The Soviet Army Monument in Sofia: Keep It but Explain It!

Novinite Insider » FEATURES | Author: Ivan Dikov |January 27, 2011, Thursday // 20:42
Bulgaria: The Soviet Army Monument in Sofia: Keep It but Explain It! The Soviet Army momunet is located in a park in downtown Sofia. Photo by

The fate of the large monument of the Soviet Army in downtown Sofia is one of the most controversial issues in today's Bulgaria for two major reasons.

First, because it is a matter of historical memory relevant to the nation's coming to terms with its own communist past with some sort of a consensus – a virtually impossible task, which is much harder for Bulgaria than for other former communist countries such as Poland and Hungary.

Second, because it is a major landmark of the Bulgarian capital, and its preservation, removal, or destruction will affect Sofia's cityscape.

Mid January 2011 saw a rally demanding the removal of the moment in downtown Sofia which almost immediately caused a counter-rally in defense of the monument. While each of the rallies numbered only about several hundred people, probably only the presence of riot police prevented clashes between their opinionated participants who appeared to be of various ages.

Some voices criticizing both sides to this story are wondering why the public wound even focus its attention on the Soviet Army monument at a time when Bulgaria faces much more pressing and "real" issues, arguing that fixing the street potholes and sidewalks, for example, warrants much greater attention. Yet, more than 20 years after the end of the communist regime it makes a lot of sense for Bulgaria to settle the question about the fate of the Soviet Army monument.

"We are no russophobes but we are also no slaves," reads the banner of the protesters demanding the removal of the Soviet Army monument in Sofia in mid January 2011. Photo by BGNES 

The History behind Sofia's Soviet Army Monument

The monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia was erected in the early 1950s to honor the role of the Soviets in beating down Nazism in Europe and liberating Bulgaria from fascism. (The very existence of "fascism" in Bulgaria even during the period of War World II is subjected to argument in the sense that the country never developed a popular, mass fascist movement unlike many other European states).  

Of course, at the time the monument was built, Bulgaria was a communist state in the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe, so the Soviet Army monument came naturally, together with thousands of monument of Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx and other Soviet and communism-related personalities and stories.

During World War II, Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany, even though it was the "most reluctant" one of Hitler's satellites as it never broke off its relations with the Soviet Union, never sent troops to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front, and did not hand over its Jews for deportation to Holocaust camps – with the exception of the Jews from the territories that Nazi Germany had left under Bulgarian occupation in the Balkans.

While Bulgaria had a communist resistance movement in 1941-1944, it was nowhere nearly as widespread and massive as the communist period historians would have one believe, so it would have been hardly possible for the communists to grab hold of power in Bulgaria by themselves had it not been for the advent for the Soviet Army (consider for comparison the case of Greece and its Civil War in the late 1940s where the much more numerous leftist forces failed to prevail once the Stalin stopped supporting them.)

In the late summer of 1944, as the Red Army was advancing in Europe, a new Bulgarian government declared neutrality, chased away the German troops from the country, and started talks for a separate peace with the USA and Britain in Cairo, Egypt.

Regardless of any of that, after entering Romania, on September 5, the Soviet Union declared war on Bulgaria, and invaded the country from the northeast on September 8 meeting no resistance whatsoever at the instructions of the government.

Once the Soviet Army started to cross into Northeastern Bulgaria, the Fatherland Front – an umbrella organization of various leftist groups – from communists and military officers to social democrats and agrarians – committed a coup d'etat in Sofia the night of September 8-9, and declared a new government on September 9, 1944 – the date celebrated as Bulgaria's greatest national holiday during the communist period. Bulgaria was occupied by the Soviet Army with the collaboration of the new government within a couple of days.

The communist regime itself did not arrive immediately even though the advent of the Soviet Army was followed by the arrival of Bulgarian communist leaders, who had been in exile in Moscow such as Georgi Dimitrov, the Prime Minister of Bulgaria in 1946-1949.

The Bulgarian Workers' Party renamed Bulgarian Communist Party took four years – from 1944 till 1948 – to swallow or tame one by one, with Soviet support, the other parties in the Fatherland Front and to establish an outright communist dictatorship.

Despite the attempts of what was left of the political opposition – mostly in the face of the Bulgarian Agrarian People's Union – to affiliate Bulgaria with the USA and Britain, by 1948, Bulgaria had become an outright Soviet satellite named "People's Republic of Bulgaria" in 1946, and the major opposition leader Nikola Petkov was executed in 1947 by the "People's Court" on fake charges of espionage.

It is very important to point out that the Soviet Army was generally welcomed by the Bulgarian population because of its cultural closeness and attachment to the Russian people (the Russian Empire had liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman Turkey in 1878). The Bulgarian Army was included in the Third Ukrainian Front and fought the withdrawing Nazi German troops until the end of World War II in 1945.

A protester against the Soviet Army monument in downtown Sofia holds a poster comparing communism and Nazism. In November 2010, those demanding the monument's removal staged a rally under the slogan "The [Berlin] Wall fell, the Monument is still here." Photo by BGNES

The Case against Sofia's Soviet Army Monument

Why would anyone want to destroy a monument? That is usually in order to erase historical memory or destroy a landmark built by some to glorify an event or development that others now view as a symbol of a certain tragedy, horror, or disgrace.

The thinking of those demanding the disappearance of the Soviet Army monument in Sofia seems to be dominated by the second argument. They view the monument as a perpetual symbol of the occupation of Bulgaria by the Red Army, which led to the coup of September 9, 1944; the establishment of a totalitarian communist regime; the executions of Bulgarian bourgeois elite by the so called People's Court technically convened to try the crimes of the collaborators with Nazi Germany; the internment camps and suppression of all kinds of freedom, and the creation of a "red" bourgeoisie later turned into a "red" aristocracy in communist Bulgaria.

"We have nothing against the Russians, we are protesting against the monument of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe in 1944-1945," shouted one of the young participants in the rally demanding the removal of the Soviet Army monument in Sofia.

"This is a symbol of Bulgaria's disgrace! If it is not removed, we, or our children, or our grandchildren will one day build a new monument right next to it, exposing this monument," shouted next to him an elderly man.

The arguments of the protestors seemed to be shying away from the traditional rhetoric of the Bulgarian rightists that usually jumps from anti-communism to fear of Bulgaria's being dominated and oppressed by Russia once again in some form – as it was during the Soviet period.

They were focusing explicitly on the fact that in early September 1944 the Red Army occupied Bulgaria against any logic of international law, solely for the purpose of establishing a communist government under Soviet control and locking the country in its sphere. Some have claimed that this occupation was all the less justified as the ordinary Bulgarians (and the authorities) offered no resistance to the Russians/Soviets, and the only men that the Red Army lost in Bulgaria in 1944 were stray soldiers executed by the Soviet officers themselves for marauding in Bulgarian villages.

The very existence of the Soviet Army monument, its opponents argue, demonstrates the treacherous nature of the Bulgarian communist regime, which raised a monument to Bulgaria's occupiers.

But is the fact that the Soviet Army occupation placed Bulgaria in the Soviet sphere a sufficiently good argument to destroy one of Sofia's landmarks, which speaks for an entire historical period of almost 50 years? Is the Soviet Army to blame for securing Stalin's spoils in the war by conquering a country allied with Hitler prior to that, which was anyway handed to him by Churchill's percentage deal recorded on a napkin in Moscow, and by FDR's reluctance to go out of his way to open new fronts in the Balkans only to protect a couple of negligible nations from Soviet domination?

Elderly Bulgarian communists mark the anniversary of September 9, 1944, in 2010, at the monument ofthe Soviet Army. Photo by BGNES

The Case in Defense of Sofia's Soviet Army Monument

The argument can certainly be turned around: why should one keep monuments that were erected by a political regime, which committed crimes against its own people and/or was subservient to a foreign oppressor? Who erects and keeps monuments of their occupiers?

Those defending the Soviet Army monument in Sofia generally fail to see the Red Army as an invading, occupying force emphasizing first and foremost its role in the defeat of Hitler and ridding Europe and the world of Nazism and fascism. Taken by itself, this argument makes a lot of sense.

Of course, it seems to omit the role of the Soviet Army in imposing communism in Europe – which in principle is about as brutally oppressive as fascism. Western political science sees fascism and communism as equally totalitarian regimes, the only difference being that the first one is based on race, while the second one – on class. It is probably safe to say that the major difference between Hitler and Stalin was the length of their moustache.  

In all fairness, however, the Soviet Army monument in Sofia in principle does not stand for Stalin and its form and design do point a lot more towards the Soviet people – including soldiers, but also women and children, who were part of the heroic resistance against the Nazi invaders.

Many of those who came to the counter-rally in support of the Sofia monument were from the older generation and appear to have been actively involved with the Bulgarian Communist Party – and as such fail to see the communist regime as an outrightly bad phenomenon detrimental to Bulgaria. But while their attachment to communism is absolutely subjective, their case for the role of the Soviet Army in destroying fascism in Europe (though probably not in Bulgaria – the controversy about fascism in Bulgaria was mentioned above) is very strong.

"You have no idea what the euphoria in Europe was in 1945 when the Soviet Army took won the war against fascism. I was very young back then but I still remember it. You cannot imagine the joy of the people," declared one of the proponents of the monument at the counter-rally.

All attachment to communism aside, one should note that at the end of the day it makes sense to ascribe a liberation role to the Soviet Army even in Bulgaria's case – for the fact of the matter is that while it led to the establishment of a communist regime in the country, the Soviet Army's destruction of Hitlerism in Europe probably saved the Bulgarians from extermination the way it saved a number of other nations.

While Bulgaria was technically allied with Hitler's Nazi Germany, the Bulgarians remained a Slavic people, and the alliance was one of necessity. Had Hitler somehow prevailed in Europe, the fate of the Bulgarians would probably have been the same as the fate of the Jews and Roma in the death camps – this is the reason many researchers believe the Bulgarian Tsar Boris III became an ally of Hitler only when forced to do so, and sought safer ways to oppose him short of open resistance.

Of course, the best outcome for Bulgaria would have been the opportunity to establish a free and democratic state - which from today's point of view seems equal to having been liberated by the Americans and the British – but few nations had the right of choice in Europe in 1944-1945.

Thus, probably the strongest argument in defense of the Soviet Army is that it is a piece of the history of Sofia and Bulgaria that deserves to be in place as a testimony of the past to the future generations and to the international travelers visiting the Bulgarian capital. This line of argument goes to criticize the "destructive" impulses of the Bulgarian society saying that it probably made sense to have that monument if people decided to erect it.

This argument carries much weight precisely because Bulgaria and Sofia already have a precedent – the so called Mausoleum in the very downtown which before 1990 preserved the mummy of Georgi Dimitrov, the Bulgarian communist leader, much the same way as Lenin's body is exhibited in downtown Moscow.

While Dimitrov's body was buried in 1990, the 1990s saw much debate and disagreement over what to do with the monstrously communist-looking building of the Mausoleum with ideas ranging from turning it into an art gallery to growing mushrooms in its basement. This lasted until 1998 when the rightist government of PM Ivan Kostov commissioned the building's blowing up to make some kind of statement that communism is gone and isn't coming back.

The destruction of the Mausoleum is vigorously criticized to this day – but even if one accepts that it was a good idea to blow up it as a symbol of the communist dictatorship, they would probably agree that this kind of destruction is enough. 

The one group of people that have unanimously expressed opposition to removing communist era monuments in Bulgaria remain the foreign expats living in the country and the foreign tourists. Of course, their point of view is understandable, and they are not part of the Bulgarian nation so as to fully grasp the bitterness of its historical memory. Yet, their attitude come to demonstrate that Bulgarians are woefully unable to sit down and decide in a civilized way how to come to terms with their historic memory.

On May 5, 2010, the Day of Europe, leftist parties, including the Bulgarian Socialist Party, commemorated the victory over Nazism in Europe at the Soviet Army monument. Photo by BGNES

A Monument of Post-Communist Bulgaria

Many of those against the monument do not actually wish to destroy it but to "move" it to a less high-profile spot – because make no mistake – in communist times, the Soviet Army monument was designed to be the most central and important monument in Sofia, and therefore in Bulgaria.

Those who argue for its "moving" to something like an open-air museum of communist-era monuments point to the example of the Baltic states, which have done the same (of course, at the price of terrible diplomatic rows with Russia); the proponents of this approach argue that this will preserve the piece of history, while clearing the downtown of the Bulgarian capital from a highly problematic symbol of Soviet oppression and communism.

The major problem with this idea is that its execution would still strip Sofia of one its landmarks. This is probably the best way to view the Soviet Army monument today – as one of the interesting sites of the Bulgarian capital. Because in all fairness – Sofia is not that big and not that much dotted with interesting landmarks so as to afford to lose some of them.

In fact, what probably makes the most sense is to develop the city center in a way that underscores the various monuments and landmarks from different time periods – Antiquity (Thracian and Roman times), Middle Ages – Bulgaria and Byzantium, Ottoman period, early 20th century, Communist Period. This is what travelers form around the world do – and what Bulgarians should – appreciate about Sofia – its mosaic of history available in such a small area.

Interestingly enough, the new flare-ups in the row over the fate of the Soviet Army monument in Sofia have come at a time when Bulgarian politics is still dominated by the issue of whether to ban former agents of the communist secret service from holding senior state jobs, and just before the Bulgarian government – acting at the initiative of Bulgaria's first two democratically elected presidents Zhelyu Zhelev (1991-1997) and Petar Stoyanov (1997-2002) declared February 1 to be a date of remembrance of the victims of the communist regime.

The date was chosen because February 1, 1945, the saw the first wave of executions of those sentenced as alleged fascists by the so called People's Court. Essentially, those were representatives of the Bulgarian political and social elite before 1944, an elite that was wiped out by the communists. Don't be mistaken – the bourgeois elite in Bulgaria was not at all virtuous – given the bloody domestic affairs in the 1920s and 1930s. But were they really fascists who had to be executed? Was the People's Court purely a tool of purging certain elements of the society? And if at least some of them were in fact fascists, is it a good idea to honor the memory of all Bulgarian communism victims on that date?

Just as the monument in downtown Sofia – this new date of remembrance appears to be one more example of how complicated Bulgaria's communist era heritage is even today. The communist heritage epitomizes probably the greatest problem of the Bulgarian society since 1990 – its adamant and severe division along the pro/anti communism lines which time hasn't managed to water down yet.

Again – make no mistake – it is not that there were so many ardent communists in Bulgaria so as to defend the legacy of the former regime – their being apologetic of it is primarily based on the status their families achieved or acquired and enjoyed under it – and many continued to enjoy after it was over.

In purely sociological terms, these societal transformations in Bulgaria – in the 1940s and then in the 1990s – are much less clear-cut or black-and-white than in the countries in Central Europe, where the majority of the Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians never had doubts that the communist regime was imposed on them from the outside, and was no good.

With all that said, while it might be hard for the Bulgarian society to come to terms with its communist era legacy as a whole, the Soviet Army monument should not be such a hard nut to crack in the sense of finding a decent solution to its status.

What would really be problematic is making decision about its fate based on fears of a negative reaction by outside forces, i.e. Russia. The decision has to be purely based on what makes sense for Sofia and Bulgaria. And it is a simple one.

Young Bulgarian rappers compete in "Beatbox Battle 2010" - a concert event held at the Soviet Army monument in Sofia. Photo by BGNES

The Soviet Army monument in Sofia has to stay where it is but its historical meaning should be explained properly.

Why should it stay? First, because there is enough ground to view it as a monument of the countless number of people from the former Soviet Union (and they are by far not only Russians) who fought in the horrific struggle against Nazism in Europe. After all, the monument itself is a monument of the people – it features soldiers, women, and children. Second, because it is a major landmark of Sofia and a major testimony to Bulgarian history.

How should the monument be "explained"? By placing additional inscriptions near it denouncing Stalinism, the Soviet occupation of Bulgaria, and the imposition of a political regime by a foreign power.

This should guarantee that the contemporary society will get out of the monument its positive message of a struggle against tyranny – rather than replacing one type of tyranny with another - and should further establish the monument as a proper tourist landmark – much as another major Bulgarian city Plovdiv has done with the monument of Alesha – the unknown Soviet soldier.

The monument of Alesha itself is a monument of the Soviet Army but its emphasis on the people who fought the Nazi is more clear-cut, which makes it much easier to "digest" in today's post-communist Bulgaria, to the extent that today no one can imagine Plovdiv without the monument of Alesha.

Sofia should follow Plovdiv's example. And it should get down to doing that sooner rather than later because for the past 20 years the Soviet Army monument has been left without proper care.

The empty space in front of it has indeed become a gathering spot for skaters and bikers which would make for an awesome snapshot of post-communist Bulgaria – combining the old and the new – had the monument been taken good care of by the authorities instead of allowing the unruly youth to write on it and to pile trash all over the place.

One of the reasons the spot around the monument has become a favorite place to hang out for young Bulgarian rappers and ravers is the fact that it is one of the few open spaces in downtown Sofia, and is surrounded by a nice small park. The concerns raised by some that the monuments potential destruction will open space for yet another shiny but concrete shopping mall in its place might be an overstretch but it's important to acknowledge the place of the monument and its part in Sofia's urban planning and design.

Bulgaria's history - turbulent and horrific as it might have been in many periods - is one of its unconditional assets when it comes to its cultural richness and drawing the attention of international travelers. Preserving and explaining properly the meaning of Sofia's Soviet Army monument will be the best way to draw a positive message rather than division from this landmark while grabbing the attention of people from around the world.

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Tags: Soviet Army Monument, sofia, Soviet Army, Red Army, communism, Communist Bulgaria, communist era, World War II, Stalin, Hitler, People's Court, 1944, 1989, September 9 1944, coup d'etat, Coup

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