Visiting Bulgaria's Abandoned Communist Mecca
The Buzludzha was a great monument to the communist regime. Now it's just a wasteland.
All photos by Jenny Marc
High atop a mountain in the very center of Bulgaria sits what was supposed to be the nation’s pride and glory: the House of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Bigger in size than the Pantheon in Rome, the Buzludzha monument—a futuristic oval structure with a tower, 230 feet tall, overlooking the stunning mountain landscape—was meant to be a communist mecca. Adorning the top of the tower was a huge red star made of ruby glass that, when lit up, was seen all the way from neighboring Greece and Romania.
Built in 1981, this was peak communism.
But it all went downhill from there. As Bulgaria embarked on its difficult path towards democracy in 1989, Buzludzha was left to decay—and to polarize the post-communist society, dividing it along a love-it-or-hate-it line. Its crumbling skeleton now perches like a deserted flying saucer on top of the hill. Its red star—pillaged through the years by naïve looters who fell for the communist propaganda that it was made of ruby (it was actually plain crimson glass)—has been dark for a quarter of a century.
To fully make sense of the decay, you need to look no further than inside the monument. Though its main entrance has been sealed, there is a way in—through a small hole on the right side. To enter, you need to climb through that hole and over a 32 foot drop. As one Italian visitor told us while crawling out of it, “Just don’t look down and you’ll be fine.” Following his advice—and after a healthy dose of hesitation—we braved the pit.
What welcomed us inside could well be the setting for a post-apocalyptic film. Except for most of the marble and parts of the mosaic, there are few signs of the building's former grandeur. Built over a span of five years, Buzludzha was constructed by some 6,000 workers, most of them soldiers. It cost nearly $20 million, and was supposed to be the crown jewel of communism, a manifest to its power. Today, though, the leaky roof, the gutted hallways and the crumbling mosaic are the only remnants of the building’s glory.
When Buzludzha was inaugurated in 1981, the party’s dominance was at its zenith. Few would have predicted at the time that, less than a decade later, the communist regimes in Eastern Europe would start to fall like dominos. But years of mismanagement, planned economy and a brewing dissatisfaction with state repression started to weigh on the totalitarian states. In Bulgaria, democracy was ushered in with a bloodless revolution in 1989. With the end of communism, the House of the Bulgarian Communist Party became a house of ghosts.
Buzludzha’s fate has remained in limbo ever since. In 2011, the then center-right government offered to transfer the monument’s ownership back to the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the ex-communists, who are still holding their annual convention just under the peak. The cash-strapped socialists, however, refused the gift and Buzludzha—once a symbol of the communists’ firm grip of power—remained in the firm grip of nature.
Buzludzha’s main function since the end of the regime it used to glorify—besides a venue for graffiti artists and a sight for hikers—is to split public opinion. For locals, it quickly became a subject of fascination as much as aversion, symbolizing the difficult relationship post-communist societies have with their past. Those nostalgic of the old days—mainly seniors and the occasional leftists—want it restored to its former greatness; those fed up with communism—mainly the middle aged who spent their youth in a society where freedom of speech was an oxymoron—want it demolished.
Today’s young Bulgarians actually seem to care, too. More and more people, including foreign tourists, are flocking to the monument. There were at least two dozen while we were visiting and some have even stayed overnight in tents and camper vans. Young people are also finding creative ways to appreciate the monument. The site has recently served as a venue for events, from fashion shows and art exhibitions to a setting for music videos and even a model for paper toys.
To meet this new generation, we drove through the treacherous mountain pass (a road sign simply read “Danger zone: 15 kilometres”) to Gabrovo, a sleepy town at the foot of the mountain some 18 miles away from the monument. There we met Radoslav Parvanov, a Buzludzha aficionado, a photographer and a student. His fascination with Buzludzha was palpable even on the phone. “I can see the monument from my window as we speak… but you’ll probably arrive too late and it won’t be visible… but don’t worry, I have hundreds of photographs and brochures.”
For Radoslav, who has collected dozens of folders of Buzludzha memorabilia from antique shops, libraries and museums, “This is a very strange, unique and even impossible place.” And for that reason, he says, “it must be restored and should be used as a museum perhaps, a gallery or a concert hall—a museum of socialism even.” One idea a couple of years back was for Buzludzha to be turned into a casino and a hotel complex. While he doesn’t necessarily approve of that particular concept, one thing is certain for Radoslav: “This place has a lot of history—a history that we can’t just throw away so lightly.”
While Radoslav’s opinion is shared by more than a few of his generation, maintaining (let alone restoring) Buzludzha is a question of money. A restoration of the monument would cost an estimated $20 million—a hefty price tag for Bulgaria, the poorest European Union member. As it stands, the authorities can neither afford to maintain nor even dismantle it.
And so, while generations of Bulgarians continue to debate the future of Buzludzha, the building itself remains at the mercy of the elements. This certainly wasn’t the intention of its creators, who proudly displayed on both sides of the main gate parts of the left-wing anthem, “The Internationale.” Many of the letters have fallen off by now but the verses are still legible: “Workers, men and women/from all sides, unite!/Forward, brave comrades/let’s build our great work!”
They thought they were building the future—but it just ended up in the past.