Laguna Vere in Tbilisi, Georgia, was once the premier aquatic sports centre in the Caucasus.
Formally known as the House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party, the monument at Buzludzha Peak is like something out of a 1950s sci-fi movie.
Perched on a high promontory of the Balkan Mountains, this otherworldly structure resembles a great concrete saucer adorned with rousing socialist slogans. Now abandoned, the site has become one of the world’s most famous modern ruins; but as a symbol, Buzludzha is more than just a building, and its demise carries a deeper significance than can rightly be understood by the crowds of foreign visitors who now visit the monument from week to week.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been to Buzludzha now – but I’ll always remember my first time. What follows is an account of that first visit, on a cold spring day back in 2012, with the saucer still cloaked in its winter coat of snow upon the mountaintop; but first, a little background to this surreal memorial.
The House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party
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 the country’s early socialist philosophers met in secret to lay the foundations for the Bulgarian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party: a precursor to the later rule of the Bulgarian Communist Party.
The House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party was opened 90 years later, in 1981, to celebrate both the country’s liberation from Ottoman rule, and the 1944 victory against Hitler’s fascist domination of Bulgaria: both events in which Russia (and later, the Soviet Union) had played a key role. The monument further served as the symbolic headquarters for the Bulgarian Communist Party, its crowning jewel, in an effort to better associate that regime with the heroes of Bulgaria’s past.
Construction of the monument cost in excess of 14 million Bulgarian levs; that’s almost £7 million today. The money was raised from citizens in the form of suggested donations – the architect’s own idea – with the intention of creating a monument for the people, and by the people.
The saucer, along with its 107-metre tower, was designed by 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-esque star which adorns the tower of Buzludzha was three times larger than that at the Kremlin; and it was claimed that the red light it emitted could be seen from as far away as Romania in the north, and the Greek border in the south.
Bulgarian communism came to an end in 1989 after which the Buzludzha monument was inherited by the State. It was during the mid-1990s that the building was ransacked and opened up to the elements, during a period when Bulgaria’s right-wing government was attempting to distance the country from its socialist heritage; at least in part, by vandalising or removing the vestiges of communism. Since then, left to the mercy of the mountain climate, the monument has been allowed to slowly disintegrate – in doing so presenting a powerful symbol of the changing times.
A Visit to the Buzludzha Monument
In winter, 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 1432m (the peak was 1441m high originally, but it was levelled by 9m to create a platform for the building). It’s located 12km from the Shipka Pass, where in 1877, in temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees, a garrison of 7,500 Bulgarians and Russians successfully repelled 38,000 Ottoman troops during the epic Battle of Shipka Pass.
When we visited, the road from Shipka was blocked by heavy snow and so instead, we were forced to approach the mountain from the southern road; taking a turn-off close to Kazanluk. We drove as close as possible, before ditching the car in snow to make the last leg on foot – past a severe-looking sign, which read:
“Passing is absolutely forbidden! DANGEROUS SITE!”
From here a flagstone path wound its way along the top of the mountain ridge, until passing over the crest, I caught my first glimpse of the vast saucer sat beyond. The sheer size of the monument was staggering – and combined with the bizarre contours of its design, there was 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 was here that the Party faithful would have gathered for rallies and public addresses. On either side of the stone stairs had once stood great, sculpted flags… though little remained of these now, but featureless weather-worn husks. The copper which once coated them was looted long ago.
Scrawled above the main entrance in red paint, Latin characters spelled the phrase, “FORGET YOUR PAST”; flanked on either side by poetic stanzas stamped in Bulgarian Cyrillic. Many of the letters were missing, their message fading into obscurity. What remained however, was a rousing call to arms: the popular socialist anthem The Internationale, written here in an old Bulgarian tongue.
(In Bulgarian, terms such as “на крак” for “on your feet” and “нех” for “yes”, have long since fallen from common speech, and so their use here would presumably have been intended to stir feelings of national pride and solidarity.)
“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…”
The main doors at the front of the monument hung open as I approached, and I stepped quietly across the threshold, through a wall of propaganda and into the void beyond.
My first impression was one of roaring noise and darkness. All winter long, Buzludzha lies buried in heavy snow – so that by now the Spring thaw was causing the accumulated drifts to melt, and torrents of water cascaded down walls and stairwells, or fell 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 was encrusted with a thick layer of ice. In some places the concrete was literally falling apart, where moisture had found its way into fine cracks, expanding as it froze.
Out of the dark, low-ceilinged entrance chamber, three double flights of steps led up to the hall above. From this point, movement began to get more difficult.
The wide concrete steps had become so treacherous with ice, that in some places their corners had disappeared altogether; the steps themselves only just visible through one smooth slope of thick ice and running water.
It felt a little like climbing a frozen waterfall, and inevitably I found myself crawling on hands and knees, clutching at outcrops of brick for leverage. Turning the first corner, a slogan was 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 opened up into the main auditorium… revealing the monument’s dramatic centrepiece.
The main chamber of Buzludzha is breathtaking to behold.
This circular conference space – originally titled the ‘Solemn Hall’ – was surrounded by low benches, many obscured beneath the drifting snow. The once-proud ceiling was no more than a metal exoskeleton now, a rusting shell, adorned in the centre with a vast hammer-and-sickle motif. Around the outside, the walls were inlaid with fine mosaic designs. Some of the colourful murals showed scenes of labour and the construction of the monument itself, while others depicted 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 ice rink. On the far wall, three familiar faces looked down at me from the murals: Engels, Marx and Lenin.
Meanwhile, taking pride of place on the wall behind the prime council seats, there appeared another three portraits. The image on the left had once shown Todor Zhivkov – communist leader 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 disatisfaction of his citizens; his face was removed from the mural early after Buzludzha’s abandonment.
From the central hall, I followed the steps out to the rim of the saucer. This circular balcony was bare and windowless, left open to the ravaging elements of the mountain pass. Many of the murals had weathered beyond recognition, but those that remained showed similar themes of victory and prosperity.
Both the central chamber and these encircling walkways were 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 metal the size of a road sign, that suddenly clattered to the marble near my feet.
I stopped for a moment on the balcony to admire a mural composition: on the right, a group of Russian soldiers, met on the left by Bulgarian women who stood offering gifts of bread, salt and flowers. It was the same picture I’d seen before, rendered in concrete form at the Park-Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship.
After that, I headed back inside; out of the biting winds that screamed through the windowless balconies, and down towards the hidden inner spaces of the Buzludzha monument.
The Bowels of Buzludzha
Before my visit, the only photographs I’d seen of Buzludzha showed its central hall, its hammer-and-sickle mural, or its saucer form in exterior, perched upon the mountain. It wasn’t until I got inside that I discovered a further network of passages and tunnels – dark spaces beneath and behind the auditorium that lay half buried in snow, and crossed by sparkling, frost-encrusted spider webs.
I followed a staircase down into the cavernous bowels of Buzludzha. Crossing the floors of ice in darkness made for very slow progress – slipping and sliding all the way. Some of these passages led to dead-ends – boiler rooms, stores and lavatories, thick with unseen snow. Another 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 fell away to reveal the curved lower hull of the saucer. This wider space ran almost the entire circumference of the monument, a conduit for the air-conditioning system – red ducts for hot air, blue for cold, I guessed. 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 so deep beneath me that my torch beam couldn’t find the bottom.
Eventually I made my way back out, passing once more through the central chamber. This time I paused to read the inscription written around the radiant hammer and sickle, emblazoned high above in tiny pieces of red, green and golden stone;
“THE PROLETARIATS OF EVERY COUNTRY JOIN TOGETHER”, it read.
My next problem of course, was getting out – down the deadly flights of ice-encrusted 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 however, I stumbled across an effective – if inelegant – solution; sitting down on the top step I pushed off, sliding at breakneck speed down the iced slope before hitting the bottom wall with a crash.
The Future of Buzludzha
It might be hard to envisage a future for the House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party. The damage that the monument has suffered, the vandalism, looting, and the work of its ferociously wild surroundings, look to be almost irreparable. There are, nevertheless, 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 make an inspection of the monument. Back outside, where my local friends had waited for me by the car, we had a short conversation with these new arrivals.
They didn’t seem worried that I was inside without permission, but rather expressed concern only for my safety. One of these men was an architect, and claimed he had been involved in the original construction of the site; it looked as though he was here now giving a tour to a prospective buyer. From his comments, this potential investor’s interests were political, rather than purely aesthetic in nature; he talked about restoring the monument to its original condition, describing it as a sight that every Bulgarian should be able to look up at with pride.
Commenting on the severe dereliction of the monument, he added,
“Of course [the post-communist state] let it fall apart. Its decay marks a victory over their predecessors.”
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.
For what it’s worth, that’s my opinion.
I never lived through communism though, I never dealt with its aftermath, and so it’s easy for me, as a visitor to this country, to separate the monument from its meaning. For those who lived in its shadow however, for those Bulgarians who came to regard Buzludzha as the symbolic heart of a regime that so many associate now with historic pain and suffering, the separation of form and philosophy becomes more difficult.
Perhaps for many, it would be preferable after all to simply Forget Your Past, as the graffitied slogan recommends.
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