Formally known as the House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party, the monument at Buzludzha is like something out of a 1950s sci-fi movie.
Perched on a high promontory of the Balkan Mountains, this otherworldly bastion resembles a great concrete saucer, adorned with rousing socialist slogans.
Now abandoned, the site has become something of a Mecca for urban exploration in Bulgaria; however, despite the number of striking photographs of Buzludzha in online circulation, it seems that few people have yet taken the time to decode the rich history and significance of the monument – or in some cases, to explore further than the main chamber. As a result, it was my intention to dig a little deeper into the story of Buzludzha… presenting here its past, its future, exploring every corner of the complex, and translating every written word.
The Bulgarian Socialist Movement
In 1891, as the last of the Turks were being expelled from Bulgaria after 500 years of Ottoman rule, it was here on Mount Buzludzha that socialist revolutionaries such as Dimitar Blagoev met secretly to lay the foundations for the Bulgarian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party – a precursor for the Bulgarian Communist Party.
The House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party was opened 90 years later in 1981, to commemorate both the 1878 liberation from Turkish rule, and the 1944 victory against Hitler’s fascist domination of the country. It was also to serve as headquarters for the Bulgarian Communist Party, who were keen to associate themselves with the nation’s historic heroes.
Construction of the striking monument cost in excess of 16,000,000 Bulgarian Levs – that’s almost £7,000,000. The majority of this money came in the form of suggested donations, collected from the Bulgarian people by state officials. There are more than 150 Soviet monuments scattered across the country, but Buzludzha is by far the largest – and the most extravagant – of them all.
The saucer-shaped monument rises to a height of 107m, and was designed by the architect Georgi Stoilov. More than 60 Bulgarian artists collaborated on the design of murals for the site, and thousands of ‘volunteers’ were involved in the construction process. The Soviet star which adorns the tower of Buzludzha was three times larger than that at the Kremlin, and in its heyday, the site was considered one of the greatest icons of the communist world.
Bulgarian Communism came to an end in 1989 and the monument at Buzludzha, being the property of the communist party, was inherited by the state in 1991.
In my last report on a soviet monument, the Park-Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, I decided to provide a fitting soundtrack… and due to the positive feedback I received, I’m doing it again. That time it was Shostakovich’s Seventh. This time, I’ve decided to go with a little Prokofiev.
Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev is perhaps best known for his ballet ‘Romeo and Juliet’, but during the time he spent living in the USSR, he also composed a number of works on behalf of the communist party. These included the rousing ‘Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution‘, as well as ‘Zdravitsa‘, a somewhat nauseating piece that he was ‘invited’ to score on the occasion of Joseph Stalin’s 60th birthday. Here however, I’ve chosen to set the mood with his funeral hymn, taken from the Soviet opera ‘Semyon Kotko’; an inspiring piece of communist composition, based on Valentin Katayev’s 1937 novel, ‘I, Son of Working People’.
Hit play when you’re ready, and then read on.
The Buzludzha Monument
The approach to Buzludzha is murder.
The House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party sits on the peak of Mount Buzludzha, at an altitude of 1441m, and 12km away from the Shipka Pass. Here, in temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees, a garrison of 7,500 Bulgarians and Russians successfully repelled 38,000 marauding Turks in 1877, during the epic Battle of Shipka Pass.
However, the road from Shipka was blocked by heavy snow drifts on this occasion, despite the mild Spring climate. Instead we were forced to approach the mountain from the sunnier South side, taking the turn-off close to the town of Kazanluk, and Bulgaria’s Rose Valley.
Having driven as close as possible, the last leg is on foot – and past a severe-looking sign, which reads: “Passing is absolutely forbidden! DANGEROUS SITE!”
From here a flagstone path winds its way along the top of the mountain ridge, until passing over the crest, you catch first sight of the bizarre object beyond. The sheer size of the monument is staggering, and, combined with the bizarre contours of its design, there is something vaguely unsettling about standing in the shadow of this concrete monstrosity.
The monument sits at the top of a long flight of steps, looking down over a paved courtyard; it is here that the party faithful would have gathered for rallies and public addresses. On either side of the stone stairs stood great, sculpted flames… all that remains of these now, are featureless weather-worn husks.
Scrawled above the main entrance in red paint, Latin characters spell out the phrase ‘FORGET YOUR PAST’, flanked on either side by powerful socialist stanzas emblazoned in Bulgarian Cyrillic. Many of the letters have long since disappeared, their message fading into obscurity. What remains however, are rousing calls for a socialist uprising, written in an old Bulgarian tongue; terms such as “на крак” for “on your feet” and “нех” for “yes”, have long since fallen from common vernacular, and their usage would have been intended to stir the embers of Bulgaria’s proud and independent past.
“ON YOUR FEET
ON YOUR FEET YOU SLAVES OF LABOUR!
DOWNTRODDEN AND HUMILIATED
STAND UP AGAINST THE ENEMY!
LET US WITHOUT MERCY, WITHOUT FORGIVENESS
YES, WE TAKE DOWN THE OLD, ROTTEN SYSTEM…
FROM ALL COUNTRIES COME TOGETHER
FORWARDS! COMRADES WITHOUT FEAR
BUILD STRONG OUR GREAT DEEDS!
TO WORK AND TO CREATE…”
Only one door allows access to the building, the entrance to the tower having been securely bricked up many years ago. Stepping across this threshold, through the gateway of bold socialist propaganda and into the darkness beyond, feels a little like passing through the gates of hell.
The first impression is one of roaring noise and darkness. All Winter long, Buzludzha has been buried in heavy snow – so that now the Spring thaw is causing the accumulated drifts to melt, and torrents of water cascade down walls and stairwells, or fall in noisy rivulets from the ceiling.
Wherever the water is allowed to sit for more than a moment it freezes; so that the floor of the monument is encrusted with a thick layer of ice. In some places the concrete is literally falling apart, where moisture has found its way into fine cracks, expanding as it freezes.
From the dark, low-ceilinged entrance chamber, three double flights of steps reach up to the higher level. These, along with the main entrance, are placed so as to mark the four compass points.
At this point, things start to get dangerous.
The wide concrete steps have become so treacherous with ice, that in some places the contours have disappeared altogether; the steps themselves are only just visible through one smooth slope of thick ice and running water.
It feels a little like climbing a frozen waterfall, and inevitably I find myself crawling on hands and knees, clutching at outcrops of brick for leverage. Turning the first corner, a slogan is scrawled across the wall: “Тук почват твоити кошмари. ха ха ха.”
Here start your nightmares. Ha ha ha.
Past the stairs, round one more corner, and the space above opens up into the main auditorium… revealing the monument’s dramatic centrepiece.
The main chamber of Buzludzha is a breathtaking sight to behold.
This vast, circular conference hall is surrounded by low benches, many obscured beneath the drifting snow. The once proud ceiling is no more than a metal exoskeleton now, a rusting shell, adorned in the centre with a vast hammer and sickle. Around the outside, the walls are inlaid with fine mosaic designs. Some of the colourful murals show scenes of labour and the construction of the monument itself, while others depict wars and harvests. On this visit the central space was filled with a deep layer of compacted ice, giving the arena the appearance of a surreal, decaying Soviet ice rink.
On the far wall you may notice three familiar faces, portrayed in richly coloured tile. From left to right the images depict Engels, Marx and, of course, Lenin.
Meanwhile, taking pride of place on the wall behind the prime council seats, there appear another three portraits. The image on the left has been removed with painstaking care, and would appear to have been a likeness of Todor Zhivkov – communist president of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria from 1954 until 1989. Towards the end of his career, Zhivkov is criticised with having allowed the country to slump into a stagnating economic crisis, and failing to deal with the protests of his citizens; this is one explanation for the removal of his face. Another story has it that he ordered his own face removed in 1991, in an effort to distance himself from the collapsing Soviet regime.
Placed centrally, Dimitar Blagoev was an idealist and philosopher, often credited as the founder of Bulgarian socialism, and later a key figure in the communist party of Bulgaria. A statue of him marks the turning to Buzludzha, from the main road south of the mountains.
Finally, on the far right we have Georgi Dimitrov. Another Bulgarian Communist politician, Dimitrov led the People’s Republic of Bulgaria in the early years, from 1946 to 1949.
From here, regularly spaced arches lead out onto the perimeter walkway. This circular passage is now bare and windowless, left open to the ravaging elements of the mountain pass. Many of the murals here have weathered beyond recognition, but those that remain display similar images of victory and prosperity.
Both the central chamber and these encircling walkways are covered by the same domed roof, and here I had another reminder of the very real danger of the site – narrowly avoiding a falling tile, a sheet of pressed steel the size of a road sign.
Here a group of murals show a common image. On the right are young Russian soldiers, marching to Bulgaria’s aid once again. On the left, they are welcomed by a group of Bulgarian women, who stand offering them gifts of bread, salt and flowers. A similar theme is illustrated by the concrete statues at the Park-Monument to Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship.
Between the two groups, the central image is likely to represent the ancient Slavic creator deity, Rod, known in the Bulgarian pantheon as ‘Stopan’ – used here as a symbol of Bulgaria’s ancestral power, and of the cumulative force of a united socialist movement.
The Bowels of Buzludzha
While most visitors to Buzludzha seem to be interested only in the outside of the building, its conference room and its walkways, there exist a further network of passages and tunnels, which, from the heavy build-up of accumulated snow, and sparkling, frost encrusted spider webs, appear as though unexplored in many years.
The cavernous bowels of Buzludzha can be reached from several discrete entrances, branching off from the main walkways. Here there is no light, and so it is necessary to traverse the treacherous ice in darkness, making for very slow progress. Some of these passages lead swiftly to dead-ends – boiler rooms, stores and lavatories, thick with snow. One passage however, spiralled down and around into the very base of the building.
After a series of narrow rooms and chambers, the outer wall suddenly falls away, to reveal the curved lower hull of the saucer. This wider space runs almost the entire circumference of the monument, serving as a conduit for the air-conditioning system – red ducts for hot air, blue for cold.
At one point an opening on the inside wall led into the confined space beneath the seats in the main auditorium; elsewhere I found a service shaft descending deep down into the ground. Beneath me I could see a tunnel, which appeared to continue in the direction of the bricked-up tower.
While I was deeply tempting to try and pursue a way inside the foreboding tower of Buzludzha, the adverse conditions made it an unrealistic option on this visit – with every concrete surface covered in two inches of hard, compacted ice, and working as I was in absolute darkness, even if I had managed to climb down the shaft without suffering injury, climbing back out again would have been impossible. Another day, perhaps…
I made my way back out, passing once more through the central chamber. This time I paused to read the inscription written around the magnificent hammer and sickle, emblazoned high above;
“THE PROLETARIATS OF EVERY COUNTRY JOIN TOGETHER”, it reads.
The next problem of course, was getting out – down the deadly flights of ice-encrusted concrete stairs. Climbing up had taken me what seemed like forever, crawling slowly and carefully up a hill of water and ice. On the return journey, I stumbled across an effective, if not so elegant solution; sitting down on the top step I pushed off, and found that I cleared each flight of twenty steps in less than a second.
The Future of Buzludzha
It might be hard to envisage a future for the House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party. The damage that has been allowed to happen to the site, the results of poor maintenance and an inhospitable setting, is bordering on irreparable. However, there are those who would like to see the Buzludzha monument returned to its former glory.
During my visit to the site, a group of four Bulgarian men came to take a look at the moment. They seemed unconcerned that I was trespassing inside a state structure, and expressed more worry for my safety.
One of these men was an architect, and claimed he had been involved in the original construction of the site; he was here now giving the grand tour to a prospective buyer. Bulgaria still features a strong socialist current, and from his comments, this potential investor’s interests were political, rather than purely aesthetic in nature.
He talked about restoring the decrepit monument to its former glory, describing it as a sight that every Bulgarian should look up at with pride. Commenting on the structural decay of the site, he said,
“Of course [the post-communist state] let it fall apart. Its decay marks a victory over their predecessors.”
It’s true – the state of ruin into which the Buzludzha monument has been allowed to sink, might appear as a near-criminal act of disrespect, towards something that is undeniably an integral icon of the country’s recent history. However, it is not for visitors to pass judgement on this seeming negligence, as so many Western Europeans have; one might just as easily criticise the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad as the work of philistines.
Perhaps for many, it would be preferable after all to simply ‘forget your past’, as the graffitied slogan recommends.