The Military Palace of Culture

During the Socialist era, Bulgaria experienced an unprecedented construction boom. I’ve already written at great length about the political monuments built during those years – colossal things, some of the larger specimens featuring tens of thousands of tons of poured concrete. But there were plenty other projects besides: with new factories springing up in urban centres right across the country; and alongside that the social infrastructure necessitated by such an ambitious urbanisation scheme. Apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, roads, drainage, and in some cases, whole new cities.

All of this work required an incredible labour force, and it came largely by way of the Military Construction Corps.

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In the early days of the Bulgarian Communist Party, the republic’s constitution was modelled closely on the Soviet template; and even after First Secretary Todor Zhivkov rewrote the constitution in the early 1970s, it still followed the Soviet socialist model of a large and diverse domestic military force integrated into all facets of society. National service was a compulsory requirement on leaving education, but recruits were just as likely to be fixing telephone wires or laying bricks, as they were to be given a gun.

The Military Construction Corps would be deployed to locations around the country, living out of barracks while working on local projects. In the years since the Changes, many of these barracks and related facilities have remained in military use and simply been repurposed to serve a new social model. Not so long ago though, I had the opportunity to explore such a site in a state of abandonment, seemingly frozen in time since the last workers downed tools and left.

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Military Theatre-15It was an unsettling place to visit – not least thanks to the modern van parked outside the front, branded as the property of the Bulgarian Department of Defence. My local friend had assured me that the place was empty though. He had visited twice already, and it wasn’t until he was leaving the second time that he ran into the security guard.

In Bulgaria, a lot of abandoned buildings have a guard. Often it’ll be single man of retirement age, paid a pittance to sit in a guard hut through the night. Their job is to keep out metal thieves, looters or vagrants – but a polite, smiling photographer is not something they’re typically expecting.

I’ve often found it easy enough to talk these guards round with the right words; and a well-placed tip, a beer or a pack of cigarettes will generally go a long way.

At this site however, things seemed to be different. That friend of mine who got caught by the guard, he told me he was lucky not to have been arrested. The guard was a severe old man, he said, who came after him with a stick before threatening to call in the police. Offering a bribe had made things worse. This site was still owned by the military after all, and its caretaker didn’t seem to be taking any chances.

Military Theatre-11After some nervous anticipation though, getting inside was an absolute walk-in. I didn’t so much as climb a gate; the fence was down at the back of the compound so I simply wandered in.

The guard hut sat beside the main road entrance. The largest building was positioned front and centre from the gate, but behind it a series of other structures fed in to a rear courtyard. Barracks and officer residences, a canteen and floor after floor of admin suites; there was a lot to see here, far more than we would manage to look at that day.

I pushed the door of the nearest building and it swung open. There was a musty smell of damp cardboard, while the wooden furniture inside was coming apart in swollen layers. It was a foyer of some kind – a staircase leading up and away, beside double wooden doors that opened deeper into the building.

Heading further in, the double doors opened onto a large, dark space. I flicked my torch on and as my eyes began to adjust to the darkness, I realised I was standing in a theatre. Row after row of red velvet seats folded out around a wooden stage.

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The theatre had been intended to provide entertainment – and cultural nourishment – to soldiers stationed here during construction projects. Musty ropes hung from the rafters, while the backstage area was littered with painted wooden signs from past productions. It was surreal, and seemed to be largely untouched; save for the work of time and the elements.

Behind the stage meanwhile, a network of corridors fed into dressing rooms, stores, washrooms and offices. I wandered through the building for a while, up bold, marble staircases now thick with dust – and through white rooms decorated in a hectic collage of theatre posters.

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I wouldn’t usually take my camera out right away, when visiting a place like this. I prefer to explore a little first, get a feel for it with my own eyes – rather than discovering it solely through the viewfinder of a camera. In the main theatre hall I had taken a few clumsy, grainy photos in the dark… with the intention of circling back later to set up camp, get out my tripod and make a more thorough attempt at capturing this space. Unfortunately though, it was not to be.

We began hearing voices from the staircase – or one voice rather, a loud and irate voice that seemed to be addressing unknown intruders. The guard had caught wind of us, and he was coming our way.

Had this been a different site, a school or warehouse, somewhere remote or mundane, I would probably have tried to talk to the security guard. From everything I’d heard though, this man was ex-military and wouldn’t be reasoned with. I had no intention of explaining myself to the police, and so we decided to make a run for it.

We left undetected – out a side exit, through the bushes to the edge of the compound then back over the fence onto a public footpath. We’d seen just a fraction of the site, and I had perhaps a dozen rushed, poor-quality photos to show for it.

I suppose it’s only a matter of time now before my curiosity gets the better of me, and I go back for another look.

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