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Stone age

Author: Gabriel Hershman Date: Fri, Dec 16 2011 5387 Views
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Totalitarian cultures always valued art and architecture as useful propaganda tools. Images of potency and heroism, purportedly representing the triumph of the ruling party's ideals, abounded under both communism and fascism.

Nazi culture emphasised the Aryan superman, a Nordic giant capable of triumphing over "inferior" races. Hitler himself, it must be remembered, was an artist. While Berlin was being razed to the ground in 1945, the Fuhrer was in his bunker, overseeing fantastic designs of a new Germany that would arise from the ashes.

Communism, on the other hand, saw idealised representations of working people. The reality – mothers pushing prams knee deep in mud, and impoverished families queuing for bare essentials – was, of course, never acknowledged.

Bulgarian citizens are depicted as being part of a grander scheme, wedded to socialist consciousness, their individuality trampled by the party. Hence the neo-Stalinist, wedding cake architecture of buildings such as Sofia's former communist party headquarters.

Botev the 'communist'?
Witnesses Of Stone, Monuments and Architectures of Red Bulgaria by Nikolai Vukov and Luca Ponchiroli is an impressive 160-page photographic record of monuments in communist Bulgaria between 1944 and 1989.

The structures depicted are typically large-scale and go far beyond those commonly known, such as the monument to the Soviet army in Borissova Gradina which famously (or infamously) had a revamp in which its protagonists were made to look like comic book characters.

Those "ordinary" people in the monuments are heftily built and imposing, reflecting communism's reverence for the working classes. Even women are sculpted as heavyweight athletes in line with the authorities' belief in equality of the sexes.

Icons of the pre-communist era are also depicted similarly as if they had a kinship with anti-fascist insurgents. The regime, perhaps cannily, liked to attribute socialist consciousness even to heroes of the Bulgarian revival. Hence the statue of Hristo Botev in Kalofer is accompanied by quotes from his famous text "Declaration of faith in the Bulgarian commune" to create the impression that communism represents international justice. A statue of Georgi Benkovski in Koprivshtitsa, unveiled in 1976 on the 100th anniversary of the April uprising, has a similar theme.

Preservation
Italian ambassador to Bulgaria Stefano Benazzo has liaised closely with Luca Ponchiroli, the Italian photographer who toured Bulgaria and captured more than 10 000 socialist monuments for the book. A photograph may one day be the only historical record of their existence because many of the monuments are now decaying due to lack of money, natural erosion or vandalism.

Others, such as the monument to Vela Peeva in Velingrad, are more likely to endure because they are inextricably bound up with the town's folklore.

Ambassador Benazzo points out the importance of preserving records of such monuments, citing Italy's example where one particular ministry is situated in the former fascist party headquarters and an obelisk in the city that still bears a picture of Mussolini.

"It's part of history. Either you decide to destroy it or you keep it, just like you would Stonehenge," Benazzo told The Sofia Echo. "You have to keep something to show the younger generation. History is there. Forget about it and you are lost. One of the problems in Bulgaria, of course, is that not everyone wants to remember such things."

Respect
Sofia already has a museum of socialist art and perhaps this book should be seen in the same vein.

"There are millions of people behind these monuments who thought that these were symbols of something that could have worked," says Benazzo. "You have to respect people's suffering and their illusions. This is one way of showing them that respect. You cannot just throw everything away."

Most people now perceive the communist era as one of oppression and stagnation. Yet, perhaps it should be remembered, many of the monuments are to anti-fascist fighters who sacrificed their lives without realising that one tyranny was about to be replaced by another.

Aside from monuments, other forms of "art" include murals of figures such as Lenin and Dimitrov on residential and public buildings.

The photographs of monuments throughout Bulgaria are impeccably photographed and reproduced on high quality paper.

Witnesses of Stone, priced at 48 euro, is perhaps not an ideal coffee table book as such, but it is certainly an invaluable record of a monstrous era.

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