An illustrated guide to urban exploration in the Russian capital.
22 April 2012
The Buzludzha Memorial House – formally known as the Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party – sits atop Buzludzha Peak like something out of a 1950s sci-fi movie. Perched up high in the Balkan Mountains, this otherworldly structure resembles a great concrete saucer adorned with rousing socialist slogans. Now abandoned, the site has become one of the world’s most famous modern ruins; but as a symbol, Buzludzha is more than just a building, and its demise carries a deeper significance.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been to Buzludzha now – but I’ll always remember my first visit. What follows is an account of that trip, on a cold spring day back in 2012, with the saucer still cloaked in its winter coat of snow upon the mountaintop; but first, a little background to this surreal memorial.
The Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party
In 1891, as the last of the Turks were being expelled from Bulgaria after 500 years of Ottoman rule, it was here on Mount Buzludzha that the country’s early socialist philosophers met in secret to lay the foundations for the Bulgarian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party: a precursor to the later rule of the Bulgarian Communist Party.
The Buzludzha Memorial House was completed 90 years later, in 1981, to commemorate the birthplace of the Bulgarian socialist movement – a place which also saw crucial battles for Bulgarian independence, first against the Ottomans in 1868, and later against fascist occupation during WWII. Looking down over the very heartlands of Bulgaria, the monument served as the symbolic architectural centrepiece of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria; and through historical associations it linked socialism with the historic struggle for Bulgarian independence.
Construction of the monument cost in excess of 14 million Bulgarian levs; more than $35 million USD, by today’s value. This money was raised from citizens in the form of suggested donations – the architect’s own idea – with the intention of creating a monument for the people, and by the people.
The saucer, along with its 70-metre tower, was designed by Georgi Stoilov. More than 60 Bulgarian artists collaborated on the design of murals for the site, while thousands of labourers and volunteers were involved in the construction process. The Soviet-style star which adorns the tower of Buzludzha was said to be three times larger than the Kremlin’s own star; and it was claimed that its illuminated red light could be seen from as far away as Romania in the north, and the Greek border in the south.
Bulgarian communism came to an end in 1989 after which the Buzludzha Memorial House was inherited by the new democratic state. It was during the mid-1990s that the building was ransacked and opened up to the elements, during a period when Bulgaria’s right-wing government was attempting to distance the country from its socialist heritage – some sources, including Georgi Stoilov himself, claim that this involved a deliberate campaign of government-sanctioned vandalism against communist heritage sites such as Buzludzha. Since then, left to the mercy of the mountain climate, the monument has been allowed to slowly disintegrate – and in the process has become a powerful symbol of the changing times.
A Visit to the Buzludzha Monument
In winter, the approach to Buzludzha is murder.
The memorial house sits at the top of Buzludzha Peak, at an altitude of 1432 metres (the peak was 1441 metres high originally, but it was levelled by 9 metres to lay the building’s foundations). It is located 12 kilometres from the Shipka Pass, where in 1877, in temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees, a garrison of 7,500 Bulgarians and Russians successfully repelled 38,000 Ottoman troops during the epic Battle of Shipka Pass.
When we visited, the road from Shipka was blocked by heavy snow and so instead we were forced to approach the mountain from the southern road; taking a turn-off close to Kazanluk. We drove as close as possible, before ditching the car in snow to make the last leg on foot – past a severe-looking sign, which read: “Passing is absolutely forbidden! DANGEROUS SITE!”
From here a flagstone path wound along the top of the mountain ridge, until passing over the crest, I caught my first glimpse of the vast saucer sat beyond. The sheer size of the monument was staggering and there was something vaguely unsettling about standing in the shadow of this concrete monstrosity, its form so extraterrestrial in this alpine setting.
The monument sits at the top of a long flight of steps, looking down over a paved courtyard where crowds once gathered for rallies and public ceremonies. On either side of the stone stairs, there had once appeared monumental copper flags… but the copper was looted long ago, leaving only a mess of concrete and rebar.
Scrawled above the main entrance in red paint, Latin characters spelled the words: “FORGET YOUR PAST.” This was flanked on either side by poetic stanzas formed from concrete Cyrillic characters. Many of the letters were missing, but what remained was a call to arms: the popular socialist anthem The Internationale, written here in a Bulgarian adaptation.
“ON YOUR FEET
ON YOUR FEET YOU SLAVES OF LABOUR!
DOWNTRODDEN AND HUMILIATED
STAND UP AGAINST THE ENEMY!
LET US WITHOUT MERCY, WITHOUT FORGIVENESS
TAKE DOWN THE OLD, ROTTEN SYSTEM…
FROM ALL COUNTRIES COME TOGETHER
FORWARDS! COMRADES WITHOUT FEAR
BUILD STRONG OUR GREAT DEEDS!
TO WORK AND TO CREATE…”
The main doors at the front of the monument hung open as I approached, and I stepped quietly across the threshold, through a wall of propaganda and into the void beyond.
My first impression was one of roaring noise and darkness. All winter long, Buzludzha lies buried in heavy snow – so that by now the spring thaw was causing the accumulated drifts to melt, and torrents of water cascaded down walls and stairwells, or fell in noisy rivulets from the ceiling. Wherever the water is allowed to sit for more than a moment it freezes; so that the floor of the monument was encrusted with a thick layer of ice. In some places the concrete was literally falling apart, where moisture had found its way into fine cracks and then expanded as it froze.
Out of the dark, low-ceilinged entrance chamber, three double flights of steps led up to the hall above. From this point, movement began to get more difficult. In some places the steps weren’t even visible beneath one smooth slope of thick ice and running water. It felt a little like climbing a frozen waterfall, and inevitably I found myself crawling on hands and knees, clutching at outcrops of brick for leverage. Turning the first corner, a slogan was scrawled across the wall: “Тук почват твоити кошмари. ха ха ха.”
Here start your nightmares. Ha ha ha.
I made it past the stairs, round one more corner, and the space above finally opened to reveal the monument’s dramatic centrepiece. The main hall of the Buzludzha Memorial House is breathtaking to behold.
This circular space – originally titled the ‘Ceremonial Hall’ – was surrounded by low benches, many obscured beneath the drifting snow. The once-lavish copper ceiling was little more than a metal skeleton now, a rusting shell, adorned in the centre with a vast hammer-and-sickle motif. Around the outside, the walls were inlaid with fine mosaic designs. Some of these colourful decorations showed scenes of labour and the construction of the monument itself, while others depicted wars and harvests.
On this visit the Ceremonial Hall was filled with a deep layer of compacted ice, giving the arena the appearance of a surreal, decaying ice rink. On the far wall, three familiar faces looked down at me from the mosaics: Engels, Marx and Lenin. Opposite them appeared Bulgaria’s own communist heroes. The image on the left had once shown Todor Zhivkov (communist leader of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria from 1954 until 1989), but his face had since been picked clean out of the mosaic. Beside him, their likenesses still intact, were Dimitar Blagoev – the founder of Bulgarian socialism – and Georgi Dimitrov, the first leader of communist Bulgaria, from 1946 to 1949.
From the Ceremonial Hall I followed the steps to the outer gallery of the saucer. This circular balcony was bare and windowless, left open to the elements. Many of the murals had weathered beyond recognition, but those that remained showed similar themes of victory and prosperity. Both the central chamber and these encircling walkways were covered by the same domed roof, and here I had another reminder of the very real danger of the site – narrowly avoiding a falling tile, a sheet of pressed metal the size of a road sign, that suddenly clattered to the marble near my feet.
The Bowels of Buzludzha
Before my visit, the only photographs I had seen of Buzludzha were exterior angles or shots of that main Ceremonial Hall. It wasn’t until I got inside that I discovered a further network of passages and tunnels, dark spaces beneath and behind the auditorium that lay half buried in snow… and crossed by sparkling, frost-encrusted spider webs.
I followed a staircase down into the cavernous bowels of Buzludzha. Crossing the floors of ice in darkness made for very slow progress – slipping and sliding all the way. Some of these passages led to dead-ends – boiler rooms, stores and washrooms, thick with unseen snow. Another passage, however, spiralled down and around into the very base of the building.
After a series of narrow rooms and chambers, the outer wall suddenly fell away to reveal the curved lower hull of the saucer. This wider space ran almost the entire circumference of the monument, a conduit for the air-conditioning system – red ducts for hot air, blue for cold, I guessed. At one point an opening on the inside wall led to the confined space beneath the seats in the main hall; elsewhere I found a service shaft descending so deep beneath me that my torch beam couldn’t find the bottom.
Eventually I made my way back out, passing once more through the central chamber. This time I paused to read the inscription written around the radiant hammer and sickle, emblazoned high above in tiny pieces of red, green and golden stone. “PROLETARIANS OF ALL COUNTRIES UNITE”, it read.
My next problem of course, was getting out – down the deadly flights of icy stairs. Climbing up that slippery slope had taken what seemed like forever, but on the return journey I discovered an effective – if inelegant – solution. Sitting on the top step I pushed off, sliding at breakneck speed down the iced slope before hitting the bottom wall with a crash.
The Future of Buzludzha
It might be hard to imagine much of a future for the Buzludzha Memorial House. The damage that the monument has suffered already, the vandalism, looting, and the work of wind, rain and snow, look to be almost irreparable. There are, nevertheless, those who would like to see the Buzludzha monument returned to its former glory.
During my visit to the site, a group of four Bulgarian men came to make an inspection of the monument. Back outside, where my local friends had waited for me by the car, we had a short conversation with these new arrivals.
They didn’t seem worried that I was inside without permission, but rather expressed concern only for my safety. One of these men was an architect, and said he had been involved in the construction of the site; it looked as though he was here now giving a tour to a prospective investor. There was a political tone to the conversation; this interested party talked about restoring the monument to its original condition, describing it as a sight that every Bulgarian should be able to look up at with pride.
“Of course [the government] would let it fall apart,” he commented. “Its decay marks a victory over their predecessors.”
That the Buzludzha Memorial House has been allowed to sink into such a woeful state of disrepair, seems like a tragic fate for such a remarkable architectural and artistic achievement. However, I have to remind myself that I never lived under the Bulgarian Communist Party; and so perhaps it’s easier for me, as a foreigner, to separate the monument from its history. For those who lived in its shadow however, for those Bulgarians who came to regard Buzludzha as the symbol of the former regime, this separation of form and philosophy is likely more difficult.
Perhaps for many of them it would be preferable after all to simply Forget Your Past, as the graffitied slogan recommends.