Matter and Memory

There has been a lot written, tweeted, and argued recently about the place of statues and monuments in cities throughout the world. The arguments made by young scholars at elite British universities and citizens in American cities highlights the emotional, political, cultural, and imaginative power these objects hold. In Eastern Europe, particularly former state socialist countries, the debates over socialist era monuments have been part of life since 1991. In some cases, the argument about trying to erase history by removing socialist era monuments echoes the attempts of the state socialist regimes who erased history both materially and immaterially. This included new construction of monuments, roads, and plazas, and the renaming of existing places, rewriting educational material, and mass cultural programmes.

 

In Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria after the end of Todor Zhikov’s regime in 1991 the mausoleum built for Georgi Dimitrov, the founder of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, was demolished in 1999. The area next to the city park in the centre of Sofia where the mausoleum stood remains empty with many plans about what to do with the space nearly twenty years later. Anthropological and geographical studies of Central and Eastern Europe have highlighted the multitude of experiences in the years following the collapse of state socialism across the region. The role of memory is a central part of post-socialist experiences. Creed (1998, 1999) has drawn attention to the ways that socialist memories are used to propose questions of the post-socialist present, emphasising the power of ritual to inform understanding of political and economic changes in everyday activities. Light and Young (2014) argue, through their study of residents contesting the renaming of socialist-era squares and boulevards in Romania, that everyday habits and memory remain stable despite rupture.

 

On July 28th 2017 the socialist era monument “1300 years of Bulgaria” in Sofia was demolished after several years of plans, legal actions, and protests and counter protests. The monument was unfinished at the time state socialism ended in the country and was in a serve state of disrepair. The decision to remove the monument was taken by the Sofia Municipal Council in 2014. However, the decision was repeatedly challenged in court by the monument’s sculptor Valentin Starchev. As part of the controversy around the monument have been efforts to restore the original monument to the Bulgarian army that the socialist regime replaced with ‘1300 years of Bulgaria’. In 2014, a group of 1,400 activists gathered together and organised a petition to restore the earlier Known Warrior Memorial for the 1st and 6th Infantry Regiments. The plans to restore the Known Warrior Memorial comes at a time when charges of erasing history are levelled at anyone disagreeing with monuments. However, in Sofia this memorial will stand in the shadow of the National Palace of Culture built in 1981 by Todor Zhikov’s socialist regime. At least here the relationship between different histories and regimes will be in constant conversation about the past and possible futures.

 

 

Site of the Monument of 1300 years of Bulgaria in Sofia. The former monument and the view towards the National Palace of culture.

Images courtesy of Anna Plyushteva and Desire&Subtext

 

References

Creed G (1998) Domesticating Revolution: From Socialist Reform to Ambivalent Transition in a Bulgarian Village . University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.

Creed G (1999) Deconstructing socialism in Bulgaria. In: Burawoy M and Verdery K (eds) Uncertain Transition: Ethnographies of Change in the Postsocialist World. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 223–243.

Light D and Young C (2013) Urban space, political identity and the unwanted legacies of statesocialism: Bucharest’s problematic Centru Civic in the post-socialist era. Nationalities Papers41(4): 515–535.

Light D and Young C (2014) Habit, memory, and the persistence of socialist-era street names in postsocialist Bucharest, Romania. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104(3): 668– 685.

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