Never Forget Your Past: Ghost ships and time travel


Caroline Trotman explores the past, present and alternative futures of Buzludzha, Bulgaria’s most famous communist-era monument.

Caroline Trotman explores the past, present and alternative futures of Buzludzha, Bulgaria’s most famous communist-era monument.

Never Forget Your Past. Photo: Caroline Trotman
Never Forget Your Past. Image: Caroline Trotman

Built in 1981, Buzludzha – also called House of the Bulgarian Communist Party – is Bulgaria’s most famous monument, uniquely located on top of the Buzludzha peak in the Stara Planina Mountains. After the fall of the totalitarian regime in 1990, the Buzludzha monument evoked, at best, a “nostalgia for the future” felt by the “sputnik generation”. Its dreams of space conquest and a regeneration of socialism quickly evaporated, only leaving a nostalgic memory of a period during which the future seemed open and bright.

However, in the minds of many Bulgarians since the collapse of communism, memorial monuments erected by the deposed regime remain associated with Soviet domination and state repression. For many, these monuments are objects of repulsion destined for oblivion or even destruction. In this process of turning the communist page at last, the Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov – the ‘Father’ of the communist regime (1882-1949) – was demolished in Sofia in 1999. Damages and acts of vandalism endured by the Buzludzha monument fall within this trend of rejecting the recent past.

Communism, from the inside-out. Photo: Caroline Trotman
Communism, from the inside-out. Image: Caroline Trotman

Buzludzha is the largest monument from the communist era in Bulgaria, and since its abandonment in 1989, it is slowly disintegrating, increasingly becoming a photogenic ruin, subject to fascination, as much as aversion. It has become an attraction site for tourists fascinated by its fourth-age Soviet architecture in the shape of a flying saucer. It also continues to attract many international visitors, as well as local crowds (the Bulgarian Socialist Party has annual rallies there), who, for one reason or another, do not wish to break with this heritage.

However, due to its unique culminating location, suggestive of cosmic adventures, Buzludzha is decaying at a quite alarming pace due to constant interaction with the elements (wind, snow, rain) destroying the monument inside-out, as well as occasional acts of vandalism. Consequently most of the giant mosaic frescos representing the divinities of the communist pantheon in the auditorium – Marx, Engels, Lenin, Blagoev and Zhivkov – are irreversibly crumbling apart and fading away. For instance the mosaic portrait of Todor Zhivkov has been chiseled out after his removal from power in 1989, and in his place one can currently read ‘It’s just a head’. Could this graffiti be another attempt to try to ‘Forget Your Past’ and deny the fact that actually Todor Zhivkov was the communist head of state of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria from 1954 until November 1989, therefore remaining one of the main protagonist/symbol of the Soviet domination and state repression? Curiously, Karl Marx and Dimitar Blagoev’s portraits are in a good condition and clearly identifiable.

“It’s just a head”. Pick your Soviet ideologue. Image: Caroline Trotman

The convex roof sheltering the circular building is also alarmingly disintegrating winter after winter when the heavy snow is increasingly weakening and damaging the decorated dome. With its scattering of skylights piercing through the roof, the monument resembles more and more a hollow presence, whose nascent insubstantiality is that of a ghost ship.

As for me, I first encountered the mighty Buzludzha while co-curating and -designing the digital exhibition ‘DEL+REW’ in March 2014. Among the various submissions we received, my attention was particularly drawn to an article entitled ‘Forget your Past: How will the Children Today Remember Tomorrow?’ by one of the founders of Retrograd, Nikolay Nikolov. The article explored the idea of how the millennial generation (those born around 1989 or after) are going to remember a past, which they are utterly disconnected from. There is currently minimal interest in including Bulgaria’s recent past in the history books, and subsequently, millennials are almost completely unaware of both the material and cultural legacies of the totalitarian regime.

Enjoy Communism! Photo: Caroline Trotman
Enjoy Communism! Image: Caroline Trotman

The article started with two pictures by photographer Nikola Mihov, including one depicting the Buzludzha monument’s main entrance with the ‘old’ graffiti which read ‘Forget your past’ above the entrance, as if it was forbidden to (re)visit the monument/past. The other photograph, showed the monument in its entirety. What was immediately striking was its flying-saucer shape architecture enacting the dreams of space conquest of the Soviet futuristic utopia. My imagination was immediately fascinated by this cosmic shelter.

“Forget Your Past”. Images: Nikola Mihov

Shortly after, my friends Neda Genova, Elisa Bailey and I, decided to visit the monument in the second half of August 2014, in order to explore its past, present and alternative futures. Right from the beginning, I envisioned the Buzludzha flying-saucer shape architecture as a nostalgic time-machine. Or maybe a Proustian madeleine cookie, which has the ability to trigger thought and mnemonic movements. Frequently, big screen interpretations of time machines are pictured in ways that similarly evoke motion in space – as portals, for example, elevator-like boxes, a car like in the film Back to the Future, or, a “sphere” compared to a submersible vessel in Je t’aime, je t’aime by Alain Resnais. Resnais’ film provides a way to think about individual memory as its own kind of time travel – how do we (our mind/memory) inhabit time? How do we move in it?

To approach these questions, we decided to produce a video, in collaboration with my friend Scott Dessert, entitled ‘Cosmik psychedelia’ to suggest the ability of the site to trigger a nostalgic temporal experience. My attempt is tentative and experimental, but with my video and my photographs I would like to explore the aesthetic implications of a 1960s psychedelic-utopian imagery upon a monument/object, which is now slowly disintegrating, resembling more and more a post-apocalyptic, dystopian ruin.

Cosmik psychedelia is a nostalgic piece evoking a certain nostalgia/retromania our societies are experiencing due to the actual lack of alternatives pointing towards the future, which feeds a growing fascination for the vestiges of modernist utopias such as the psychedelic 1960s era. To me ‘Cosmik Psychedelia’, could be seen as a dissident nostalgic piece calling on the past to distort and create a new and different perception of Buzludzha whether it is in the past, present or future.

Going back in time. Photo: Caroline Trotman
Going back in time. Photo: Caroline Trotman

So instead of letting others prefabricate the past for us, the antidote might be nostalgic dissidence – a poetic and creative process that does not seek ‘the’ truth with blind determination, but instead trigger the virtualities of our imagination. By blowing our minds, nostalgic dissidence might open up a multitude of potentialities for us to (re)create past, present and future tales.

Buzludzha’s hollow presence might offer such material embodiment of dissident nostalgia by keeping alive memories of destruction, repression and of multiple contested histories and coexisting temporalities. This is why, maybe, a preservation or even a creative rehabilitation of the site, might be key in order to point at blunders of modern history, reminding us of our common worldliness and material history.

1 Comment
  1. Vu Hoang Long 4 years ago

    Reblogged this on Ghi chép ngẫu hứng and commented:
    Hồi trước xem bộ ảnh Restricted Area tưởng cái này chụp ở Nga, hóa ra Bulgaria.

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