The Unvisited – Georgi Dimitrov’s Missing Mausoleum In Sofia (Travels In Eastern Europe #8)

After tourists visit a city, they usually come home excited to share stories about the sites they have seen. Conversely, they sometimes regret not seeing everything a city has to offer. My experience in Sofia was quite the opposite. After arriving back home, I was excited about a site that I had not visited. My regret came from the fact that it was impossible to visit this site, for the precise reason that it no longer existed. The site was the once infamous and now vanished Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum. For over forty years, hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians, along with dignitaries and tourists from Eastern Bloc nations, filed past the body of Bulgaria’s most famous communist leader. In a setting that mirrored Lenin’s tomb in Red Square, Dimitrov’s pale faced, waxen figure was on display for everyone to see. Whether a Bulgarian revered or loathed his memory was beside the point, each one of them at some point in his or her life was expected to pay their respects to Comrade Dimitrov. The mausoleum stood on what was then 9 September Square, so named because that was the date when a communist coup took place in Sofia, liberating it from the fascists and beginning the imposition of communism. Until 1990 Dimitrov lay in the white marble, neoclassical style mausoleum as a representation of the totalitarian system that had transformed Bulgaria. After the Iron Curtain fell his body was removed. Dimitrov’s expulsion did not herald the immediate end of the mausoleum. Instead it had a long and infamous afterlife prior to demolition several years later. Bringing down the mausoleum turned out to be much more difficult than constructing it.

The Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum - stood in Sofia from 1949 to 1999

The Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum – stood in Sofia from 1949 to 1999

Deifying A Dictator – Preserving Dimitrov
The death of Georgi Dimitrov was just as rapid and improbable as the construction of his mausoleum. In the summer of 1949 Dimitrov suddenly became ill while in Moscow. He had just turned 67 and there had been no previous signs of failing health. Nonetheless, his condition quickly worsened and on July 2nd he unexpectedly died at a sanatorium outside the city. Speculation has been rife ever since that Dimitrov was poisoned by Stalin, ostensibly because he had once been a close ally of Yugoslavian leader Josip Tito. Two years earlier these authoritarian rulers had been on the verge of creating an alliance between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Tito soon fell out with Stalin and later with Dimitrov. The Tito-Dimitrov split mattered little to Stalin. His paranoia was such that he could not stomach any leader of a Soviet satellite state making an alliance without his approval. Tito had become a sworn enemy of Stalin and Dimitrov had once been close to him. This guilt by association may have led to Dimitro’s death.

Dimitrov’s sudden death came as a dramatic shock to Bulgarians. The government quickly convened and decided that the grand statesman of Bulgarian communism must be deified. A mausoleum would be built to house Dimitrov’s embalmed body. This would mirror what had been done in the Soviet Union with Lenin. The government decreed that the mausoleum must be constructed immediately. This led to a herculean effort. In just six days a monumental work was erected. It would later be reinforced to the point that it could survive a nuclear war with secret tunnels underneath it that were connected to the Bulgarian Communist Party Headquarters. The marble mausoleum was built to stay, but keeping Dimitrov on permanent display was highly problematic and labor intensive. The body required the care of four full time physicians who would totally refurbish it every year and a half. It was encased in a temperature and humidity controlled glass sarcophagus. Though the mausoleum was constructed to endure a nuclear conflagration, Dimitrov’s body was to be evacuated in the event of a conventional war.

A Cult Symbol of Bulgarian Communism - The Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum in 1969

A Cult Symbol of Bulgarian Communism – The Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum in 1969 (Credit: Angela Monika Arnold)

The End Of An Afterlife – Rubble & Dust At The Heart of Sofia
Throughout his long afterlife Dimitrov became less of a dead man and more a symbol for the regime. There was something ghoulish about his deification that defied human dignity. What exactly was the point of keeping Dimitrov alive in death? It was as though the communists believed that his continued presence justified their creaking, ossified system. This frightening set piece at the heart of Sofia was front and center during every ideological extravaganza. Among the viewers were wide eyed school children who shuffled past in silent awe.  In 1989 the communist system in Bulgaria collapsed. The following year Dimitrov’s corpse was removed from the mausoleum, cremated and buried in the Sofia city cemetery. His long and public afterlife had finally ended, but the same could not be said for the mausoleum which would stand for another nine years.

There were varying opinions of what should be done with it. Some thought that the mausoleum should be kept as a reminder, a sort of living museum of what had transpired in the country for two generations. Others wanted it totally destroyed with the residue of communism swept away once and for all. Still another group thought it should be preserved as a symbol of Dimitrov’s positive legacy, whatever that was supposed to be. In the meantime, the neoclassical tomb became among other things, the setting for rock concerts and a pissoir for a public lavatory. Vandals defaced it with graffiti. Finally, in 1999 the government then in power decided to demolish the structure because it was a symbol of past tyranny. The demolition should have been simple, but soon turned into a farce. The first three attempts were unsuccessful. Over a thousand kilograms of explosives did little more than cause the mausoleum to tilt lopsided. It ended up taking more days to demolish, than to build. A decision was made that rather than one large detonation, to try a more methodical dismantling. This fourth attempt proved successful. The most enduring symbol of communism in Sofia was soon turned to rubble and then dust.

Life After Death - Georgi Dimitrov Mausoluem before its destruction in the 1990s

Life After Death – Georgi Dimitrov Mausoluem before its destruction in the 1990s

Without a Trace – Standing In Place Of The Past
Today the former site of Georgi Dimitrov’s Mausoleum is part of the renamed Prince Alexander of Battenburg Square. During my visit I strolled across this square totally oblivious to its former centrality in the life of every Bulgarian. If only I would have known about the mausoleum. I could have stood in the exact same place and contemplated what it must have been like not so long ago. Then again recreating that history would have been difficult, since a café and parking lot now stand on the very spot.

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