A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
6 April 2012
The Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, sometimes simply referred to as the Russian Monument, is a striking tribute to the former friendship shared by these two powers.
Located in the outskirts of Varna, down on the Black Sea coast, the monument stands on a hill at 110m above sea level. The interior is deceptively large. It features a former museum hall, a small conference space and a network of other rooms and corridors. On the ground floor the monument (or perhaps more accurately, ‘memorial house’) contained a bookshop, while deep beneath the hill it stands on there lurks a now-derelict bomb shelter.
This article, posted back in 2012, is the first thing I ever wrote about Bulgaria’s communist-era monuments. Since then I have spent half a decade researching the subject, and I know a lot more about it now than I did back then. For that reason, I have edited this article down to just the story of what I saw and experienced during those early visits.
The historical information that I previously included here – dates, details and symbolism – has now been improved, updated and expanded, to feature on a new page dedicated to the Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship.
You can read more about my ongoing project to catalogue and study the monuments of former communist regimes here.
Alternatively, scroll down for the original story that kicked off my obsession.
The Varna Monument
I first saw the monument from the road. Driving past along the coast with a local friend, I was startled to look inland and find a surreal concrete colossus towering over me. “What the hell is that?” I asked, and my friend told me, Just some old Russian rubbish.
The next day I came back on foot, to take a closer look – climbing the several hundred steps to the monument in the shadow of those Brutalist wings.
Once upon a time, visitors to this monument were greeted with music. A total of 180 floodlights illuminated the monument at night, while speakers set up through the surrounding park played Shostakovich’s Symphony № 7 on constant repeat.
For the full effect, hit Play before you read on.
Everything I’d read online suggested there was simply no way inside the Russian Monument. Entrances had been bricked up, apparently, or otherwise sealed; another report claimed that the hollow interior was now used as a dumping ground for used car tyres. On my first visit to the site, I didn’t hold out any hope for actually getting inside the thing.
As I climbed the broad steps, the monument towered ominously above the park – seething with the silent majesty of some ancient, forgotten temple.
I took a few photos of the impressive figures on the wings of the monument, and it wasn’t long before I’d spotted a way in. Someone had taken a hammer to the bricks that barred the entrance: leaving a hole just large enough to scramble through. Faster than you could say “Park-Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship,” I was inside.
Once my eyes had accustomed to the dark, I was eventually able to make out a flight of bare concrete steps leading upwards, into the left-hand portion of the monument. On reaching the top the passage turned back on itself, and the corridor before me disappeared into darkness.
There is a somehow otherworldly quality to the atmosphere inside the Russian Monument.
The darkness is absolute, and at times suffocating – many thousands of tonnes of concrete stand between you and the light of day. Not only that, but even the slightest sound can create long echoes inside this cubist warren of tunnels and stairwells. It wasn’t just my own footsteps that were haunting me; the surrounding park is sometimes frequented by stray dogs and every howl from outside would become trapped inside the monument, distorting as it followed me from room to room.
By this point I was realising just how poorly prepared I was; in the absence of a torch I was using my mobile phone to light the way, while my camera was running fatally low on battery. But for now, I persevered.
It is hard to imagine from the outside, just how much space there is inside the monument. Neatly arranged into cleverly tessellated corridors, chambers and stairwells, at several points I found myself losing my way inside the labyrinth. After a while I stumbled upon a series of steps leading upwards, and on following them found that they opened into natural light. Relieved, I followed the stairs out onto the rooftop of the monument. Situated above the female figures on the left-hand wing, this area offered breathtaking views over the city below, and the Black Sea coast.
Later I found myself following another flight of steps, this one set into the middle of the floor, and disappearing down into an inky darkness. Tentatively making my way to the lower level, I was met by a cold gust of wind from below. I followed another flight down, this one fenced in by a rusted iron banister. Since entering the monument, I had completely lost my sense of both time and space. By now my instincts told me that I’d gone down too many steps… that I could no longer be inside the monument itself, but that I had to have passed down into the ground beneath it.
I was in a basement, I realised, set into the massive concrete platform on which the monument stands. The place was a wreck, with little evidence offered as to its former use. I discovered a hole punched through the brick wall of the foyer – and from here, I found myself stood at the top of a vast flight of stairs, heading down deeper into the earth.
With no way of knowing how far – or even where – the steps led, and with no torch or camera anymore, I decided to make a temporary retreat. The tunnel could wait until the following day.
I returned to the monument the following day, and this time entered on the lower floor – through an access point I had spotted before, located at the rear of the monument. Inside I passed though a series of bare rooms, and past the narrow concrete stairwell which spiralled back up into the body of the monument above.
There was foul smell in the place, and following it I found that the former bookshop had been used more recently as a toilet. Mounds of human excrement covered the dusty floor like a minefield, where soiled strips of newspaper blew in the breeze that came in from a barred window in the concrete wall. At the time, I guessed this was the work of passing pedestrians – only later would I realise how naive it was to assume that I was alone inside this strange structure.
I returned to the grand staircase that led down into the earth, though even with a powerful torch it was still impossible to see the end of it. It reminded me of the steps going down into a London tube station – only here without passengers, without light, and with strange symbols painted onto the walls in the place of adverts for West End musicals.
These wide concrete steps were an exact mirror of the ‘Staircase of Victors’, directly above. Regularly spaced holes had been tunnelled near the ceiling – arranged so as to dimly illuminate the odd characters on the walls. Eventually I reached the bottom, where the steps culminated in a pair of ominous double doors. They were locked, of course – with a sheet of metal welded to the bars from behind.
A little disappointed, I was about to head back up… when I noticed, half hidden by discarded timbers, a small hole in the ground. On closer inspection this hole, no more than a foot across, appeared to open down into a tunnel. I shone my torch in, to see a passage leading away beneath the doors in the direction of whatever lay beyond them.
I couldn’t resist. I managed to squeeze myself feet-first through the hole, and climb down to the ground using a series of rusted pipes which jutted from the wall. From here it was a slow crawl, through a tunnel that gradually shrank – until I was wriggling forwards on my belly, and wondering how hard it would be to crawl back out in reverse.
After what seemed like an eternity I found a large access hole in the concrete above me, where voluminous pipes entered the bunker from directly beneath. However, even this had been sealed with a metal plate, which appeared to be welded in place. Luckily this opening did at least give me enough space to turn around and crawl back out… but I was left wondering exactly what they had in there, behind the doors.
Making my way back up, I took the staircase into the monument itself. Angular concrete surrounded me, a hard concrete passage that spiral up in darkness until I found myself emerging into a large space filled with stepped seating – some kind of conference space, inside the left wing of the monument. Heading from there into the right-hand wing via the network of passages in between, I revisited the massive three-dimensional star I’d seen before, It was etched so deep into the far wall that three people could have comfortably sat inside the hollow.
I was preparing to leave, when my torchlight fell across something I had failed to spot on my previous visit; a recessed staircase in a darkened corner, heading upwards and out of sight.
I followed it, and as I climbed upwards I began to detect light ahead: accompanied by as a loud flapping noise. It sounded as though a whole flock of birds had somehow become trapped inside the structure.
Tentatively rounding the last corner I came into a well-lit chamber, with narrow windows spaced evenly along one side. These windows caught the wind, which ripped and tore about inside the concrete chamber – pulling and tearing noisily at the odd assortment of sacks and bin bags that filled the room.
At first, I couldn’t work out why anybody would have dragged so much rubbish up to the very top of the monument. There were food containers smeared with grey mould, countless items of ragged, nondescript clothing, and in the far corner, a pile of blankets… realisation then dawned on me pretty quickly. I was standing in somebody’s home. Presumably, it was the same somebody who had been defecating in the bookshop, and who probably knew every corner and crevice of the darkened spaces around me.
But perhaps the most disconcerting artefact in this makeshift bedroom, was a small arrangement of objects by one of the windows.
A couple of cushions were being used as a kind of desk, around which were arranged a selection of men’s shoes, slippers and women’s high heels, as well as some engineering magazines printed in Cyrillic script. Beside them, an assortment of electronic items: including a mains transformer, a television remote and a few pieces of circuitry that resembled the insides of a calculator.
It appeared that whoever lived here was either trying to build something, or simply collecting bizarre trophies.
Either way, I suddenly began to feel very uncomfortable. Whoever it was, this individual had chosen to live in a wind-blasted obelisk miles from the city centre, and surrounded by filth and decay. The building featured so many dark corners, hidden balconies and sunken recesses, that I began to wonder if I had been alone all this time, after all.
And that drew an end to my visit. Swiftly and quietly, I made my way back down the staircase, through the main body of the monument, and then back outside through the basement exit at the back. I left the Russian Monument feeling disorientated, awestruck and slightly alarmed, my bare forearms still itching from the fibre glass dust in the tunnels down below. As I walked away, a final irony crossed my mind; that even in death, this condemned relic of Bulgarian communism is providing free shelter to the homeless proletariat, otherwise ignored by a modern democratic republic.