Ever Forget: A Story of Monumental Confusion in the Eastern Bloc
I want to paint a picture, but where to begin?
Brown, the smell of brown coal. A sooty ground of nausea and comfort. An animal smell, a chocolate powder.
A backdrop of peeling paint and crumbling lime plaster, layers of color and dirt, exposed skeletons of pink brick and stone. Struggling buildings. Leprosy facades.
Teenage legs and cigarettes, vinyl platform shoes and the black arch of a raised eyebrow.
I want to show you the quietly smoldering trashcans. Curbside fires in the center city. Levi’s ads and Beasties graffiti. A cafe on every corner, plastic chairs and tables red like Coca-Cola awnings.
Gypsy men sell roasted sunflower seeds while gypsy women, many skirted, sweep leaves with homemade brooms. Gypsy children enlist other gypsy children, all begging in harmony with saccharine, practiced voices. They’re brown.
Me, I’m conspicuous here. I am living in Plovdiv for these three months to work with the Bulgarian National Institute for Monuments of Culture. As an American, I can be picked out in any crowd. I seem to be orange.
Mafia "businessmen" are white against black Mercedes.
Red, green, purple. The markets: ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, Tikva squash. Plums from Sliven, grapes from Assenovgrad. Babas wear scarves and galoshes on their bent silhouettes.
People walk upon remains of Thracian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. The wooden corbels of the Bulgarian Revival architecture celebrate release from five hundred years of Turkish domination. A forum, a stadium and an amphitheater, excavated only during the past thirty years, are within walking distance of the central post. The former city of Phillipopolous is a perpetual archaeological dig.
A thick rind of concrete surrounds the old city. The Socialist-era flats dirty, looming, and terrifying to Western eyes. After a generation or two, they dissolve to the eyes of the Bulgarians, but to mine they refuse to soften. Grey.
There is the ghost of an iron curtain behind the Golden Arches.
And yellow. Just some spots of yellow in the plaza, a squadron of juvenile motorists in the main square of the former Communist party-house. Some young entrepreneurs have invested in small fleets of battery operated mini-vehicles. The crowded pedestrian square is alert for oncoming police cars, reckless fire-trucks and pink three-wheelers, which rent out for a few ctotinki to eager kids. Shouts of, "Aleksander, Aleksander!" but Aleksander isn’t listening, he doesn’t stop - not unlike kids in the Western world, he just wants to cruise in his (plastic) Jeep Cherokee.
He just wants to drive.
TEN YEARS GONE
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The end of the 80s marked the end of the Socialst period, not only in East Germany, but in the once-unified Yugoslavia and in the former USSR Eastern Europeans were ready for change and were enthusiastic, hopeful for a quick transition to democracy.
"Socialism was a terrible thing for this country," says Yulia.
Yulia is twenty-five, a young architect in Sofia who encourages her boyfriend, Ivan, to consider emigrating with her to the U.S. New York is the place where she believes work to be plentiful and life to be more or less fair. Ivan seems to be in agreement, excited about the idea despite Yulia’s constant criticism of his terrible English.
Why would they choose to leave home now, ten years after democracy came in the night to Bulgaria? For the country’s young and ambitious, as well as for those of other formerly Socialist countries, rapid change did not bring rapid progress.
"We can’t live here," she emphasizes, glaring at Ivan over espresso cups. He nods solemnly and Yulia gives the table a plastic slap. Coffee jumps.
She says that in New York, people care more about ideals than illegal business deals and bribes for corrupt officials. In New York, Art is in the air. Concepts are important to people. New Yorkers pay attention. New Yorkers are political. She says yes, she knows it’s dirty there, too. But in New York, she and Ivan will work hard and live well. She could be right.
Yulia and Ivan are not unique. Bulgarian, Croatian and Russian kids take the S.A.T. and surf the net for American universities in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, universities that are willing to offer financial aid to foreign undergraduates. Something drives them to leave home at a young age and, despite what they believe, it is more than the prospect of bigger cars, cleaner streets and real Adidas. They observe from earliest childhood a jumpiness and uncertainty in their own history and national identity. They watch political parties divide and multiply and they see mass excitement followed by palpable disappointment.
The young people of the Eastern Bloc now look to the U.S. to escape this confusion. Many view America as a land of linear progression, where history began with the colonists and followed a straight path to scientific, urban and material progress. There is an attractive orderliness to this rosy view that contrasts starkly with their spotty histories. These kids are nationalistic, but ethnic pride is not enough to prevent their exodus. They are ready to flee the mottled landscapes of home with eyes toward the clarity and good sense of an American horizon.
CLEARING THE SLATE
Yulia points to an empty space.
"You know what that is?"
We’re in the Ploshtad Batenburg, in Sofia. She points to a light dusting of rubble near the central park.
According to the 1999 edition of Lonely Planet’s guide to Eastern Europe, the vacuum should contain the now vacant Gyorgi Dimitrov Mausoleum, which was the former home of the preserved body of one of Bulgaria’s Socialist-era prime ministers. Although his body was removed in the mid-1990s for cremation, Dimitrov’s legacy, in the form of the physical building, remained on the site.
"They just destroyed it, it was last month," she says.
She laughs as she remembers how all the grade schools took their students on field trips. Lines of students filled through the building before its demolition. Previous to the final decision to remove the structure, a competition was held to elicit ideas for its architectural re-integration into an evolving urban scene. It was a competition without a winner: not one of the entries was deemed appropriate for an adaptive reuse of the building.
Perhaps in a time of economic hardship there was simply no money to consider a large-scale renovation of a public building. Perhaps the building was unsafe to stand empty in the square or perhaps demolishing it is preparation for an expansion of the city’s neighboring park when funds become available. More likely, however, the removal of this overtly Socialist monument was simply a political gesture.
Other purges of Socialist icons are equally ambiguous. Back in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city next to Sofia, a potential act of eradication hangs in the balance. The Monument to the Russian Soldier supervises the city from the same hilltop as it has since erected following World War II. Bias reliefs around the statue valorize the Russian troops in combat and the Bulgarian citizens who received them warmly. Today, a sense of gratitude to Communist Russia is not a cherished national memory. Hopefuls for election to city government proposed entirely removing the monument, despite its structural soundness and stately presence. The question is, if the statue was destroyed and the memory of its outline on the horizon faded, would prosperity come more quickly to the country?
"No," says Yulia. "The Russians were our liberators. We cannot erase our Communist history." Ivan is already shaking his head in disagreement. Both are staunchly anti-Communist but the two differ in opinion on this issue. Yulia sees a need for an honest reconciliation between past and future, while Ivan supports a thorough exorcism of any physical evidence that Bulgaria even existed between 1944 and 1989. He doesn’t seem to fear history repeating itself the same way she does.
Ironically, although Yulia doesn’t want Bulgaria to forget it will be difficult for her to help synthesize Eastern Europe’s past and present from her potential new home in an overpriced Brooklyn walk-up. This woman is at once passionate about her homeland and disparaging of a future there. Still, she has her opinions.
"Never forget," says Yulia.
"No," says Ivan. "Ever. Ever forget."
After the Communist Revolution, Stalin officially replaced Saint Nicholas with "Grandfather Frost," Ded Moroz in Russian, as the spirit of Christmas.
"Thinner, more imperious, and less given to ho-ho-hos," this Stalinist Santa did not slide down chimneys but came instead to the front door like any other comrade (New York Times, December 24, 1999). Apparently Stalin’s efforts to create equality amongst men did not even spare the super-human identities of mythical men. However, this new holiday icon was actually better suited to the changing popular lifestyle of the time - increasingly urban, high-rise oriented and less likely to involve chimneys.
The Bulgarian landscape is littered with such housing projects. The trip from the airport in Sofia to the center city will run a Western visitor through a gauntlet of disturbing images: projects more alienating than any in the U.S. are the norm. The lessons American designers have learned about how not to organize urban housing are all on display.
Clearly, the former Stalinist countries are faced with a dilemma when choosing to blow up or tuck away glaring reminders of the past. However, monuments and mausoleums are empty of living inhabitants, so to-purge-or-not-to-purge becomes a moral decision rather than a pragmatic one. What will become of those Socialist era housing projects so stereotypically bleak in design and reminiscent of obsolete social values? These are living organs, housing families not in rental units but in flats owned by their occupants. City governments can’t simply do away with these buildings; they were restituted to private ownership over the past ten years. Yet, because of their ubiquitous presence, these physical reminders of Socialsm will persist (possibly until these buildings just fall down) despite all other monumental purgings.
Rattled by the disconcerting incongruities of the Eastern European landscape, young people look to emigrate to escape cultural schizophrenia. An American might assume that they are leaving the grisly visage of housing-block life for economic and political reasons, but it is as much the inconsistency between the obsolete aesthetic of home and a democratic vision of the future that drives them to romanticize the Western world.
THE AIM TO RENAME
No one would argue that it is difficult for a population to be optimistic about the future when the evidence of failed political and social ideas still stand. There are both pros and cons to allowing the old monuments to remain. But what about institutions of culture that do not assume physical form? It is not always an issue of the wrecking ball.
"You cannot understand, in 1989, no one cared about street names."
Yulia is answering my questions about the wholesale renaming of street names in many Eastern European cities both at the beginning and the end of the Communist period. In the 40s all tzarist names were changed to those of Communist leaders. In 1989 the old names returned.
"No one would care if they changed the street names every year. When democracy came, people were wondering more if there would be more money. No one was used to being political about things like that. It had always been impossible to be that way."
Why have the new democratic governments of the former Eastern Bloc countries chosen to resurrect the names of Fascists instead of creating new names evocative of a new and modern spirit never before felt in these parts of the world? No one could tell me because no one knows and few are accustomed to care.
In her book describing life in post-Communist Croatia (Cafe Europa, 1994), Slavenka Drakuli´ c points out a similar phenomenon. She notes not only the current romanticism of pre-Communist leaders but also other equally strange practices in the re-naming of things. For example, in 1947, Zagreb’s main square was given a new name - Square of the Republic. After the change in government, it was given back its pre-party name despite the fact that it is a rather generic and is only intolerable because the Communists dubbed Square of the Republic. Similarly, the former Square of the Victims of Fascism had to be renamed, as if the victims of Fascism could not be any longer remembered because to do so would indicate that the Communists did something positive in their opposition to Fascism.
Despite what Yulia has said, I have trouble believing that no one cared when Committees for the Renaming of Streets resurrected the names that people had been taught to despise and instead held them up as ironic symbols of the new era of democracy. Younger people still don’t even use the new (old) names that have been in place now for ten years. Older people never stopped using the old (new) names, even after fifty years of Communism. For a foreigner, it can be difficult to navigate these cities.
In 1946 Sofia, Boulevard Mariya Luiza became Boulevard Liliana Dimitrova, from the namesake of a tzar’s daughter to that of a Communist Prime Minister’s. In 1989, the name reverted. Tzar Boris III became Gyorgi Dimitrov, then reverted. Communist Vapsarov became Afksenti Veleshki. Aleksander Dimitrov reverted to Gladstone, the namesake of an American who had helped Bulgaria repair after the Turkish domination that ended in the nineteenth century. Vasil Kolarov became Kynaz Aleksander. On the whole, most street names in big cities now bear the names of figures from tzarist Russia (as opposed to the later figures of Communist Russia who we are supposed to forget). Tzar Osvoboditel. Tzar the Liberator.
This kind of chaos may be relatively invisible when compared to construction debris of demolished statues. Still, it has an unsettling effect on Bulgarian citizens even as they claim not to notice.
"I will tell you why I like New York," says Yulia.
"Because all the streets are straight and there are only numbers and letters to remember."