Exploring Bulgaria’s Communist History – The Buzludzha Monument

The Buzludzha monument on in the central Stara Planina Mountains is the largest communist-era monument in Bulgaria.

(All Images Copyright by Johann Brandstätter/JB Photography)

The tower with the red stars is 70 meters high, the stars themselves, made of red glass imported from the Soviet Union, are 12 meters tall.

Inaugurated in 1981, the monument fell into disrepair after the fall of communism in Bulgaria in December 1989. Now, the building itself is closed, the bars in front of the main entrance are welded shut, but for the more enterprising explorers a number of entry points still exist.

I wanted to do a shooting on Buzludzha ever since I saw old photographs of the inauguration, red flags flying and the proletarian masses listening to speeches of the party big shots.

So, after an untimely first heat wave in the early days of May 2013 that took care of the last remnants of snow, I pack my photo and camping gear and head east, out of Sofia on what I used to call Potholia Highway.

Thank god, since I travelled it the last time, the potholes have disappeared and the trip to central Bulgaria is a smooth ride. Shortly before entering Kazanlak, I turn left towards Shipka and make my way up into the Stara Planina mountains. Any doubts I might have had about finding the monument disappeared when I first saw the gigantic structure on a peak from more than 20 kilometers distance. One has to be blind to miss that thing!

Reaching the car park below the monument, I curse the weather forecast that had promised clear skies. Of course there is not speck of blue, dark clouds are closing in and it looks like rain approaching from the east. Great! For a fleeting moment I consider driving back after a quick shooting, but the prospect of a night out in the boonies and – maybe – some nice light for the next morning is too tempting.

Since it’s quite late already, I skip looking for a place for the night, break out my photo gear instead and start walking up the steep path towards the monument. I take breaks in increasingly short intervals, not because I am huffing and puffing, but only for shooting purposes of course. Strange that many of the shots turn out jittery and with leaning horizons; must be the wind…

After maybe half an hour, my heart wanting to jump out of my chest, hot sweat pouring down my face and soaking my shirt, I am at the building. The motive is great, no doubt, and I begin to feel a bit more relaxed about the potential of getting some nice images.

First, I do a few shots from the neighboring peak, dark and threatening clouds above. But what about getting inside? Ok, let’s see. Walking around the monument, I notice two or three deep holes that seem to lead into some sort of basement, but no way I can get back out of them without a ladder. The main door is barred and the bars welded shut. Maybe I should bring an Acetylene torch next time?

Rounding the last corner, I finally see a hole in the wall that leads to a staircase inside and a minute later I stand on the remnants of a red (of course!) carpet. I am covered in dust and cannot help having the distinct feeling that tons of crumbly concrete might land on my head any minute.

The circular main hall is well worth the sweat, though: mosaics showing various party leaders, workers and peasants in heroic postures and communist symbols adorn the walls. Above: a huge hammer and sickle with the motto ‘Proletarians of the world, unite’.

Meanwhile, the sun starts breaking through the clouds and I scramble through the hole and out of the building to get some sunset shots done.

As it gets darker and darker I begin to wonder about dinner: I brought a couple of Makedonska sausages, bread, tomatoes and – most important – some beer, but I don’t have a single stick of firewood yet, and no idea where to set up camp. Out of habit I have noticed a potential spot on the way up, so I walk down, thighs aching or not, get my saw out of the car and begin cutting wood for a good fire.

Before five on the next morning the bloody alarm goes off. I hate that thing! But since the clouds (again!) in the eastern sky already show some faint pinkish hue I panic a bit and run up to the monument as fast as a I can. I manage without having a heartattack and the morning light then takes the rest of my breath away: the clouds above turn into a sea of lavender first and gradually switch to deep orange a little while later. I shoot like there is no tomorrow.

The stiff wind is a pain in the neck, but today I am at peace with myself: the Buzludzha monument at sunrise is one of the best projects I have done in a while! And so, after the sun is up completely, I pack up, get my morning pipe started and, with a light heart, drive back home. I’ll be back, Buzludzha!

More images from the shooting at the Buzludzha monument on my website.

If you want to explore Buzludzha or other remnants of the communist era in Bulgaria, come and join me for a photo tour. For details please drop me an e-mail: johann[at]jb-photography[dot]org or use the contact form.