Park Monument of Bulgarian – Russian Friendship

 

 This bizarre structure is a monument built to symbolise the strength of the relationship between the nations of Bulgaria and Soviet Russia It is positioned on a small hill top near the Bulgarian port of Varna with great views over the city and it’s surrounding coastline. The hill top it is positioned upon was in fact the site on which the Russian army established a command post, and mass grave during the Russian- Turkish war of 1828 and stands 110 metres proud of the sea, only half a mile away.

The monument came into concept in May 1958 when a design contest was held to build a memorial to commemorate the Soviet army and their battles here, with many of the country’s leading architects submitting entries. The design put forward by Evgeni Baramov, Alyosha Kafedjiiski and Kamen Goranov was approved in the autumn of 1973.

Construction finally began on the 4th of November 1974, and lasted for seven months. A thousand tons of steel and 10,000 tones of concrete was required which were to be laid into place by 27,000 Bulgarian ‘volunteers’. Research suggests the foundations were laid around an existing underground bomb shelter burrowed deep inside the hill, avoiding any interference with the structure below. Of course, there is very little information about the history of the site online, with few reliable sources to go by.

The area around the monument was carpeted with 400 square metres of mosaic in a ‘river gravel’ pattern. A  bronze cube bearing an eternal flame preceded the main cenotaph. This was powered by gas, using four bottles a day. Three and a half ton bronze doors sealed the entrance to the main hollow structure, with a wall on which bronze lettering depicted the story.

The monument officially opened on November 13th 1978 in a grand opening ceremony. Shostakovich’s seventh symphony a piece of music symbolic of Soviet Russia’s resistance to it’s aggressors was aired in the park on repeat, day and night for the rest of the site’s working life.

These two monochrome images are taken from a blog and show a group visiting the monument during it’s heyday in 1981. The monument can be seen in the background in one image, the other has the eternal flame in the foreground with the Black Sea coast visible in the distance. I expect the park was very much like it is today, albeit much more cared for and was probably visited by tourists and locals quite often. The true use of the ‘festive halls’ within the monument and the rooms below eludes me and I can only speculate as to what the cavernous chambers inside were really used for.

The concrete wings stand 23 metres tall, 48 metres across and represent the Bulgarian and Russian nations. Metallic lettering above the archway announced ‘friendship for centuries, centuries’.  On the right are four blocky Soviet soldiers marching with rifles on their shoulders and stars in their helmets. On the left are three Bulgarian women bearing gifts. One has her arms outspread whilst one clearly holds out a flower, presumably a rose, as the nation is so famous for it’s rose oil exports. The third woman apparently offers bread and salt to their liberators.

The monument is reached by the 301 steps of the ‘stairway of winners’. Ten thousand trees and 11,440 shrubs were planted in the surrounding park to commemorate the Soviet soldiers who fell in the battle. The park and monument were lit with 180 floodlights, which could be seen for miles offshore until the site’s closure. The last wage packets were paid in November 1989 with Bulgaria in a great state of political change. Security abandoned the park, leaving it open to vandals and thieves. The eternal flame no longer burned, the music was switched off for good, thr bronze doors and inscriptions vanished. The interior of the building was stripped and graffiti covered the concrete whilst the ornamental gardens ran wild, conquering hill once more.

I visited the site alone on the October 2012, a couple of days before returning to explore the House of the Bulgarian Communist Party on Mount Buzludzha. Staying with friends in Bourgas I decided to make time for this mysterious location as I may not be on the Black Sea Coast again for a while and did not want to miss out on it. Armed with a little bit of knowledge from the internet I knew access may be possible, but reading Darmon Richter’s blog post about the monument I was intrigued to read that there may also be a nuclear bunker hidden beneath the concrete mass which had been locked off since the monument’s closure. There are reports of feral dogs and strange vagrants, the whole place seemed pretty sketchy but I’m not one to be put off.

Making the three hour northwards drive through the mountains takes you along some long windy roads through endless pine forests. There are some great views to be had on the drive down to into Varna across the vast span of the Asparuchovo bridge. Finding my way through the city was not hard and before I knew it I found myself at my destination, arriving just before midnight.

The area was very quiet but as usual I thought it best to take a walk around the surrounding park to get my bearings before I paraded thousands of pounds worth of camera equipment around. Voices emanating from the monument made me think twice about walking straight up to it so I chose to walk around the base of the hill instead to see if there was anything of interest hiding in the undergrowth. Within a few minutes of leaving the car I stumbled across a small overgrown pathway, heading towards the hillside. Through some bushes, in the dappled street lighting was a small archway into a concrete wall. This had some large concrete cubes piled up against the door but someone had managed to prise the steel door out just far enough for a person to squeeze through. I didn’t think access to the ‘bomb shelter’ underneath was possible so was not sure what to think. Having found it so soon I carried on, in search of more.

 The darkness made it difficult to see anything in the undergrowth. I didn’t want to attract attention with a torch. After surveying the park once, deciding it was safe, I headed back to the car to get the camera so I could begin . Conditions were ideal with a full moon hanging high in the sky to balance the street lighting. The  city’s dogs would bark, in turn setting off all the other dogs in their neighbourhood like dominoes, shattering the tranquillity of the otherwise calm, night air.

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I had managed to capture a few close up images of the monument before I headed back down the ‘staircase of winners’ to shoot some wide star trails. I had only been down on the main square for a couple of minutes when a sudden burst of gunfire erupted from the top of the hill. Five shots reverberated across the landscape, the cracks sounding like someone had fired a semi automatic handgun over my head. I had no idea what to do, so retreated into the shadows, leaving the camera to do it’s thing for half an hour. My plan had been to enter the monument after a few star trails but felt reluctant to face what could be up there. I chose to kill some time by heading underground, into the tunnel I had found earlier in the night, in the hope that I wouldn’t bump into any pistol wielding lunatics down there. I would return to the monument later, assuming all was safe.

At this time I had found nothing on the internet from inside bunker itself, any attempt at gaining access seemed to have been unsuccessful. I had begun to think it was all an elaborate urban myth until faced with the mysterious doorway into the hillside, but even then thought it was a little too easy. Returning to find it again I squeezed my way through the door into complete darkness. Do not be deceived, there is no light what so ever once you turn the first corner of the tunnel, all the  images below are lit by my torches and flash guns.

 

Squeezing through the door into the dark unknown, the first object you are greeted with is a large piece of ventilation ducting. This immediately confirmed to me that this was the rumoured bunker. I still couldn’t quite believe my luck and fully expected there to be something up ahead, blocking the tunnel. I was pleased to find there wasn’t.

_DNP7676_1The first section runs for about 30 metres before you reach a pair of blast walls which would shield the tunnels in the event of a nearby explosion. After this is a T junction which joins onto a larger bore. Arrows daubed on the walls point towards the exit, indicating that the tunnel system is indeed large enough to get lost in. I chose to head left which leads further into the bunker through many differing sections of tunnel, some partitioned with offices, and toilets, mostly stripped bare.

 

A small ‘window’ which leads up to the surface through an emergency exit shaft is surrounded by a pile of rubble, reminiscent of the emergency exits in German bunkers on the French coast. The rubble would fill part of the shaft, hindering entry from the outside but when needed, a hatch would be opened at the bottom of the shaft allowing the rubble to spill into the bunker so the occupants could climb out.

After a while I could hear the muffled droning of cars and passing through another set of blast walls I eventually caught a glimpse of daylight. I had stumbled across another former entrance, this one gated and backfilled from the outside. The current gates could not have been original. They look like they had been taken from a local garden and must have been  bolted on when sealing the doorway.

 

Turning back, into a new section, at 90 degrees to the original tunnel, the air quality rapidly deteriorates into a humid, smoke filled atmosphere The walls become darker and darker the deeper you go. Several side rooms adjoin the main tunnel, most of which are bare and empty, stripped for anything of value. Empty wall brackets line the tunnels, the cables and lighting from which were removed long ago.

 

 

  

It becomes evident at this point that the system is laid out with two main parallel tunnel bores running roughly north west – south east which are intersected by a series of side tunnels. Walking the main bores, walls are visible in the distance, making you think you may be at the end, when the wall is only a partition with more, and more darkness behind it. Separate spurs run to three exits at each but the southernmost tunnel, with only the one portal being accessible.

Black carbon granules litter the floor in places, more remnants of the large ventilation system. These would have come from large canisters used to filter chemicals or radiation from the outside air, let loose by vandals or thieves. One of the large filter canisters remains in a corner in one of the side rooms, accompanied by more ducting and piles of white filter granules.

I had questioned whether the bunker could have even been built by the Germans during Bulgaria’s Nazi occupation in world war two. It is not of the usual German design of the period, but none of their fortifications in the area are. Their localised designs all differ greatly from the standardised, modular patterns of the western front. The build quality does not strike me as being capable of withstanding a nuclear explosion but I do get the impression it is a cold war facility. It was certainly a military/government headquarters as opposed to a public shelter. There are signs of some seats on the walls, but not many, and no marks to show that there ever were in the rest of the system. The facilities do not seem substantial enough to cope with large volumes of people and public shelters were quite numerous anyway.

 

 

A tiled room fills one of the interconnecting side tunnels, leading to a small toilet block. This section had a notably different shape to the others and looked like it could have been a wet room or decontamination area.

 In this part of the main tunnel bore, at the deepest point in the system, the air is truly foul. The linings are entirely coated in soot, except for the patches where the plaster has fallen from the surface. On your own you begin to wonder if this is even safe. Fire saps oxygen from the air and there was obviously very little in the way of natural ventilation to replenish the atmosphere. If I did succumb to the effects of bad air I would probably pass out before I made it to the exit and may not be found for weeks. I did make a point of telling my friends where I was going this time, which comforted me enough to continue to explore.

 

Reaching the southernmost point of the bunker marks the end, and features begin to look familiar. The last part of the warren is a small room littered with random junk, where the final intersecting tunnel joins back onto the first main section. The remaining artifacts are anything too large to carry or items with a poor scrap value. More ventilation ducting had been pulled to the ground and one of the main surviving features, a large water tank lies beside, another small hole in the wall leads to an emergency exit shaft in the corner.

 

Several hours were spent below ground wandering the darkness and lighting photographs. After I felt like I had seen it all I headed to the portal. Dawn had already passed, daylight was pouring into the end of the tunnel, blinding my adjusted vision. As I climbed over the scrap metal at the entrance and through the door I caught the attention of a passing jogger, frightening the life out of the poor woman. I dread to think what was going through her head as I popped out of nowhere, early on a Sunday morning with a camera, covered in filth and sweat.

I was now faced with a very different situation to the night before. I was exhausted, having been out exploring for hours with little rest and little food. The park was full of joggers, they were everywhere. I had avoided bumping into people during the night out of fears for my safety, now it was fear of human interaction which kept me away from the locals. I then realised that I hadn’t even begun to explore the interior of the monument and had a good few hours shooting ahead of me before I could drive the 150 km back to Bourgas- the lure of my friends’ sofa there was quite enticing.

 

As I walked around the park I started to notice some surface features, mainly quite a few emergency exit shafts. Most were blocked with concrete covers but one was open. I presume the bottom of the shaft is blocked and would not be keen on climbing down the rusted rungs to find out.

 

Back up to the monument all was quiet. Climbing through the small hole you enter a dark, eerie space which I can only relate to boarding an abandoned space craft. Stairs lead gently upwards with steps up the walls to the left and right. The concrete walls are bare, besides spots of graffiti. The first feature you are met with is a concrete plaque on the first floor, with a small, empty room behind it. Even in broad daylight the interior of the monument is very dark.

Upstairs, behind the figures of the Bulgarian women, you find evidence of a squat. Faeces litters the floor, leaving a pungent aroma throughout the room. All manners of waste are piled in the corners, it’s not a nice place. If there were any windows installed these were removed long ago. Light gently pours through the remaining slits along with the sea air but this is not enough to dissipate the foul atmosphere. Red steel girders seem to hold the giant concrete figures in place.

 

Some of the rooms are very strangely shaped, fitting into the angular design of the building. A couple of rooms had a series of steps leading up the back of the room which look like they may have been seating in a small auditorium, although this would not have been comfortable if so. The awkward shapes of the rooms make me think this wasn’t the case.

 The room behind the Soviet soldiers bears a surprise. This to be one of the most fascinating spaces I have ever seen. Slits in the roof allow the small amounts of natural light to drool down the walls into a large area below in a fashion that made me think of star wars. This notion was contrasted by the random detritus on the floor, again making the area feel like the interior of an abandoned, futuristic space craft. At first you do not see into the darkness in the far end of the room, but using a torch light to illuminate the deep shadows you are confronted with a huge soviet star, stamped into the concrete.

 

The architects obviously saw this as one of the main features too, positioning several apertures in other rooms in the monument which look down onto the star.It’s an amazing symbol of the now defunct regime and implies great strength, coupled with great irony.

 Moving onwards, up a set of stairs onto the roof of the monument there are some great views of Varna and the Black sea. Parts of the monument don’t look finished, if they are the workmanship isn’t commendable. Looking down the back of the huge concrete figures reveals the whole structure appears much more flimsy than it looks from the ground.

 The four Soviet soldiers all look the same at first but each one has a slightly different face. From here the scale is evident, they are just massive.

It was here I found one of my favourite pieces of graffiti; a simple stencil with the words- ‘Your life is your message to the world, make sure it’s inspiring.’ I liked that, but what I really like it is that next to it, in the same paint is sprayed ‘BM 4 LIFE’. Great inspiration, yeah.

 

 

The other rooms within the monument are largely similar. Obliquely shaped rooms with slit windows and few other features to note. One near ground level has a set of stairs leading downwards, which is always intriguing. This leads down into a more conventional structure which the monument is based upon. Some say this was a book shop and a propaganda centre. I am not so sure and can’t find much information on the site’s use back in the socialist days so do not want to speculate. What is sure is that this area has also been used as a squat. The spicy stench of human waste in the air is horrendous. There are several side rooms, one with a blocked entrance to a set of stairs above. All are absolutely covered in faeces and other junk making it difficult to know where to tread. I didn’t see the point in capturing these scenes.

 What did catch my eye was a hole in the wall. A breeze blocked doorway had been beaten through, blackness filling the void behind. Through here was another unexpected wonder, a huge set of stairs descending for quite a distance. These do not lead underground as such, but are submerged beneath the ‘stairway of winners’. Small rectangular openings in the walls let a small amount of daylight through but not enough to light the way. Large pipes follow the walls on the left, that side of the stairwell is just bare earth, divided from the stairs by a hand rail.

 A sealed double door at the bottom of the steps was the rumoured entrance to the bunker below.  This level has the large open square above it  and there are small windows and doors on the outside of the structure, indicating rooms within. Whether there was an entrance into the shelter from here I am unsure but there is a possibility that there was another shelter within the hillside so there is a chance that it may lead into a totally different tunnel system. There are also suggestions of tunnels running from the hill all the way to the beach below, adding more mystery to the site.

 

I could hear strange noises down here, a repetitive thudding fading in and out. This was the joggers carrying out their normal Sunday morning activities while I was in the darkness below. This made me realise it was probably time for me to head home. Alongside being a foreign alien, on my own here, it was 10am and I was in the process of turning into a zombie. I felt unsatisfied, knowing there is still more to this place than meets the eye but with close links to Bulgaria, I will be back sometime in the next few years to look deeper into this strange and mysterious location.

On my way out of the site I passed the level where the sealed doors were, this looks fairly nondescript and is rumoured to house used tyres. There is a noticeable concrete rim running around the base of the hill. Whether this is a giant slab designed to protect the bunker below I do not know, it may simply be a wall.

At the bottom of the steps are two flag poles, the tallest in Europe. The flags could be heard fluttering in the wind all night long. Back to the car I began the dream like journey back to Bourgas, back to the sofa where I would begin my preparations for Buzludzha, in a few days time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments on “Park Monument of Bulgarian – Russian Friendship

  1. Very nice work, man! Thank you so much for your story and striking pictures included.

    I would like to post my comment here (actually I have it already written), but I can not paste it in the field provided, so if you like, please give me your e-mail to use it instead.

    Best of luck!

    George,
    Varna, Bulgaria

  2. What a lovely, detailed and thorough report you have here! Fantastic work. Glad you enjoyed the place, this is one of my favourites.

    The right-hand space inside the monument was used as a museum exhibition space, by the way. That large star imprint was detailed with all the flags of the nations who fought alongside Russia in Bulgaria’s liberation (including Romania and Finland, for example). The spaces underneath did feature a bookshop, and there were also conference spaces for meetings. These were more symbolic than actually practical though, as more often than not important political meetings would still take place in the city hall.

    In fact, Todor Zhivkov, then leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party, never even looked inside this monument. He arrived for its opening, but then left quite abruptly – much to the disappointment of the men who’d spent 5 years working on the project.

    Also, the ‘volunteers’ really were volunteers for the most part. Those were very different days back then, but just like you’re singling this monument out now as something quite unique and special, so too did university students in the 1970s realise that they were being invited to add their mark to something that would (one way or another) be remembered.

    Let me know if you’re ever coming back this way. I’m currently writing a book about Bulgaria’s communist-era monuments, and in the process I’ve been interviewing a lot of the people who were involved in their creation – from ‘volunteers’ through to architects. You’re right that there isn’t a lot of info about these places online, but I’ve managed to gather a fortune of fascinating insights from speaking to people here over the last 3 years.

    And you guessed right, by the way. The tunnels do go on much further – hit me up if you’re ever in town and want to see them.

  3. Wow what a great article and very interesting. We have been to Buzluhdza to explore and photograph but still want to go back there as only really did the main auditorium. Thanks for posting this article we have seen this monument on numerous occasions but next time will explore properly. Thanks again!