37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Monday 29 January 2018
Well, here we are – already a month into 2018, and I still haven’t updated the blog since November. It looks almost as desolate and abandoned as the last place I wrote about.
It’s certainly not for a lack of inspiration. In fact, it’s partly the opposite: I’ve got so many things I want to write about that I just don’t know where to start, and when I sit down and look at my list it can sometimes feel quite overwhelming. I have been busy this past few months, but to be honest, there have also been times when I did absolutely nothing at all: I caught up with family, read books, put up some shelves… normal stuff like that. It gets emotionally tiring to be thinking and writing about massacre sites all the time, and when you add the tours to that (now covering seven different countries) the whole thing is physically exhausting as well. I never made a conscious plan to take a break from the blog, but there were certainly times, over the past few months, when it felt as though my body was telling me I should.
Anyway, we’re here now – it’s 2018, a new year, and I’m feeling more rested and refreshed than I have for months. I have a whole load of fascinating places I want to tell you about, brand new photos to share and some exciting news to announce as well.
Let’s dive right in.
In the last 12 months I’ve taken five tour groups into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Each time we stayed overnight, exploring for two full days – until the most recent trip, that is, which took the form of an extended three-day road trip through the ‘Zone.
Each time I go I take more photos, then I get home, and toss the photos into a folder on my hard drive. I’ve hardly looked at them, save for one big article I wrote about Chernobyl tourism after my first visit, then a few smaller features since then.
Just this week I built up the courage to take a look inside that Chernobyl folder: I’ve got 55 GB of images in there, mostly unsorted, featuring all kinds of strange and wonderful sights from all corners of the Chernobyl Zone, in sun, rain, snow and storms. It has actually grown into a pretty impressive collection and now I’m wondering what to do with it.
So I’ve started the process of slowly chipping away at these images (all the photos you see in this post are from Chernobyl), and whittling it down to a manageable number. One day I might turn this into a book – though with several unfinished book projects still on my desk, it’s not going to happen right away. Perhaps in the meantime I could make a new website, purely for displaying my photos from Chernobyl… but before any of that I will be uploading them here for you, as soon as I’ve got some smaller albums ready for sharing.
Winter Road Trips
Towards the end of last year, after I’d finished all my 2017 tours, I went on a series of short road trips in southeast Europe: around Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey.
Each one of these involved a lot of interesting discoveries, some of which will no doubt end up being posted as stand-alone features on the front page of the blog at some point. But I thought it might also be fun to write some behind-the-scenes road trip essays for the private part of the site.
I will get to that soon, and here’s what to expect:
* In Bulgaria I visited a handful of new monuments, visited an underground mining museum, went looking at some bizarre concrete infrastructure (dams, underpasses, bunkers), explored an abandoned surface-to-air missile site and took a walk through the derelict mansion of Bulgaria’s former communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov.
* In Turkey I photographed the Brutalist and Modernist architecture of Ankara, then headed down to Cappadocia to look at ancient cave churches carved into the cliffs, and the abandoned underground cities hiding beneath them.
In Romania I went visiting fortified medieval churches around the villages of Transylvania, explored an abandoned orphanage in the mountains, found some really bizarre monuments, revisited Doftana Penitentiary and then ended up back in Bucharest just in time to join a massive political protest.
In December I reached the halfway point of my PhD, and had to undertake my ‘transfer viva’ – presenting my research (so far) to a small panel of university staff, and then defending it against their co-ordinated academic critique. I got through alright, with just a few small recommended edits, so everything seems to be more or less on track right now.
That same week I gave my first conference talk. It was a nerve-wracking experience for me, speaking to a hundred people in a lecture theatre… somewhat different to the cosy, eight-person tour groups I’m used to. Anyway, the talk was well received and I want to share it as a blog post too.
By way of a teaser, here’s the abstract for my talk as it appeared in the conference brochure:
Eternal Glory: Communist Encounters with the Dead
Under the Communist governments of late-20th century Eastern Europe, places marked by death or suffering (and most notably, those associated with WWII) very often became sites of state-sanctioned pilgrimage; from the humble tombs of anti-fascist partisans, to gargantuan battlefield memorials. In its treatment of the deceased, however, the Communist mode of remembrance sometimes differed dramatically from Western norms of engagement with the dead.
This paper shares some early findings from an ongoing PhD research project. It compares the representation of death and the dead in Western versus Communist Eastern European memorial sites, and demonstrates how even the architecture of monuments and memorials in ‘the East’ (specifically those in Bulgaria and former Yugoslavia) was often designed from the ground up with an inherently different attitude to encounters with the dead.
Finally, the paper considers the fate of these Eastern European memorial sites today. Many have fallen into states of severe decay, and inasmuch as they have come to symbolise the political systems that created them, these ruins evoke a sense of dead empires: their perceived associations with death having expanded far beyond just the corpses that lay beneath them.
News, Features & Exhibitions
While the blog may have been idling lately, I have nevertheless been pretty busy with writing and photography features elsewhere.
I recently wrote a piece about Buzludzha for The Calvert Journal (possibly the best thing I’ve ever written about the place, in my opinion) as well as a more recent feature for architecture website The Spaces, about Soviet-era monuments in Georgia.
Last month I won a small photography competition, too – it was promoting a new book, and mine was picked as one of a handful of entries to receive the latest release from FUEL Publishing: Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums (plenty of good inspiration for me there!).
Some of my photographs from Skopje, Macedonia, are currently on display in the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt, as part of the SOS Brutalism exhibition.
Those Skopje photos are also appearing in the newly released book, SOS Brutalism, which accompanies the exhibition… oh, and The Calvert Journal are bringing a book out too, which will feature a collection of photos and essays on architecture in Eastern Europe, and my Buzludzha article – mentioned above – has been picked for the list.
Speaking of gallery exhibitions, I also had work included in one in Luxembourg – this time featuring a set of photos I took at the Metelkova commune in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Click on the link and that’s my photo, right at the top.
I had an article about Yugoslav monuments published on Atlas Obscura a little while back, and I’m writing another one for them now – this time talking about Chernobyl Power Plant and the plans to build a new solar energy farm on the site.
Finally, you may remember me talking last year about Global Undergrounds: a really interesting book that compiled academic essays about curious underground spaces from all around the world. I had four essays of my own featured in that previous volume, and I’ve been invited back for Volume II, which is focussing on ruins. In addition to submitting essays though, this time I’ll have my name on the front cover as one of the editors.
Nothing makes me happier than this next piece of news: I have spent years visiting, studying and writing about Bulgaria’s Buzludzha monument. I run tours there, I’ve talked about it at conferences, and I’ve written applications to a whole range of different heritage preservation groups, urging them to help protect it. Finally, just the other week, one of those letters paid off.
‘Europa Nostra’ is Europe’s largest heritage organisation, and they have just announced their updated list of the 12 most endangered heritage sites in Europe… and they’re including Buzludzha in it.
This is excellent news, and it’ll serve as a real kick up the backside to all the Bulgarian politicians who, up until now, have tried to ignore the monument and its difficult past, while it slowly falls apart. Having such a prestigious organisation offer their objective assessment that this monument deserves to be saved, is the single most positive thing that has happened for Buzludzha since it was abandoned.
I had almost given up hope for the place ever getting restored, but who knows? Finally things seem to be moving in the right direction.
If you want more details, you can read an article I wrote about this news at Buzludzha-Monument.com.
If you check my Tours Page you’ll see I’ve set dates for a few new tours in 2018. I’ll be running a Bulgaria tour in May this year, and I’m also offering a new route in November – a 10-day tour through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. There are also still a few seats left on my September tour of Ukraine, with Atlas Obscura. Send me a message if you want to know more about any of these.
Articles Coming Soon
Having spent so much time on other projects lately, my own site is beginning to look a little unloved. I plan to fix that over the coming months.
For a while now I have been slowly working on an article about Abkhazia – the one you voted for. Problem is, it’s a difficult subject to approach and I’m still not happy with everything I’ve written. There’s another story bouncing around in my head right now: an essay version of the conference talk I gave in December, about the role of death and the dead in communist memorial sites. As I’ve already had to present this research the narrative is well developed, it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and so in the interest of quality control, I’m going to let it skip the queue.
Abkhazia just needs a little longer to brew… but I’ll get to it soon. Other soon-to-come articles to watch out for include my interview with Petro, the eccentric leather-clad caretaker at the mansion of Ukraine’s deposed former president, and an article about communist-era monuments in Bulgaria (despite the latter being my main specialism, I have never yet published a blog post tackling the subject head-on).
After that? Well, there are whole countries that I haven’t yet touched on. Nagorno-Karabakh will be interesting to write about, as will Armenia. I would like to do something fun based on my brief visit to Kuwait, I’ve got ideas for a new post about Thailand, and of course, pretty soon I’ll be up to my ears in new Chernobyl albums – so plenty of material there.
For now I’m going to let the next few stories develop at their own speed. I’ll get to Abkhazia as soon as I can, and once that one’s published I’ll set up another vote… to see which of these other options is the most interesting for you.
I will finish this long overdue editorial with an announcement: I’m coming out as a Canadian.
Well, sort of. Technically I’ve always been a quarter Canadian, but as my grandmother from Toronto died before I was born, I never really had a connection to that side of the family (or to that side of myself, you could say). Anyway, in April I’ll be heading over to Canada for the very first time, to meet some distant family members and explore a bunch of weird and wonderful places while I’m there. I have already got some fascinating things lined up – including a three-night stay in the most haunted room at a famously haunted hotel in Winnipeg. So there’ll be some fun articles to write in the coming months, I expect.
And I guess that’s about it for now.
Much love to you all, and thank you for sticking with me even when the blog looks almost as derelict as some of the places I write about. I have a feeling 2018 will be a good year though, so hang in there – there are plenty of exciting new stories coming your way.
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