An illustrated guide to urban exploration in the Russian capital.
20 June 2012
Built in 1943, this grand structure was constructed on a large concrete base – allowing it to stand proud of its surrounding buildings, staking its dominance over the skyline of the small mountain town in which it abides. As such, this magnificent old building can be seen from almost anywhere in the town… and even beyond that, its austere architecture is clearly recognisable even from the peaks of the encircling mountains.
The school was hailed as a revolution in its time, embracing the socialist ideologies of Bulgarian political philosophers such as Dimitar Blagoev. In addition to being by far the largest and best-equipped educational facility in this region of the Balkans, adjacent to the school itself there also stands an historic wooden building – a teacher training school. This college was the first of its kind anywhere in Bulgaria, representing a move towards a national curriculum, and the application of uniform standards of socialised education.
A prominent state building like this made for a refreshing change of tone, after a series of Bulgarian urban exploration posts focussing predominantly on remote ruins: the mountain-top Buzludzha monument, in addition to abandoned factories or unfinished leisure complexes. However, this town-centre school had been out of use for several decades by the time of my visit, and the only challenge remaining was to find an illicit entrance into perhaps the best-known building in the region.
It didn’t take me long to find one. The basement level features a series of shuttered windows, which open out onto shafts dug deep into the concrete foundations, thus allowing light into the lower floors. After the school’s closure, these were for the most part covered and sealed with pressed sheet metal… but the plate across one of the shafts had lost a few rivets through rust and age, making it possible to pull back one corner of the metal. From here a treacherous climb down a decaying wooden window frame allowed access into a storeroom at the back of the building.
I took with me a local guide – a resident of the town, and a former pupil at this school. ‘M’, as I shall refer to him here, attended this school for seven years, and was able to colour the decaying landscape for me with his recollections of classrooms, school assemblies and playground games. It was only after he left the school that one-by-one classes were transferred to a newer building. This ugly, nondescript replacement was known by the children as ‘the prison’, and marked the turning point of Bulgaria’s decline into post-war depression, and subsequent Soviet rule. All across the state the grand monuments to Bulgaria’s past were slowly abandoned, in favour of simple and efficient institutions housed within bland concrete shells.
The back room which provided our initial point of entry opened out onto the main entrance hall, where daily assemblies were held in the mornings. From here a double doorway, now festooned in chains and padlocks, faced out onto a patio overlooking the town’s market place… and beyond that, the Balkan Mountains fading away into the distance.
Perhaps the first thing to strike me was the stark state of disrepair apparent here, as compared to the well-maintained exterior of the building. M explained that the town council took great care to keep this historic building, its crowning centrepiece, looking clean and well maintained. Not long ago they even hired a team of contractors to conduct extensive repairs to the site, in an effort to return the school to its former glory. It seems that these contractors merely added a new coat of paint to the outside in order to give the appearance of functionality, while leaving the ruined interior in the same state they found it.
On my visit, the lower floors featured severe damage from moisture, and plasterwork that was falling away from the walls in large chunks. On the higher levels, the wooden flooring was so rotted that a misplaced foot could go straight through the boards, appearing from the ceiling of the classroom beneath. In one room M found the mummified remains of a stray cat – its clean cured corpse a testament to the purity of the mountain air.
The higher floors were reached by a wide staircase, each stone step hand-chiselled into ornate lips and curves… giving the appearance of an elaborate piano keyboard, rising up in steps. The bottom of the stairs, where they met the entrance hall, were scattered with an assortment of festering rubbish.
Throughout the building, classrooms and corridors have been decorated in stark, neon colours; shades of pink, green and yellow determined the different floors and departments, colours that seemed even more garish by contrast with the crumbling plasterwork, and exposed wooden slats beneath.
The first floor, level with the back road from which we had entered, featured a panelled oak door, leading down a flight of steps into the former playground. Set in with wrought iron windows, this thick garrison was heavily chained to keep out intruders. Beside the door, in the darkened entrance corridor, I found the fractured remains of a long basin set into one of the walls. This had been where the children washed, M informed me, and used to feature a drinking fountain built into one end of the stone trough.
It was also on this floor that we discovered the first signs of habitation – in the corner of one room lay a recently made bed, accompanied by a wooden wardrobe and a bench composed of bricks and wooden planks.
The occupant was nowhere to be found, but from the orderly state of their home, they appeared to live a simple yet civilised life here, hidden away inside the rotting school… quite unlike the deranged vagrant whose bower I stumbled across on a previous visit to an abandoned communist-era monument.
The second floor held another surprise: two of the classrooms had been filled from wall to wall with aromatic, dried vegetation, giving the surreal appearance of indoor forests. M was able to tell me that at one stage, the building had been leased to a food sourcing company, who had presumably been using this as a place to dry herbs over the winter months. It was yet another half-hearted project which was abandoned mid-progress, with the school left to bear the refuse of its failed industry.
Outside the harvest rooms, a hand-written sign was pinned up on a wall:
“When it rains don’t pick the herbs. Sleep!.. rest!…”
The windows on this floor also afforded an excellent view out over the town beneath. It was a strange sensation; gazing out over the market place of this small town, and watching the people come and go from within a secret vantage point, high up inside the town’s most cherished landmark.
Heading back to the stone stairwell, I donned my headlamp in preparation for the final floor. The stone steps terminated at this level, and from the top step a rusted metal walkway led up to the darkened opening of the attic; its creaking steps pinned precariously into the crumbling plaster of the outer wall.
As expected, the inside of the attic was pitch black… and littered with abandoned school books, desks and various teaching aids. Numerous small mounds of crusty pellets gave away the daytime resting places of owls.
Amongst the various treasures stowed away in this attic space, were a large red star (which M told me was hung from the gable end during national holidays), and a plaque depicting flowers accompanied by the insignia “9 IX”; this motto was a reference to Bulgaria’s Socialist Revolution, which took place on 9th September 1944.
Another two wooden wall hangings bore further Socialist propaganda; the first depicted two doves, their shapes merging to form a globe, along with the words:
The other was a quote from Georgi Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s first communist ruler. It compared a treasured Bulgarian poet to one of the fathers of the Russian futurist movement:
We left the building by the only open exit; retracing our footsteps to the ground floor, then climbing back up through the shaft and into the barren playground.
Unlike many of the sites I have written reports on, this one is not scheduled for demolition… nor is it a work in progress.
The town council are loathe to give up this iconic heirloom, and yet, while the building presents a grand outward image, the insides are a long way from being useful. In the absence of investors, it will remain in this strange limbo. Once a year decorators are called in to tidy up the paintwork, keep it looking presentable, while the interior falls further and further into irreparable ruin.