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Saving Bulgarian Communism’s “Concrete Spaceship”

Captured on a thousand Instagram feeds, the UFO-like monument to the Bulgarian Communist Party is one of the Eastern Bloc’s most famous architectural relics. A battle to save it from decay has brought Bulgaria’s past back into political debate — and highlighted the death of the radicalism that motivated the project to start with.

Buzludzha in August 2015. Konrad Lembcke / flickr

Probably no Cold War architectural relic is better known to online audiences than Buzludzha, the Bulgarian Communist Party’s long abandoned but awe-inspiring “Monument House,” nestled among the Central Balkan Mountains. Abruptly closed in 1990, what CNN recently called a “spaceship-like . . . rotting shrine to communism” has made the rounds among travel blogs and brutalism enthusiasts for the last decade, attracting thousands of adventurous tourists — and feeding renewed interest in socialist modernist architecture in East and West alike.

If the structure of Buzludzha bears some resemblance to a docked UFO, its architect, Georgi Stoilov, hoped that it would represent Bulgarian socialism’s trajectory from a small circle of committed revolutionaries in the late nineteenth century to the strong and prosperous socialist state of the future. Upon its completion in 1981, it was an impressive monument to one of the most popular ruling parties in the Eastern Bloc. But with the ruling party’s collapse just eight years later, it stood as a painful reminder of the regime’s failure.

Given its isolated location, Buzludzha seemed destined to rot in silence, with only selfie-hungry hikers and a few Communist mourners occasionally paying a visit. Yet the renewed interest in the monument has prompted a number of organizations and art professionals to draw up plans for its preservation. Avowedly apolitical projects propose transforming it into a Bulgarian history museum or a profitable venue for cultural events. Many on both the Left and the Right have criticized these plans, either for commercializing socialist architecture or for legitimizing its allegedly “totalitarian” heritage. Yet what the dispute demonstrates most is the disappearance of the kind of radical ambitions that motivated the project to begin with.

Buzludzha’s Democratic Promise

In its brief heyday, Buzludzha was a grand monument to the Communist Party (BCP), housing a museum as well as a ceremonial venue for party congresses and other regime-sponsored gatherings. The site is steeped in history: it is named after Buzludzha Peak (now Hadzhi Dimitar Peak), where Bulgarian nationalists rose up against Ottoman soldiers in 1868, and this is also where the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (BSDWP) was formed in 1891. If the postwar state founded its legitimacy on the anti-fascist struggle, this area was also notable for battle between left-wing partisans and the Bulgarian military during World War II.

In contrast to many prestige projects constructed under state-socialist regimes, Buzludzha was financed entirely by donations. Architect Stoilov convinced the Communist Party not to build the monument with tax revenues, but to instead launch a popular campaign to raise the needed funds. Workers and students bought postage stamps amounting to 16 million Bulgarian leva (equivalent to $35 million today) to support the project. It was a grand undertaking involving over 6,000 construction workers and 60 artists, but ultimately, it only ended up costing 14 million leva. The leftover funds were then diverted to building kindergartens.

Such apparent altruism may seem surprising, given this project’s legendarization as a monument to totalitarianism. Yet for its many failings, the socialist state was at least consistent in ensuring its citizens did not have to worry about meeting their basic needs. Once health care is a given and housing is a right, concerns with practicality and efficiency recede into the background when supporting public cultural projects.

The democratic promise that materialized in Buzludzha — the involvement of large numbers of people in funding and working on the monument — remains a source of tremendous pride for the visionary behind the project. When discussing the building even today, Stoilov avoids cynical narratives of his individual artistic genius or talent and instead praises the efforts of “the heroic people who worked under extremely difficult weather conditions” to make his dream a reality.

The monument itself sought to reflect these collective efforts by illustrating the road to socialism and popular struggles against the monarchy, fascism, and capitalism on mosaics covering 550 square meters of the main hall. Though largely destroyed today, even now, one can make out the faces of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin, along with party leaders Dimitar Blagoev and Georgi Dimitrov. Alongside them are heroic pioneers, workers, and partisans, symbolizing the masses who built the socialist state for which Buzludzha stood.

The People’s Monument No More

Buzludzha was quickly abandoned after the collapse of state socialism, despite the fact that the BCP successor, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), won the first free elections and led two democratically elected governments in the 1990s. Though initially deteriorating, largely due to the post-socialist governments’ active refusal to maintain it, Buzludzha was also ruthlessly plundered, with scavengers stripping all the metal they could find to sell as scrap. After the socialist economy transitioned into a ruthless, Wild West–style capitalism, the mass donations once collected to finance the monument’s construction translated into a feeling of individual entitlement to pieces of what remained.

As photographer Bedros Azinyan, whose father had photographed Buzludzha since the 1970s, put it: “The people destroyed the people’s monument.” This mass privatization of the monument from below mirrored the elite-driven privatization of state-owned enterprises during the same decade, as the logic of privatization, along with the ephemeral prosperity it promised, saturated all layers of Bulgarian society.

The BSP continues to hold an annual summer rally in front of the monument, which all members are welcome to attend. Their continued participation is a sign of many Bulgarians’ continuing nostalgia for the socialist period. A recent public opinion poll evidenced that both left- and right-wing Bulgarians continue to associate socialism with justice, universal employment, and health care, but are critical of the regime’s authoritarianism. The blackest stain of all was the regime’s appalling repression of Muslims and other ethnic minorities, leaving painful wounds still today.

Continuing to use Buzludzha nonetheless, the BSP demanded ownership of the monument, and in 2011, the government sought to transfer it to the party. The party hoped that it could, as in the past, use public donations to cover the costs of a renovation. But the BSP’s membership has declined rapidly, along with its electoral support, after years under an economically neoliberal and pro-corporate leadership that increasingly tails the Right even on cultural questions. Having failed to make use of the concession, the BSP lost all rights to Buzludzha in 2017.

Today, Buzludzha is owned by the Bulgarian state and managed by the Region of Stara Zagora, but it is still not formally considered a national heritage site. Failing government action to protect the site, it risks deteriorating further — leaving its admirers with little more than drone footage to consume on our smartphones.

Аusterity, Anti-Communism, and Public Space

Mainstream discussions around the future of cultural and architectural heritage in Bulgaria assume that socialism in particular, and the Left in general, are aberrations and wrongs, while right-wing policies are generally regarded as more “objective.” These debates can be summed up in the popular saying that “there is no left or right, only right and wrong.”

In this spirit, Bulgarian governments of all stripes pretended that doing nothing to preserve monuments was objectively “right,” facing pressure from anti-communist activists and restrictions imposed by the “Law on Declaring the Criminal Nature of the Communist Regime in Bulgaria,” while architects and cultural heritage campaigners framed the issue in the apolitical language of economic rationality.

The lack of public efforts to preserve Buzludzha produces its own ideological effects. Cultural heritage sites have often been misused to facilitate gentrification and the displacement of working-class communities in favor of more “desirable” populations. At the same time, the selective construction and preservation of such sites can also be used to prop up hegemonic historical narratives.

Most people in Bulgaria, however, are familiar with a different reordering of public space: the targeted neglect of existing public infrastructure by the state, which is then used to reinforce its austerity agenda. The supposedly “natural” dilapidation of Buzludzha and other large-scale projects through exposure to wind, snow, and rain is often cited as proof of the irrational pomposity and inefficient nature of the old socialist public sector, which was overly costly and thus unsustainable. The more they are neglected, the more expensive their recovery becomes, further demonstrating the inevitability of neoliberal capitalism as the only possible economic path for the country. Over time, the state’s refusal to construct, reconstruct, or preserve many buildings and state-owned enterprises from the socialist and pre-socialist era ultimately ended up reinforcing pro-privatization sentiments more generally.

After 1989, most Bulgarian politicians claim to value the architectural and cultural heritage of the supposed “golden age” that preceded socialism. In practice, they place respect for private property — and a commitment to cutting public spending — above this particular ideological commitment. While political conflicts over this heritage had long revolved around interpretations of the past, the post-1989 generation, trained in an entrepreneurial mindset, began to view such obsessions as outdated.

An Architectural Wonder

The most widely covered campaign for the restoration of the monument was that of the young architect Dora Ivanova, who in 2015 launched a foundation with the aim of restoring the monument after finishing her undergraduate studies. She claimed to be motivated by the fact that Buzludzha in its current state is an irritating eyesore, a betrayal of its history, and that it would be better monumentalized anew by transforming it into a museum of Bulgarian history.

Ivanova’s project was praised in mainstream media as an endeavor by a “young intelligent person” who was “unburdened by the past.” She describes her project as apolitical — a matter of surmounting ideologies, a “preservation of cultural heritage” based on pragmatism and cost-benefit analysis. A museum would attract many visitors and foreign tourists. Ivanova promised “objectivity” in the museum’s approach to the socialist era, the experience of which the media have described as a “lesson” and “warning” against the dangers of utopian politics that inevitably lead to totalitarianism.

An influential cultural heritage organization, Europa Nostra, pursues a similarly “pragmatic approach.” It treats the monument not as “communist” but as “an architectural achievement” to be “adapt[ed] to new attractive uses” as a venue for concerts and other cultural events. The latter will supposedly bring employment, tourism, and revenue from merchandising and subsidies, without “promoting the former socialist period.” In truth, it hardly seems likely to have any significant impact on unemployment rates in the region.

Neither the BCP nor Stoilov understood the peak simply as a blank and ahistorical site, onto which one could paste an abstract and original piece of art. Yet proposals such as Europa Nostra’s do treat the monument as a disembedded cultural commodity. Many Bulgarian intellectuals on both the Right and the Left oppose this supposedly “apolitical” approach. One anti-communist historian claimed it was unnecessary — erasing history and normalizing “totalitarianism” by presenting it as just another chapter in Bulgaria’s past. Some have even suggested transforming Buzludzha into a museum of Eastern European “totalitarianism.”

These anti-communist projects counter liberal dreams of radically separating form and content — as if supposing that once the social relations that made the monument possible are dismantled, its radical promise will disappear without trace and a new and marketable “content” can be implanted onto it. In this sense, anti-communist activists and their hard-right associates do at least take communist politics seriously, unlike the liberal obsession with exotic architecture attracting foreign tourists.

Progressive left-leaning intellectuals, not involved with party politics, tend to denounce “Western adventurers” and photographers’ fascination with modernist monuments in former socialist countries as “neocolonial,” arguing that modern art projects aestheticize, depoliticize, and decontextualize socialist monuments like Buzludzha. Unlike right-wing critiques of depoliticization, however, they do not decry the stripping of their supposedly inherent authoritarian and misanthropic content, but rather lament the transformation of “monuments to atrocity and resistance into concrete clickbait.” The monuments’ resurfacing in modern art or adventurous Instagram feeds erases their history and conditions of possibility — the postwar socialist project — along with their historical point of reference, the internationalist anti-fascist struggle.

Perhaps as a reflection of the state of Bulgarian politics today, left-liberal proposals for restoring Buzludzha largely center around using it as a site for public debates and a platform for marginalized positive remembrances of the socialist era. But it is hard to imagine that workers in a country with the largest income disparities in the EU and an average annual household income below $4,000 USD would find the time to travel to central Bulgaria to express their long-repressed memories or dreams of socialism. Intellectual projects that ignore the political economy of the public sphere risk reproducing the relations of condescension and contempt by once again giving a platform to academics, artists, and architects, and leaving others mute.

No Socialist Art Under Capitalism

Not unrelated to profitability considerations, the joint efforts of Europa Nostra and Ivanova were partially responsible for the Getty Foundation’s promise last year to donate $185,000 to develop a plan for Buzludzha’s renovation. Such a plan could be useful in securing EU funding, but many in the governing coalition of right and far-right parties remain opposed to the use of public funds. In line with their austerity drive, anti-communist talking heads insist on conserving the monument in its current state without further investment.

In August 2019, experts began work on the Getty-funded conservation management plan with the support of the regional governor. They found that the building’s structure was largely intact and could be preserved along with the mosaic, thanks to the advanced technology and high-quality materials used in its construction. One of the architects working on the plan suggested that a future project would promote creative industries in the region and not rely on public funds, but rather on business initiatives and possibly the Getty Foundation. In reality, however, it is highly unlikely that enough private funding could be acquired to cover the monument’s enormous maintenance costs.

Regardless of what happens to Buzludzha in the coming years, there will be no return to its status as a workers’ monument in a workers’ state. Heir to the BCP, the BSP has abandoned even its ostensible claim to represent the working class. Should the organizations behind the project manage to attract private investors, this will most certainly mean erecting a paywall for visitors in a country where 22 percent of citizens live below the poverty line. Buzludzha the building will survive, but the politics it once represented will be lost.

Despite its largely apolitical and commercial nature, the renewed interest in Buzludzha and other abandoned socialist monuments has nevertheless helped to rekindle interest in the notion of public, common, and noncommercial infrastructure. Socialist architecture’s presence across the post-communist world reminds people that another world — however flawed — was once possible.