11.17.2015

Buzludzha - A Chance to Talk about Communism and UFOs in the Same Sentence

Buzludzha
It’s cold - colder than I’ve been in over two years - and it’s Halloween, and I’m standing on top of the highest peak in the Balkan mountain range in Bulgaria in an abandoned building as fog and clouds cloak everything in white obscurity. But this isn’t any abandoned building, this is one of many of Bulgaria’s Communist-era relics, but unlike the others, this one is particularly strange and, well, absurd.

Buzludzha. Besides being a complicated word to say for a non-Bulgarian speaker, this word meant nothing to me until today. Now the word conjures up images of cloud covered peaks, hammer and sickles, and red Communist stars on a building that looks not too different than what UFO shuttles look like in the movies.

Buzludzha. It comes from a Turkish word meaning icy or cold, and in my opinion, that’s a pretty accurate descriptor to describe this wind whipped peak. Buzludzha is an important site for Bulgarians, as it is the site where Bulgarian rebels fought the final battle against the Ottoman Empire, and not long after victory, it’s the place where Bulgarian socialists convened to create an organized fore-runner to what would later become the Bulgarian Communist Party.



Buzludzha is far from everything. High in the frigid mountains, there’s no village for miles and miles. Reachable only by hair pin winding roads through the Shipka Pass, it wouldn’t be a natural place to construct what Communist Party members hoped would be the headquarters of their party. But the place holds significance.

Buzludzha was chosen because of its prominence as the site where Bulgarians overthrew Ottoman occupation, and also where the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party has its roots, so naturally, to commemorate these significant achievements and moments, the Bulgarian Communist Party thought it would be a nice idea to construct their headquarters on this cold, windy, hard to reach peak.

The Buzludzha building was built in 1981, when the Bulgarian Communist Party seemed as if it would be a permanent fixture of The Bulgarian politiscape. The building was meant to" impress, inspire, and intimidate". At a cost equivalent to 35 million USD, it took 5 years to complete. In a moment of irony, for a building and party meant to withstand the measure of time, both crumbled.

My time in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria was meant to be short, but Spencer and I decided to extend our stay in order to fit in a pilgrimage of sorts to Buzludzha. We rented a car for a total of $20 along with two other backpackers, stocked up on picnic supplies at the local grocery store, and drove into the autumn wilderness.

To the rescue
After an hour, we began our ascent up the Shipka Pass, and we drove past the last village we were to see. We looked up and saw a monument, what turned out to be the Shipka monument commemorating the battle against the Ottomans, and decided to confirm with a local that we were headed in the right direction. Along the road we saw a horse laying down on the ground with a rope wrapped taught around it’s neck as a younger horse frantically nudged the motionless body. We wondered if the horse was alive or dead, and wondered where the heck its owners were in this ghost town of a village. We got out and cautiously approached the two horses. As the one continued to frantically kick the other’s motionless body out of fear, we realized the horse on the ground was indeed alive, but barely so given the rope was strangling him. We rushed to the tree to undo the rope so the horse could breathe, and then we saw the owner emerge from out of nowhere in a panic. Together we all pulled the rope free as the young horse urged the bigger one to stand up. After a few minutes, all was right and the owner thanked us for our help. The whole situation was weird. A horse dying on the ground in an empty village with identical houses with a dinosaur statue in front halfway up a Bulgarian mountain. This was just the start of an odd day.

But really, what's up with the dinosaur?
We continued driving south on the Shipka Pass and around the hair pin turns for another 30 or so minutes until we reached the mountain peak, and with it the Buzludzha building appeared, indeed as if a UFO landed there to regain its bearings.

The auditorium, whoa.
We were greeted by a monument of two strong torching-bearing hands which marked the beginning of the steep ascent up to the building itself. We parked the car, grabbed the picnic supplies, bundled up in scarves and gloves, and began the climb. It took a good 15-20 minutes to finally reach the building. We all rejoiced in the thin air as we struggled to adjust to breathing in the high altitude. Fog and clouds engulfed us and the building in wisps of grey. We approached the building and, as we suspected, found the front door barred and locked and the secret entrance hole to the right side. We climbed upon a pile of rocks and squeezed through the small opening while trying not to slip into the deep abyss below or get poked by one of the protruding metal bars.

Feet safely on semi-crumbling concrete, we followed the staircase into what was the building's basement. The whole basement was cloaked in darkness. We lit our headlamps and explored to find only broken concrete and crushed red glass - lots of broken red glass, which gave the appearance that this was the site of a mass murder.

Is this blood...?
We peaked in and crawled around in the various rooms adjacent to the basement hallway. Old bathrooms, storage closets, kitchens - all stripped bare. At this point I was adequately creeped out, so we ascended to the main auditorium and back into the cold.

The main auditorium was more spectacular than I imagined. A giant hammer and cycle in gold, red, and encircled in green Cyrillic writing hung over the auditorium as mosaics with shimmering metals draped the circular walls. The mosaics depicted communist leaders, revolutions, and harmony. Idyllic scenes of what I'm sure the Communist Party imagined to be Bulgaria's egalitarian future society that failed to come to pass. While many of the mosaics have been stripped down by looters, their themes and messages are still clear. This building was indeed meant to inspire the men who imagined leading the world in a communist revolution.

Gingers of the World....UNITE!
We exited the auditorium to the encapsulating hallway that runs around the circular building. The windows have long since been destroyed, exposing the hallway and auditorium to the harsh elements. As today was overcast, clouds whipped through the hallway and entered the auditorium, masking everything in an opaque white haze. The windows normally allow for a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, but today it was only white.

Beautiful Mosaics
It didn't take long standing in the clouds to feel as if our fingers where numb. When i could no longer bend my finger to take pictures, I retreated back to the auditorium. We all agreed that it was time to picnic. We reluctantly took our hands out of our gloves and pockets and laid the bread, salami, pepperoni, ham, cheese, pickles, bananas and cookies across the bleachers and dug in, trying hard to soak in the significance and impermanence of where we were.

No weirder place to picnic!
We finished eating and took one more stroll around the place as Jay-Jay, the more adventurous of us, decided to climb the metal ladder to the top of the building. I, having a broken foot and no gloves, opted out. When Jay-Jay returned, we all turned around and began to descend just as larger and thicker clouds of cold rushed in, cloaking anything more than 10 feet ahead in white.


I turned back and noticed the graffiti above the door which once advised "Forget the Past" but which now advises "Never Forget the Past". And we shouldn't - while this building is crumbling and vandals destroy it further for raw materials, perhaps the greatest reminder of the absurdity of Communism is literally disappearing before our eyes. From the Bulgarians I've encountered so far, they struggle with their country's Communist past. Their feelings range from being ashamed, to wanting to forget, to feeling cheated, to being downright angry. Despite how they feel about their country's Communist past, they should never forget. Every country has a shameful past, but it's necessary to remember to avoid similar mistakes in the future. While this monument stands with its price tag posted on the front entrance, Bulgarian remains the poorest country in the EU. What could have been used to buy food and seeds for Bulgarian peasants instead went to build this nonsensical UFO of excess.

Back in the car we cranked the heat up and tried to thaw out. As we drive off I looked back once more at the building one last time as it got swallowed by a cloud. Here and gone, just like the Bulgarian Communist party and Bulgarian nationalists and the dreams they had and shared. Here and gone, just as this building might be in a few more years.

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