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The Incredible Abandoned Monuments to Communism

Of all the major historical events of the 20th Century, the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the USSR was the one that reverberated the most. The 20th Century was defined, both by and against, communism, from fascist dictators leveraging fear of it for their own ends to democratic countries clamping down on it. And, of course, World War 2, the largest clash between ideologies ever seen.

Today, communism is gone – mostly, at least – with the world thirty years removed from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But an ideology doesn’t exist for most of a century without leaving behind some legacies, and in the formerly communist countries of the Eastern Bloc, there are dozens of once-proud monuments that, with the end of the Cold War, have largely fallen into disrepair; even so, they still stand, reminders of the not so distant past. These are the stories of some forgotten monuments to Communism.

Bulgaria – Buzludzha Monument

Our first entry on this list takes us to the country of Bulgaria. Bulgaria had, during the Second World War, joined forces with Germany in order to take on the Soviet Union. That particular gamble failed, and Bulgaria was subsequently occupied by the USSR and turned into a Communist satellite state. But communism in Bulgaria went back further than the Soviet occupation; specifically, in 1891, a group of socialist revolutionaries led by Dimitar Blagoev met on the peak of a mountain, named Buzludzha, to make plans for a socialist government in Bulgaria. To that end, they founded the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party – the first socialist party to be established in the Balkans.

Following the end of World War 2, the successors of that communist party were put into power by Stalin. Some twenty years after that, the leaders of that party realized that the whole communism thing wasn’t that popular with the average person, and they decided they needed to do something in order to keep people on board. And what better way to do that than by reveling in the past? To that end, a decision was taken by the Central Committee on March 11, 1971, to build a monument on the same peak where those old revolutionaries had first met.

Construction began in 1974, and was finished in 1981. Interestingly, this monument was funded entirely with donations, at a cost of 14,186,000 Bulgarian lev. Now, we tried to find out how much that is in US dollars, but A) this was 40 years ago, and B) the Bulgarian lev is not a very popular currency. So, to answer the question, “How much money is that?”, we’re going to answer: probably a lot.

The monument itself is impressive from the outside – a large, circular structure with a tall tower in the back. But when it was completed, the interior was where the real attention was given. Over sixty artists took part in the interior design, creating frescoes, paintings, and decorative art pieces showing various socialist themes, the most striking of which is the hammer and sickle panel in the center of the main hall ceiling.

The Bulgarian Communist Party liked this monument so much that they actually held annual meetings there, which, hey, at least they used it for something. But that didn’t last, as communism ended in Bulgaria in 1989, and it suddenly didn’t make sense to pay for the upkeep of a communist monument. Following that change, the monument fell into disrepair surprisingly quickly, and today the photos of the dilapidated and graffitied interior are strikingly symbolic to communism’s fall from power.

The monument itself is currently sitting in a bureaucratic limbo. At one point, the Bulgarian government attempted to just give the monument to the Bulgarian Communist Party – because, why not – but some legal snafu made that impossible to implement. You might be surprised to learn that the BCP actually still holds party gatherings in the area of the monument, despite being more than 30 years removed from the last communist government. Nevertheless, it speaks to the enduring significance of this structure to the ideology it was made for, even in a state of disrepair like today.

Croatia – Monument to the Revolution in Moslavina

Our next entry on the list takes us to the village of Podgarić in Croatia. Here, in the year 1941, in what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, a group of communist guerilla fighters established a base of operations from which to fight against the Axis countries, who were occupying the country at the time. In the forests around the region, there were several field hospitals for rebel fighters. In the four years of the resistance movement, between 1941 and 1945, around 900 fighters were killed and buried in this area.

The Yugoslav Partisans, as they were known, are considered to have been the most effective resistance movement in Axis-occupied Europe – Yugoslavia had the distinction of largely liberating itself, without the aid of the Soviet Red Army. Following the end of the war, Yugoslavia was established as a fully communist country under the leadership of strongman Josip Broz Tito, who had been leading that resistance.

Throughout the Cold War, Tito’s leadership was basically the only thing holding Yugoslavia together, and one of the ways he did that was through national prestige. This involved things like winning sports competitions and, of course, large monuments. One of those monuments was commissioned in 1965, to honor and remember the sacrifices made by the soldiers in Moslavina, twenty years prior.

The Yugoslav sculptor Dušan Džamonja was hired to make the monument, and he took two years to set it up. The final product was this, a concrete and aluminum monument around 10 meters tall and 20 meters wide. It’s a brutalist monument, since brutalism was all the rage in communist countries, but on top of that, there’s a certain abstractness to its design that’s absent from other monuments. I mean… what is it supposed to be? One description is that the center of the sculpture represents the earth, and the side wings represent victory in World War 2, but there are other interpretations, such as a bird ready to fly or the “victory of life over death”. In short – it’s open to interpretation, which is generally rare for brutalist architecture.

The monument still stands today, but it is understandably less of a draw than it used to be. Even so, it’s in remarkably good shape, all things considered, and it remains quite the standout piece.

Lithuania – Grutas Park

We’re going to the other side of Europe for this one, and we must admit that we’re rather bending the rules with this entry. Grutas Park, as it is known, is a collection of monuments rather than a monument on its own, it isn’t really “forgotten”, and it also isn’t so much a monument to communism than to the pain and misery that resulted from it.

Busts and statues of Lenin, at Grūto parkas, Lithuania.
Busts and statues of Lenin, at Grūto parkas, Lithuania. By Adriao, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Let’s give some backstory. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were annexed by the USSR way back in the early 1940s, and they remained a part of the country until its collapse in 1991. They were not particularly eager participants, to put it mildly; as such, the memory of communism in these countries is less rosy than it is in, say, Russia.

Whatever the case, following the end of the cold war and the independence of the Baltic states, Lithuania in particular found itself with a dilemma. There were dozens of statues around the country dedicated to prominent figures of communism, from Karl Marx to Vladimir Lenin to Josef Stalin, and there was a heated debate about what to do with them now that Lithuania was ex-Soviet and ex-Communist. Lithuanian citizens took it upon themselves to start tearing down the statues, and it was decided that the government would take all of the statues and place them into storage.

There they remained, until some years later when a businessman named Viliumas Malinauskas asked the government to give the statues to him, so that he could open a private museum park in which to display them. A rather odd request, but one that was ultimately granted, despite considerable controversy, probably because the government didn’t feel like spending any money on the statues anymore.

Malinauskas received the statues in 1999, and set up his park near the town of Druskininkai. Yet this park isn’t for glorification – quite the opposite. The statues are arranged in separate “Spheres”, as the museum calls them, and see if you can spot the trend in how they’re named. The Totalitarian Sphere includes sculptures of communist leaders like Lenin and Stalin; the Terror Sphere contains sculptures of the men who founded the Communist Party of Lithuania, as well as officers of the Red Army; the Occupation and Death Spheres highlights individuals who organized mass deportations or the suppression of political dissidents, and so on. Yeah, I can’t imagine that Stalin and co. would be all that thrilled about their inclusion in this park.

In addition to the aptly named sections, there are also such appropriate landmarks as guard towers and barbed wire fences, to give the impression that one really is walking through a Siberian gulag. In fact, Malinauskas originally planned to have visitors arrive in cattle cars, to sell just that experience, but that particular plan was, thankfully, shot down. The park remains open to this day, and it does still inspire some controversial discussions among Lithuanians over whether these statues should be displayed in this way, given the history that they represent – an argument that may sound familiar to an American audience. With that being said, Grutas Park does seem to offer a compromise between displaying such monuments publicly and doing away with them entirely, and they are, at least, contextualized properly. And, of course, no one can accuse the park of glorifying communism, since there’s both an entrance fee and a gift shop.

Cleaning Up the Past

We should acknowledge at this point that this list was rather Euro-centric. That’s largely because in other parts of the world, disavowed communist monuments are difficult to find. China and North Korea, for example, have plenty of communist monuments, but you can’t really call those “forgotten” since, well, they’re still communist.

Even so, this was by no means a comprehensive list, so we’ll end off with some quick-fires. There is, for example, a statue of Lenin in Tajikistan which was relegated to an empty field, and where the advice for visitors is to “Watch out for cows.” There’s the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument, erected in 1983, which rings rather hollow since Russia invaded the country of Georgia in 2008. And lastly, there’s another statue of Lenin in Odessa, Ukraine, which in 2015 was subsequently turned into a statue of, who else, Darth Vader. How very appropriate.

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