Monumentalism

This project is the result of 10 years spent travelling, reading, taking photos and asking questions; living out of backpacks, occasionally getting lost and very often sleeping in cars. Monumentalism is an ongoing project that investigates monuments and monumental architecture from every corner of the post-communist world.

In 2015 I began working towards a PhD on the subject, and later that year I ran my first tour of communist-era memorial sites in Bulgaria. Now, I’m offering tours in six Eastern European countries.

Collected on this page are links to all of my work on Monumentalism – my articles, tour itineraries and photo galleries – along with an explanation of how I came to be so obsessed with communist monuments. You can also browse my full portfolio over at Monumentalism.net.

For more information, image licensing, tour bookings or anything else, just send me a message.

 
Monumentalism: Bulgarian Monuments

 

Bulgarian Monuments

The first time I visited Bulgaria was in 2006… and I have been photographing the country’s communist-era monuments ever since. I’ve seen almost 200 now: located in cities, villages, up mountains or lost in forests; some of them falling to pieces, others lovingly maintained.

Up until now, I have published very little on the subject. Most of my writing has been saved for a book about Bulgarian monumentalism – along with the 100+ interviews I’ve conducted with the people who built these things, and the people who live in their shadow. Through this page however, I plan to begin sharing samples of this 10-year research project.

Locations:
Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, Varna.
Monument to the Three Generations, Perushtitsa.
Fraternal Barrow Memorial Complex, Plovdiv.
Arch of Liberty, Beklemeto Pass.

Articles:
Mount Buzludzha: Bulgaria’s Communist Party Headquarters
Exploring an Abandoned Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship

Also featured in: Hunting for Pokémon in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

 
Monumentalism: Yugoslav Monuments

 

Yugoslav Monuments

My first trip to a Yugoslav memorial site came in 2014, when I visited the Ilinden Spomenik in Macedonia. I went looking for more in Kosovo that year, and in Serbia the year after. Finally, in 2016, I committed to the ultimate road trip and visited monuments in all of the former republics of Yugoslavia.

The articles below feature monuments from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Slovenia, Montenegro and Macedonia, as well as the former Yugoslav autonomous province, Kosovo. My tours to the region are the longest I offer, visiting 20-something memorial sites in the space of 12 days.

Articles:
Myth & Memory in the Balkans: The ‘Spomeniks’ of Former Yugoslavia
The Ilinden Spomenik: Macedonia’s Space-Age Monument to Freedom
The Nikšić ‘House of Revolution’: Death & Rebirth in the Ruins of Yugoslavia
The Bad Place: Slime & Foreboding at the Grmeč Spomenpark in Bosnia

Photography: Brotherhood & Unity

 
Monumentalism: Soviet Monuments

 

Soviet Monuments

The word ‘Soviet’ gets thrown around a lot. In the past, in books and newspapers, I’ve seen monuments in all the countries above mistakenly labelled Soviet – despite their geographic separation, their very different politics and often radically different styles. In reality, I still haven’t seen all that many actual Soviet monuments.

Of the 15 former republics of the USSR, I have only visited seven: including memorial sites in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania and Kazakhstan. My next big research trip is likely to take me back in that direction however, so for now you can consider this section a work in progress.

Articles:
Midwinter Minsk: Socialist Modernism in the ‘Soviet Florida’
Sneaking into an Abandoned Soviet Circus in Moldova
Tourism in Transnistria: Examining the Last Remnants of the USSR

 
Monumentalism: Communist Monuments of the World

 

The Rest of the World

My interest in the monumental art and architecture of communist regimes goes beyond just the regions listed above. Over the years, I have visited memorial sites all the way from the Caribbean to the Far East: including locations in China and North Korea, in Poland and former Czechoslovakia, in Romania, Albania and Cuba.

Articles:
The Pyramid, Bunkers & Purple Concrete of Communist Albania
Beneath the Velvet: Examining the Scars of Communism in Prague
Cuba’s Revolutionary Trail: From Che Guevara to the Missile Crisis
A Tourist in Pyongyang: My First Impressions on Visiting North Korea

Also featured in: The Socialist Street Parties of Cuba, North Korea & The Former USSR

 

The Rest of the Web

Monumentalism Web: The MonumentalistMonumentalism

The Bohemian Blog is a slow format – long-form articles, and quality over quantity. Less is more, as they say… but then again, more is also more. With that in mind, I have begun to share my full portfolio here with new monuments posted every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

www.monumentalism.net

 

Monumentalism Web: The Buzludzha MonumentThe Buzludzha Monument

The most famous of all Bulgaria’s communist-era monuments, the Memorial House on Buzludzha Peak is an extraordinary achievement of national art and architecture. This website is dedicated to the monument, and charts its complex history as well as detailing the recent plans to restore it as a museum.

www.buzludzha-monument.com

 

Monumentalism Web: The MonumentalistThe Spomenik Database

This last website is the work of American researcher Don Niebyl, who has created the most phenomenal resource for the monuments of former Yugoslavia. The database pinpoints these monuments on a map, as well as sharing in-depth histories, symbolic analysis and English translations of every inscription.

www.spomenikdatabase.org

 

Tours

Want to visit these places for yourself? Then come along on one of my monumental tours.

Monumentalism ToursI offered my first tour in 2015, focussing on communist-era monuments in Bulgaria. It sold out in just a few weeks. I added another, and that one sold out quickly too. Ten tours later, they’re still as popular as ever.

Now I offer three packages, visiting a total of six countries: my original, in-depth tour of Bulgarian monuments; an extended tour through Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia looking at Yugoslav memorial sites; plus a tour to Ukraine and Moldova, that combines Soviet-era monumentalism with an overnight trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

Check Dates and Itineraries

 

Yugoslav Memorial Tour, April 2017: the group visits the Tjentište Monument in Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Yugoslav Memorial Tour, April 2017: the group visits the Tjentište Monument in Bosnia & Herzegovina.

On Monumentalism

It was 2006 when I first saw the concrete saucer on top of Bulgaria’s Buzludzha Peak. I was mesmerised not just by the size of it – or its striking juxtaposition against the breathtaking scenery of the mountain range – but moreover by what it stood for.

And I’m not talking about communism.

Yes, the Buzludzha Memorial House is generally considered a ‘communist monument,’ and with fair reasoning: the red star built into the tower, the hammer and sickle that hangs above its auditorium, the faces of Marx, Engels and Lenin painstakingly recreated in mural form inside. From a distance though, seeing it for the first time from some 20km away, none of that was visible. What I saw, rather, was an incredible celebration of form over function.

 

The Buzludzha Memorial House is located at an altitude of 1432m, and a long drive from the nearest major town.
The Buzludzha Memorial House is located at an altitude of 1432m, and a long drive from the nearest major town.

The Buzludzha Monument was never a useful building. It sits in a remote location at an altitude of 1432 metres, battered by fierce winds, buried in snow each winter. The Bulgarians literally moved mountains to build it – in 1974, the peak was brought down by nine metres with explosives in order to create a level building foundation.

The monument’s interior, meanwhile, features only one useful space: a circular conference hall. Most of the other rooms inside served simply as a life support… the boiler rooms, generators, lighting desks, lavatories, cloak rooms and air-conditioning systems that were necessary to maintain the illusion, and to shield this surreal arena against the inhospitable conditions just outside.

That red star alone, glowing from the monument’s tower, used as much power as 500 homes.

 

Looking out through the red star at the Buzludzha Memorial House in Bulgaria.
Looking out through the red star at the Buzludzha Memorial House in Bulgaria.

The rationale behind this monument was the very opposite of the utilitarian styles of architecture I’d been surrounded by, growing up – the kind of buildings that Britain started mass-producing after the war, and throughout the 1960s – in which form always followed behind function.

On Buzludzha Peak however, the Bulgarians had thrown function to the wind and spent roughly 14 million levs (at today’s rates, approximately $35 million) on building a structure where form was everything. It was this complete reversal of familiar architectural logic – and not the political branding, the hammers and sickles – that first attracted me to Buzludzha.

Over the next decade I travelled the world. I went to military parades in the former Soviet Union, I explored architectural oddities in the Far East and hunted for remote memorial sites in the Cuban countryside. To date I have visited communist monuments in more than 20 different countries.

 

The Monument to Party Founding in Pyongyang, North Korea.
The Monument to Party Founding in Pyongyang, North Korea.

It’s not a political statement when I say the communists did it better.

At school I had been taught to believe that the 20th century communist republics were repressive, authoritarian hell-holes where creativity was stifled by conformity. Not far from that very same school, our town’s WWII memorial rose from a grassy hillside; a simple, square-sided obelisk, the same design that appears in practically every town in Britain. Compare any of these British things to the war memorials they were building in Bosnia, in China or Belarus, and it’s not the communists who seem to be lacking creativity.

Of course, many of these monuments served roles as physical propaganda… raised fists, guns and flags, the hammers and sickles of the Classical and Socialist Realist styles preferred by mid-century, post-war communist republics. It was intended as “Art of the people, for the people”: with messages so simple there was no room for misinterpretation.

 

Socialist Realist panels decorate a Soviet-era monument in Chisinau, Moldova.
Socialist Realist panels decorate a Soviet-era monument in Chisinau, Moldova.

However, the communist world would experience a cultural renaissance of sorts, beginning in 1956. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin at the twentieth congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and a wave of de-Stalinisation swept across the Eastern Bloc. The repressive, Stalinist styles of art and monumentation were no longer law. In Prague, the world’s largest statue of Joseph Stalin (part of an ensemble measuring 15 metres tall, 22 metres long) was brought down with explosives; while in the Balkans, in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, as restrictions on artistic expression were relaxed, those mass-produced statues of soldiers, peasants and partisans began to give way to new abstract forms: to a monumentalism of wings and flowers and flying saucers.

The 'Three Fists' monument at the Bubanj Memorial Park in Niš, Serbia.
The ‘Three Fists’ monument at the Bubanj Memorial Park in Niš, Serbia.

Suddenly, a dozen countries that had previously been denied their freedom of artistic expression were getting drunk on it. They adopted the international styles of the era – Modernism, Futurism, Brutalism – and made them their own.

Tito’s Yugoslavia used communism to unite a federation of multiple nationalities; nations whose more extreme factions led massacres against one another, both before and after the reign of the Yugoslav Communist Party. The abstract style of the monuments built there were intended to show no heroes, no villains, only ideas. Very often they were symbolically composed from multiple segments that never touched, but appeared as one single object when viewed from a distance.

These Yugoslav memorials were symbols of life conquering death, of growth and repair; of sadness, sometimes, but always tempered with hope for a better future.

Today, however, many of the monuments are in terrible condition, graffitied and falling apart. It is often easy to see why. In Croatia there are Yugoslav monuments dedicated to the Serbs killed during WWII in Croat concentration camps; in Serbia, in the 1990s, Slobodan Milošević attempted ethnic cleansing under the banner of the Yugoslav People’s Army. In neither country do the surviving Yugoslav monuments always offer a particularly comfortable narrative.

 

The crumbling memorial house at Petrova Gora, Croatia, was dedicated to ethnic Serbs who died in an uprising against a Croatian fascist regime. It receives neither protection nor recognition from the current Croatian government.
The crumbling memorial house at Petrova Gora, Croatia, was dedicated to ethnic Serbs who died in an uprising against a Croatian fascist regime. It receives neither protection nor recognition from the current Croatian government.

In the case of other monuments, it’s simply their perceived associations that condemn them.

When I met the Bulgarian architect Georgi Stoilov, creator of the Buzludzha monument, he told me how his original design for the saucer featured a red lion glowing in the tower: the symbol of Bulgaria, atop a monument for Bulgaria. It was the Communist Party who replaced his lion with a star.

This memorial to communist partisans in Bulgaria has been graffitied with swastikas, and a slogan that translates to: Faggots of Different Races, Unite!
This memorial to communist partisans in Bulgaria has been graffitied with swastikas, and a slogan that translates to: “Faggots of Different Races, Unite!”

Now Bulgaria has followed the lead of Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and others, by passing a law that bans the use of communist symbols. As a result, a great many monuments designed with the best intentions (though tagged, of course, with the insignia of the ruling regime) have since been classed accessories to a crime.

For many Eastern European countries, the relics of communist-era monumentalism represent half a century of the best work by their best artists, sculptors and architects. Some of that work is inherently political… yet even that which isn’t has in many cases been doomed to decay, for having been branded with the logo of a failed political experiment. All this will leave is a 50-year void, a blank CV in place of some of the world’s most remarkable achievements in monumental art.

For a lot of these monuments it feels like time is already running out. A few of the places I’ve photographed have since disappeared. In some cases, I’m watching them disappear – piece by piece they disintegrate, getting smaller from one visit to the next. Timeless architecture, handcuffed to a fast-receding past.

So that’s why I’m doing what I do: I photograph monuments, before they disappear. I memorialise memorials.

These objects may not stand for ideas that people today still want to (or should want to) celebrate – but the monumentalism of 20th century communism was an artistic movement with no parallel. For each of these monuments that is lost, the world becomes just a little bit poorer.

 
Pantheon to the Heroes of the Serbo-Bulgarian War

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