The Red Star of Sofia – Falling Up:  From The Sky Down In Bulgaria (Travels In Eastern Europe #39)

Boykan, our Bulgar guide, began the Free Tour with a short overview of the importance of Sofia in the history of the Balkans and Bulgaria. Today Sofia is one of the least visited European capitals, but it had once been of great importance. During the Ottoman occupation, which all Bulgarians, including Boykan, refer to as “the 500 years of slavery” Sofia was of prominence due to its location as the midpoint between Constantinople and Belgrade. Like so much of Eastern Europe, Sofia was a “used to” place. This was a recurring theme in the region’s history. The Bulgars “used to” have an empire, the Hungarians “used to” occupy large swaths of Eastern Europe, the Lithuanians “used to” have a massive kingdom and so forth. Sofia “used to” be important. As a marker of just how far they had fallen geopolitically, Bulgarians were elated when they were allowed into the European Union. This seemed to re-legitimize their importance. Sofia and Bulgaria were not what they used to be, but the decline provided some fascinating history, especially during the 20th century.

St. Nedelya Church after the assault in 1925

St. Nedelya Church after the assault in 1925

Terror In Bulgaria – An Explosive Situation
The inaugural tour stop was at St. Nedelya Church, which had also been the first attraction I noticed upon my arrival in the city two weeks earlier. At that time, there had been crowds coming out from a noon time service, the same was true today. A crowd gathering in and around a church is usually not of great interest, but once I learned the history of St. Nedelya that crowd took on a whole new meaning. The church looked ancient, but its Byzantine Revival architecture was deceptive. While there had been a church on this very site since the 10th century, the latest version was only consecrated in 1933. The church I attended while growing up in my little hometown of western North Carolina was older than the current iteration of St. Nedelya, so much for Old Europe. To be fair, any architecture in a region as riven by conflict as Bulgaria has been over the last thousand years has virtually no chance of still standing in its original form. The present St. Nedelya was the umpteenth version of the church. The previous one was irreparably damaged in the spring of 1925, during what has come to be known as the St. Nedlya Church assault. Boykan pointed out a memorial plaque which commemorated that event. A plaque can never do justice to what happened during the worst terrorist incident in Bulgarian history.

On April 16th, Holy Thursday, a funeral was held at St. Nedelya Church for General Konstantin Georgiev, who had been assassinated a few days earlier by communist radicals. The assassination was actually part of a larger plot to murder important Bulgarian governmental and military leaders who would attend General Georgiev’s funeral.  The act was carried out with almost perfect precision. During the funeral, 25 kilograms of explosives were detonated in the attic of the church causing the roof to collapse. 150 people were killed and another 500 injured. The church was condemned and had to be completely rebuilt. What our group stood looking at was the result of that effort. As crowds milled around outside, I tried to imagine what the scene must have been like on that horrific day. Terrorism does not care about churches or beautiful blue sky days, families or their loved ones. The ends can always be made to justify the means. And sometimes the terrorists eventually end up in charge.

St. Nedelya Church as it looks today

St. Nedelya Church as it looks today (Credit: Stolichanin)

Long Shadows – The Death & Life of Communism
Twenty years after the roof was blown off St. Nedelya Church, the communist radicals were ruling the country. Communism’s long shadow loomed over Sofia and informed the tour. At one point a Bulgarian man who looked to be in his sixties was drawn to us. He must have heard Boykan speaking in English. He suddenly let loose with a rant of “Death To America” and yelled at all within earshot that “the Soviet Union will rise again”. Boykan hardly batted an eye. He calmly ignored the provocateur, than after we moved on told us how much of the older generation had trouble letting go of the past.  The upheaval experienced in Eastern Bloc countries during the fitful transition to capitalism had made many look back on the era of communism as a time of stability, a time of full employment and few worries about life’s necessities.

Even if the country was impoverished during that time, everyone shared in that poverty. The problem with communism was that it was static and intolerant of dissent. This made the system incapable of reform. Any hint of reform was met with the black boot of repression. This rigidity led to a total collapse from which Bulgaria had yet to fully recover. It would take generations before the legacy of communism would finally fade. Its symbols had disappeared much faster. One of these was the red star of Sofia. For decades a five pointed red star crowned the pinnacle of the Communist Party Headquarters building. When it was finally taken down, this red star was left propped up against a wall in the courtyard of Sofia’s Central Bathhouse and that was where it had stayed.

The red star of Sofia

The red star of Sofia

The Star That No Longer Shines – A Symbolic Message
Boykan was proud to offer us a peek at the red star. Without his guidance, we would never have known that it was hidden in plain sight behind a fence. Looking at it, I was astounded by how fragile and nondescript it looked. This symbol of Soviet might, that Bulgarians had been forced to look up to for years, was now abandoned. It looked rather lonely and pathetic. A few months later, the red star would be removed from the courtyard. It was taken away to be displayed at the forthcoming Museum of Totalitarian Art. When I first heard this, I was saddened. I felt that the red star should have been left where we saw it. It was a stark illustration of just how far the Soviet empire had fallen.  I could not thank Boykan enough for showing everyone the red star. Boykan was part of a new generation, pro-European, looking to the west. The generations that had grown up under communism were still struggling to make sense of this new world. The old stars from the east had fallen, including a large red five pointed star. It was tucked away behind a fence and propped up against a wall. Now it was history.

Ghosts In Daylight – The Largo: Sofia’s Spectral Presence (Travels In Eastern Europe #38)

Several stops on the Free Tour were in Sofia’s most famous architectural area, known as the Largo, home to some of the most outstanding examples of Communist architecture to be found anywhere in the world. The buildings themselves dwarfed our group. As our youthful guide, Boykan began to talk about these buildings, I wondered how his generation felt about what they had inherited. He, like other young Bulgarians I had met, were cautiously optimistic. This was totally opposite of the menace expressed by the architecture of the Largo. The future of Bulgaria – even a democratic one – would be decided within the confines of Stalinist-inspired structures. Aesthetically the buildings were impressive, if uninviting. Their style, a megalomaniacal neo-classicism enhanced by the ideological steroid of totalitarianism.

The Largo under construction in the 1950s - Party House in the background

Largo under construction in the 1950s – Party House in the background (Credit: stara-sofia)

The Nightmare Vision – Landscape Of Intimidation
The most magnificent or revolting of these buildings, depending upon one’s political persuasion, the Party Building, reminded me of a gigantic ship that had been anchored in the heart of Bulgaria. While the country sank into stagnation around it, this grim beast of a building stayed afloat. The Party Building was flanked on either side by a pair of sizable monoliths. Presently these structures housed, among other things, offices of the National Assembly of Bulgaria, the President’s Office and the Council of Ministers, as well as a department store, archaeological museum and hotel. Much of the current Bulgarian government worked out of the same buildings that the communist party elite had inhabited less than thirty years before. How much had really changed in the country from a political standpoint was open to debate.

The Largo is both the most enduring symbol of Bulgaria’s communist era and of the post-communist cronyism that plagues the country. The actors had changed, but the setting was still the same. Standing in the cobbled square, I found the inhuman scale of the architecture intimidating. Row upon row of windows lined these buildings. I had the feeling that someone or something was watching me, whether it was or not seemed beside the point. I could not shake the feeling of me versus the massive, a place where the individual did not stand a chance then or now. For all the showiness and symbolism of the Largo, there was a pervasive lack of transparency to the space, a sort of facelessness to these facades. It was difficult for me to envision what went on behind all those windows. Bulgaria was riddled with corruption, there was virtually no separation between government and business, one was used for the purposes of the other or vice versa. How could it be otherwise when the most important governmental space in the country was hidden behind monumental amounts of concrete and murky windows.

Lenin's replacement - The statue of Saint Sophia

Lenin’s replacement – The statue of Saint Sophia (Credit: Bin Im Garten)

Dream Quest – A Tantalizing Transparency
At least there had been a few superficial, yet symbolic changes to the Largo since the fall of communism. The ruby red star of Soviet power that once crowned the Party Building, had now been replaced by a Bulgarian flag unfurling in a gentle, spring breeze. A gigantic statue of Lenin on the western end of the Largo had been removed for a much smaller statue of the city’s namesake, Saint Sophia. Sophia had been selected because she was viewed as a non-ideological figure, symbolizing wisdom. She looked like a miniature goddess, her golden skin covered beneath the folds of an immaculate robe. The utter antithesis of Lenin, erotic rather than revolutionary, open armed instead of close fisted. If the statue of Sophia was viewed at a certain angle, a Unicredit Bank building stood positioned perfectly in the background. Perhaps Sophia was promoting the wisdom of capitalism, the benefits of which most Bulgarians had struggled to acquire amid the scourge of endemic corruption.

The west had won the Cold War and colonized Sofia with capitalism, paradoxically it was also the West that was inadvertently responsible for the Largo’s totalitarian architecture. In 1944, American and British bombers had badly damaged this area of the city. Once the rubble and ruins had been cleared away, the post-war Stalinist government decided to rebuild the area as a symbolic showpiece for the communist ideology. Despite such a gargantuan makeover, one set of ruins were not plowed under. These undergirded a greatness that had not been seen in Sofia since antiquity, namely that of the Roman city of Serdica. When I visited the Largo, the remains of Serdica could only be viewed by going underground. That situation has changed. Now visitors walking along the Largo can look down through glass at them. Ironically, this is one of the only transparent things to be seen in the Largo. It is also a reminder of Sofia’s former importance.

Serdica was made an administrative capital of the surrounding region in the first century AD. Two hundred years later, it gained eternal fame when the Roman Emperor Galerius issued an Edict of Toleration from the city in 311 AD. The edict was the first time Christianity was legalized in the empire. In the coming decades, Rome would increasingly turn to Christianity, but this did not save Serdica or the empire. In 447 AD the Huns destroyed the city, but it was rebuilt by the Byzantines. It would be several centuries later before the Bulgars appeared on the scene. The subterranean ruins of Serdica were impressive to look at, several streets have been unearthed. The remnants of what were once the city’s protective, eight-meter high, stone walls could still be seen in shortened form. I found these ruins interesting, but not much more than that.

Larger than life - The Largo in Sofia

Larger than life – The Largo in Sofia

Staying Power – The Free Tour
I could not help but wonder how Roman ruins had anything to do with modern Bulgaria. Maybe the point was to link Bulgaria and Sofia with the greatness of the Roman Empire. It was a strange, disconcerting connection. The ruins were worth seeing, but the giant buildings now towering over the Largo somehow seemed less worthy. I wondered if, in two thousand years anything would be left of the Party Building. Despite the colossal structure’s size, I doubted it. The Soviets were no Romans, their presence lacked permanence, instead it was spectral. A ghost that could be seen at any time and was just as frightening in the day, as it was at night.

Boykan led us away from the Largo to show us a few more of Sofia’s sights. I eagerly followed, soaking in everything he said. Just a couple of hours earlier, I had barely been able to entertain the thought of doing anything in a city that I felt was forgettable. I had been wrong, Boykan changed my opinion of Sofia. The Free Tour introduced and then interpreted Sofia as a place with a rich spirit, despite or perhaps because of its deep and dark history. All this left me enthralled. When the tour ended I thanked Boykan profusely, then began the walk back to my accommodation. It was not long before that last day travel depression started in on me again. This time it was different though, I felt it not because I wanted to leave Sofia, but because I wanted to stay.