In a bookshop on Tsar Shishman Street today I came across a three volume Guide to Communist Bulgaria. It’s a fascinating looking set which will make its way onto my shelves eventually. There is clearly no shortage of Communist monuments in the country and around Sofia despite the many that have been demolished or relocated.
I found one of the larger remaining monuments while out for a walk a couple of days ago in the Knyazheska Garden off Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard. Standing in the centre of the Garden, towering above its surroundings, stands the Monument to the Soviet Army, erected in 1954 to commemorate the Red Army’s liberation of Bulgaria.
At the top of the central column is a goup of figures – a Soviet soldier, accompanied by a Bulgarian man and a Bulgarian woman carrying a young child. At the base are a series of reliefs portraying the Soviet Army in action.
As with many of these monuments this one has been controversial. Some Bulgarians would like to see it removed viewing it as a reminder not of liberation but of decades of subjugation. Others believe it should stay recognising that whatever the longer term outcomes of the Red Army’s actions, at the time they did come as liberators (though Bulgaria’s wartime history is a little complicated to say the least).
In the absence of any definitive decision Sofia’s people, and in particular its young people and its activists, have claimed the monument as their own. The foot of the monument and its surroundings have become a skateboard park and it’s a popular spot for young people to meet up and hang around.
Sofia’s political activists have taken to painting the reliefs as an expression of political defiance or dissent. The most notable of these fresh looks was applied overnight in June 2011 when the soldiers on one of the reliefs were painted in the costumes of Superman, The Joker, Robin, Captain America, Ronald McDonald, Santa Claus, Wolverine, The Mask, and Wonder Woman with the flag of the Red Army recast as the Stars and Stripes of the United States.
In 2013 the same relief was painted in pink to commemorate the crushing of the Prague Spring by the Soviet Army. In 2014 during the Ukrainian revolution the central figure in this relief was painted in the colours of Ukraine with the phrase ‘Glory to Ukraine’ painted beneath the main inscription. Later that year another pro-Ukrainian phrase, ‘Hands off Ukraine’ was painted on the monument during the Russian takeover of Crimea. Also in 2014 two figures on another relief were painted in the colours of Ukraine and Poland in remembrance of the Katyn Massacre carried out by the Soviet NKVD in 1940. The soldiers have also worn the face masks of Anonymous and the colourful balaclavas of Pussy Riot.
Needless to say each time the monument is defaced in this way the Russian Government lodges protests and the Bulgarian Government asserts its opposition to the practice. But the monument lies in an open park: it would be near impossible to prevent these things happening without surrounding the monument with fences and guards – and what message would that communicate?
Each time the monument has been painted the authorities have cleaned it up. Yet over time the accumulation of paint leaves more and more traces of these past activities with pastel washes of colour still showing through. And I couldn’t help noticing the rather fetching red nail polish of one gun wielding soldier.
There really is no need to move the monument. For those who wish to commemorate the Red Army and its role in Bulgaria it provides a focus; for those who see the Soviet forces in a more sinister light, the reclaiming of the monument by Sofia’s skateboarders and activists has redefined what the monument means.