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My Europe: Impossible communism museum

Ivaylo Ditchev
November 11, 2019

Thirty years after the country's dictator was ousted, Bulgaria is debating the need for a museum on communism. Eastern Europeans have very different approaches when dealing with the past, writes Ivaylo Ditchev.

A hammer and sickle symbol painted on a wall
Image: Fotolia/Savenko Tatyana

If you visit Bulgaria's historical museums, you will see more exhibits detailing the legends of ancient Thracians than of the communist era that still influences life today. 

But how should we remember communism? There are several approaches. New democracies tend to stage the horrors of totalitarian violence, such as the Museum of Communist History in Prague, the Museum of Terror in Budapest, the Gulag-Museum in Moscow, or the museum in Vilnius that commemorates victims of communist mass murders. Visitors encounter prison cells, interrogation or torture scenes, photos of victims, and stories from survivors.   

Terror, glorification or bizarre comedy?

The contrasting version glorifies this period. Museums of this type are to be found in Belgrade, or in Vietnam's capital Hanoi, which commemorates the fight against the US. The mausoleums of Lenin and Mao, the VDNH spaces in Moscow, and the communist theme park in Wuhan, China, aim to showcase the monumental accomplishments of the regimes. 

Ivaylo Ditchev
Ivaylo Ditchev is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Sofia Image: BGNES

The third type of museum playfully portrays communism's hasty and meager modernization as exotic. Places like the GDR Museum in Berlin display curious objects of everyday life: ugly toys, old brands of sweets, or the legendary Ampelmännchen (the typical figure at the green and red lights at pedestrian crossings).

In Warsaw you can visit reconstructed apartments that ironically compare the material world of then to now. Statue parks, such as the one in Budapest, draw a comedic surrealist effect by reproducing similar pathetic ideological monuments and placing them side by side.

Such museums are usually criticized for normalizing the communist era and replacing moral judgement with humor. After all, there is nothing specifically "criminal" about the legendary East German car Trabant or the Bulgarian pepper roasting device known as "chushkopek," which was voted "Bulgaria's household revolution of the 20th century" on national TV.

Read more: My Europe: Disappointment after 1989 revolutions

Too early for some — for others, too late

Finally, the recollection of communism is activated through art; artistic action was an indirect way of mocking the regime in the past. Today, in places where the past does not seem to be really gone, individual artistic groups try to overcome moral apathy. The bunkers of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha have become the setting of various performances. In Romania, Ceausescu's former "Palace of the People" hosts, among other institutions, a museum of contemporary art. The former realms of power are made visible through aesthetic blasphemy, provoking new debates. 

Bulgaria, for its part, hesitated over each of these approaches — and never created a serious memorial institution that dealt with the communist period. That's because it was always too early for some, while for others, it was too late.

Former communists still present in politics

A museum underscoring the ideological terror in the country never materialized, as former communists continue to play a crucial role in politics to this day. The only major anti-communist ritual was the demolition of a mausoleum dedicated to Bulgarian communist leader Georgi Dimitrov, a move that was met with anger and mockery.

There were not as many victims of communist violence in Bulgaria as in other countries behind the Iron Curtain. There were no brutal crackdowns on mass protests similar to those in 1956 in Budapest or 1968 in Prague. Furthermore, the political transition period of the 1990s, after the fall of communism, was much more difficult in Bulgaria than in many other former Eastern bloc countries. Memories recalling the terror during the establishment of the regime were blurred by more recent traumas.

The "sovereign" version of communism wasn't suited for Bulgaria, known as the USSR's closest satellite. Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov had even suggested twice that his country should become part of the Soviet Union, which was fortunately rejected by Moscow. The house where Zhivkov was born is among the few museums that portray, albeit cautiously, Bulgaria's communist era in a positive light.

Irony misunderstood

In Bulgaria, the everyday version of socialism is presented by a number of amateurs, who display their collections of nostalgic objects. Some of these have grown into commercial projects, such as the Retro Museum or the Red Apartment, where people can hear comical stories about the different shabby objects owned by the average Bulgarian family.

Such exhibitions target foreign tourists, whose comments in the museum guestbook seem to miss the irony of the exhibitions: "Venceremos! Long live communism!" So why do few Bulgarians visit here? Aside from the expensive tickets, the objects displayed are still a part of everyday life for many Bulgarians — making it difficult for one to maintain an aesthetic distance. 

Read more: Dangerous escape: Fleeing the GDR through Bulgaria

The only state-subsidized museum in Sofia is dedicated to the art of socialist era. It brings together propaganda and high-quality artwork, nomenclature artists and victims of the regime. A clumsy compromise, which was criticized for lacking uniformity and purpose.

Sofia now plans to imitate the Romanians and transform the tunnels under the former mausoleum into an art space, the main argument being that it will attract tourists. Isn't it a strange idea to commemorate an issue or event by imitating someone else's way of remembering?

All of these remembrance projects in the post-communist world end up a mimicry. Bulgaria is simply at the end of the line. It has not been able to face its past alone — and anxiously looks around to imitate the next original approach to national remembrance. 

Ivaylo Ditchev is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Sofia in Bulgaria. He has lectured in Germany, France and the United States, among other places.

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