High atop a ridge in the Balkan Mountains sits a striking monument to Bulgaria’s fraught past.
The spaceship-like structure, known as “Buzludzha,” was constructed in the 1970s, and served as the seat of the Bulgarian Socialist Party until communism thawed in 1990. It has remained vacant since—and, as such, is a popular destination for visitors drawn to abandoned places. Lately, it’s also become a flashpoint in a debate over the European nation’s attempts to reckon with its troubled history.
Buzludzha is located on the site of an 1868 battle in which Bulgarian revolutionaries failed to fend off Ottoman forces, who far outnumbered them. The spot entered national lore as a locus of Bulgarian heroism, and became a meeting place for Socialist dissidents during Ottoman rule. Later, after World War II, the Bulgarian Socialist Party—which flourished under Soviet control—chose the site for an official headquarters designed by the Bulgarian architect Georgi Stoilov.
Constructing Buzludzha became a national effort. Beginning in 1974, more than 6,000 people—including soldiers, students, and artisans—contributed. Workers blasted the peak with TNT to create a level base, and hauled more than 70,000 tons of concrete up the mountain. Tanya Panayotova, a Bulgarian national, was a student in the summer of 1975 when she was recruited to help with the building project. The 62-year-old remembers helping to lay stones to form the stairs leading to the structure’s main entrance, and camping with fellow students in nearby tents.
Today, one can still visit the site’s brutalist exterior, which offers panoramic views of the Balkan range. Visitors can scrutinize the worker’s mantras in Cyrillic that flank the entrance, as well as the colorful graffiti that now coats Buzludzha’s walls.
This large winged sculpture in Podgaric, Croatia, holds a crypt with the remains of hundreds of Partisan soldiers who died while being treated at nearby hospitals.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SYLVAIN HERAUD
But its interior, which once housed an assembly chamber walled with mosaic tiles, is now so dilapidated that it’s unsafe to enter. The structure is now guarded by motion detectors, and has been sealed to keep out the curious—which, for some travelers, has only added to its mystique.
Discussion of the monument’s future dovetails with a larger conversation in Bulgaria and elsewhere over whether displaying an artifact is tantamount to condoning the forces that produced it. Bulgaria has been eager to highlight its links to the West since joining the European Union in 2007, and to downplay its decades of Socialist rule. There’s little consensus, though, over what should be done with souvenirs from the Socialist period.
That Bulgaria’s second-largest city, Plovdiv, was recently named the European Capital of Culture for 2019 has stoked tensions over the fate of objects such as large-scale stone sculptures of Vladimir Lenin, or the five-pointed red star, a symbol of communism, that once adorned the parliamentary building in Sofia, its capital city. In recent years, some Socialist-era statues have been rounded up and sequestered in a small gallery and outdoor lot on the outskirts of Sofia. Others are simply left to the elements.
Many locals and tourists alike hope Buzludzha will be an exception. Dora Ivanova, a young Bulgarian architect, has put forth a plan for restoring the structure and making it accessible to the public as a history museum, but it hasn’t been officially adopted. Meanwhile, the modern-day iteration of Bulgaria’s Socialist Party recently sparked controversy by submitting its own official bid to reclaim the building from the government.
For now, though, Buzludzha remains suspended in limbo, its future uncertain.
Freelance writer Lindsay Gellman is based in Berlin. Follow her travels on Twitter.
Lead Image: Buzludzha hovers on a historical peak in the Balkan Mountains of Bulgaria.
PHOTOGRAPH BY VALIO84SL, GETTY IMAGES