No, Bulgaria Doesn’t Need to Bury the Communist Past

Bulgarian authorities have begun dismantling the capital city's main memorial to the Red Army. Celebrated as a move to bury the Communist past, the obsession with symbolic score-settling in fact reflects an inability to talk about this history seriously.

Workers dismantling part of the statues from the Soviet Army Monument in Sofia, Bulgaria, on December 14, 2023. (Hristo Vladev / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In the wee hours one night before Christmas, massive bronze human figures were loaded onto a truck and driven to an unspecified location. To the morbidly minded, this scene was like a flashback to the dispatching of victims extrajudicially killed in Europe’s dark interwar decades. Yet, it also conjured up the heists of state property in the post–Cold War era of mass privatizations. In fact, this was just the inglorious exit of the main sculpture group from what was once one of Europe’s most imposing Soviet war memorials.

Towering over a downtown park not far from Parliament, Sofia’s Soviet Army Monument became a focus of Bulgaria’s contested Communist heritage as Bulgaria, like most ex–Eastern Bloc states, paved a Western-oriented path after 1989. Slated for demolition already in 1993, today it faces the same fate as so many other symbols of the Communist era across Eastern Europe.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fueled a new wave of historical score-settling. In August 2022, Latvian authorities spectacularly demolished the Soviet Army Monument in capital Riga, soon followed by a string of others. Neighboring Lithuania and Estonia have done similarly. Poland has continued its staunch “decommunization” agenda. The Bulgarian case differs in some respects, compared to such virulent efforts. Yet recent events lay bare the dynamics behind the entrenchment of a new, ultimately dysfunctional right-wing agenda in much of Central and Eastern Europe.

A familiar pitfall in the battle against Soviet-era monuments is a revisionism equating Nazi and Soviet rule, which often tends to sanitize the Nazi affiliations of some local anti-communist actors. Russian propaganda has been only too keen to exploit this. A second trap — pushed by Western propaganda, but also remarkably embraced by today’s Russia — is to portray the USSR as merely one episode in the long history of Russian empire. Yet another, which is no less harmful, replaces efforts to tackle today’s social contradictions with actions instead centered on “breaking away from the past,” accompanied by talk about “the clash of civilizations” and “Russian influence.”

Writing on the Soviet Army Monument, leading Bulgarian right-wing intellectual Tony Nikolov indulges in the magical thinking typical of what passes for analysis in such circles. He argues that the demolition “severed the ties of centuries-old dependence — a political, economic, and mental enslavement of Bulgarians by Moscow.” Rather than doing away with the lingering “postcommunist” tradition, similar treatments of history make it an eternal condition, while also closing down space for the emergence of a new political left. But they also speak of lasting maladaptive processes, of broader importance.

Between Liberation and Occupation

In today’s stagnant present, it is common to evoke an imaginary past that had supposedly already resolved what today look like insurmountable contradictions. Removing Soviet monuments has become part of a vast exercise in purifying history, driven by a toxic mix of nationalism, neoliberalism, and self-colonization. In the stories that pro-Western elites have long been telling our societies, Communism is exorcised as an alien and abortive presence. What good fortune that it took on this material body in metal and concrete, thus allowing for its remains to be spirited away.

The sculpture group now removed from the Sofia Red Army Monument is itself remarkable: a trio with the smiling Soviet soldier, flanked — and followed half a pace back — by a Bulgarian woman carrying a child, and a Bulgarian worker. As architect Aneta Vasileva has long argued, a one-sided politicization has impeded anything like a distanced and nuanced view on the artistic merits of Communism’s dissonant heritage. Created starting in 1949 by sculptors Vaska Emanuilova and Mara Georgievа — only to be deposited piecemeal at a run-down depot in the outskirts of Sofia seventy years later — the memorial’s central work is testament to the capacities of Bulgarian artists, notably female ones, during those early socialist years. That the two sculptors were secretly a gay couple adds to the poignancy of a story hardly anyone seems willing to tell.

Already in 2011, commenting on a widely publicized (but anonymous) spray-painting of Soviet soldiers as twenty-first-century comic-book heroes, artist Boryana Rossa deplored the sad state of a public debate cast in clichés about a gray Communist past and a colorful present — an image oblivious to the rampant inequities of globalized capitalism.

Detractors insist that the ambitious project, unveiled in 1954 to celebrate ten years since the Communist takeover, was developed under the oversight of the state and Soviet monumental architects, leaving little autonomy to the local team headed by noted sculptor Ivan Funev. But compared to today’s shallow sloganeering about the monument, the rich documented exchange from the time about the work-in-progress renders laughable all the facile assumptions about the “totalitarian” stifling of individual creativity.

Concern about the critical potential of what sociologist Zhivka Valiavicharska has called “history’s restless ruins” is among the unspoken reasons why such monuments are to be eliminated from public space. In a now sadly familiar move, authorities declared this monument “technically unsafe,” thus avoiding having to give any substantial justification for the demolition.

By all admissions, the memorial constitutes a monumental feat hardly achievable by Bulgarian sculptors today — a decline itself worth considering. А thirty-seven-meter-tall granite truncated pyramid, now empty at the top, carries on its sides three vast dynamic high reliefs depicting scenes from the World War II front line and home front, as well as the October Revolution (i.e. the birth of the Red Army). Its spacious frontal area is flanked by two additional complex sculpture groups of Bulgarians welcoming the “Liberator Soviet Army” on Bulgarian soil.

It is this message of “Liberation” — emblazoned on the memorial’s now-vandalized inscription — that has most vexed critics. As sociologist Jana Tsoneva has noted, ironically it is mostly for anti-communists that the monument has “remained a living source of communism.” In a telling recent piece on the demolition, political scientist Daniel Smilov reduced the monument to a glorification of Communism, before offering his take on the equation between the Nazi and Communist states: “arguing which of the two is better or worse has scholarly relevance, but in practice both are flawed and morally reprehensible.”

In a move familiar elsewhere in the ex–Eastern Bloc, the Soviet-sponsored story of the Red Army as a Liberator has been supplanted with its mirror-image, Western-sponsored story of the Occupier who brought the darkness of totalitarianism on the region. This narrative is especially strong in Baltic countries, which habitually tell their past between 1940 and 1991 as a gruesome series of two Soviet occupations split by a Nazi one. Portrayed as a brief interlude before decades of Soviet oppression, occupation by the Third Reich somehow appears less significant. Today, Latvian media reformat the word “Liberation” in terms of the eventual release from the Soviet-era heritage. In Bulgaria, we seem to have adopted an almost identical narrative, even though our historical experience is vastly different.

. . . And a Bloody Past

Liberal and conservative intellectuals have sought to counter the much-damned “socialist nostalgia” by unwittingly constructing a parallel bourgeois melancholy glorifying pre-1944 Bulgaria. It hails what existed before the Red Army crossed the Danube and gave its decisive support to a Communist-led, Bulgarian Army–backed coup on September 9 that year. Although an Axis power, Bulgaria resisted sending troops to fight the USSR on the Eastern Front and in summer 1944 was actively seeking peace with Washington and London (an effort that today’s anti-communists take as proof that Axis Bulgaria’s heart wasn’t really in the fight). When it turned against Germany on September 8, briefly Bulgaria was technically at war with all major belligerents except Japan.

What the right-wing narrative comfortably chooses to forget is that Bulgaria’s contribution to the Axis was hardly insignificant. It allowed the Wehrmacht access to its territory to outflank and crush Yugoslavia, and then sent occupation forces to eastern Serbia, Macedonia, and northern Greece (territories it claimed as its own), where atrocities were committed and the local Jews sent to death camps (even though Bulgarians famously managed to rescue Jews in their heartland). These facts are seldom mentioned in the same breath as the Soviet occupation.

Given the Communist coup, there was no resistance to the Red Army, which remained mostly stationed in eastern Bulgaria. There were instances of violence against civilians, though they were much less widespread than elsewhere. Soviet forces lingered through late 1947, when one-party rule was consolidated and Bulgaria’s first Communist constitution was adopted. In the today-dominant narrative, the regime was imposed in the shadow of a Soviet machine gun, and this is what the War Memorial symbolizes. But in contrast with other Eastern Bloc cases, there was no Soviet military presence in Bulgaria after that early year.

A comparison with Latvia is instructive here. Latvia never signed a treaty with the Third Reich — in 1941 it was overrun by Hitler during Operation Barbarossa. Appalled by Stalinist repression after the earlier Soviet invasion in 1940, scores of Latvians enlisted in the so-called auxiliary police that aided German occupation forces. These units were instrumental in the massacres of local Jews such as the ones in Liepāja, or in Riga, where Jews from other occupied lands were brought in — a stage of the Holocaust that prefigured the institution of concentration camps. Later, an SS Latvian Legion was formed. Contemporary official historiography has long sought to downplay that involvement.

“Prior to the Ukraine war, a person merely proposing the demolishment [sic] of Riga’s Soviet-era ‘Victory’ monument would be branded a ‘national radical.’ Now such views are considered mainstream,” Latvian geopolitical analyst Māris Andžāns told US military news website Stars and Stripes. The threat of expulsion for thousands from Latvia’s sizable Russian minority has in fact already provoked Vladimir Putin’s ire. According to recent data, one-third of this community, some 190,000 people, remain stateless — a well-ignored aberration in an EU that boasts of upholding the rule of law.

Their background, along with Soviet nostalgia among some of them, make this group the target of fearmongering over Moscow’s supposed influence in Latvia, amid Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine. In a similar — but in context even more far-fetched — move, Bulgarian right-wingers have been sounding the alarm over alleged Russophilia and socialist nostalgia among certain fellow citizens. The roots of such yearnings are never deeply explored, as this period is reduced to its repressive aspects. Yet, it was also a time of modernization for Bulgaria and of social advancement for most of its people. These topics are still hardly the subject of rational or levelheaded conversation.

But the history that these postcommunist quarrels also bury is Bulgaria’s (hardly controversial) participation in the final stages of World War II. In October 1944, mobilization was ordered, and Bulgaria contributed three armies that fought under the operational command of the Red Army’s Third Ukrainian Front to push the Wehrmacht back through Central Europe. Beyond the extremes of romanticized Liberators or reviled Occupiers, Soviet Army fighters were comrades-in-arms for Bulgarian soldiers in that dignified episode when this country was actually on the right side of history. Right-wingers’ unwillingness to acknowledge this record is jarring.

Dismantling the Working Class

Monuments set history in stone. But monument removal, too, has its own iconography. In Riga, this meant the splashing of the eighty-meter-tall modernist spire into the adjacent lake within the Victory Park memorial complex. In Sofia, it meant the crane carrying away the sawed-off figures of the Soviet soldier and his Bulgarian companions. Cutting the statues into parts was said to be a technical necessity for removing the huge mass of bronze, but many saw a symbolic meaning, which could be taken as either gleefully triumphant or tastelessly vengeful. Some recalled the moment in April 2022 when the head of a sculpted Russian worker fell off during the removal of the Friendship of Peoples Monument in the Ukrainian capital.

Disputes about the technical procedure in Sofia revealed deeper unclarities over the legal grounds for the dismantling. A first-instance administrative-court ruling declared it illegal, adding to the perception that authorities had single-mindedly decided to press ahead. The irony that this was the work of a coalition purportedly committed to defending the rule of law is hardly even enough to make the news in Bulgaria by now. A compromise among right-wing parties that previously declared their irreconcilable animosity, the coalition is upheld as a bid to make good Bulgaria’s “Euro-Atlantic civilizational choice” in a time of domestic and global instability.  The fig leaf of “European values” can hardly conceal the reality that the coalition is held together by the interests of capital.

Global media have circulated photos from the demolition in Sofia, the latest iteration of a resuscitated string of images from the endless fall of Communism. But the proper iconography of this event makes its drab appearance in the photo of workers lacking basic safety gear dismantling the sculptures of fellow workers who once stood above the city. It gives a chilling snapshot of Bulgarian capitalism in the twenty-first century.

On the interface between Western Europe and Russia, countries on the Baltic and the Black Sea have remained not only geographical outposts, but social and economic peripheries, sucked in by a neoliberal European Union and a broken domestic dynamic. The next-door threat of the Ukraine war has spurred moves to match but also exceed NATO military-spending targets. Calls for Bulgarians to rally around “national unity” and “European identity” deafen rumbling social divisions that are economic rather than cultural in nature.

Bulgaria consistently ranks first in income inequality among EU countries, with Latvia usually in third, flanked by postsocialist neighbors Romania and Lithuania. In the mid-1990s, the Baltics pioneered flat taxation, which was later adopted by other Eastern European countries and today exists in an especially extreme version in Bulgaria. Said to favor tax-collection and foreign investment, in effect it punishes the less well-off, imposing regressive taxation on a hardly wealthy population. In Bulgaria, a whopping 50 percent of government tax revenue comes from VAT levied on consumption.

Name any negative social indicator and these countries are among the EU’s worst placed. Close to one-third of Bulgarians are threatened by poverty and social exclusion — the figure for Latvia is also over one-quarter. Some 15 percent of Latvians are burdened with “catastrophic” health care spending (i.e. over two-fifths of their overall household subsistence spending), closely followed by Lithuania. Bulgaria again tops this chart, as it does for out-of-pocket health spending, with Latvia in second. Health care systems are severely understaffed and geographically uneven, despite these countries’ relatively small territories.

Both countries are heavily deindustrialized, a shock process closely linked to rising excess mortality. During socialism, household Latvian products sold across the Eastern Bloc included RAF’s Latvia van and the ubiquitous VEF radios. Now RAF is defunct and VEF is a minor drone producer. For New Year’s on the centenary of the USSR’s founding, grocery shops in Bulgaria — a self-professed wine-producer with a now decaying agriculture sector — could be seen selling cheap “Soviet champagne,” i.e. sparkling wine from . . . Latvia. Faced with massive and sustained emigration, Bulgaria, Latvia, and Lithuania are the top-three fastest-shrinking nations globally.

This is not to suggest that fighting the ghosts of the past is the root cause of poverty, inequality, or other social ills. But neither can these ills reasonably be attributed to enduring “Russian influence,” more than thirty years after the end of the old regime and more than fifteen after joining the EU. There is an overall mood of resignation, underlaid with seething resentment. The Right’s ad nauseam efforts to hide the failure of the transition behind an alleged delay in bidding farewell to Communism will do no good. People have had enough.

. . . And Its Memories of a Future

Contrary to right-wing claims, little suggests that removing Sofia’s Soviet Army Monument will help soften social divisions. Rather, calls to dismantle even more monuments across Bulgaria threaten growing polarization, backfiring against overeager proselytizers’ efforts to promote a pro-Western alignment. Liberal political scientist Dimitar Bechev ventured an analogy with the demolition of Confederate statues in the United States, somehow forgetting that what we see in Bulgaria is not the work of a grassroots movement, and that the Red Army fought to defeat what is still considered the pinnacle of institutionalized systematic dehumanization.

The belated decommunizers’ targets in Bulgaria include major Soviet monuments such as Alyosha in Plovdiv or the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship Monument in Varna — but also some having to do with nineteenth-century Russian wars that resulted in Bulgaria’s liberation from the Ottoman Empire. This has encouraged nationalist party Revival to beef up rhetoric regarding a looming “erasure of history and national memory.” The nationalists, along with an ever-more conservative Socialist Party that does little to merit its name, were among the few vocal defenders of Sofia’s Soviet Army Monument. In a strange contrast to Latvia, only a few people came to leave flowers or take farewell pictures with the doomed edifice. On a governance level, disputes about the memorial are among the causes of deadlock in the work of Sofia’s new city council.

Another group of threatened heritage comprises socialist-era monuments to the 1941–44 Bulgarian anti-fascist resistance, a vast movement nowadays painted as either minimal or a mere vehicle of Soviet influence. Further attacking them would mean giving up Bulgarians’ own historical agency. Reducing the history of socialism in Bulgaria to foreign (totalitarian) intervention seeks to invalidate it by erasing Bulgarians’ own struggles against their elites, such as the labor movement from the early 1900s, the governments of Alexander Stamboliiski’s Agrarian Union, the 1923 September Uprising — and the self-sacrifice of the partisans of World War II.

At a deeper level, the campaign of demolishing the past is symptomatic of a crisis of visions for the future among Bulgaria’s elites, including the opposition. Hardly a Communist sympathizer, liberal author Dimitar Kenarov has perceptively worried about an abstract, nonreflective dealing with the past already embodied in the 1999 destruction of Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov’s mausoleum in Sofia. We’re now seeing this being replayed — albeit amid an even more clueless national politics, and a violently volatile global context. As things stand, authorities have not revealed their plans regarding the dismantled sculptures or, more glaringly, the rest of the memorial, most of whose remains still stand at their original location. As yet, there is no real discussion about reorganizing the public space they occupy.

In her novel The Empty Cave, Dimana Trankova imagined a dystopian future Bulgaria where nostalgia for the social stability of the “People’s Republic” mutates into a fascist regime enabled by digital surveillance and the invented glory of a spiritual culture existing from time immemorial. Across Eastern Europe, the dynamics of an EU incapable of tackling social disparities have created a division between smug cosmopolitan minorities benefiting from the transborder migration of capital, and vast declassed majorities seeking refuge in nativist tales of an unspoiled national past. The untapped potential of actual past struggles is buried in slogans about capitalist success and tribalist self-congratulation.

With all its grotesque dimensions, the Bulgarian case has some lessons for global left-wing politics. Revisionism about World War II memory and reductionism about the socialist period’s complexities go hand in hand with a refusal to tackle today’s inequities, thus entrenching them in the ideological guise of a clash of civilizations. In a time where militarists ruthlessly exploit great, deep-set historical traumas to wage criminal wars, we are painfully realizing that freezing history into one-sided myths bodes ill for the future, too.