After spending a wonderful week being active in the mountains in Bansko, we headed to Sofia to spend our last couple of days in Bulgaria in the capital. While getting out into nature is my favourite thing to do, as I discussed in last week’s Get Snappy, I do feel it’s important to engage with the history and culture of the places you visit. Making sure to eat local food is part of that, but nothing can replace heading to a major city and hitting up a few museums. I am fun, I promise.
In Sofia, I was particularly interested in learning about what happened there during the communist regime. I did a bit of Googling and we decided to go to Sofia’s National History Museum, where I assumed that the decades Bulgaria spent as part of the Eastern Bloc would be discussed. I was wrong.
The National History Museum covered Bulgaria’s history from 6000 BC to 1946. And then, apparently, that is where history stops. There was literally nothing that covered the period between the end of WW2 and right now. It was weird.
After leaving the history museum, thoroughly confused, we decided to head to the Museum of Socialist Art, which so far appeared to be the best option for learning about communism in Bulgaria.
We hopped onto the metro and then tried to find our way to the museum. The route took us down into some back streets, through a small, crumbling parking lot and then through a broken gate that led us to a narrow path.
“This can’t be the right way.”
But, somehow, it was. The weird, gritty route took us to a non-descript, white building covered in smudges. If you hadn’t been looking for it, you would never have guessed this was a museum. Then the huge red star came into view, the Communist Party’s emblem, which used to be on show in the city. This had to be the place, or else someone has chosen some spectacularly quirky décor.
The outside of the museum is home to all the statues of major players in communism, especially communism in Bulgaria, that used to be dotted all over the city. There were plenty of Lenin, a few of Georgi Dimitrov and a lot of regular Bulgarian people looking like really good workers. There were also a few named Requiem, which mainly consisted of groups of people that looked like they were in pain and somehow melting together. As you can imagine, the effect was strange.
The museum itself is full of posters all made in the past couple of years, commemorating notable moments in the past century. There were a few celebrating the centenary of WW1 and a few recognising the Prague Spring, with an unusually sassy “Sorry, Prague,” on the poster’s placard.
The museum looked out over an empty concrete courtyard. It contained no information, posters or artifacts from the so far missing decades. We walked around quietly, bemused, wondering what on Earth must be going behind the scenes in the Bulgarian government to make the country’s time spent under Soviet rule such a point of contention.
I have learned a lot about the political history of Europe over the years, not only from school, books and my father but also from numerous museums, tours and hours spent walking around the cities that this history concerns. Berlin makes a point to be transparent and condemning about everything that happened in Germany in the 20th century, from WW1 to WW2 to the Holocaust to the Cold War. Most cities have at least something to address a period of their history that was at best challenging and at worst the cause of mass suffering and death of its citizens. But in Sofia – there was nothing. It was eerie.
Attached to the museum was another small room, which played a few documentaries made during the communist years on a loop. These were very much pro-communism, pro-Stalin videos. This was the most we’d seen to discuss this period of history and it still had nothing to explain how Bulgaria felt about this part of its past now.
The fact that the Museum of Socialist Art is hidden away, out of the main city centre behind a few rundown buildings, with very little to distinguish it as a major museum adds to the oddity. It feels hidden.
This glaring omission is made notably weirder given how clear this period is visible in the city itself. Many of the buldings, sidewalks and monuments bear the scars of those years. Some of the streets and particular buildings have been refurbished, though these remain in stark contrast with the older, crumbling buildings that still line the streets. You can see the difficult times in the city’s buildings – which only makes it stranger that you can’t find it in any museum.
If you want to learn about Bulgaria’s history between 1946 and the present day, I’m afraid you’re on your own. You can learn plenty about Bulgaria during the 19th century, its current cuisine and get a feel for the Cyrillic alphabet, but this period of history appears to have been wiped from the books, at least as far as the Bulgarian government are concerned. It reminds you of how much we depend on the analysis of others to make sense of our past and how everyone has parts of their history that are contentious or shocking. I mean, think about the British Empire. Think about Brexit.
This period of history felt plainly absent from Sofia’s historical resources, but nevertheless, this weirdness gave us more to think about in Bulgaria than any museum exhibit had managed to. The Museum of Socialist Art tells you a lot about this country, just perhaps not what you were expecting. It is worth it for the imposing statues and interesting questions it raises, if nothing else.