What To Do With Communist Decay


Ashira Morris is a freelance writer based in Sofia, Bulgaria and Tallahassee, Florida.

BUZLUDZHA PEAK, Bulgaria — The double doors to Buzludzha are secured with a large metal lock across white metal grating. The lock is relatively new, as is the “ENTRY PROHIBITED” sign in Bulgarian and English over the door and the guard posted on site. 

Buzludzha, officially called the Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party, is a striking Brutalist concrete saucer perched on top of a mountain in Bulgaria’s Stara Planina (Old Mountain), the local name for the Balkan range. The disk is punctuated with an exclamation mark of a tower topped with a now-shattered red star. Its outline looms from the flattened mountain top, which was leveled with explosives to create a landing pad for the massive concrete spaceship. 

It was completed in 1981, the physical representation of Bulgarian communism at its apex. Trade union workers and school groups were bused up the mountain and led into the building’s central rotunda for a narration accompanied by illuminated mosaics telling the story of the triumph of Bulgarian communism. It was a well-honed storytelling tool, compressing threads of Bulgaria’s past into a single graceful arc ending in the present: the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. 

Just eight years later, the day after the Berlin Wall fell, the inner circle of Bulgaria’s Communist Party ousted the country’s dictator, Todor Zhivkov, and set in motion the collapse of the country’s communist system. 

Buzludzha, neglected on the peak, became a modern-day ruin.   

Its second phase of life, as an abandoned building, lasted longer than its first. For more than a decade, who owned the monument, and therefore who was responsible for maintaining it, was unresolved. The copper roof cover was stripped. Rectangular slabs of the white marble floor were stolen. (The round pieces, harder to reinstall in private homes, remained.) The oblong windows shattered; wind and snow and plant life blew in.

The Cyrillic letters spelling out the socialist anthem of The Internationale framing the entrance fell off their metal hangers. Segments of mosaic faces of sloughed off. “FORGET YOUR PAST” in bold red font was graffitied above the doors. 

If Buzludzha was a national symbol in its first iteration, this version made it an international fascination. It was a fixture of 2010s listicles of abandoned places, attracting tourists from around the world interested in exploring the ruin. Bulgarians and international visitors came whether the doors were open or sealed; YouTube videos showed how to go down a ventilation shaft and crawl back up into the bowl of the building.

Now, the monument is entering its third iteration. Since 2015, the Buzludzha Project Foundation has been working to preserve and conserve the building. They secured international recognition as European heritage at risk, as well as funding from the Getty Foundation, to create a conservation management plan and to stabilize the monument’s many mosaic frescoes. Their work will culminate in formally reopening Buzludzha’s doors to the public for the first time in decades. 

The reopening raises the question of narrative: of what this new phase of Buzludzha’s life will represent to its audiences. The building first housed the singular story of the Communist Party; in the years since, it’s been an open-ended space for interpretation. The Buzludzha Project plans to offer guided tours, which requires mapping meaning onto the building in its current context.  

“What we really want is a storytelling platform,” architect Dora Ivanova, who leads the project, said. “We think this is the best place to tell these stories and to allow different views, to allow criticism. For some, it was the labor of their life, and for others, it was the most terrible time. Both things are okay, and they can be simultaneously true in the same world. We don’t need to destroy one or the other narrative.” 

The monument isn’t open yet and doesn’t have a set date when it’s expected to be. These decisions hinge on the national and regional governments signing off on operational plans, which have been pending for months. The delays are a reminder that the project is still connected to a bigger question that has been asked since 1989: What to do with the physical relics of Bulgaria’s communist period? Which is to say, what is the narrative about those 45 years, and how does the country deal with the monuments they left behind? 

During communism, Bulgaria was exemplary in its construction of busts of leaders, towering sculptures of soldiers, abstract concrete shapes exploding from hilltops. It has been equally exemplary in its avoidance of engaging with the country’s years of communism in the time after. In the ‘90s, many new governments in other Eastern European states made statements about crimes of the prior regime and took steps to better understand what happened, said Nikolai Vukov, a historian at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences who researches the country’s approach to monuments and memorialization. In Bulgaria, this didn’t take place, and the processes that did unfold happened with “huge torture, with huge efforts,” he said. 

The monuments watch over cities and towns, slowly decaying in the space between calls to glorify the communist past and demands to excise it completely. The question of what to do with them is what brings Bulgaria’s communist history into national public conversation. 

“The major discussions of the communist period have taken place exclusively in relationship to communist monuments,” Vukov said. These debates often pull to one of two poles: glorious restoration or complete destruction. 

The monuments had an authoritative power under communism. They now have a haunted power, animated by the future they so confidently anticipated but that did not arrive. They are “time out of joint,” as the Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida quoted from Hamlet in his 1993 book, “Specters of Marx.” It’s the past knocking around the present, maintaining its hold through dissonance.  

This is a ghost story, if you want it to be. 

“The monuments watch over cities and towns, slowly decaying in the space between calls to glorify the communist past and demands to excise it completely.”

A “Politics Of Avoidance”

There is no top-down state-endorsed narrative about the communist era in Bulgaria. The Regional History Museum in Sofia, the country’s capital, leapfrogs from antiquity to the early 20th century monarchy, mostly ignoring both the Ottoman period between, and the communist period that came after. The Museum of Socialist Art, which opened in 2011, is technically the country’s only state-supported museum dedicated to the era. But by presenting a hodgepodge collection of sculptures of party leaders, workers and soldiers in an overgrown garden with labels that say, at best, the subject, the artist who created it and the city it came from, the museum succeeds most at highlighting its own lack of context.

In this empty space, there is the possibility of a more pluralistic narrative that would be truer to history. But that hasn’t happened.

“There is no master message on this period, and we are very lucky about that,” Vukov said. “But even from the bottom, there is this reservation, uneasiness, unwillingness to return back.” 

The lack of engagement creates what Vukov calls the “politics of avoidance” — an emphatic refusal to critically reflect on the communist era. This has created an uneven approach to monuments and physical markers. In the years immediately after the collapse, monuments across the country were vandalized. The statues of Lenin and Zhivkov and other Bulgarian communist dictators came down.

In 1999, the government ordered the destruction of the white marble mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s first communist leader, in the center of Sofia. It took multiple attempts to destroy with explosives and bulldozers. Now, there is a patch of grass where the building stood. There is no indicator that anything was there before.

You either know, or you don’t.

“‘The major discussions of the communist period have taken place exclusively in relationship to communist monuments.’”
— Nikolai Vukov

On the individual level, when Vukov assigns his students to interview people who lived through the communist period, many say they don’t want to talk about it, or if they do, that it was the first time someone asked them about this part of their life.  

“This memory has been floating and floating among uncertainties,” Vukov said. “It was influenced by such a diversity of opposing and conflicting factors. It was a memory that was faced not only with reflections about what was before 1989, but with the reflections of what was after 1989.”

In Bulgarian, the word used to describe the end of communism is prehod: transition. Sometimes it’s used to talk about the specific moment in November of 1989 when Zhivkov, who was the longest-leading dictator in the Eastern Bloc, stepped down. It could mean 1991, when a new democratic constitution was adopted. It could also extend to around 1996, when the banks failed, or 2007, when Bulgaria joined the European Union. 

It can mean everything up to the current moment, where there is still a national sentiment of not having arrived yet. The transition is ongoing.

Connecting Communism To Heroes Of The Past 

When the monuments were initially built, they emphasized the legitimacy of the communist regime by linking it to prior history. Early on, the party drew a link between Bulgaria’s independence from the Ottoman Empire, where the Russian Army fought alongside Bulgarian forces as part of the broader Russo-Turkish War, and the Soviet Army that entered the country in 1944. Looking to create a connection between the brotherhood of the past and the brotherhood of the moment, monuments to the Soviet Army were built in cities across the country.   

Other monuments incorporated the fighters for freedom from the Ottomans in 1876 with the Communist Party members who took part in the failed September Uprising in 1923 and the partisans of the September coup d’état that marked the beginning of Bulgarian communism in 1944. These sites created continuity between the “three generations,” with some literally depicting the fighters side by side, like the monument to poet Hristo Botev in Kalofer. The Bulgarians who ousted the Ottomans were fighting to reinstall a king, but for the purposes of the narrative, they became part of the broader effort for the best version of Bulgaria — a communist version. 

From the very beginning of its communist period, Bulgaria built a dizzying number of monuments, many quite large. This took place in bigger cities like Varna, with its monument to Bulgarian-Soviet friendship towering over the Black Sea, as well as in smaller cities like the Monument to the Resistance in Vidin, with a woman, arms overhead, striding on top a 55-foot column. The massive monuments served as a reminder to people of the system’s power and permanence. 

“In a democratic system, people vote for the power structure,” said Richard Fawcus, a partner on the Buzludzha Project in its earlier years. “Under a monarchy, it’s agreed that God chose that person. But the party in totalitarian systems has to work a little bit harder to remind people why they’re there. So these big monuments showed prosperity and success and power and creativity and cultural wealth. It really was an advert for the continuance of the system.” 

Leading up to 1981, the Bulgaria state reached even farther back into history — 1,300 years back — to make the case that its narrative culminated in communism. Buzludzha was the zenith of a series of monuments and projects unveiled to celebrate the country’s anniversary. “Bulgaria is Zealously Marking Its 1,300th Birthday,” a New York Times headline that year declared, noting that “a strong sense of nationalism and increased self-confidence are widespread in Bulgaria,” along with a rejection of being labeled a satellite state of the Soviet Union.

Within Bulgaria, state news breathlessly covered its construction as a masterpiece paid for and built by the people, for the people. It was architect Georgi Stoilov’s idea that the whole country should contribute; memorial stamps were sold to raise money. Over seven years, thousands of people worked on the mountain peak, including artists and soldiers from the construction corps. Even nature “contributed” — the outer ring of mosaics are made from river stones collected from across the country. 

“It was meant to be an expression of what they had built between them and together, which is a beautiful idea,” Fawcus said. “But I think it can’t be separated from an expression of power. Because the subtext of that is that it’s the party that made this possible and that brought them all together.” 

For years, Fawcus led tours to Buzludzha, mostly of foreigners who said the monument was their primary reason for traveling to Bulgaria. His goal was to provide enough context for the building that by the time visitors reached the peak, the concrete UFO they’d seen pictures of online was desensationalized. 

For many of the Bulgarians he talked to while guiding, their motivation for making their way up the winding roads was to enter a space that was once highly structured, that dictated how to interpret everything, and be able to now experience it on their own terms.

“It brought down this barrier, and it allowed them to make their own connections freely with the symbols of the party and of the former power system,” Fawcus said. “And I think that was a very powerful experience for a lot of Bulgarian people: the complete subversion of the party’s omnipotence.”

This kind of experience may still be possible in the monument’s next form. But it will, inevitably, be different than the modern ruin that compelled people to visit before. 

“The monuments now have a haunted power, animated by the future they so confidently anticipated but that did not arrive.”

Stabilizing Art And Stopping Decay

Last fall, I arranged to go to Buzludzha with Ivanova. She opened the locks, and I walked through the doors for the first time, wearing a yellow hard hat. I saw the mosaics with tiny post-its marking which tiles have been checked and secured. We climbed up to the top of the temporary riser platform where conservationists were working on the round ceiling mosaic with red letters spelling out “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” in Bulgarian. 

As we walked through the monument’s inner and outer rings, Ivanova described her vision for future tours, and the wooden paths that would be built temporarily to guide guests through the space until the roof is secured and the whole space is safe to access. Eventually, the plan is to have part of the building set up like a museum, with historical narrative text about the Bulgarian communist government and the people who lived under it.  

The state should maintain ownership of the building, Ivanova said, so that it remains a public space embedded in the country’s cultural heritage. 

“We have to build upon this understanding and this commitment to the people, mostly local people, that this is their heritage,” Ivanova said. “It is their value, it is their place, and they’re the ones to guard it and give it to the next generations.” That reframing is just as much a part of the work as stopping the decay of the building.

In some ways, Ivanova is already part of the next generation in that she’s 32 years old, born just after the collapse. The other two full-time Buzludzha Project staff members, as well as their volunteers, are around the same age; many of the experts on the team are older. 

The day we toured Buzludzha, we weren’t the only ones in the space. Koycho Krachanov, an architecture student, was on site collecting information for his dissertation on dissonant heritage.

“We must find a way to at least preserve [the monument],” he said. “As Bulgarians say, a tree without roots cannot live. When we don’t save our past, we can’t live in the future.”

I’d been to Buzludzha multiple times before the guided visit but only ever saw the outside. The first time was in 2018, after the guard was posted. It was the day after my husband proposed on another Bulgarian mountain. We were with a small group of American friends, driving out to the Black Sea, and decided to stop. 

As our car wound up the narrowing mountain road, dark storm clouds gathered. By the time we reached the top, they were defined and heavy. Getting to Buzludzha felt like approaching a presence, like driving up to meet the clouds. When we got to the peak, the only other person there was a Russian man in black leather, who rode his motorcycle up to the monument. His wife and kids would be up later by car, he said, but he wanted the experience of taking his bike up, alone. When it started hailing, we took cover under the building’s wide curve. 

The times I’ve been back to Buzludzha since, it hasn’t felt charged like it did that first time. Plenty has changed since that first visit: I started living in Bulgaria in 2020, and the building is no longer a blank slate for my own projections. 

There are posters over the door now, explaining the Buzludzha Project’s restoration work. At their Open Buzludzha Festival last summer, which brought bands and street fair-style grills and organized activities to the pasture below the monument, it was a backdrop, a setting, the namesake and showcase of the event. It felt less powerful in that context.

This is, perhaps, exactly the point: that by protecting the building and presenting it to the public again, it’s less haunted. 

“It’s the past knocking around the present, maintaining its hold through dissonance.”

Linking The Recent Past With The Present

In 2021, Buzludzha was listed as a national cultural heritage site, one of only a handful of communist-era structures to receive the designation and associated protections. But it also brought the national Ministry of Culture into decision-making for the building’s operation — and for the past two years, the head of the agency has turned over multiple times as the country has cycled through multiple elections. The Buzludzha Project was able to get the ministry’s signoff on physical restoration related to the building, but with that work complete, getting approval for plans into the future about who is responsible for what has been evasive.

No organization except for the Bulgarian state has ever handled the care and operation of a national monument before. If the Buzludzha Project gets the sign off, Ivanova anticipates they could open Buzludzha for visitors within three months. She envisions an initial tour incorporating oral history interviews along with archival materials, with plans to expand the scope of narrative to include people who would rather see the monument destroyed, graffiti artists who left their mark on its walls, perhaps even people who stole marble tiles and copper sculptures: to connect the monument’s past to Bulgaria’s present.

“I’ve heard so often: Why are we where we are?,” Ivanova said. “If you know more about where we come from, I think the question become easier to answer.”