The road twisted and turned up the mountain, winding through what seemed to be quite ancient woodland, and emerged on to the grasslands above. The crumbling hulk of the monument loomed above us, the last wisps of cloud just drifting away.
Buzludzha was constructed between 1974 and 1981 to commemorate the events of 1891, when a group of socialists led by Dimitar Blagoev assembled secretly in this area to form an organised socialist movement. This resulted in the founding of the Bulgarian Social De.mocratic Party, which became a forerunner to the Bulgarian Communist Party
The original plan, formulated in 1961 on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of that meeting, was for a relatively simple tower topped with a red star and surrounded by a ring raised on six columns. But the tower was never built, and by the time the 80th anniversary came around in 1971, with concerns about the climate at the top of the mountain, the plan was radically revised. The architect Georgi Stoilov designed this ‘flying saucer’ shaped body, influenced by the Brutalist style of architecture then popular and by the work of Mies van der Rohe, Gropius and Le Corbusier, among others.
Building the monument here on the mountain top was a considerable undertaking. The peak had first to be levelled, using TNT, reducing its height by nine metres and removing more than 15,000 cubic metres of rock.
According to the official website, ‘more than 6,000 people contributed their work to the creation of the Buzludzha monument. This included engineers, artists, designers, sculptors, a large number of volunteer labourers and 500 soldiers from the construction corps.’ The same website also notes that a number of workers are alleged to have died during the construction project and their deaths covered up by the authorities.
Once the structure was finished the interior was lined with mosaics in rich colours. Again from the monument’s website, these ‘illustrated an allegorical history of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Notable scenes depicted space travel, warfare, and communist workers driving their pitchforks into a serpent symbolic of foreign capitalism.’
On one side of the hall were the faces of international communist heroes (Marx, Engels and Lenin) on the other Bulgaria’s own communist figures – Dimitâr Blagoev (founder of Bulgarian socialism), Georgi Dimitrov (the first communist leader of Bulgaria) and Todor Zhivkov, the then-communist leader of Bulgaria. At the centre was a hammer and sickle emblem, covering five square metres, and encircled by a quote from The Communist Manifesto, ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite!’
This interior would have looked stunning (see http://www.buzludzha-monument.com/archives to get some idea of its appearance). Meanwhile the tower would have been equally impressive in its own way – 70 metres (230 feet) high, with synthetic ruby stars measuring 12 metres (39 feet) across on the north and south sides. These are believed to have been the largest in the world; it was claimed that they could be seen from as far away as the Romanian border in the north, and the Greek border to the south. A lift inside the tower went up to an observation platform with extensive views over the Balkan Mountains. Given how good the views are at the base, that would have been quite something I reckon!
Just nine years after its opening ceremony the Bulgarian Communist Party fell from power and democracy took its place. There was no appetite to make any use of the monuments left behind by the previous regime. For a while Buzludzha stood here empty, visited only by the guards who protected it. But at the end of the 1990s that guard was withdrawn, and the public could get close to the structure. Looters stripped out anything of value, and much that was not. The solid copper ceiling and other items of value went first, and it was rumoured that members of the government took these for themselves. Some looters believed that the red stars in the tower were made from real rubies and shot them out with rifles, only to get showered in shattered glass. The elements took their toll on what was left of the building, with rain and snow getting in through the broken roof and windows, and what hadn’t been taken was left to decay.
Today Buzludzha is in a sorry state, a ghost of its former self. But ghosts have a fascination for us all, and soon people began to visit again, not to wonder at its glories as they once would have done, or to loot as in the more recent past, but to soak up the atmosphere of its ruins and be awed by its mountain setting, as we were.
We took our time exploring, making the complete circuit around the base of the structure. It is forbidden these days to enter – the gates are sealed and a security guard on duty to prevent trespassing, as it is considered unsafe. It certainly sounds unsafe – our guide, Hristo, talked about a 12 foot deep hole just inside the entrance! A shame though, as it must be even more photogenic and atmospheric within.
There is talk now of a project to preserve what is left of Buzludzha and once more make use of it. The aim is to use it to tell the story of ‘the ideas behind communism, but also the propaganda that the system created about itself.’ The tower will also be restored, and the observation platform reopened, with a sky walk that will reward those brave enough to walk out beyond the overhang with a dizzying view downward.
I am very glad we got to see it in its current state but would also love to go back one day and see what they have created out of this haunting shell of a building.
On the way back down the mountain our guide Hristo stopped at another monument, popularly known (for obvious reasons) as the two ice cream cones, but officially as the Fists. This was another fantastic spot for photos, both of the ‘cones’ and the Buzludzha Monument above. They were created at the same time as the saucer, to symbolise the different factions of Bulgarian socialists who met at Buzludzha to strengthen their common ideals. The concept behind them is of the two fists coming from north and south, meeting in friendship at the mountain peak where their torch flames join as one.
A visit to Buzludzha might not be for everyone, but personally I find these relics of the former Communist regime and its brutalist style of architecture fascinating. And even those in our small group who had not seen this as a priority for their visit to Bulgaria, and who simply came along for the company and the other sights on the tour, seemed to really enjoy this experience. For surely no one could fail to love this beautiful landscape!
I visited Buzludzha in 2019