Sunday, 22 April 2012

Urban Exploration: Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, BulgariaUrban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria

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 opera of ‘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.

Urban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria"ON YOUR FEET

Urban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria"WORKING MEN

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.

Urban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, BulgariaUrban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, BulgariaUrban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria

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

Urban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria

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…

Urban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria

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 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.

Urban Exploration | Communist Party Headquarters, Buzludzha, Bulgaria

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.

More Urban Exploration...


Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Urban Exploration: Balkan Ghost Town, Bulgaria

In a remote corner of the Balkan Mountains, there stands a forgotten village with no name. At an altitude of nearly 800m, the village can only be reached on foot - but the spectacular views easily justify the forty-minute trek from the last inhabited town. The most interesting thing about this village though, and the thing that sets it apart from most of my other Bulgaria urbex reports, is that it has remained untouched - these houses have simply been abandoned in the prime of their life, and left to decay unnoticed.

Urban Exploration | Balkan Ghost Town, Bulgaria

The village consists of a total of probably fifteen houses - arranged into two groups, roughly 100m apart. Transport to and from the village is difficult, which is why most of the villagers left their belongings behind. A couple of houses feature padlocks on the doors, but for the most past visitors have a free reign to explore these traditional homesteads.

The remote location also serves as a strong deterrent for looters and gypsies; as such the entire site is beautifully free from graffiti and other intentional damage. Even valuable objects such as televisions and tools have been left behind, sat for years in exactly the same place where they were last used. Many of the houses have been this way for as long as two decades - when Bulgarian Communism fell in 1989 there was a mass exodus, as starving citizens moved into the cities for work. More than a million Bulgarians emigrated in those first few years, leaving behind their abandoned mountain settlements and decaying soviet monuments.

Urban Exploration | Balkan Ghost Town, Bulgaria

Approaching these old wood and brick houses, one of the first things to catch the eye are the countless paper memorials, pinned to doors and walls. These simple black and white sheets are a Bulgarian funerary custom, printed with the faces of deceased loved ones. Like an A4 tombstone they adorn the home of the deceased, as a mark of respect from the living. The problem with this system however, is that it often seems as if nobody knows when to take these morbid decorations down - here the deceased of many years past still cling to the walls, paper fading to dust as their solemn portraits keep watch over the village.

Urban Exploration | Balkan Ghost Town, Bulgaria

A few of the houses in the village have already given way to the elements. Some say that the snow this year has been the heaviest in living memory; here and there wooden beamed roofs have given way, scattering cascades of hand-shaped clay tiles. A number of the older buildings are now being used as storage space - the derelict barn on the edge of the village is filled with mattresses, while another house contains an array of wooden beehives.

Houses in the village were almost exclusively built in the traditional style of rural Bulgaria; a timber frame is held together with nothing more than stout pegs, and tiles are designed to simply rest in place, overlapping one another along the beams of the roof. Inside the kitchen one will usually find a 'jamal' - this old-fashioned heating system consists of hollow clay columns built into the wall, usually fed from a stove set into the wall in the next room. Not only does this provide a stove for cooking on, but hot smoke is piped into spaces between the walls, acting as a form of central heating.

Urban Exploration | Balkan Ghost Town, Bulgaria

Elsewhere around the site, strange tools and contraptions have fallen into disrepair, and many are slowly becoming enveloped by the vegetation. While much of the village has gone to ruin, there are still odd signs of maintenance here and there. The padlock on one house looks almost new, and there was electricity in the village until just a few months ago - the cables appear to have been brought down just recently in the storms, and now trail hopelessly between houses.

The modest graveyard on the outskirts of the village features, ironically, the most recent signs of life - flowers rest on a number of graves, showing that while the village itself may have been abandoned long ago, those who lived and died here are still remembered by somebody, somewhere.

Urban Exploration | Balkan Ghost Town, Bulgaria

Another noteworthy sight from the trip was an old Soviet truck, parked at the bottom of the mountain track. This former military vehicle survives now as little more than an engine on wheels, and has been put to seemingly good use as a tow-truck for a logging team. Vehicles like this are by no means rare in rural Bulgaria - where there is a far greater tendency to fix things, than there are the resources to replace them.

If you visited this page expecting a report on urban exploration in Bulgaria, then perhaps by now you have found your definition of 'urban' stretched to its furthest limits. However, this village stands to represent a recurring feature of the Balkan Mountains, and one intrinsically linked to the rich and tragic history of the region...

Urban Exploration | Balkan Ghost Town, Bulgaria

There are many villages such as this, scattered across the mountains of Bulgaria - some of which have grown from settlements dating back as far as the fourteenth century. This unlikely trend of remote mountain-dwelling came as a result of the Ottoman invasion of Bulgaria in 1396, which brought an end to the Second Bulgarian Empire. A local story has it that when the first battalions came marching over the border from Turkey, the Bulgarians welcomed their neighbours with open arms - even offering them food and drink on their way to war. The Turks, in reply, were wanton in their destruction; slaughtering livestock for fun, and setting fire to the crops. They killed or enslaved the men they came across, and they raped the women - many of whom were sent back to join the Sultan's harem in Constantinople.

It was for this reason that some of the townsfolk began to disappear... heading high up into the mountains to build new, peaceful communities, hidden from the view of larger towns and cities.

The Ottomans were finally repelled from Bulgaria during the Russian-Ottoman War of 1877-78, and after nearly 500 years of oppression, the people were left to pick up the pieces of their national identity. However, these peculiar mountain communities remained. Some were left to ruin early in the twentieth century, and many more over the course of the years to come. Of the hundreds of secret settlements established in the Balkans under Ottoman rule, a good many still remain; hidden from view and forgotten by almost all, these remote ghost towns are a testament to the determination and independent spirit of the Bulgarian people.

More Urban Exploration...


Sunday, 8 April 2012

Urban Exploration: Beachfront Adventures, Bulgaria

Bulgaria is known for its Black Sea resorts. During the summer months, coastal destinations such as Sunny Beach and Golden Sands become a playground for wealthy foreign tourists. Russians, Germans, Scandinavians and Brits descend on these clumsily-named resort towns like locusts, revelling in the hot sun, clean waters and dangerously cheap alcohol.

Urban Exploration | Beachfront, Varna, Bulgaria

However, while Bulgarian summers can easily reach heats in excess of forty degrees celsius, the winter can be just as severe; this last winter was a prime example, and as temperatures dropped down to below minus twenty, the sea itself began to freeze over in places.

These pictures were all taken between January and March, and reflect a number of different forays along the beach, through the park, and into the urban sprawl of an off-season resort town.

Urban Exploration | Beachfront, Varna, Bulgaria

While the seafront promenade erupts into a chaotic thoroughfare of tourists by the end of May, at this time of year the numerous bars and nightclubs are boarded up against the onslaught of cruel elements. Many properties are even wrapped in thick plastic insulation, stapled in place to deter frost and precipitation.

The appearance is that of a barren ghost town, which seems to age disproportionately through these hard months; tiled floors are pockmarked by frost, and graffiti sprawled carelessly across doorways and plywood sheets. Most of these premises are merely hibernating, but amongst them are numerous venues that are quite simply beyond repair. These crumbling parlours remain boarded up all year round, and many are used as storage space for furniture and boats.

Urban Exploration | Beachfront, Varna, Bulgaria

It's strange to see this long stretch of beach covered in thick, even snow, and many of the slumbering attractions take on an otherworld character against the monochrome landscape; the giant water ride for example appears frozen in mid-movement, clusters of icicles hanging from its belly.

Further a long the beach, a replica pirate ship has been converted into a rock bar. In January however, this too lies abandoned; a Spanish galleon run ashore on the Arctic tundra.

Urban Exploration | Beachfront, Varna, Bulgaria

It is also interesting to note the number of abandoned houses which occupy prime waterfront locations here. Pictured is one such example - a beautiful old townhouse which was destroyed by fire some time ago, and yet remains derelict. Another evening I came back to explore this house in full... turning it into a full urbex report of its own.

It seems strange to someone from a Western European background, that these sites have not yet been bought up for development. After all, locations such as these, placed closed to the tourist centre, would stand to make exceptional business investments. It is easy to assume that their lapse into decay reflects nothing more than an acute state of poverty... or at best, a lack of business acumen. However, perhaps the reverse is also true; perhaps such a prognosis reflects on the nature of Western materialism, inasmuch as we sometimes struggle not to assess things in terms of a price tag. Only a little over two decades out of communism, it is no surprise that Bulgaria is yet to match us in terms of jaded capitalism.

Urban Exploration | Beachfront, Varna, Bulgaria

Situated up a steep incline from the water, the beautiful park known as the Sea Gardens stretches the entire length of the beach. Here one can find striking examples of communist sculpture, in addition to a range of modern attractions including an aquarium and a dolphinarium. Hidden in the undergrowth at the back of the park, there also stands a curious old brick construction... this derelict platform was once the starting point for a water ride, a series of flumes which wound a twisting path down the side of the cliff towards a pool at the bottom. All that remains of them now however, are odd fragments of cracked tubing, slowing disappearing beneath the oncoming waves of vegetation.

On another visit to the park I found my way into a partially hidden enclosure, overlooking the beach below. I imagine this was quite an exclusive spot back in its prime, with a number of bars and seating areas spaced around a large, open arena, at the centre of which stood a wooden stage - almost like a small, enclosed fairground.

Urban Exploration | Beachfront, Varna, Bulgaria

What I found most interesting about this place was that it had remained relatively intact; despite the torn marquee that hung in tatters above the bars and stalls, it nevertheless appeared that the damage here was merely superficial. There were various buildings and outhouses around the outer ring that still contained furniture, and electrical fittings like televisions and cooking equipment. Strange that items with such an enticing scrap value should remain untouched, but then this was at the Mafia-owned end of the beach. Perhaps looters knew better than to scramble over the rusted fence... as I had.

I didn't have time to give it a proper look on my first visit, and so I came back a few days later... only to find the site being looted by gypsies. As I approached I saw a dark-skinned young girl with matted hair and a soiled tracksuit keeping guard by the path. Behind her another girl was stood at the fence, taking a bundle of copper pipes which were being passed up by someone inside. I walked on by without bothering to stop - I knew that I had missed my chance.

More Urban Exploration...


Friday, 6 April 2012

Urban Exploration: Soviet Propaganda Centre, Bulgaria

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

Urban Exploration | Soviet Propaganda Centre, Russian Monument, Varna, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Propaganda Centre, Russian Monument, Varna, Bulgaria

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.

Day One

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.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Propaganda Centre, Russian Monument, Varna, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Propaganda Centre, Russian Monument, Varna, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Propaganda Centre, Russian Monument, Varna, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Propaganda Centre, Russian Monument, Varna, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Propaganda Centre, Russian Monument, Varna, Bulgaria

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.

Day Two

Urban Exploration | Soviet Propaganda Centre, Russian Monument, Varna, Bulgaria

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 dozens of stray dogs, and many locals I had spoken to refused to 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. There are even stories of ‘cave dogs’ in Bulgaria; these semi-mythical creatures are a particularly blood-thirsty species of dog, which have adapted to hunt sightlessly through caves and other underground places. Bulgaria is also home to a number of highly venomous snakes, which tend to pass this time of the year hibernating in dark, dry places beneath the earth.

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.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Propaganda Centre, Russian Monument, Varna, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Propaganda Centre, Russian Monument, Varna, Bulgaria

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!

Urban Exploration | Soviet Propaganda Centre, Russian Monument, Varna, Bulgaria

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.

So, no nuclear bunker for me.* I headed back up the stairs, deciding to pay another visit to the monument itself – this time with better lighting, and a better camera.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Propaganda Centre, Russian Monument, Varna, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Propaganda Centre, Russian Monument, Varna, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Propaganda Centre, Russian Monument, Varna, Bulgaria

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. This was possibly my strangest experience of urban exploration in Bulgaria to date. The site boasts a rich history, and is seemingly undiscovered by the Bulgaria urbex community... or if not entirely undiscovered, at the very least undocumented.

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.

Propaganda Centre Revisited
More Urban Exploration...

*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.