The Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia
To leave a monument standing, to mothball it or to destroy it? That is a question that faces many countries right now, as they face up to an uncomfortable past. Maybe values have changed, better understandings emerged, or political systems been rejected. Do we want still to be surrounded by reminders of that past? Or is it justifiable to remove them, hide the memories?
When I recently took you on a virtual tour of some of Sofia’s monuments, I omitted one, arguably the most interesting, as I wanted to give it its own separate post. This is the somewhat controversial Monument to the Soviet Army. It was built in 1954 to mark the 10th anniversary of the ‘liberation’ of Bulgaria by the Soviet Army. The country had allied itself with the losing Axis Powers until September 1944, when the Soviet Red Army entered the country. Bulgaria then joined the Allied Forces and declared war on Germany the following day. At the end of the war a Communist regime was installed here and subsequently, in 1954, Bulgaria joined the Warsaw Pact. Communist rule lasted until January 1990, although the leader, Todor Zhivkov, had been deposed on 10 November 1989, the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Understandably therefore there are mixed views about this monument. While the arrival of the Red Army did indeed mean the end of Nazi control in Bulgaria, this was simply exchanged for Soviet control and a regime that most (not all) present-day Bulgarians deplore. There have been repeated calls therefore for this monument to be demolished or perhaps at least mothballed, as those in the Soviet Art Museum can be said to have been. Its removal has been debated several times, but each time Russophiles have insisted on keeping it. Meanwhile it is regularly used as a sort of canvas by political artists.
2011 painting by Destructive Creation group, depicting the Soviet Army as comic book characters
Ignat Ignev, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
2014 Glory to Ukraine installation
Vassia Atanassova – Spiritia, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
It is for the Bulgarians to decide the future of this monument, not me. I do wonder if the current war in Ukraine will influence their judgement? Meanwhile I simply document it for the Photographing Public Art challenge, and as an example of this brutalist style of monument that continues to fascinate me.
The eagle-eyed among you will notice that when I took these photos somehow someone had managed to daub the colours of the Ukraine flag on one of the figures of the main sculptural group. Quite a feat when you see how high it stands!
The monument is located on Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard, near Orlov Most and the Sofia University. It stands in a large park popular with local youths to hang out and skateboard. But first thing in the morning when we visited the park was quiet. The sculptural groups around the main monument reminded me of many I had photographed a few years earlier in North Korea, such as those at the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang.
I last visited Sofia in September 2022 when these photos were taken
I think the sculpture is all the better with comic book characters- very clever mix of history and pop culture
It certainly makes a statement!
Interesting shots and thoughts. Merci
Thank you, I’m glad you found this interesting 🙂
Gift N. T.
A very interesting post with beautiful photos. We have similar difficult questions in Thailand. As an outsider and with very limited knowledge about Bulgaria at that, it’s not my place to make a judgment and something like this should be discussed among the locals. Though that seems also difficult because something like this will always be debatable. If I speak as a Thai person about Thailand where quite a lot of parts of our history are distorted for elites’ political agenda and a few monuments have been removed or are at risk, I personally hope that people won’t remove things to hide or revise history. I have never been to concentration camp museums and you may have been there, but from what I’ve read, that seems like an interesting alternative to demolishing everything, if the budget allows.
Yes, I agree, it’s for locals to decide the future of this monument. It’s interesting how many of us have similar debates about those in our own countries. I don’t quite understand the parallel you draw with concentration camps as they are very specific places and I don’t think moving other monuments to those sites would benefit either the sites or the moved monuments. But I do think moving them to a purpose-designed museum is a possible solution, preferable to destroying them.
Gift N. T.
Oh I meant transforming the monuments into museums like how concentration camps have become museums and memorials. I’m sorry for my unclear writing. Now that you mentioned it, moving the monuments to purpose-designed museums is another good idea as well.
Ah yes, I see what you mean now. Yes, they absolutely could create some sort of museum around this monument if they wanted to, using it as a sort of centrepiece – good idea!
I’m constantly surprised at the number of works representing our colonial history that have actually managed to survive. While many monuments around Ireland have been sprayed, vandalised and even blown up on occasion, there are still so, so many that are still in situ. I do believe that relocation is more appropriate than destruction…. The scale of these works in your blog suggest they need a themed sculpture garden like the one you spoke about before..
I agree Marie, but this is on a scale that the art museum as it currently exists couldn’t possibly accommodate it. I’ve only shown two sculptural groups in my images, the main plinth and one of the side ones, but there is a second group on the other side too. There’s an interesting full description here: https://nonument.org/nonuments/monument-to-the-soviet-army/
I don’t agree with hiding or burying history, however unpalatable! In fact the more unpalatable the more important it is to remember.
Perhaps added information to update the history, especially thinking of those examples which no longer serve us.
I quite agree Margaret, ‘the more unpalatable the more important it is to remember’ – absolutely. At the same time it’s important somehow to acknowledge that views/times/politics/actions have changed. Definitely a good idea where possible to add something, whether it’s an informative plaque or maybe a new monument alongside the old that carries a very different message? I guess the issue comes where people who were adversely impacted by the period being commemorated or the individuals being honoured find it deeply uncomfortable to be reminded of them regularly?
These are quite “in depth” statues (if I can call it that). So much is going on, especially in the last couple of statues. Statues are a big discussion point in our country as well … some were removed and others vandalised (from the old regime), while street-, bridges- and town names are being changed constantly. I suppose it will always remain a sensitive issue …
It seems from all the comments here that there are many countries which face similar dilemmas. If you keep such monuments they are highly likely to be vandalised, but if you destroy them are you trying to erase history and whitewash the country’s past?
I definitely don’t favour destroying monuments to discredited ideologies – ‘Lest we forget’, and all that. and anyway, they’re part of our history. But they do need contextualising. I can see that this Big Beast can’t exactly be removed to a room in a museum, but it seems to be acquiring its own commentary in any case.
That’s a very good point Margaret, about ‘its own commentary’ – I hadn’t thought of it like that.
You’ve made some interesting points to ponder…. we have similar things in Croatia that also, to this day, still cause heated debates.
It seems to be common not just to the former communist states of Europe but also to many other countries – Britain and colonialism/slavery, the US and slavery/civil war, etc etc
Political statues, unlike murals are always subject to going out of date and they take up more space. I agree with Jo about this one. It has some tender parts, and definitely there must have been some rejoicing at the time the Soviet army arrived. At what point do we as a people, say this piece of art is WRONG. We don’t support this line of thought.
The Bulgarian people were probably grasping at straws at the time, none being a reliable lifeline. Now, the war has ended, their plight didn’t improve to the degree they had hoped for, and the gratitude has gone. Longing for freedom remains along with the sense that they were cheated of it after the war.
Great display and discussion, Sarah.
I agree with most of what you say Marsha, but from my conversations with my friends in Sofia I don’t think there’s any sense now of ‘longing for freedom’. They didn’t find it post-war under the communist regime but they have it now. They feel like they are living in a modern, free, forward-looking European city. But given events in Ukraine there is some understandable nervousness about being so close to Russia and wondering where Putin might look next. And among the older generation in particular there are at least a few who lean more towards the security of the old communist days, probably looking at them through rose-tinted glasses. In much the same way perhaps that I feel some of my compatriots thought Brexit would be bring about a return to a rosy 1950s Britain which never really existed except in old films and distorted memories!
The sculpture, especially as portrayed in your Header, is sensitive and beautiful, Sarah. I think it can be valued for itself rather than as a political statement.
I agree it’s beautiful Jo, especially those interactions between the people and soldiers as portrayed in that sculptural group. But it’s hard in that part of the world, isn’t it, to ignore the politics of the 20th century, and even more so perhaps given current events? As a visitor I can be detached and admire it for its artistic merit (as I’ve said often, I like this socialist realism style of monument!) but if I lived there I can imagine my opinions would be far more coloured by politics.
I rather think it’s hard to ignore politics everywhere these days, Sarah, but I do try. And yes, of course I agree.
You’ve given us some historical and political things to ponder. You’ve taken amazing images of these historical figures. I’m concerned about censoring history. I believe we can learn from history, good and bad. We are having the same thing happening here with removing many Civil War pro-south statues now. While they regard a practice and ideology I don’t like, they are the history of my country.
Thanks so much Anne 😊 We’re having the same debates here too, focused on statues relating to our colonial past and/or to slavery. Many powerful and influential men built their fortunes on the slave trade, unfortunately.
Great images and nicely documented, Sarah. Many monuments tell the history and stories.
Thank you Amy – this one certainly has a lot to say!
You already know my feelings on the subject Sarah and this monument isn’t something you can hide away in a museum. Having said that, an open air space tucked away where those who didn’t want to see it didn’t need to could be something to consider.
Indeed Malcolm 🙂 This certainly isn’t tucked away at present – in a popular park near the university and two busy Metro stations!
Mike and Kellye Hefner
Interesting. Perhaps they’ve left it for the in order for the graffiti artists to make their statements. I have to say that the one with the comic book characters is very clever, but I wonder how they did it without getting caught. As you and I have discussed before, we cannot erase history.
I believe the artists did all that in a single night, working as a team – pretty impressive!
Mike and Kellye Hefner
Very impressive, and a bit humorous, too.
I am against removal of monuments myself, whatever they represent. Personally I think it’s part of burying history and hiding from the past – and surely staying aware of past errors is part of learning lessons. Wouldn’t it be better to keep the monuments but add something like a plaque giving some context to the history – including atrocities associated with that figure?
I agree that they shouldn’t be totally destroyed, and I’m very much against burying history – although the argument that we should keep them and learn from them is somewhat weakened by our apparent inability to ever learn from the past! But sometimes moving them (e.g. to the museum I featured in a previous post) is a good compromise. However I can’t see any museum being large enough to contain all of this so your solution of an explanatory plaque is a good one. And maybe an additional piece could be added to the group to provide balance? I’ve no idea what but then, I’m not a sculptor/artist!
Some interesting points Sarah, it does make you wonder about all the monuments around the world
Maybe time for new ones.
I found it interesting that they’ve chosen (for now at least) to leave this one standing when others from that era have been removed. Maybe it’s because of the sheer scale? Or to pacify those who would have preferred to keep all the Communist era monuments? And I wonder if current events in Ukraine will finally push the authorities into dismantling this?