The Precarious Fate of Communist Monuments in a Post-Communist World
There is something incredibly poignant about a crumbling monument. More than just a snapshot of decay, such objects speak to larger themes: abandoned ideas, fading memories, empires in decline.
Photographs of Eastern Europe’s decaying monuments are eminently shareable; from the concrete colossi of the former USSR to the quirky, retro-futuristic monuments built by Yugoslavia. But social media’s appetite for bittersweet aesthetics makes little allowance for context. Too often, these things get painted as stereotypes – “abandoned,” “forgotten” – when reality is far more complex, and the challenges faced by communist memorials vary hugely from one site to the next.
In Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, protesters gathered this summer around a communist-era monument slated for demolition. The Monument to 1,300 Years was created in 1981, symbolising all of Bulgarian history moving seamlessly forward towards a glorious communist future. For decades the monument stood decaying in Sofia’s centre. However, when the city council began to dismantle it on 3rd July 2017, critics accused them of “crimes against art.”
The challenge here – and elsewhere in formerly communist Eastern Europe – is this: can a monument built to celebrate communist ideals be repurposed as an apolitical heritage site? Can propaganda be domesticated, to live a new life as public art?
A number of communist-era monuments have survived such transitions. In Croatia, the Jasenovac Memorial Site is built around a 78-foot ‘Stone Flower’ that rises above a former WWII concentration camp. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Auschwitz of the Balkans,’ the Nazi-affiliated camp at Jasenovac claimed hundreds of thousands of victims. Far from abandoned, the site features a comprehensive museum and on several days each year it hosts remembrance gatherings. The memorial park was constructed in the 1960s by communist Yugoslavia – but its anti-fascist message is appreciated today by communists and anti-communists alike.
Elsewhere in Croatia though, away from the public gaze, the monument at Petrova Gora has fared less well. It was built to commemorate the local struggle of WWII-era Serb partisans defying a fascist Croatian regime – a message that doesn’t sit comfortably with contemporary Croatian politics. Now, unmaintained, the 120-foot memorial house has decayed to little more than a shell.
Contemporary political attitudes tend to dictate a country’s tolerance for the monuments of former regimes. In Belarus – where the Soviet period is remembered by many with wistful, rose-tinted nostalgia – the communist-era Brest Hero Fortress is remarkably well-preserved. Music booms from speakers by the entrance, young cadets guard the eternal flame, while caretakers wear jackets marked with the monument’s own branding. In neighbouring Ukraine however, the Soviet legacy is tied to memories of hunger and cruelty; a new ruling outlaws communist symbols altogether, and Soviet monuments are nearing extinction.
In Bulgaria, where the public display of communist symbols was criminalised on 24th November 2016, another extraordinary monument faces an uncertain future. The saucer-shaped Buzludzha Memorial House represents the work of more than 6,000 people, and cost the equivalent of $35 million, by today’s rates, to build; it has been left to rot however, doomed largely by its own symbolic language of hammers and sickles and stars.
Year by year, as Buzludzha’s 5,500 square feet of elaborate mosaics are gradually eroded by wind and snow, it is hard to comprehend how such unique cultural heritage can go unprotected. Here and elsewhere though, the scars of communism are not yet fully healed; so even while protesters dispute the removal of communist monuments, and architects propose new plans for renovation, it seems that many post-communist nations will need more time, another generation perhaps, before such objects can be discussed, universally, in terms of ‘art.’