Exploring an Abandoned Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship

The Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, sometimes simply referred to as the Russian Monument, is a striking tribute to the former friendship shared by these two powers.

Located in the outskirts of Varna, down on the Black Sea coast, the monument stands on a hill at 110m above sea level. The interior is deceptively large. It features a former museum hall, a small conference space and a network of other rooms and corridors. On the ground floor the monument (or perhaps more accurately, ‘memorial house’) contained a bookshop, while deep beneath the hill it stands on there lurks a now-derelict bomb shelter.

 
Exploring an Abandoned Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship

 

EDIT:
This article, posted back in 2012, is the first thing I ever wrote about Bulgaria’s communist-era monuments. Since then I have spent half a decade researching the subject, and I know a lot more about it now than I did back then. For that reason, I have edited this article down to just the story of what I saw and experienced during those early visits.

The historical information that I previously included here – dates, details and symbolism – has now been improved, updated and expanded, to feature on a new page dedicated to the Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship.

You can read more about my ongoing project to catalogue and study the monuments of former communist regimes here.

Alternatively, scroll down for the original story that kicked off my obsession.

 

 

The Varna Monument

I first saw the monument from the road. Driving past along the coast with a local friend, I was startled to look inland and find a surreal concrete colossus towering over me. “What the hell is that?” I asked, and my friend told me, Just some old Russian rubbish.

The next day I came back on foot, to take a closer look – climbing the several hundred steps to the monument in the shadow of those Brutalist wings.

Once upon a time, visitors to this monument were greeted with music. A total of 180 floodlights illuminated the monument at night, while speakers set up through the surrounding park played Shostakovich’s Symphony № 7 on constant repeat.

For the full effect, hit Play before you read on.

 

Day One

Everything I’d read online suggested there was simply no way inside the Russian Monument. Entrances had been bricked up, apparently, or otherwise sealed; another report claimed that the hollow interior was now used as a dumping ground for used car tyres. On my first visit to the site, I didn’t hold out any hope for actually getting inside the thing.

As I climbed the broad steps, the monument towered ominously above the park – seething with the silent majesty of some ancient, forgotten temple.

 

 

 

I took a few photos of the impressive figures on the wings of the monument, and it wasn’t long before I’d spotted a way in. Someone had taken a hammer to the bricks that barred the entrance: leaving a hole 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 Russian Monument.

 

 

 
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 sometimes frequented by 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 realising just how poorly prepared I was; in the absence of a torch I was using my mobile phone to light the way, while my camera was running fatally low on battery. But for now, I persevered.

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 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 my instincts told me that I’d 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.

I was in a basement, I realised, set into the massive concrete platform on which the monument stands. The place was a wreck, with little evidence offered as to its former use. I discovered a hole punched through the brick wall of the foyer – and from here, I found myself stood at the top of a vast flight of stairs, heading down deeper into the earth.

With no way of knowing how far – or even where – the steps led, and with no torch or camera anymore, I decided to make a temporary retreat. The tunnel could wait until the following day.

 

Day Two

I returned to the monument the following day, and this time entered on the lower floor – through an access point I had spotted before, located at the rear of the monument. Inside I passed though a series of bare rooms, and past the narrow concrete stairwell which spiralled back up into the body of the monument above.

There was foul smell in the place, and following it I found that the former bookshop had been used more recently as a toilet. Mounds of human excrement covered the dusty floor like a minefield, where soiled strips of newspaper blew in the breeze that came in from a barred window in the concrete wall. At the time, I guessed this was the work of passing pedestrians – only later would I realise how naive it was to assume that I was alone inside this strange structure.

 

 

I returned to the grand staircase that led down into the earth, though even with a powerful torch it was still impossible to see the end of it. It reminded me of the steps going down into a London tube station – only here without passengers, without light, and with strange symbols painted onto the walls in the place of adverts for West End musicals.

These wide concrete steps were an exact mirror of the ‘Staircase of Victors’, directly above. Regularly spaced holes had been tunnelled near the ceiling – arranged so as to dimly illuminate the odd characters on the walls. Eventually I reached the bottom, where the steps culminated in a pair of ominous double doors. They were locked, of course – with a sheet of metal welded to the bars from behind.

 

 

 

A little disappointed, I was about to head back up… 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, appeared to open down into a tunnel. I shone my torch in, to see a passage leading away beneath the doors in the direction of whatever lay beyond them.

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 from the wall. From here it was a slow crawl, through a tunnel that gradually shrank – until I was wriggling forwards on my belly, and wondering how hard it would be to crawl back 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, behind the doors.

Making my way back up, I took the staircase into the monument itself. Angular concrete surrounded me, a hard concrete passage that spiral up in darkness until I found myself emerging into a large space filled with stepped seating – some kind of conference space, inside the left wing of the monument. Heading from there into the right-hand wing via the network of passages in between, I revisited the massive three-dimensional star I’d seen before, It was etched so deep into the far wall that three people could have comfortably sat inside the hollow.

 

 

 

 

I was preparing to leave, when my torchlight fell across something I had failed to spot on my previous visit; a recessed staircase in a darkened corner, heading upwards and out of sight.

I followed it, and as I climbed upwards I began to detect light ahead: accompanied by as a loud flapping noise. It sounded as though 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 windows caught the wind, which ripped and tore about inside the concrete chamber – pulling and tearing noisily at the odd assortment of sacks and bin bags 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, nondescript clothing, and in the far corner, a pile of blankets… realisation then dawned on me pretty quickly. I was standing in somebody’s home. Presumably, it was the same somebody who had been defecating in the bookshop, and who probably knew every corner and crevice of the darkened spaces around me.

But 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 some engineering magazines printed in Cyrillic script. Beside them, an assortment of electronic items: including a mains transformer, a television remote and a few pieces of circuitry that resembled the insides of a calculator.

 

 

 

It appeared that whoever lived here was either trying to build something, or simply collecting bizarre trophies.

Either way, I suddenly began to feel very uncomfortable. Whoever it was, this individual had chosen to live in a wind-blasted obelisk miles from the city centre, and surrounded by filth and decay. The building featured so many dark corners, hidden balconies and sunken recesses, that I began to wonder if I had been alone all this time, after all.

And that drew an end to my visit. Swiftly and quietly, I made my way back down the staircase, through the main body of the monument, and then back outside through the basement exit at the back. I left the Russian Monument feeling disorientated, awestruck and slightly alarmed, my bare forearms still itching from the fibre glass dust in the tunnels down below. As I walked away, a final irony crossed my mind; that even in death, this condemned relic of Bulgarian communism is providing free shelter to the homeless proletariat, otherwise ignored by a modern democratic republic.

 

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  1. with the pictures of Bohemian are great places to see except for the tunnels and they need to be swept up to make the place nice and clean for people to see something a little bit different for a change, from Wendy Sells

  2. There is a Bomb survival shelter under the monument, and you can take a walk in it .. it is even more interesting than this that i see on the photos :}

  3. The true final irony is that the author fails to recognize that the abandoned monument and his experience there was a glimpse of communist reality: an immensely ugly edifice, erected by the involuntary “volunteer” labor of drafted subjects, and now that communism has collapsed under its own weight, it is inhabited by feral humans and smeared with shit.

    • That’s a very narrow viewpoint Carl – and you’re quite wrong in some of your comments. A good number of the volunteers you refer to were excited to be a part of these construction projects at the time. I know this for a fact, as I’m currently researching the subject for a book – and I’ve spent the last three months interviewing these volunteers. Some people were delighted to be involved.

      I accept that you think this monument is “immensely ugly”… but as a design, I absolutely love it. We’ll just have to agree to disagree, I guess.

  4. Awesome ! I can`t wait to read it! it is even better than the specification !

  5. Hi Darmon, first i want to say Outstanding post !! And secondly i have a request to you, can you share with me the specification for nuclear bunker under the monument

    • Thank you, Constantine. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I knew very little about the nuclear bunker underneath the monument until last week – when I finally managed to get inside and have a look around.

      There’ll be a full report appearing on the blog soon…

  6. Darmon, i really shitted my pants: size-decreasing tunnels are one of my worst recurring nightmares.
    Yessir, I’m a chicken-hearted explorette 😛

    • I’m not a massive fan of small tunnels either, but my curiosity tends to get the better of my common sense!

      If you don’t like tight underground tunnels though, you’re going to hate my next report…

  7. Darmon,

    That was an amazing set of pictures and writing about this experience. It reminds of ones that I have read about here in the US in the underground areas of Seattle or San Francisco. Your pictures remind me of some of the pictures of Detroit, showing a “glory” of a time past that is fading but should be remembered before it is gone.

    Regards,

    Alex

    • Hey Alex,

      Thanks for the feedback. You’re right – I think that’s the charm of these places, the fading sense of glory. I have still never been to the US, but I just added Seattle, San Francisco and Detroit to my mental checklist of places to visit… so thanks for that!

  8. Darmon – I’m headed to Bulgaria this summer on vacation. We plan to include the Black Sea coast on our itinerary. Can you provide the location of this monument?

    • Hi there. If you send me an email using the contact form under the ‘Copywriting’ tab at the top, then I’ll be happy to offer you directions.

  9. great post , very relevant to my past and present interests, i will add your blog .
    well done and great job on the write up.

    Thanks

    steve

    • Thanks for the feedback Steve, I’m really glad you enjoyed it!

  10. Is there an opportunity to go back with more/better equipment and people to get through the sealed door at the bottom of the grand staircase and into the tunnels?

    • It’s possible, but the door is pretty well sealed – while it might be feasible to force it open (I even briefly considered using a car jack on the metal plate in the tunnel beneath), I would rather not resort to forcing an entry – it feels clumsy, and much less artful than finding another way in.

      In addition to that, ‘breaking in’ would move this from a questionable activity in the eyes of the local authorities, to being downright illegal… and these guys carry Kalashnikovs.

      I am following up a lead though – it sounds like there is another access point from outside. If that’s the case, then I’ll definitely be doing a second report soon!

    • It didn’t even require force in the end… just a local guide who knew where the back door was hidden.

      Propaganda Centre Revisited

  11. Woah – a great read! 😀 Firstly, hats off for being such a bloody brave bastard 🙂 I would have explored such a ruin…when I was 12. Now I fear the onslaught of horror films & urban legends have made me a far weaker explorer >_< However, I would definitely love to visit places like that, if only with a crowd ^_^

    Keep up the good work! Your blog has been added to my RSS Feed with great relish 🙂

    • Thank you! It’s such a fine line though, that divides bravery and stupidity…

      As it is, I came out alive with some lovely photos to show for it – so the whole thing was a success. Had I been stabbed/raped/eaten however, there might have been a fair argument for suggesting that I had it coming!

      Still, at least it makes for good reading. That’s the main thing. 🙂

  12. Hi Darmon,
    What a great read! It is not often that I find an interesting read about my hometown. I live in Varna, but I have never been inside the monument. From what my grandfather told me, there is a whole network of underground tunnels connecting strategic point is in the city and nearby locations.

    I know for a fact that one of those tunnels extends from the Summer Theater to the nearby resort “Golden Sands”. This is about 20 kilometers or less. My grandmother told that once some dogs got lost in there and it took them 4-5 days to make their way back. No the entrance is seal.

    I know that the monument is definitely connected to the underground network. Also the Pantheon is another place where it can be accessed. http://aeeb.net/us/images/gallery/varna16.jpg. I think one of my uncles had the chance to explore a tunnel or two. I’ll ask him next time I see him. I also know a couple of guys with military background, but they would be pretty much reluctant to share any information.

    If I’m able to find more information, I will let you know.

    Svetoslav

  13. Are you pursuing the bunker contents mystery?

    • Definitely! Looks like I’ll be heading back on a follow-up mission over the Summer, to see if I can get some shots from inside the bunker itself. See the post below…

    • Here it is, then – a tour of the bunker!

      Propaganda Centre Revisited

  14. Congrats on a great piece, and not only for geezers from the Cold War.

    • John – thank you for the kind words! I’ve just been reading your blog, and I’m delighted that you also enjoyed mine.

      I actually paid a visit to the House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party yesterday, on Mount Buzludzha… so there’ll be more online soon.

  15. Thats an unnerving read, I try to avoid exploring on my own for safety and the fact I have jumped at my own echos before now. Your writing fits in well in my “blinkered” ignorance ? of Bulgaria made from the Cold War, WW2 and low budget European horror films.

    • I know what you mean, and I would rather not have gone down there alone – but I had to leave town the next day, so it came to a choice between going alone, or not going at all.

      Please don’t let me put you off Bulgaria! While there are still some intimidating relics like this scattered about, they are mostly forgotten and falling into ruin. The only people bothering to dredge up the past are foolhardy Westerners with more curiosity than sense – much like myself.

  16. What a terrifying looking monolith of a building. Not at all hospitable seeming. It seems more a monument to some cruel god of war than a tribute to peace and friendship. I’ll bet you were happy to make your way back into the sunlight and open air.

    • Exactly my thoughts – for a monument supposedly celebrating friendship, it couldn’t have felt more oppressive or intimidating. Fresh air has never tasted so sweet…

  17. Who knew? What an incredibly complex adventure…

    • I know… at times I felt a little bit like Alice going down the rabbit-hole!

  18. Oh, Bravo sir! A triumph, it has everything – tension, creeping dread, a wealth of information, a fine sense of history, and your usual attention to detail. And a soundtrack! An inspired addition if I may say so.
    The descent into the bowels of the monument – both the overall feel and the writing style – put me strongly in mind of a particular section in a favourite novel of mine; The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by G.W. Dahlquist.
    I am greatly enjoying your urbex tour of the forgotten parts of the world, keep up the good work. And be careful out there!

    • Thanks Dale, I’m glad you appreciated the soundtrack! I like the idea of offering multi-sensory blog posts, if at all possible…

      I still haven’t read Glass Books of the Dream Eaters yet, but I’ve got as far as downloading it to my Kindle – and I’ve got some pretty long train journeys ahead of me!

See all 47 comments on “Exploring an Abandoned Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship”

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