The Park-Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, sometimes simply referred to as the Russian Monument, is a striking tribute to Soviet power. Located on the outskirts of one of Bulgaria’s coastal cities, the monument stands on a hill at a total height of 110m above sea level. The complex is deceptively large – inside and beneath the monument itself there are conference facilities, an information point, a Soviet propaganda centre and bookshop, and, deep beneath the hill it stands on, an abandoned nuclear bunker.
The Creation of the Soviet Propaganda Centre
The monument was originally envisaged in 1958, to celebrate Russia’s defence of Bulgaria during the Russian-Ottoman War of 1828–1829. In 1946 Russia once again offered the country a supporting hand, following Bulgaria’s persecution by Hitler’s forces; a chain of events which saw the rise of the Bulgarian Communist Party.
The Park-Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship was conceived by the local sculptors Evgeni Barǎmov and Alyosha Kafedzhiyski, in collaboration with the great architect Kamen Goranov; it depicts a troop of Russian soldiers coming to the defence of forlorn Bulgarian maidens, with the four figures on either ‘wing’ reaching a height of 11 metres.
An inscription in the centre once read “Friendship for centuries throughout centuries”.
The monument was built on the very spot where the Russian forces were stationed while fighting the Ottomans… which later became a mass grave for all those who fell in the fierce battle.
Construction of the Russian Monument commenced in late 1974, and 27,000 volunteer workers toiled for four years to create both the imposing structure and the 400 square-metre platform on which it stands.
More than 10,000 tonnes of concrete, and 1000 tonnes of armature iron were used to create the monument, which measures 23 metres tall and 48 wide. A great bronze cube was constructed in front of the monument, burning with an eternal flame until the fall of communism in 1989.
The 15-metre wide “Staircase of Victors” includes a total of 305 steps up to the monument itself, and in the surrounding park more than 20,000 decorative trees were planted to represent fallen Soviet soldiers.
A total of 180 floodlights were originally positioned to illuminate the monument at night, so that it would be visible even by ships far out in the Black Sea. Meanwhile, a public address system set up in the park played Symphony № 7 by the iconic Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, on constant repeat.
I have provided a link to Shostakovich’s Seventh, to help set the tone for the site… for best results, hit ‘play’ before reading on.
Every report I had read online about the Park Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship stated that the entrance had been securely bricked up, making access impossible; one report suggested that the hollow interior was now used as a depot for used tyres. I didn’t anticipate any hope for entry, and was only making the trip in order to admire the monument from the outside.
Reaching the bottom of the hill, the first thing one notices is the sheer size of this construction. Beginning the final ascent up the broad steps, the monument towers ominously above the green parkland, seething with the same silent majesty as an ancient, forgotten temple rising out of the jungle.
After taking a few shots of the impressive figures on the wings of the monument, I had soon spotted a way in… someone had clearly taken a hammer to the bricks that barred the main entrance, leaving a hole at the top just large enough to scramble through. Faster than you could say “Park-Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship”, I was inside.
Once my eyes had accustomed to the dark, I was eventually able to make out a flight of bare concrete steps leading upwards, into the left-hand portion of the monument. On reaching the top the passage turned back on itself, and the corridor before me disappeared into darkness.
There is a somehow otherworldly quality to the atmosphere inside the Park Monument. For a start, the darkness is absolute, and at times suffocating – many thousands of tonnes of concrete stand between you and the light of day. Not only that, but even the slightest sound can create long echoes inside this cubist warren of tunnels and stairwells. It wasn’t just my own footsteps that were haunting me; the surrounding park is a popular haunt for stray dogs, and every howl from outside would become trapped inside the monument, distorting as it followed me from room to room.
By this point I was becoming painfully aware of just how poorly prepared I was; in the absence of a torch I was using my mobile phone to light my way, while my camera was running fatally low on battery. Still, I persevered through the darkness.
It is hard to imagine from the outside, just how much space there is inside the monument. Neatly arranged into cleverly tessellated corridors, chambers and stairwells, at several points I found myself losing my way inside the labyrinth. After a while I stumbled upon a series of steps leading upwards, and on following them found that they opened into natural light. Relieved, I followed the stairs out onto the rooftop of the monument. Situated above the female figures on the left-hand wing, this area offered breathtaking views over the city below, and the Black Sea coast.
Later I found myself following another flight of steps, this one set into the middle of the floor, and disappearing down into an inky darkness. Tentatively making my way down to the lower level, I was met by a cold gust of wind from below. I followed another flight down, this one fenced in by a rusted iron banister. Since entering the monument, I had completely lost my sense of both time and space. By now all of my instincts told me that I had gone down too many steps… that I could no longer be inside the monument itself, but that I had to have passed down into the ground beneath it.
It turns out that I had indeed reached the basement level, set into the massive concrete platform on which the monument stands. It is here that the Communist Party of Bulgaria kept a bookshop, information point and Soviet propaganda centre – all sponsored by the Russians, and provided for the ‘education’ of the Bulgarian people.
Exploring this basement level, I soon discovered a hole punched through the brick wall at the back of the foyer – and from here, I found myself stood at the top of a vast flight of stairs, heading down into the earth. With no way of knowing how far, or even where these steps went, and with no torch and no camera, I decided to get out of there and regroup – it was quite clear that the site deserved a second visit.
Over the next 48 hours I charged up my camera, I bought a torch, and I read up more on the Park-Monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship.
While I could find no reports detailing the interior of the complex, I did however manage to find specifications for the nuclear bunker, buried deep in the ground beneath.
What I would find in there however, I had no idea – I ruled out gypsies, tramps and thieves on account of the extreme darkness.
However, the park is home to plenty of stray dogs, and I’d spoken to locals who’d said they wouldn’t come up this way without a can of mace. The prospect of running into a pack of these hungry creatures in the dark did not appeal.
Undeterred nevertheless, I returned to the monument and this time entered on the lower floor – through an easy access point I had spotted last time, leading straight into the Soviet propaganda centre.
I found a cluster of bare rooms here, in addition to the narrow concrete stairwell which spiralled back up into the monument above.
I soon became aware of a particularly foul smell, and on inspection, I found that the former bookshop had been used more recently as a toilet; countless mounds of human excrement were piled across the dusty concrete floor, and soiled strips of newspaper were blowing about in the breeze from the barred window.
At the time I guessed that this was the work of passing pedestrians – perhaps joggers who had been caught short in the park, and knew the place was here. Only later would I realise how naïve it was to assume that I was alone inside this strange structure.
I returned to the grand staircase that lead down into the earth, though even with a powerful torch, it was still impossible to see very far. It reminded me of the steps going down into a London underground station – only without passengers, without light, and with strange Soviet symbols painted onto the walls in the place of adverts for West End musicals.
The wide concrete steps here were an exact mirror of the ‘Staircase of Victors’, directly above. Regularly spaced holes had been tunneled near the ceiling – arranged so as to dimly illuminate the odd characters painted onto the walls. Eventually I reached the bottom, only to find that the grand double doors into the nuclear bunker were sealed and barred, with a sheet of metal welded to the bars from behind.
A little crestfallen, I was about to head back up the steps… when I noticed, half hidden by discarded timbers, a small hole in the ground. On closer inspection this hole, no more than a foot across by two long, seemed to descend into a tunnel, which in turn tailed off into darkness – passing underneath the bunker.
Needless to say, I couldn’t resist. I managed to squeeze myself feet-first through the hole, and climb down to the ground using a series of rusted pipes which jutted out from the wall. From here it was a slow crawl, through a tunnel which gradually decreased in size – to the point where I was wriggling along on my stomach, and wondering how easy it would be to crawl out in reverse.
After what seemed like an eternity I found a large access hole in the concrete above me, where voluminous pipes entered the bunker from directly beneath. However, even this had been sealed with a metal plate, which appeared to be welded in place. Luckily this opening did at least give me enough space to turn around and crawl back out… but I was left wondering exactly what they had in there, which they were so desperate to keep hidden.
I headed back up the stairs, deciding to pay another visit to the monument itself – this time with better lighting, and a better camera.
This time I was able to get shots of some of the features I had previously missed in the darkness, including a conference room in the left-hand wing of the monument.
Here the floor sloped up diagonally, and was sectioned into a series of concrete benches for delegates. This would have been the room were the Bulgarian Communist Party held its local meetings. Heading from there into the right-hand wing via the network of passages in between, I managed to get a better shot of the massive three-dimensional star, etched so deep into the far wall that three people could comfortably sit inside the hollow.
I was preparing to leave, when my torchlight fell on something I had failed to spot on my previous visit; a recessed staircase in a darkened corner, heading upwards and out of sight. Naturally I decided to follow it, and as I climbed upwards I began to detect light ahead – as well as a loud flapping noise; it sounded as if a whole flock of birds had somehow become trapped inside the structure.
Tentatively rounding the last corner I came into a well-lit chamber, with narrow windows spaced evenly along one side – these caught the strong north wind, and the resultant gusts were tearing noisily at the odd assortment of bin bags and sacks that filled the room.
At first I couldn’t work out why anybody would have dragged so much rubbish up to the very top of the monument. There were food containers smeared with grey mould, countless items of ragged, non-descript clothing, and in the far corner, a pile of blankets… realisation then dawned on me pretty quickly, that this was in fact somebody’s home. The same somebody who had been defecating in the bookshop, and who probably knew every corner and crevice of the darkened spaces within the monument.
Perhaps the most disconcerting artefact in this makeshift bedroom, was a small arrangement of objects by one of the windows.
A couple of cushions were being used as a kind of desk, around which were arranged a selection of men’s shoes, slippers and women’s high heels, as well as a couple of technological magazines in Cyrillic script, and an assortment of electronic items – including a mains transformer, a television remote and a few pieces of circuitry which resembled the insides of a calculator.
It appeared that whoever lived here was either trying to build something, or collecting bizarre trophies.
Either way, I suddenly began to feel very uncomfortable. It is impossible to attempt urban exploration in Bulgaria without occasionally coming across the homes of gypsies or vagrants, but this was different – a world apart from those squatted buildings in the city centre, which are used functionally for eating and sleeping. Instead, the seemingly unhinged individual who had chosen to live in this wind-blasted obelisk, miles from the city centre and surrounded by filth and decay, was clearly something altogether quite different. The complex contains so many dark corners, hidden balconies and sunken recesses, that I began to wonder if I had been alone all this time, at all.
This drew an end to my visit. Swiftly and quietly, I made my way back down the staircase, through the main body of the monument, down another dark shaft into the basement, and then out through the propaganda centre.
I left the Park-Monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship feeling disorientated, awestruck and slightly alarmed, my bare forearms still itching from the fibre glass dust in the tunnels beneath.
The final, lingering irony of course, is that even in death this condemned relic of Bulgarian communism is providing free shelter to the homeless proletariat – otherwise ignored by a democratic republic.
My exploration into the nuclear bunker beneath the site finally happened six months later, when I managed to find another way in. Read the full report here.