They blew up the mausoleum—or tried to—during a live broadcast on Bulgarian national television on August 21, 1999. It was a hot and cloudless day in the capital city of Sofia, perfect weather for a demolition. Ten years after the collapse of the country’s Communist regime there was still unfinished business to take care of. The mausoleum’s one and only occupant, the mummy of Georgi Dimitrov, “the Great Leader and Teacher of the Bulgarian People,” had already been removed from its glass sarcophagus, then cremated and buried at Sofia’s Central Cemetery. Now the tomb had to go.
Intent on witnessing the event firsthand, a small crowd had decided to brave the heat on Battenberg Square, huddling behind crowd-control barriers. Media crews perched on nearby buildings—the national bank, the national theater, the ministry of defense—vying for the best vantage. Shaded from the blazing sun under Coca-Cola patio umbrellas, Bulgaria’s prime minister and members of his cabinet, armed with military-grade binoculars, stood on the roof terrace of the National Archives, once the headquarters of State Security, the fearsome Communist-era intelligence service. Meanwhile, army personnel from engineering units were waiting in the wings with their bulldozers and heavy trucks, ready to move in to scoop up the debris.
In the middle of the scene, the white colonnaded cube of the mausoleum—forty feet high and six thousand square feet at the base—awaited its end. It was surrounded by sloping piles of sandbags to absorb wayward shards of stone flying about during the demolition, like straw that used to be scattered around an executioner’s chopping block to soak up the blood of the beheaded. This was the day the past was condemned to die—a day to remember.
At 2:37 p.m., a heavy rumble and crackling, like a drumroll, filled the air. A corresponding wave of shouts, whistles and hoots arose from the crowd that had gathered. A sudden explosion shook the whole structure, kicking up smoke and dust. Some of its Doric-style columns began to collapse and the mausoleum tilted with a groan to the east. Everyone in the crowd stood frozen, thinking this was just the initial detonation and that the coup de grâce was about to follow. A few more loose blocks of stone rolled to the ground. Car alarms went off in the distance.
When it became clear that the mausoleum wouldn’t budge any further, disbelief turned into jeers. “A fucking flop,” a voice could be heard saying from behind one of the television cameras. “They couldn’t bring it down.” This is how it had all ended: not with a bang but a whimper. Then somebody took up a chant that immediately infected the rest of the crowd: “Encore! Encore! Encore!” Even the soldiers from the demolition squad could be seen in the distance doubling up with laughter.
There was no shortage of explanations from officials about why the demolition had been botched: detonators had short-circuited; the explosives—three hundred kilos of ammonal, provided for free “on ideological grounds” by the private company Explosiveprogress—may have been insufficient; the mausoleum must have been designed to withstand a nuclear attack; using more explosives could have damaged nearby buildings. “We wanted to blow up the mausoleum all at once, but apparently we’ll have to gradually part with the things that have built up in the past fifty years,” Evgeni Bakardzhiev, the Minister of Regional Development and Public Works, and the main ideologue of the demolition—since nicknamed Baki the Bomb—told the gaggle of journalists. “In any case, we’ve accomplished the most important thing. This will never serve the function of a mausoleum again. We’ve started dismantling it, and we’ll finish dismantling it.”
A few more blasts and six days later, the mausoleum was finally gone. It had taken six days to build it, in July 1949, but destruction proved a harder task. Death refused to die. Historical memory was impervious to military solutions. Yet for all that, a desperate hope clung to the iconoclasts in power. If you blew up the past and carted away its ruins, wouldn’t it eventually disappear? If you brought down the temple, wouldn’t the gods flee in terror? If you torched the house of the dead, how could the dead come back?
I visited the mausoleum only once, in first grade, on an organized school trip. It must have been 1987 or 1988, right before “the Changes.” I don’t remember much, except that it was chilly inside and the air had a sweet, musty smell. One by one, all of us kids passed by the glass sarcophagus where, lit up by ghostly lights, lay comrade Dimitrov. His upper body was slightly propped up on pillows, his hands resting by his sides. Had he fallen asleep while reading? He had the same avuncular features and bushy mustache I knew from pictures in my primer and official portraits, except that his skin was pasty, pallid, polar. This was Snow White in her casket, and we were the grieving dwarves.
Dimitrov was the fairy-tale character of my childhood, the superhero of Bulgarian communism. Like Lenin in the Soviet Union, like Kim Il-Sung in North Korea, like George Washington in the United States, like Jesus and Muhammad the world over, he was the ultimate paragon of virtue, the one we had to look up to for example and instruction. His modest, low-roofed family home in the village of Kovachevtsi was a pilgrimage site for generations of Bulgarian students. Schoolbooks were full of poems in his praise. “A son Bulgaria has borne, / heroic strength he had in store, / he was nursed with tenderness and love, / his name is Georgi Dimitrov.” When he was a young boy, one of the teachable stories went, he was playing soccer with friends and the ball flew astray, breaking a house’s window; everybody scampered off in panic, except for comrade Dimitrov, who bravely confessed his wayward kick.
The most legendary episode of his adult life was his public trial in the city of Leipzig in 1933. Arrested and falsely accused by the Nazis of setting fire to the Reichstag in Berlin, Dimitrov supposedly learned German in his prison cell and then brilliantly defended himself and his communist beliefs at the trial. “No less determined than old Galileo we, Communists, declare today: ‘Eppur si muove!’ The wheel of history moves on towards Soviet Europe, towards a World Union of Soviet Republics.” After such fiery words, the judges had no choice but to acquit him, we learned. He was nicknamed “the Lion of Leipzig” by the international press thereafter. Stalin was apparently so pleased with the performance that he made Dimitrov the leader of the Communist International. Upon Dimitrov’s death as prime minister of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, a decision was taken to embalm and display his body in a specially designed mausoleum, on the model of Lenin’s in Moscow. It would become the grand temple of the Bulgarian Communist Party over the next four decades, the architectural and ideological heart of the state. Every religion needed the incorruptible relics of a saint to inspire the awe of the faithful.
The darker side of his biography was ignored, and I wouldn’t learn it until many years later, after the Cold War ended, when uncensored books on the subject finally began to come out in the country. They revealed how Dimitrov was a thoroughbred Communist apparatchik who acted on Stalin’s orders to impose a Soviet-style dictatorship in Bulgaria by force after the end of the Second World War; how he countenanced the extrajudicial killings of thousands of his compatriots; how he crushed the democratic opposition, executed his most vocal opponents and placed under direct Party control the country’s social, economic and political life; how he instituted a system of material privileges for the ruling elite, as lavish and exploitative as anything in the feudal age; how he was a vicious drunk, who died ignominiously of cirrhosis in a sanatorium near Moscow—though there are also rumors he was poisoned by Stalin.
Like elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc, “the Changes” of 1989 inspired in Bulgaria a slew of scholarship debunking the myths of the Communist Party and exposing its systemic crimes. Though many of the archives had been prudently destroyed, the surviving ones clearly showed the oppression and violence perpetrated by the regime, and by State Security in particular, against its own citizens: the labor camps, the political prisoners, the widespread corruption, as well as the less dramatic but no less ruinous inequities of everyday life. Genuine belief in the system had eroded years before, with everyone paying mere lip service to the ideological dogmas, but now that the cold facts were out in the open, a desire for reckoning swiftly gathered force.
Its most immediate public expression, with political reforms moving at a crawl, was a backlash against the physical manifestations of the old order: all those thousands of concrete or cast-iron monuments littering towns and village squares, school and factory yards. The statues and busts of Lenin and Dimitrov and their less illustrious minions needed to come down. One by one they were dismantled, carted away for scrap metal or left to slowly decay in weed-choked fields and forgotten warehouses. If Bulgaria was to choose a free and democratic path, it had to first remove the offensive idols of the past watching in impunity from their pedestals.
We all know the old sayings. New wine can’t be poured into old wineskins, as the Bible tells us. “If a temple is to be erected, a temple must be destroyed,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morality. In The Communist Manifesto Karl Marx noted a somewhat related phenomenon: capital periodically obliterates itself by means of economic crises or war (“the enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces”) in order to free up space for its further accumulation—a concept that has since developed into what we have come to call, in one context or another, “creative destruction.” But Marx was wrong to confine his observations to the capitalist system only; there are instances when all systems, biological or social, do something similar. The extinction of the dinosaurs made the proliferation of mammals possible. The spread of Christianity came with the demolition of the pagan temples of antiquity. To declare their newfound freedom, French revolutionaries razed the Bastille and then carved little souvenirs out of the remnants of its stone walls. And, lest we forget, it was the wish to shed the political and cultural encrustations of the European past that kick-started the American project (which has developed its own encrustations since).
But beneath this human dream of renewal lurks a constant danger. Taken to its extreme, the desire to wipe the slate clean has led to ethnic cleansing, mass murder, terrorism and genocide. The great Enlightenment philosophy of John Locke, helping us to see the world afresh, and the Stalinist terror, trying to extirpate the old order, are only two sides of the same coin. The urge to purify, even at its most innocuous, can still lead to poorer and simpler visions of the world. Take Bulgaria as an example. In the late nineteenth century, upon its liberation from five hundred years of harsh Ottoman rule, its young national governments launched rapid programs of modernization. It was a necessary step. Having been isolated for so long from the technical and cultural achievements of the West, the country was a rural backwater, languishing in almost medieval conditions. Sofia was little more than a drab provincial town of about twenty thousand residents, with ramshackle houses and narrow, muddy streets—“the Bulgarian Venice,” the Czech historian and politician Konstantin Jireček called it upon arrival. Turning it into a model European capital required a complete urban overhaul. City planners and architects from Vienna, Paris, Berlin and Prague saw the city as a blank canvas. The old Ottoman town was almost entirely demolished, its wooden houses torn down, the streets rerouted and straightened. Modern plumbing was introduced, supplemented soon after by electrification and the first streetcars. Out of the recently cleared ground there rose grand administrative buildings and private residences, designed in the elegant neoclassical and secession styles popular at the time.
By the early decades of the twentieth century, “the Bulgarian Venice” was unrecognizable. Yet, in the enthusiasm to remake and renovate the place, much was irretrievably lost. Travel accounts testify that at the end of the Ottoman period, Sofia was “a stone forest” of minarets, with some scholars putting the number of mosques at more than forty. Soon after, in Bulgarian hands, only one mosque retained its original religious function, another was converted into a church (where, incidentally, I was baptized), while a third became a library and later an archaeological museum; the rest were destroyed—some blown up under the cover of a thunderstorm—to make way for the Westernizing, and implicitly Christian, vision of urban planners. As pretty as they could be, mosques were considered signs of Oriental backwardness and bigotry, incompatible with the ideals of a dynamic, progressive society.
Most crucially however, they embodied the architectural traces of the imperial oppressor, uncomfortable reminders of the Ottoman “yoke” Bulgarians had endured for five centuries as second-class citizens. Demolishing them was a form of both ethnic retaliation and historical revisionism. To stake its independence, the Bulgarian state needed to construct a national narrative that selectively chose only those elements of the past that fit its idea of a homogeneous identity. Though hundreds of thousands of Turks continued to live on the territory of the country, they were now in the position of a voiceless minority, and their cultural heritage was conveniently erased. Faded memories of medieval Bulgaria, which had once been a formidable rival of Byzantium, were diligently excavated and put on display; the Ottoman period, on the other hand, was sidestepped or invoked only in its purely negative capacity: as a cruel caesura of history which had left behind nothing to remember but blood and tears.
When the Communists took over Bulgaria six decades later, in 1944, they went on to replicate this process of historical renewal and erasure. This time around, it was the preceding regime, with its “bourgeois” architecture and monuments, that fell under the ax. Parts of Sofia’s downtown had been damaged during the war, but it was nothing that couldn’t be fixed with some effort. Yet the new authorities had different plans: entire blocks of what had once been the most beautiful sections of the city were razed to make way for the grandiloquent Stalinist baroque of government buildings, including the Party Headquarters with its giant red star dominating the skyline. Numerous statues, celebrating the heroes of the previous epoch, were quickly dismantled too. Books and movies from the recent past that didn’t fit the new ideological line, or were deemed vaguely suspicious, quickly disappeared from circulation. If Bulgaria was to build a true socialist society, and communism in the distant bright future, it had to begin afresh, without the encumbrances of its “fascist” past. Material conditions produced consciousness, Marx asserted, but perhaps the material needed a firm push in the proper direction—no need to wait for the base to change the cultural superstructure when dynamite was sufficient to do the job.
But between destruction and preservation, between forgetting and remembrance, there’s a middle way: irreverence, which comes with its own kind of wisdom. Prior to its bungled demolition, in the decade that followed the collapse of the Communist regime, the mausoleum in Sofia underwent a series of functional transformations that breathed new life into its husk. With the funeral chamber vacant, the edifice felt like a pyramid without its pharaoh, an abandoned temple of a defunct religion, a closet without a skeleton. For the first time in its existence, the mausoleum became truly “the people’s.” The honorary guard no longer stood at the entrance; graffiti covered the limestone walls; the doors swung wide open for staggering drunks who needed a place to relieve themselves. “The most luxurious shitter in Southeast Europe,” proclaimed a spray-painted inscription on the façade.
Skateboarders in baggy jeans rode round the building, doing kickflips and nose grinds on the decorative curbs. An American evangelical pastor, intent on saving the souls of former commies, organized a revival meeting in the square facing the relic. Thousands of people showed up, many crowding the viewing stands of the mausoleum from where members of the Politburo had once greeted the parading masses. “God is healing you now! In the name of Jesus! Hallelujah!” he shouted while laying hands on the faithful to cast out their demons—perhaps the demons of the past. In 1996, when the movie 101 Dalmatians came out, some PR brain made the brilliant decision to rent the mausoleum as advertising space and cover its white exterior in huge black spots. The next year, an impressive production of Verdi’s Aida used the edifice as a set. With the story set in ancient Egypt, near temples along the Nile, the choice of location couldn’t have been better.
The mausoleum was destroyed on short notice and without much public debate. There had been proposals to convert it into a sculpture museum, “a pantheon of martial glory” and even a techno-dance club, but the fervently anti-Communist government officials at the time were convinced that removing it would somehow solve the psychological hang-ups of totalitarianism and be a first step along the way to joining the world of the European Union and its global markets. The mausoleum was a tad too monstrous for that, too exotic, and perhaps not suitable for a McDonald’s (though why not?). This attempt to scrub out the Soviet legacy from the visual record had close parallels in the nineteenth-century effort to get rid of any evidence of Bulgaria’s Ottoman history. It seemed to reveal, at its root, an inferiority complex brought about by an inability to come to terms with the complex character of the country’s Balkan identity and the extended periods of colonial occupation that could not but leave their mark. The memory of having been for so long a quiet province subjected to foreign rule from “the East” (by empires which were not “civilized” enough) was hard to square with loud declarations of national pride and independence. Bulgaria has never felt quite comfortable in its own skin; it has never quite accepted the fact that its history—like any country’s history—is a messy palimpsest on dirty vellum, not pretty handwriting on a blank sheet of paper.
In the ten years it stood empty, Sofia’s mausoleum had ceased being a tomb and was no longer a symbol of oppression, or not just. The city, using its own imaginative resources, had started to successfully process the traumas of the past through art, sport, advertisement or pure vandalism. Like the plants and animals taking over the abandoned buildings of Chernobyl, Bulgarians attempted to dismantle the curse they had grown up under by renaming it and repurposing it—until, sadly, their efforts were cut short by government hard-liners.
The other major Communist-era monument in Sofia, the Monument to the Soviet Army, has undergone a similar, yet very different, metamorphosis. Completed in 1954 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Soviet “liberation” of Bulgaria—occupation, really—it presents a 120-foot-high obelisk topped by three giant cast-iron figures: a Soviet soldier lifting up his rifle in triumph, followed by a Bulgarian worker, and a mother with her child. It is still one of the most prominent structures in downtown Sofia, dominating the surroundings. In addition, several high-relief panels of battle scenes decorate the base. There was talk of removing the whole ensemble, but plans went nowhere, drowned out by political bickering: for some, the monument signified the oppression Bulgaria had suffered under Moscow’s harsh rule; for others, it was an expression of gratitude to the Soviets for their victory over the Nazis.
Somewhat belatedly, the monument, like the mausoleum, became a site of playful art projects. Since the central figures were much too high to reach safely, attention focused instead on one of the ground-level relief panels depicting the charging Soviet army. In 2011, the artists of a collective called Destructive Creation painted over a group of the soldiers in the style of American pop-culture icons: The Joker, Santa Claus, The Mask, Wolverine, Superman, Wonder Woman, Ronald McDonald, Captain America and Robin—the former Soviet occupiers transformed into the advancing forces of capitalism. It was a simple yet sharp anarchist critique, unapologetic toward either system, revealing their tendencies toward dominance and violence. “In Step with Time” read the black-lettered caption below the piece.
Those Soviet-turned-American heroes became an iconic image of Bulgaria’s post-Communist world. Unfortunately, after official complaints from the Russian embassy, Sofia’s municipal government enforced a strict regime of supervision, quickly scrubbing clean any form of perceived vandalism, no matter how creative. In doing so, the authorities resacralized the Monument to the Soviet Army—an action seemingly opposite to the destruction of the mausoleum but equal in its misunderstanding of how to deal with the past.
Spread out in a spacious valley that was once the bottom of a prehistoric lake, hemmed in by mountains on almost all sides, rich in hot mineral springs, Sofia has attracted human settlers for at least eight millennia. Known by the name of Serdica in antiquity, it was a major urban center of the Roman Empire, boasting formidable fortifications, temples, public baths and a large amphitheater that may have been second in size only to the Colosseum. “Serdica is my Rome,” the emperor Constantine I is supposed to have said in the fourth century CE. One of his successors, Justinian I, built an impressive basilica, St. Sophia, on Serdica’s highest hill, which eventually gave the city its current appellation. During the Ottoman period, it was converted into a mosque and later, after Bulgaria’s liberation, turned back into a church, which still stands today as Sofia’s symbol. The Holy Wisdom of God. I suppose that makes the surviving mosques not three but four after all.
Every scrap of Sofia’s multilayered architecture is dear to me. Aimlessly walking the streets on summer days, I try to imagine what the city must have looked like under the Romans, the Bulgars (the proto-Bulgarians) and the Ottomans. I love the churches, as well as the single mosque and the temple. I admire the pretty early twentieth-century buildings, but I don’t mind the Communist heritage either, though it represents the triumph of a foreign oppressor. Sometimes, when I pass by the Monument to the Soviet Army, I look closely at the faces of the iron figures of the soldiers. Though I’m aware they are only propaganda, an idealized and sanitized memory of violence, I’m still curious about the society that made them, the aspirations that society had, and its understanding of history. For that same reason, I find valuable even the blank concrete square base where the mausoleum used to stand. In a way, it has become its own abstract, negative monument to our naïve desire for freedom from history.
Once upon a time, when hated Roman emperors were deposed, their statues were removed and smashed to smithereens. Occasionally, however, just the head was swapped out and a new dedication chiseled underneath. It was practical, cheap and convenient. “That all is as thinking makes it so—and you control your thinking,” advises Marcus Aurelius. “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” The Stoic was one the most beloved and wisest of Roman emperors, yet because he was a pagan, statues of him were later put to the hammer by advancing Christians. One lovely statue of his, an equestrian figure, has survived, however, thanks to misidentification. It was thought to be an image of Constantine I, the first Christian ruler of the Empire.