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Should Soviet monuments be dismantled or preserved?

Rayna Breuer
July 9, 2023

The debate on how to deal with Soviet memorials has once again flared up in Eastern Europe. Here's a closer look at a monument in the center of Sofia, Bulgaria.

People gather an imposing Soviet memorial.
The controversial Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia on May 9, 2023Image: Borislav Troshev/AA/picture alliance

For some, Soviet monuments symbolize the Red Army's occupation and the Stalinist regime's repression; for others, they commemorate the USSR's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

Russia's full scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 once again fueled the debate in different Eastern European countries, including in Latvia and Poland, where imposing Soviet monuments, such as the Victory Monument in Riga, were hastily dismantled.

In Bulgaria, however, public opinion is strongly divided on what should be done with the communist-era monuments. One of the reasons for this division is the lack of historical reappraisal of the communist past. As a result, a large part of the population still romanticizes this period.

The Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia

At the center of the controversy is a memorial complex known as the Monument to the Soviet Army, right in the middle of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.

Over the past decade, the association "Initiative for Dismantling the Soviet Army Monument" has been campaigning to have it removed from the city center.

The monument was built in 1954, 10 years after the Soviet Union declared war on Bulgaria, during a period of suppression of all resistance against the Bulgarian communist regime.

"Following the invasion of the Red Army, a communist regime was established in Bulgaria. This monument was created under an unfree regime, at a time when occupiers called themselves liberators," says Marta Georgieva from the Initiative for Dismantling the Soviet Army Monument. The association aims to increase the population's awareness for their history through their actions. 

Three people stand in front of a cement memorial.
Marta Georgieva (center) and her team from the Initiative for Dismantling the Monument to the Soviet Army in SofiaImage: Rayna Breuer/DW

Marta Georgieva also sees parallels between what happened in Bulgaria at the time and what is happening in Ukraine today: "An army simply invades a country and declares itself a liberator when it wins the war." 

During the Second World War, from 1941 to 1944, Bulgaria was on the side of the Axis powers, but did not send soldiers to the Eastern Front and refused to declare war on the Soviet Union.

In August 1944, Bulgaria terminated its pact with Nazi-Germany and declared neutrality. However, Bulgaria's offer of an armistice was rejected by Moscow and the Soviet Union declared war on Sofia. Within the first three months after the Red Army's invasion of Bulgaria on September 9, 1944, a communist regime was installed, and between 18,000 and 30,000 people — including clergy, journalists, former ministers and landowners — were murdered.   

But people in Bulgaria know too little about this dark chapter of their history. It's a gap that needs to be filled — and getting rid of the monument is part of that process, according to Marta Georgieva and her team. 

"We want this square to be depoliticized, because this monument divides us as a society," says Kuper Saparev, another member of the initiative. "Because of the monument, we cannot use the square, it doesn't look to the future, but rather serves as criminal propaganda of the past and causes a lot of tension." 

As early as 1993, the city council had decided to dismantle the monument. But since then, various institutions have been dodging responsibility for its removal.

"We've proven that this is not a cultural monument, and the authorities have confirmed that it's not a soldiers' memorial," says Marta Georgieva.

Some want to preserving the past — without confronting it

Not everybody supports the idea of dismantling the monument.

In fact, there are many people who believe it should rather be preserved: "This is a joint memorial that must remind us that so many people died in this heinous, bloody and ruthless war — people who never wanted the war. Their memory must be kept alive," says an older women holding a picture of a relative who died in the Second World War. She is among a group of people gathered in front of the monument in Sofia at a commemorative event held on May 9, also known as Victory Day. Every year, the date marking the end of World War II is celebrated in different former communist-led countries.

A woman holds a black-and-white photo of a man in a military uniform.
Every year on May 9, people in Sofia commemorate 'Victory Day' by holding pictures of relatives who died in World War II. Many of them also wave Russian flagsImage: Rayna Breuer/DW

In the eyes of those who commemorate Victory Day and wave Russian flags in the center of EU-member state Bulgaria, the monument serves as a symbol of the fight against fascism — a fight they feel is still ongoing, as different people told DW at the commemorative event, with some believing the "West" is the actual aggressor in the current war against Ukraine. 

Putin's propaganda narrative falls on fertile ground in Bulgaria, a country that has never completely escaped Russian influence. The country has not yet come to terms with its past. There is too little historical reappraisal, and too much disinformation. The horrors of the communist era were barely discussed for a long time, allowing problematic interpretations of the past to spread. 

A creative solution for the monument

A third option for the monument would be to turn it into a museum or relocate it to an existing institution, such as Sofia's Museum of Art from the Socialist Period, which displays various portrayals of Lenin, Che Guevara, Bulgarian communist leader Georgi Dimitrov and many other leaders from the communist past. 

A park featuring various statues.
Lenin, Dimitrov and co all gather at the Museum of Art from the Socialist Period in SofiaImage: Rayna Breuer/DW

"During that time, art had to serve propaganda. It became a tool of political power and ideology. The Communist Party melded with the state, and this one-party system controlled every sphere of public, political and cultural life. Art was not excluded from these processes," says curator Nikolai Ushtavaliiski. 

A man stands next to a Lenin statue.
Nikolai Ushtavaliiski, curator of the Museum of Art from the Socialist PeriodImage: Rayna Breuer/DW

Ushtavaliiski has been director of the museum since 2011 and has followed the debate over the Soviet Army monument in Sofia with interest. But as the monument might not fit in the museum's football pitch-sized park, the curator points out that there is another location that is also being considered for it.   

The monument could be dismantled and relocated to the city of Dimitrovgrad, 220 kilometers (137 miles) from Sofia, he says. "The interesting aspect there is that this city was founded in the early years of socialism. It was built out of nothing. Dimitrovgrad became a symbol for the construction of a new, socialist society in Bulgaria," points out Ushtavaliiski, who therefore feels that since "Dimitrovgrad itself is a monument to socialism, a monument like the one in Sofia, which honors a foreign army, could find an appropriate place there." 

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier