It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's... A Hero of the Bulgarian Revolution?

Views on BG | September 28, 2011, Wednesday // 11:45|  views

Sofia's Soviet Army monument was painted by street artists to represent a set of US pop culture characters. Photo by Sofia Photo Agency

Mixed feelings toward communist past make for monumental arguments in Sofia

By Joe Parkinson

The Wall Street Journal

SOFIA, Bulgaria—On June 18, Bulgaria's capital awoke to find the statues in a monument to the Soviet armed forces brightly spray-painted as Superman, Ronald McDonald, Santa Claus, Captain America and The Joker.

The characters, according to graffiti the pranksters left at the base of the monument, were now "in step with the times."

But not in step with all of Bulgaria. Many people here in the European Union's newest member country (in 2007) were outraged. Socialist organizations called for the culprits to be hunted down. Even members of the country's center-right government, which agreed with the vandals' sentiment, said they were unhappy. Only the government gets to "destroy the monuments of socialism," the government said in a statement.

The Berlin Wall fell more than 20 years ago, but Bulgaria has had trouble letting go. Defiling statues commemorating the 1944 Soviet "liberation" of Bulgaria is part of an increasingly bizarre effort to define communism's legacy.

Ex-communists—rebranded as socialists—are still a force here. Until 2009, when they lost elections amid corruption allegations and economic failings, the Bulgarian Socialist Party was politically dominant. But as the EU's poorest country undergoes an austerity program to boost investor confidence, some are nostalgic for the more certain days of communism.

To fight that trend, the government opened a museum Sept. 19 to showcase some of the more shameful sides of Bulgaria's communist past through wacky art and kitsch sculptures. Bulgaria is the latest ex-Soviet bloc country to open such a collection, and its Museum of Socialist Art is also the biggest, the government says.

"We want to close this period. We're trying to kill the bogeyman and put it in the museum," said Finance Minister Simeon Djankov, as he took a reporter on a tour of the place. "A lot of people here have a romanticized view of communist times and we need to show the unvarnished truth."

Among museum artifacts are more than a dozen towering statues of Lenin and flat-capped workers pointing solemnly toward utopia and a 13-foot-tall red star that used to top the Communist Party headquarters here in Sofia.

Not to be outdone, local Socialist Party authorities this month unveiled a 10-foot-tall bronze statue of Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's last communist leader. Hundreds of admirers marched and strewed flowers and messages of praise around the base of the statue in his home town of Pravets, 31 miles from here.

On the same day, supporters of the late Mr. Zhivkov, who ruled the country for 33 years until 1989, unveiled a partial renovation of his museum, in the house where he was born. The ceremony, held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth, was broadcast live on national TV, and attendance has been rising. The gift shop sells Todor Zhivkov refrigerator magnets.

The main exhibition showcases about 450 gifts bestowed on Zhivkov by such Cold War stars such as Fidel Castro, North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung and Nicolae Ceaucescu, the Romanian leader who came to a bad end before a firing squad. Longtime Soviet politburo leader and general secretary of the Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev gave a 3-foot-long crystal drinking horn. Libya's Col. Moammar Gadhafi gave Mr. Zhivkov a multicolored camel saddle.

"Communism here was soft," says Galia Pikova, the museum curator. "Me and my parents didn't suffer in any way—we had work and money. I was 12 years old in 1989 when communism fell. That year I was skiing during winter in East Germany and spent summer on Black Sea coast. It was wonderful. Now, that's not possible."

Historians say that's partly true and that many Soviets and East Europeans saw Bulgaria as the West.

"You could buy Western music here, watch Western films, and the secret police was nowhere near as pervasive," said Evgenia Kalinova, professor of history at Sofia University.

Furthermore, former communist apparatchiks and security-service officers managed most of Bulgaria's transition into a market economy after 1989. They had an interest in preserving a rosy image of the system they had administered.

Back at the Museum of Socialist Art, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, himself a longtime bodyguard to Mr. Zhivkov, recently opened a big outdoor exhibit space with more than a thousand Bulgarians in attendance, including the entire cabinet.

The forest of 77 monuments is the largest such collection in the world, according to museum curators, who are hoping to more than double the number to 200 by next year.

Indoors, the museum houses 60 socialist paintings, busts, ashtrays and trinkets. In the bowels of the museum, thousands of obscure artifacts wait to be categorized, such as a carpet celebrating the friendship of Bulgaria and the People's Republic of Mozambique.

Visitors can dine at a reconstructed socialist-era caf?, watched over by huge portraits of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as they eat Soviet era snacks: dishwater coffee, yellow "lemon slices" made entirely without lemon, or "Rkatziteli," a gloopy wine mass-produced for the Soviet internal market that became a byword for bad produce and worse hangovers.

To collect the exhibits, government ministers used TV appeals to ask for public donations. They went to towns and villages to find abandoned communist-era artifacts. The response was overwhelming, says Culture Minister Vezhdi Rashidov.

One 20-foot-tall bronze statue of Georgi Dimitrov, Bulgaria's first communist leader, was rescued from the village of Soput in southern Bulgaria. A state-owned weapons factory was preparing to melt it down to make antitank grenades, said Mr. Rashidov. He personally found a 21-square-foot painting of communists taking the oath to become party members, hanging opposite the toilets at a privatized resort hotel in Southern Bulgaria. The hotel had belonged to the labor ministry during Communist days.

"I promised him a barter of a contemporary painting of the same size and I took it off the wall," Mr. Rashidov said.

Two months after spray painting the Soviet-era war memorial in central Sofia, the graffiti artists revealed themselves as a pop-art collective of nine twenty-somethings called "Destructive Creation." Communist sympathizers called for harsh punishment. An inquiry launched earlier against "unknown perpetrators of hooligan behavior" by the Sofia Prosecutors Office was dropped, without explanation.

"I don't approve of the vandalism, but I appreciate the artistic qualities of those responsible," said Finance Minister Djankov, adding: "I'm more of a fan of Superman than Lenin."

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Tags: street artists, Banksy, Soviet Army Monument, sofia, Wonder Woman, Robin, Captain America, Ronald McDonald, Superman, Santa, Wolverine, the Joker, Claus, Bulgaria, communist


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