When we arrive in a new place, we find ourselves surrounded by unfamiliar monuments with the likenesses of strangers. Are you eager to hit the ground running in a new culture? Then figure out who is memorialized and why. I emerged unceremoniously dragging a gargantuan suitcase from the stairwell of the Orlov Most subway station in the center of Sofia, Bulgaria.
There I found myself in a noticeably unkept grassy park dominated by a lofty and imposing Monument to the Soviet Army. At the center of the monument is a Soviet solider set atop a 37-meter-high pedestal surrounded by Bulgarian civilians frozen in various expressions of gratitude, Clearly, I was not in Kansas anymore, but I had no desire to click my ruby slippers in retreat.
Rather, this was an occasion for a historian to roll up their sleeves and get messy. The work of historians is to confront memory and, in doing so, we often wrestle with the many complexities of commemoration. Historical memory is the foundation on which monuments are built. Do you build them? When? Why? Where? On whose dime? Do you take them down when they grow out of favor? Do you replace them when the message changes? And whose soapbox is it anyway?
Presentism is dangerous business
Any talk of monuments should come with a disclaimer. Interpreting and judging the past by present standards is presentism, and that is dangerous business. Don’t judge the past assuming that our contemporary condition is superior, or expect that we can find ourselves in the past either. As we search for collective roots in our communities, presentism can make us see sameness where it does not exist.
As historical memory shifts, monuments often grow increasingly uncomfortable. Like a splinter in your foot, the further you walk away from the historical context in which the monument was created, the more it festers. There has been growing talk in Sofia about taking down this very controversial display of gratitude to the Soviet army.
The monument was not installed until 1954 which was nearly a decade after the army entered Bulgaria during WWII. Over the course of the war, Bulgaria swung from neutrality to alliance with the Axis Nazi-led powers, to joining the Allies during the last moments of the conflict. The narrative we see loud and clear in this monument is that Bulgaria was liberated by the Soviet Army. For some, it has come to represent Bulgaria’s freedom from Turkish control as well. Monuments, like this one, have many layers of symbolic meaning depending on the lens you look through.
Bulgaria’s hesitant entrance into the European Union has contributed to the sentiment to rethink the Soviet invasion as a liberation. The EU also complicates Bulgaria’s once friendly relationship with Russia. To Putin, attacks on this monument are a slap in the face to his government’s legitimacy from a former ally. He has asked the Bulgarian government to stop vandals from making a mockery out of the legacy of the sacrifice of Soviet soldiers.
Standing at a distance with my suitcase and feeling oddly too out of place to make any judgements under the towering weight of what this monument represents, I noticed that a man was clearly spray painting bright red lines over the inscription on the base of the central statue which read “To the Soviet Army liberators – from the grateful people of Bulgaria”. Clearly, he was not in the grateful crowd. No one seemed to pay him any mind.
A stage for public debate
This monument has become a canvas for political expression. It is a place in Sofia to have conversations, sometimes heated, about the past, present, and future of this capital city. In recent years, the monument has been defaced many times, often with sentiments clearly aligned against the Kremlin.
It gets destroyed, and it gets cleaned over and over again.
Famously and creatively in 2011, the Soviet soldiers were repainted to portray western comic book characters (like Captain America and Wonder Woman). The painted “costumes” were removed by an irate city government within three days. In 2012 the monument was defaced to show support for the Russian rebels Pussy Riot.
In 2013 there was an apology to Prague for Bulgaria’s part in crushing their efforts to get out from behind the iron curtain. In 2014 vandals offered an apology to Poland for Bulgaria’s role in the murder of those captured during the Russian takeover of Crimea. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, there has been a series of pro-Ukrainian protests. I noticed that, despite cleaning, the distinctive blue hue of the Ukrainian flag was still visible across the freeze of Russian soldiers (whose hands had been painted blood red).
Should it stay or should it go?
Should this monument come down, it does not change the past. Taking down a monument does not erase history. Instead, it erases a presentation of the past from a specific point of view. Often it is political motivations at play that fuel these changes.
Commemoration is complicated communal work. Think of it like civic housekeeping designed to educate a community in a specific way. Should the Bulgarian government continue to restore and keep the monument? Should it be destroyed? Should it be moved? The answers to these question may be above my paygrade.
I’d suggest that, if it was going to come down, 1989 was the time to do it.
Walking a slow loop around the monument means dodging the teenagers using the stairs and railings as a skate park. There is something surreal about the towering Soviet army looming over a gathering place for the liberal youth of the nearby university who seem to pay it no mind.
The majority of Bulgarians report in polls that they believe that monuments of the communist era are a part of their national identity and that this monument should be left alone. Would Bulgaria welcome Russian soldiers into the city today with open arms? Probably not, and there will no doubt continue to be heated debate around the question of the monument’s future. At the moment, it stands as a ready public canvas on which to project unrepentant dissent in technicolor.
Don’t forget to check out this week’s Christory podcast about Bulgaria!