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'Bronze House' divides Sofia

Thomas Roser
October 25, 2017

An art installation on the site of a demolished mausoleum for Bulgarian communist legend Georgi Dimitrov? Even ahead of receiving final approval, the idea has caused an uproar in Sofia.

Smoke rising from the Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum ahead of its destruction in 1999
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It is impossible to tell exactly where the massive columned building once stood on what is now the yellow-cobblestoned Battenberg Square in central Sofia. Near where lines of people once stood to gain access to the communist crypt there is now an empty space between a park and parking lot.

Finding a new use for the former site of the Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum, which was demolished in 1999, would help "overcome the trauma of the past," said Viennese-based Bulgarian artist Plamen Deyanoff.

His plans for an art installation titled "Bronze House” to commemorate Bulgaria's time at the helm of the rotating EU Council presidency in 2018 are no less imposing than the mausoleum that once stood there. Though his work met with support from the Austrian Embassy in Sofia, views were divided when it was presented at the New Bulgarian University on Wednesday.

Read more: Bulgarian village fascinates Chinese tourists

A burial, delayed by four decades

Opinions remain split over the decision to remove the communist pilgrimage site some 18 years ago. In the last few months in operation, however, the site did not draw many visitors. In the late 1980s, few people were interested in going to the gloomy, green-lit crypt that was the Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum to get a view of the embalmed corpse of Bulgaria's communist legend, who died in 1949.

The mausoleum's doors were closed to the public in 1989, shortly before the removal of Bulgaria's socialist nomenklatura. About a year later, workers at the site lost their jobs and the crystal sarcophagus lost its dead occupant. After the remains of the former secretary general of the Communist International were cremated, they were finally buried in 1990, almost four decades after his death.

Attempt to get rid of the past

Now, only photos of the former tourist attraction remain. For Dimitrov's anti-communist successors decided to rid the city of the site in 1999, much to the displeasure of historians. Still, the pilgrimage spot was not as easily erased as planned. Engineers unsuccessfully attempted to blow up the columned building three times, the foundation of which also served as a nuclear bunker. It was not until the fourth attempt that the building was finally razed. In the end, the controversial demolition had taken as long as the original construction of the building: six days. 

Bulgarien Mitgleider der kommunistischen Partei vor dem Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum in Sofia
Communist Party bigwigs were at the mausoleum to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Bulgaria's Socialist RevolutionImage: Getty Images/Keystone

The question of what to do with symbols of the past was something that occupied the minds of many in former socialist states. The body of Vladimir Lenin slumbered in its Moscow mausoleum much like Sleeping Beauty, but almost all of his likenesses were removed from their pedestals throughout the rest of the former Soviet Union's sphere of influence. Statues of Lenin, as well as those of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and other so-called proletarian heroes, found new homes in Moscow, Budapest and Vilnius, mainly in parks popular with tourists.

Socialism may be gone, but the concrete remains

The architectural legacy of the era has remained present since the fall of the Iron Curtain, albeit with some notable exceptions, such as the demolition of the Palace of the Republic in Berlin. Even fervently anti-Russian Poland decided against going through with the demolition of the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science, a gift from the USSR — opting instead to preserve the massive reminder of the Soviet era.

"They could have turned the mausoleum into a museum of socialism," argued many of those asked about the hasty demolition of the Sofia site.

Read more: Karl Marx's 'Das Kapital' still fascinates after 150 years

Indeed, the hole blown in the cityscape and the national memory in an attempt to erase the part of the country's totalitarian past now generates just as much discussion about how such remnants could be better used as it did back in the 1990s.

Bulgarien Nationalversammlung am Alexander Battenberg Platz in Sofia
A parking lot and a park now are at the site of the former mausoleumImage: imago/M. Popow

The occasion of Bulgaria's upcoming EU presidency has now made it necessary for Sofia's city officials to confer about Deyanoff's proposed reutilization of the mausoleum site. Austria, which will take over the EU presidency after Bulgaria's six-month term, has declared its willingness to cover the project's €3 million ($3.5 million) price tag. The 14-meter tall (46-foot) "Bronze House" is to be on site for one year.

Columned building divides opinions

Although it is thepoorest country in the EU, Bulgaria is said to be home to exceptionally pro-European residents. Nevertheless, critics see Deyanoff's building, which is to honor the EU and is based on a tower at Bulgaria's famous Rila Monastery, as nothing more than a poorly placed "provocation."

Similar to the criticism of the mausoleum's removal, citizens accuse city leaders of having planned the project on their own and having poorly communicated their intentions. 

Malina Edreva, the chairwoman of the city's cultural committee, emphasized that there has yet to be a final decision on the project when speaking with local journalists. A public discussion is to take place in November after residents have had a chance to view two presentations in the New Bulgarian University and the city library. Sofia's city council will not decide on the project and the site until December.