Encircled by mountains is a Communist-era concrete bunker and memorial house with a graffitied message in red paint over the entrance: Don't Forget Your Past. Except the word “don’t” has been crossed out, painted over, and rewritten several times, teetering in and out of its negation over the years. The nearest city features block after block of crumbling, pre-fab Bulgarian public housing, buildings as impenetrable for me as their histories. The bunker itself is decomposing, with its roof potholed, window panes blown out, portions of its sidewalls fallen in. It was only built in the 1980s, then abandoned after the fall of the regime.
That concrete can erode so quickly in just thirty years feels impossibly negligent of physics. For decades it has rotted without reinvestment or replenishment, as if those responsible for its emergence are now intent on its neglect. Some would rather have these monuments become invisible than have them draw attention to what is trying to be forgotten. But this too maintains a certain kind of memory.
Called the Buzludzha monument, its abandonment is part of a larger historical cover-up involving more than the passive disappearance of heritage sites. Recently, in the cities, Bulgarian street names have been swapped out to remove references to socialist leaders or events important to the development of socialism in the country. Lenin Boulevard became Tsarigradsko Boulevard; 9 September Square became Battenberg Square. Other landmarks built during the 45 years of communism have been razed and replaced; flags and symbols belonging to the period are banned.
The process of decommunization in Bulgaria is, to me, identical in principle to the American efforts to tear down monuments dedicated to their Confederate history. While they stem from opposite sides of the political spectrum, their identities are trying to be remade beside one another, somewhere in the center. But so much of who we are consists of who we were, which, to me, makes it all kind of sad, this false sense of sameness.
Since the 1990s, the Bulgarian government has moved quickly to rebrand itself. The first major effort came weeks after the fall of the old regime, when Sofia’s 50-foot Lenin statue came down. In August 1999, they bulldozed the Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, the public tomb of Bulgaria’s first communist leader. The Bulgarian government went forward with the demolition, despite two-thirds of the Bulgarian public wanting to preserve it. Similarly, a large installation built in 1981 celebrating the 1,300th anniversary of Bulgarian nationhood was removed in 2017, despite bearing no reference to the regime that built it.
But there is much that dynamite can’t destroy. I stayed with an older lady who worked at a radio station in Sofia during the heyday of the socialist period. She, like many who lived through it, reminisced about the era’s security and peace, and about how she found new freedoms in the limitations of other freedoms. She told me about the internal passport system, and how state police would check her papers if she tried to ever leave the city. Employers and employees would band together to fabricate excuses for their staff to take a holiday in the countryside. To make it past the country’s internal checkpoints felt like a game, one that she seemed to almost enjoy playing, or at least enjoy laughing about long after the fact. To leave the country, in her day, was impossible. But who would want to leave anyway, she said. She told me about her trips to the Black Sea when she was young, tying bracelets onto tree branches; about the cellar parties, the private prayers, the hidden bibles, the little freedoms she could steal and what they had all meant to her.
I think much of the meaning-making in contemporary life consists in the struggle to formulate identities with which we can make sense of our pasts and orient our futures. Naturally, then, we elevate whatever congruencies exist between them. What we do with the incongruencies is up to us. They can be suppressed and ignored, or used as orienting factors in our identity-building. The point here is that states and the individuals who comprise them are engaged in identity projects of a similar kind. I believe these pursuits are endemic to societies in which our material needs are virtually guaranteed, where meaning-making can often only find expression in the post-material.
For example, while Bulgaria and the United States, respectively, attempt to scrub socialism and racism from their pasts, similar projects are being undertaken by North Macedonia and, to a lesser extent, Albania. Except in these cases, their socialist histories are being painted over with references to classical antiquity. In the Macedonian capital, hundreds of gaudy statues have been built since the 2000s to commemorate their golden age, when the country was an ancient kingdom ruled by Alexander the Great and, later, a prosperous province of the Roman Empire. These projects give off the impression that Macedonia is a direct descendent of Athens and Rome, rather than a former possession of socialist Yugoslavia. This process of faux “antiquization” (a try-hard attempt at historical revision) seems so tacky in contrast to, say, Turkey, whose ancient history has always been well-preserved and part of their national mythos, rather than merely a mythological facade meant to bind Macedonians to a monoidentity, presumably to the exclusion of non-Macedon minorities.
The first Bulgarian National Revival saw the resurgence of national symbolism in the aftermath of the country’s liberation from Ottoman rule in 1878. A century and a half later, I’d argue that we’re seeing a second national revival in the wake of Bulgaria’s liberation from Moscow, but one that entails a significant amount of physical destruction and historical revision to replace it with a new, carefully selected national myth. This is a dangerous precedent, and a bad idea all around for a couple of reasons. First, like witnesses to a crime, historical evidence must not be tampered with, lest it disorient the course of justice. Second, when identities are forgotten or suppressed, it’s easy to fabricate new, more subversive ones from the void left by their decontextualization. Plus, revisionism just naturally seems to appeal to the instincts of those wanting to resist state interference in their identity formation—just ask the neo-Nazi or anarchist graffiti on the walls of every second Sofian housing block.
The preservation of historical landmarks allows for a complete, bidirectional national story. Every story preserved represents a tile in the diverse mosaic of human cultures. Without them, travel would be stale, repetitive, almost pointless. These societies would do well to preserve what living history still survives from any era of its past, as well as celebrate and uplift those national symbols that have lasted across the eras: their abundance of wild roses, the nosiya dresses, the martinitsa bracelets hanging in the trees.
Once, in Sofia, I carried my plate to my bedroom after making dinner. The older woman I was living with at the time, finding it rude, knocked on my door and demanded that I join her at the table. While we ate she questioned me about how I had ended up so far from home. I didn’t really want to get into it. It’s, like, a whole thing. But she wasn’t satisfied with that. So I told her about the trains, and how Bulgaria literally stopped me in my tracks. About how, amid railway closures, I couldn't find any routes running into the country, so I had to find my own way. She reacted as if I were insulting her intelligence or her time; as if I had evaded her question so I could raise my own. Like I was doing my best to make sure she never got to know me.
I saw a man sitting on the curb with one leg thinner than a golf club. I saw another on crutches begging in the middle of the highway while cars flew past. I saw women barefoot in the street. I saw shanty slums; shelters composed of plywood and scrapped sheet metal with tin panel roofs held down by rocks or car tires and chimneys made of random plumbing that stuck out like a periscope. I saw a man on a park bench whose half of his face was missing, having fallen onto his neck. It was as if someone had pumped his face with air, popped it like a balloon, and half of it had splattered and stuck where it landed. I saw rivers run through cities, nuclear power plants planted in residential neighborhoods. I saw homes that were five feet tall, exhaust pouring from the creases of their patchwork roofs. I saw cows, goats, and sheep roaming the highway, and a man riding donkeyback in the passing lane. I saw a cab driver try to charge me 20 leva for a five-minute drive; other drivers tried to pocket my change and pretend they had already given it back. I met a souvlaki vendor who spoke not a single word of English but who offered me a shot of homemade rakija out of a 2L coke bottle he kept behind the counter. I heard a woman at the post office tell me that, due to Brexit, it’d cost me $75 to send a postcard to Canada. I saw her reaction when I told her that we're different countries. I saw a child smoke a cigarette with two hands, others who tried to sell me packs of napkins in the street. I saw a man smoking, drunk, who told me that the vaccine will give me cancer. The ash from a border guard’s cigarette floated onto my luggage while he dug through it. I waited for elevators that never came, the building’s wire having been gutted and sold for scrap. I saw people whose pain was so visible that to look at them was like staring into the sun.
I saw quiet confirmations of dignity. I saw doctors live next door to janitors. I met babushkas who rubbed Easter eggs on my forehead and wished me a beautiful life. At midnight, I heard thousands chant that Christ has risen. I saw bonfires and I saw parades. I felt more than I could bear. I saw iftar, hundreds of people laid out on rugs, feasting. I heard the call to prayer. I saw sunsets over mountains and valleys between them, and more mountains beyond these. I saw countless crosses illuminated in the hills, tinting the night sky a lighter shade of black. I saw groups of fifty or more, drinking wine and smoking, dancing by the dozen, skating until the day was through. In restaurants, I watched smoke ribbon up from cigarettes at the next table over. I watched fireworks from rooftops and heard music from the street. I saw dogs roam the alleys, cats by the hundreds. When the first snow fell, I saw drivers slide on the ice, then pull over and wrap chains around their tires until there was more chain than there was tire. I saw Rome, a thousand miles from Rome. I saw innkeepers drive me to the next town over because they knew a place I could stay. I saw strangers change my car tire on the side of a mountain, then refuse payment. I saw a seventy year old woman stop and say, “You’ve never heard of Jesus Christ Superstar?” and then proceed to play the album front to back from her kitchen stereo. I heard her sing her national anthem. I heard her sing its necessity; I heard her sing her own nakedness. I saw people turned away at borders, then never seen again.
I saw hosts invite me in, offer me the guest room, then gesture vaguely to our surroundings. They’d say, “What do you think of the place?” Then wait intently for my response. As if I were selling it to them, I wanted to say: “The bones are all here. You can make this beautiful.”
What am I saying?
What am I saying by saying that I notice the graffiti, that I laugh at the placemats, that I can talk my way out of trouble. It’s supposed to say: I am intellectually curious. The man on the bench says: some feelings can be bought. The barefoot girl says: I can survive. It’s supposed to say: Give me something large and I will find the small in it. The innkeeper says: I've known you all along. It’s supposed to say: I am not starting from a conclusion, nor writing to justify an answer. It’s supposed to say: I am asking my own questions. It’s supposed to say: I can keep my promises. But these might as well be sentimental lies. Like what I’m really trying to say is that some things cannot be seen, let alone said.