The opening ceremony at Buzludzha Peak on 23 August 1981.

*photograph credits unknown*

1971: ARCHITECT STOILOV’S PROPOSAL

In 1961, to mark 70 years since Dimitâr Blagoev’s group met at Buzludzha Peak to found the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers Party, three monuments were unveiled on the mountain. The original plan had been to create a fourth, as well—an illuminated red star on the mountaintop.

The architect Georgi Stoilov submitted a proposal for that fourth monument, featuring a ring perched on six columns and a tower at its centre bearing the star.

The project wasn’t used in 1961 however, and it was a decade later when Stoilov received a phone call asking him to revise his plans. Given the extreme winter conditions at the peak (with strong winds and temperatures often as low as -25°C / -13°F), the new specification was for a memorial house featuring heated interior spaces for hosting visitors and special events.

Stoilov revised his designs to feature a saucer-shaped body, with the star mounted in a conjoined tower. Over subsequent revisions Stoilov decided to further separate these elements, positioning the tower outside the saucer in order to give it better stability against wind and the risk of earthquakes.

The look of Georgi Stoilov’s Buzludzha monument was influenced by the Brutalist style then popular in Western Europe, and in particular the architect notes personal influences including Mies van der Rohe, Gropius, and Le Corbusier.

Stoilov’s idea was to create a monument that could become timeless, by incorporating both ancient and futuristic motifs into his design. He lists both the Roman Pantheon and the sci-fi films of the 1950s amongst his inspirations for Buzludzha. The circular form appealed to him also as it seemed to symbolize infinity, and thus echoed the popular communist theme of building an eternal future; eternal glory.

1. The initial assignment was for a red star on Buzludzha Peak.

Sketched by Georgi Stoilov, 2014.

2. Georgi Stoilov wins the contest with his design for a ring on six columns, around a tower bearing the red star.

Sketched by Georgi Stoilov, 2014.

3. Answering the need for an interior visitor space, Stoilov designs a spherical body in place of the ring.

Sketched by Georgi Stoilov, 2014.

4. The final design has the tower offset, to provide greater stability.

Sketched by Georgi Stoilov, 2014.

1974-1981: CONSTRUCTION

Work began on the Buzludzha monument on 23rd January 1974.

First, the peak was levelled to create a stable platform for the monument, using TNT to bring the height down by nine metres—from 1441m to 1432m. In laying the foundations for the monument, more than 15,000 cubic metres of rock were taken away from the peak.

In total, more than 6,000 people contributed their work to the creation of the Buzludzha monument. This included engineers, artists, designers, sculptors, a large number of volunteer labourers and 500 soldiers from the construction corps under General Delcho Delchev.

The construction teams worked in shifts from May until September, to make the most of the milder climates. A village of workers’ huts was established near the construction site and would remain on Buzludzha Peak for the following seven years. Meanwhile, new roads were built to transport building materials up the mountain: including 70,000 tons of concrete, 3,000 tons of steel, and 40 tons of glass.

The construction of the dome.

Photographed by Artin Azinyan, uns. date.

THE MOSAICS

The interior space of the monument was decorated with richly detailed mosaics, which illustrated an allegorical history of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Bucolic scenes of collective farming, and the faces of students, scientists and cosmonauts, appeared alongside depictions of wartime antifascist struggles. In one particularly striking panel, communist workers were pictured driving their pitchforks into a serpent symbolic of foreign capitalism.

One side of the hall featured the faces of international communist heroes—Marx, Engels and Lenin—while the opposite side was dedicated to Bulgaria’s own communist figures. The faces of Dimitâr Blagoev (founder of Bulgarian socialism) and Georgi Dimitrov (first communist leader of Bulgaria) were positioned alongside that of Todor Zhivkov, communist leader of Bulgaria from 1954-1989.

There was a debate at the time as to whether Zhivkov’s face ought to be included. It was not traditional to memorialize communist leaders while they were still alive—but Zhivkov was already 69 by the time Buzludzha was opened, and it was believed the monument would survive as his legacy. (Years later, Zhivkov’s face would also be the first thing destroyed: the tiles scraped out in 1992 by members of his own Party, in an attempt to distance themselves from the disgraced dictator.)

Covering 510 m², these mosaics were formed from 35 tons of cobalt glass—or smalt—imported from Ukraine. The stones had 42 different colours and were assembled by a team of 60 artists who worked on the project for 18 months.

The outer ring of the monument—the observation deck inside the rim of the saucer—featured a different kind of mosaic on its walls. Here the designs were created using natural stones, collected from rivers around Bulgaria. A team of 14 artists created one panel each, to illustrate a broader history of Bulgaria. Due to their increased exposure to the elements however, only around 50% of this outer mosaic still remains.

A third mosaic piece was created at the centre of the monument’s interior dome—a hammer and sickle emblem covering an area of roughly 5 m², positioned above the Ceremonial Hall. Decorated in glittering gold smalt and lit by spotlights, the symbol was framed inside a quote from The Communist Manifesto: “Proletarians of all countries, unite!”

1977: THE TOWER AND THE STARS

The construction of the tower was treated as a separate project to the main body of the monument. Genadi Milovanov led the construction brigade, and in total the tower took two years to build.

The Buzludzha tower measures 70m (230ft) in height, 9m (30ft) across at the base, and 16m (52ft) across at its highest point. The tower’s foundations descend 16m (52ft) into the ground. A lift inside went up to an observation deck at the top of the monument, offering panoramic views over the Balkan Mountains.

The glass stars that flank the north and south sides of the tower, meanwhile, were believed to be the largest in the world—at 12m (39ft) across. They were produced in Kiev (back then, capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic) using synthetic ruby glass, and weighed 3.5 tons apiece. They would be lit from inside the tower by a series of 32 spotlights, and powered by a generator large enough to power 500 homes.

It was said that the red stars of Buzludzha could be seen from as far away as the Romanian border in the north, and the Greek border to the south.

The original plan was to light Buzludzha’s stars for the monument’s grand opening ceremony in 1981. However, in 1977 a memo came down from the secretariat—suggesting that perhaps the stars could shine a little earlier than planned, with a one-off light show to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Russia’s Socialist Revolution that October. The work plans were advanced, and Buzludzha’s tower was briefly illuminated, four years ahead of schedule.

1979: FUNDING THE PROJECT

It was the monument’s architect, Georgi Stoilov, who suggested that the Buzludzha Memorial House should not be paid for by the state, which he foresaw as putting undue strain on the national budget. Instead, he saw this as a ‘monument of the people’ and believed that the people should be encouraged to donate willingly towards its construction.

The construction of the monument cost came to 14 million levs (by today’s rates, roughly $35 million) and between a population of 8.8 million Bulgarians, a total of 16.2 million levs was raised. Much of this money was collected through donations and the sale of commemorative postage stamps, though anecdotally, some Bulgarians say they remember seeing a discrete 0.50 lev ‘Buzludzha tax’ docked from their payslips too.

Surplus funds, after the creation of the monument, were spent to develop new kindergartens in the surrounding area; in addition to new roads and infrastructure.

General Delcho Delchev, commander of the construction corps, notes: “The additional construction challenges, such as provisions for water, electricity, the new road from Kran to Buzludzha, and so on, amounted to roughly 9 million levs and was funded independently by the relevant ministries. The completed Buzludzha Memorial House complex reached a total cost of 25 million levs.”

Taking into account the significant inflation that occurred in Bulgaria following the nation’s transition to democracy, the entire Buzludzha project therefore cost equivalent to roughly $62.5 million at today’s value.

Examples of the commemorative postage stamps sold to raise money for the construction of the Buzludzha monument

Collected from archival material.

1981: THE OPENING CEREMONY

Todor Zhivkov, Secretary General of the Bulgarian Communist Party, announced at the opening ceremony of the Buzludzha Memorial House on 23rd August, 1981:

“I am privileged to have the historic honour of opening the Buzludzha Memorial House. Erected here in honour of the feats of Dimitâr Blagoev and his associates which, 90 years ago, marked the beginning of the revolutionary Marxist Party of Bulgaria.

“May the paths leading here to this legendary peak—Buzludzha on Stara Planina, where the first Marxists came to take the baton, of pure love for the people, from the writers of Bulgaria’s National Revival—never overgrow!

“Let generation after generation, of both socialist and communist Bulgaria, come here to admire the feats of those who lived before them—those who gave everything to the people. Let them experience the refinement and strengthening of the spirit of excitement. From the excitement of belonging, to their dreams and ideas, to the excitement that we experience here today!

“Glory to Blagoev and the Blagoevites, the first sowers and apostles of socialist ideas in Bulgaria—the immortal roots of the Bulgarian Communist Party! Glory to you, veterans and young members of our Leninist Bulgarian Communist Party! …”

Todor Zhivkov gives the inaugural speech during the opening ceremony in 1981.

*photograph credits unknown*

1981-1989: THE MONUMENT IN USE

The Buzludzha Memorial House enjoyed almost a decade of use. Along with the many other memorial complexes around Bulgaria, it served as part of a network of educational heritage sites; though its size and complexity would set it apart as the jewel in the crown.

The Bulgarian people had paid for the construction of the monument—many had volunteered labour too—and so entry was free for everyone. Due to demand however, visits had to be arranged in advance. Many visits were arranged by schools or employers, and a great many people visited the monument: more than two million during its eight years of use. The architect Georgi Stoilov claims the building could handle as many as 500 people per hour on busy days.

When it wasn’t functioning as a public museum, the Buzludzha Memorial House was used as a venue for certain events by Bulgarian Communist Party. Award ceremonies were held here, and foreign delegations were often taken on a tour of the BCP’s extravagant monument to Bulgarian socialism.

The Buzludzha Memorial House remained in use until 1989; but in November that year, Todor Zhivkov was deposed from office by his own party, and soon the whole single-party system of the Bulgarian Communist Party would be dismantled. The Buzludzha monument quickly became redundant.

Large crowds excited to visit the newly-built Buzludzha Memorial House.

Photographed by Bedros Azinyan, uns. date.

1990s: DECLINE OF THE MONUMENT

The political changes that swept across Bulgaria during the early 1990s ushered in a new era of democracy but as the country opened its borders to western culture and capitalism, there was no place left for monuments to socialism. The Buzludzha monument was closed, sitting in limbo for half a decade on its mountain peak.

By the late 1990s Bulgaria was facing economic crises and an uncertain future. Many citizens blamed the former regime, and from 1997 onwards the conservative and passionately anti-communist government under Prime Minister Ivan Kostov began the dismantling of various notable communist-era monuments. In August 1999, they used bulldozers and explosives to destroy the Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov: a white marble tomb in the centre of Sofia, that had contained the remains of Bulgaria’s first communist leader. Built in 1949, this Socialist-classical mausoleum was considered the first communist construction project in the country—and even despite an opinion poll reporting that two-thirds of the population opposed the demolition, it would also be the first to be destroyed for political motives.

Around that same time, Kostov’s government dismissed the guards who had been protecting the Buzludzha monument, and left the building open to the public. Before long, looters began the process of stripping out metal and other valuable materials. The most expensive items disappeared immediately—including the solid copper ceiling—and it is rumoured that members of the government took these for themselves. Some visitors, believing the red stars in the tower were made from real rubies, shot them out with rifles—only to get showered in shattered synthetic ruby glass.

Rain and snow began to enter through the broken roof and windows, and what hadn’t been taken was left behind to decay.

The Ceremonial Hall inside the Buzludzha monument.

Photographed by Darmon Richter, 2016.

2000s: BUZLUDZHA NOW

Today, the Buzludzha Memorial House is a skeleton of its former self. The glass is gone from its windows, the red stars have been severely damaged, and the intricate murals that decorate the interior, now exposed to the elements, are gradually falling victim to decay.

In that ruined state though, Buzludzha began to attract new visitors. The breathtaking location, the melancholic atmosphere of decay, and all of that combined with the rich political significance of the monument, soon began to attract the attention of the world’s media.

Images of the Buzludzha monument have travelled around the world—while people from all around the world have travelled to Buzludzha. The monument is now often described as one of the world’s most beautiful modern ruins, and is widely recognized for its remarkable achievements in architectural design and engineering.


sources:

  • Chary, Frederick B. (2011) The History of Bulgaria, Greenwood
  • Granitski, Ivan (ed.) (2018) Georgi Stoilov: With a Vision for the Future, Zahariy Stoyanov Publishing House
  • Minard, Adrien (2018) Bouzloudja: Crépuscule D’Une Utopie, Éditions B2
  • Stoilov, Georgi (2015) Personal interview with Richard Morten, translation by Mihail Kondov, 7 August 2015
  • Trankova, D., Georgieff, A., Lozanov, G. & Gruev, M. (2018) A Guide to Communist Bulgaria, Free Speech International Foundation
  • Yuroukov, Ilya (ed.) (1991) Georgi Stoilov & Partners (architectural monograph), Arterigere