Stony soldiers and concrete women look out on the Black Sea.
Sitting atop a hill in Varna, Bulgaria is the Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship.
Built in the 1970’s to commemorate unity between Bulgaria and Russia, it’s been left to decay since the collapse of the USSR. Pictures online show the ‘Staircase of Victors’ covered by hundreds of Communist Party officials back at its opening ceremony- these days it seems to be visited only by people jogging up and down the steps, walking their dog, or interested in the ruin.
The first time I wandered over to the monument it was after a day of drinking on the beach. My fellow traveler went back to the hostel to take a nap and I walked along the shore until I saw the monument, and then climbed up the stairs to get a closer look. When I saw the opening at its center, I was very surprised- I didn’t guess it had an interior at all, much less an accessible one!
I squeeze through the grate and stumble in. The sounds of the city vanish immediately once inside. Turning my flashlight on reveals a flight of concrete stairs going up into the structure.
As I go up the steps, a tablet with Bulgarian text etched into it materializes. I can’t read Bulgarian, but later on I asked a friend who can to help with deciphering what was left of the text. He said it looked like a poem, reading something like “The Soviet Union and Bulgaria are as important to each other as the sun, air, and water are to a living thing.”
As one moves away from the light coming in through the entrance, the steps keep splitting off and heading in different directions, and with only a phone it’s very dark. Eventually I come out into a large atrium with many openings heading into other rooms and hallways. While standing there I hear a rustling noise, what sounds like somebody standing up in one of the rooms. I freeze- it was at that point that I realized it was probably a bad idea to enter an easily-accessed urban ruin in the middle of the city with nothing but a phone, and to admittedly be a little inebriated while doing it. I promptly turned around and got out.
The next day, I went back (sober) with a more powerful flashlight and cautiously ventured a little further into the building. Taking a turn around a wall I hadn’t dared go past the day before, I find this room:
The dimensions of the room, the light coming down from above, and the short steps going up to a little platform give the place the feeling of a small chapel. The huge star cut out of the wall dominates the space.
There’s a rustling noise again, but this time I notice it’s coming from above- the noise that’d spooked me the day before were just some pigeons nesting in the rafters! I leave the star/pigeon room and keep going up the building.
The whole place has an off-kilter, unsteady atmosphere. I think it comes down to something with the layout and design feeling just a little bit * off * – the surfaces in the building never quite align perfectly, the walls and ceilings are all angled, the windows and stairs appear in unexpected places. The building teases at symmetry and then gives you asymmetry, creating a sort of uncanny valley effect of geometry.
One of the staircases zigzags out of the dark and up to the roof.
I go back inside to explore the interior some more. No matter how many times I walk through the different rooms, it still seems like a maze and it still feel like I’m stumbling into new chambers. Standing in the room I ended up thinking of as the ‘main atrium’ and looking at all the shadowy rooms and hallways leading off into darkness, I realize that the building feels much, much bigger on the inside than on the outside. Either it hides its size very well on the outside or it’s the concrete, communist version of House of Leaves.
Sometimes I listen closely and think that I can hear a kind of hum, the muted echoes of far-off conversations. Are there people outside, or are there words from decades ago trapped inside and reverberating off the walls?