrialization of Bulgarian economy in post-1989, the main source of revenue for the state became tourism, which had the tendency to transform public art into commodity. Perhaps this is the reason why the current Prime Minister, Boyko Borissov, has been funding programs with the purpose of restoring communist landmarks. After crumbling and molding for decades, the House of the Bulgarian Communist Party near Buzludzha peak is set to be revived, thanks to the government’s efforts. On June 5th, 2016, Boyko Borissov met with a young architect, Dora Ivanova, who presented a proposal for the conservation and restoration of the monument. After this meeting, Mr. Borissov pledge to put an end to the memorial’s decay: “I was given a project for Buzludzha, I will show it to BSP (Bulgaria’s Socialist Party, successor of the former Communist Party), and if they want to do something together, we will prevent the ruin there,” the news agency Balkan Insight quoted Borissov. The project has already gained more than the equivalent of one million Euro — a sum that will only grow as time allows more parties to invest in it. Thanks to the popularity that this monument has gained both in Bulgaria and abroad, its restoration could lead to an increase of tourism in this area, which would ultimately lead to more revenue.
As one is able to conclude from the examples in the Analysis, the social narratives have few common ideas — each and every one of them sees and makes use of history through a different lens. However, this is what makes Soviet monuments such an intriguing case: in spite of the controversy sheltered in their wake, countless of them remain standing throughout the years, as silent witnesses to the peaks and troughs of political regimes. Generations are changing and memories are fading, yet they are the ones who remain — the ones who have lived through and observed the dynamically changing social values that have brought about political, historical and social transitions. And at the end, despite the transitions that have taken place on Bulgarian territories — despite the monumental turning of memorials into highly contested public spaces and interpretations of history — they have survived, and to this day, they live to tell the story of the Double Liberation.