On an isolated mountain, the “Sistine Chapel of Socialism” awaits its fate


BUZLUDZHA, Bulgaria — Like most Bulgarians of her generation, the young architect had little interest or knowledge of her country’s communist past. But that changed when, during his studies in Germany, he was asked about the “big UFO in Bulgaria”.

She said she had heard there was a “very strange building” somewhere on top of a mountain, but she “had no idea what it was”. Her curiosity piqued, she found a photograph of the huge, eerie and, after years of neglect, crumbling concrete tribute to the defunct Bulgarian Communist Party.

“It was love at first sight,” recalls architect Dora Ivanova. “As soon as I saw the photo, I knew I had to do something.”

Ivanova, 31, gave up her career as a commercial architect and over the next decade devoted her energy to saving one of the world’s strangest structures from ruin – a masterpiece of brutalist architecture which, in its pharaonic dimensions, is both sinister and strangely magnificent.

Perched on a mountain in central Bulgaria, it resembles a flying saucer on the ground, flanked by a 70-meter concrete tower which, when built, sported the largest and tallest illuminated red star in the world, which ceased to shine decades ago.

Nikifor Haralampiev, an ecologist from Bulgaria’s National Academy of Fine Arts who works with Ivanova, described the building as the “Sistine Chapel of socialism”.

Standing in the rubble-strewn main hall under a dome adorned with a red star and the slogan ‘workers of the world unite’, he added: ‘I wouldn’t compare the quality of the artwork, but the ‘idea was the same’ – the glorification of an all-powerful system of faith.

The building’s initial role as a communist sanctuary meant that Ivanova, the leader of the Buzludzha Project Foundation, not only had to seek money to support her rescue work, but also wrestle with the thorny issue of knowing how to deal with an unwanted and, in many ways, deeply ugly past.

What about a building that was built to glorify an oppressive communist system but, ravaged by rain and snow and stripped bare by thieves, is now a wreck? Should it be torn down in the spirit of considering history – just as statues of Confederate generals were toppled in the United States and monuments of Soviet hegemony were torn down across Ukraine, especially since the Russian invasion in February?

Or should it return to its former glory? This is the wish of the architect of the building, Georgi Stoilov, now 91 years old, who has always believed in communism and has not repented. Stoilov said in an interview at his home in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, that the building recalled “a morally and materially superior time”, and he insisted that “we must put it back as it was when I have built. ”

That, Ivanova said, won’t happen, not least because it would cost too much in a country that ranks among the poorest members of the European Union. The Getty Foundation in Los Angeles, hailing the building as “a masterpiece of architectural engineering”, gave $185,000 in 2019 to fund a “conservation management plan”. He later provided an additional $60,000 to help stabilize his crumbling mosaics depicting communist glory.

But restoring the entire monument would require millions of dollars, and even if there was enough money, Ivanova said, “our goal is not to restore it but to preserve it and reuse it.” as a place for meetings, concerts and reflection, as well as a tourist attraction.

Her project, she said, “does not want to glorify the past” by returning to its original state a building that opened in 1981 as the Bulgarian Communist Party Memorial House at Buzludzha Peak, a Cathedral-like sanctuary dedicated to the gods of Bulgaria. secular religion – Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and the first communist leader of the Balkan country, Georgi Dimitrov.

Ivanova said she just wanted to stop the rot so people could visit without being hit over the head by falling masonry and get a sense of a place that “whether you like it or not, it represents a lot of our story.”

She added: “We don’t want a museum to freeze everything as it was, but a place to discuss the past”, a rarity in a country which, plagued by corruption and economic difficulties since the collapse of communism in 1989, has avoided a toll in its recent history.

“The idea is to get over that silence – the shame of talking about what happened,” she said.

Louisa Slavkova, founder and director of Sofia Platform, a group promoting education about the legacy of communism, said that silence had left a hole in Bulgaria’s memory. In museums and schools, she says, “the subject we don’t deal with is the history of communism.”

When she visited schools to tell children about the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, she recalled, “the children couldn’t tell the Berlin Wall from the Great Wall of China.”

Nevertheless, Slavkova doubts the need to save Buzludzha, fearing that it will “only amplify nostalgia and end up glorifying the past”.

Unlike Poland, the Czech Republic and other former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe, Bulgaria never broke with communism. The party purged its longtime boss, Todor Zhivkov, de facto leader of Bulgaria from 1954 to 1989, and agreed to free elections in 1990.

But the party, renamed the Bulgarian Socialist Party, won those elections and survived as an important political force, although it is much less popular today. He has long resisted efforts to fight communist-era oppression, focusing instead on the party’s glory years during World War II, when he rallied partisan fighters to resist fascism.

This struggle is celebrated in the memorial complex at the top of the mountain with mosaics commemorating the partisans’ seizure of power in 1944 and the arrival of the Soviet Red Army at the end of the war. Most of the Soviet Army mosaic disappeared years ago, apparently stolen by thieves. The partisans are still there, but without eyes – they were wiped out in what Haralampiev, the conservationist, called “political vandalism”.

Also vandalized, albeit this time by the party itself, was a mosaic that originally depicted Zhivkov. His image was hacked by party officials shortly after his purge in late 1989.

The complex, which took more than seven years and 6,000 workers to build, only operated for eight years. Originally owned by the Communist Party, it was nationalized in 1992. The bankrupt state suspended funding, fired the last employees and left the building at the mercy of bad weather, vandals and thieves who, according to Ivanova, “stole everything that could be stolen.”

The destruction turned the building into a grisly ruin, making it popular as a backdrop for groups to make dark clips and a canvas for graffiti artists like Tristan Eaton, who ‘fixed’ several damaged mosaics by painting his own version of Zhivkov and other party leaders. The top of its tower and the collapsing roof of the main building have also become a location for so-called deadly selfies.

This all came to a halt after Europa Nostra, a heritage organization, listed Buzludzha as one of Europe’s seven “most endangered heritage sites” in 2018 and Bulgarian authorities sent in police to cordon off and keep the place.

More destructive than thieves, however, was the weather, which damaged many mosaics.

Ivanova and her team erected a waterproof fabric screen in the main hall to block rain and snow that had loosened some of the 2.5 million tesserae, small blocks of stone and glass used to make the mosaics.

The next task, which will depend on his fundraising efforts, will be to repair the roof originally clad in copper but stripped years ago by thieves, who also looted tons of marble, miles of wiring and all the hardware. Windows. To help raise funds for the huge work, Ivanova wants to open the main hall to paying visitors as early as this year, provided their safety can be guaranteed. The exterior of the building is already a tourist attraction, attracting more than 50,000 people last year.

“It’s so bold and so brutal. I love this stuff,” said Alex Thompson, a British aerospace engineer and “dark tourism” enthusiast who recently made a pilgrimage to the mountain.

Benjamin Harper, a friend who was traveling with him, said it reminded him of the partially destroyed rostrum in Nuremberg, Germany, from where Adolf Hitler reviewed Nazi rallies in the 1930s. haunting resemblance,” he said.

Tearing it down, Haralampiev said, would delay, not accelerate, a long-stuck awareness of his country’s past. “You walk around here and you can see and feel the magnitude of what happened. It’s the best way to learn about the regime. OK, we hate the party, but that’s our story.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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