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Buzludzha: Exploring the Ruins of Communism

November 15, 2014 | 8 minute read | By Kevin Read

I visited Bulgaria with a photographer friend in September with a plan to explore some old towns and search for good photographs. It was the best kind of journey, a roughly researched route and some spare time to spend when we came across the right place.

There was no one highlight for this trip, we actually hardly knew what to expect from Eastern Europe, and one of our favorite things about it was not having one big sight that we were there to see.

But when I look back on it now, the journey is split into two parts: the one before we knew about Buzludzha, and the one after it.

The evening it turned we were sat in the garden of a historic hostel, set in the ancient city of Plovdiv. Plovdiv has a beautiful old quarter with cobbled streets and traditional houses, a vibrant student scene and, like many places in this part of the world, areas screwed up by communist architecture.

We were drinking iced tea and talking to a British guy who somehow combined a full time job with an enviable travel schedule. He thought nothing of going to the opera in Prague on a Friday evening, from London. He’d visited every continent and most countries in Europe, and seemed to be able to remember most of it too.

He had also heard the rumors: somewhere near the middle of Bulgaria was an abandoned mountaintop monument, built by the communists in the 1980s and now lying in stunning ruin.

We hadn’t met anyone who had been there or had much information, but the second hand news was that this place was one of the most spectacular and unusual places in the world. Our new friend could remember the name of it – Buzludzha – and we pulled some pictures from the web up on his laptop to scroll down pages of incredible images.

It was photography paradise. We had to go.

Two days later we were lodged into an ancient Toyota land cruiser, shaking and bouncing up a steep, muddy path through the woods. Anything that could happen to this vehicle had happened already, some things many times over; it was dented, scratched, beaten up and rattling. Just the kind of vehicle you need for speeding around logging trails in Bulgaria, or at least the kind of vehicle you end up with after you have.

It was driven by Andy, a New Zealander who had found this back-water route to Buzludzha through a combination of experimentation and blind luck – it sounded more like blind luck – and who now provided unofficial tours to small groups of tourists.

Six of us had seats which we were all fighting to stay in contact with as we made our way up the side of the mountain. My tactic was to push my hands against the roof, wedging myself into my seat with enough force I couldn’t move much side to side, while also leaning against the door so I didn’t end up in anyone’s lap.

We jolted around, bashed our heads, and occasionally became more intimate than anyone had intended. We didn’t have to go this route up the steep, muddy logging trails – the other side of the mountain is cross crossed by a sealed road leading to a tarmacked parking lot – but this way, Andy told us, was more fun.

Even at this point in the journey I wasn’t sure what Buzludzha really was. Described usually as a monument, it looked in pictures to be more like an arena, with a circle of tiered seating surrounding a flat low area beneath a domed ceiling.

It was built in honor of the Bulgarian Socialist Movement, which eventually became the communist party, and it was finished in 1981. The building looks something like a concrete UFO, a 1950s impression of a flying saucer, with a tall tower attached and situated in an inaccessible part of the countryside.

As we pulled into a clearing, we caught our first sight of it in the distance: a low budget movie set placed on a mountain and left to rot. The people who built this thing were a special kind of crazy and, although we’d seen plenty of images by that point, it was hard not to see it as superimposed on the landscape.

Also, it looked far away. It had already been a rough ride, at least 25 minutes of tires spinning in deep mud, crashing around inside the truck, and trying not to look down to a distant river when the trees occasionally cleared. We all thought we must be close when we’d stopped to see it for the first time and we asked Andy about the journey ahead.

“It gets a bit more rough”, he said. “But we’re probably about halfway there now”

Eventually the woods cleared again into a field which sloped up to the road leading around the monument. It was enormous, the main building the size and shape of sports stadium and the tower next to it reaching high above us.

It had been warm and sunny when we started up the logging trails but the air was colder at this altitude and the wind came in cold gusts across the mountains.

We walked a slow loop around the building. Up close, the flying saucer shape was even more striking, and the unusual design made strange new shapes appear as we moved around and changed angle. It was also much more obviously abandoned and rotting.

Graffiti of varying quality and skill lined the walls and water dripped through cracks in the crumbling concrete. There was litter everywhere, weeds growing through the paving, broken glass and jagged pieces of stone, dung from roaming animals.

This was urban decay in the most rural of settings. Sheep grazed in a field nearby while we picked our way through piles of rubble.

The main entrance was boarded up and covered with a metal grill, padlocked and welded shut. From here you are underneath the building, with the ceiling sloping up and away from you and steps leading down to a parking lot being gradually reclaimed by the weeds.

Around to the right of the building was a small hole in the wall, reachable by climbing on a pile of rubble underneath. It opened inside onto a platform – the midpoint of some stairs leading to the basement – and it was possible to squeeze through and into the building.

It was dark in the stairwell and the bare concrete strewn with litter and rubble; any valuable material was long since stripped from the floor. We stepped through a small corridor and out into the main arena, the open circular space we’d seen in the images which had convinced us to come here.

It really was incredible.

Above us was a massive domed roof, stripped of its covering to leave exposed steel, crumpled sheets of corrugated metal and patches of clear sky shining through the gaps. The center was dominated by a bright mosaic of a hammer and sickle, saved from vandalism and theft only because of how hard it would be to reach, suspended high above from a rusting network of bars.

Below the roof was a flat concrete area surrounded by tiered seating, also now in raw concrete, forming a perfect circle around us. The wall at the top of seating was covered in more intricate, colorful mosaics, gradually being chipped away or deliberately destroyed in protest at the organization which made them.

Years of neglect had broken down the distinction between indoors and outside, with the sky showing through the roof and a chilly, damp air. But it was well protected from the wind which we could hear blowing through the roof, and easy to imagine how it would have been with red carpets flowing from the entrance and important ceremonies and meetings taking place inside.

Steps from the arena led to an upper gallery that ringed the building and looked out over the surrounding hills. The outer wall was mostly clear glass when it was built, but it has long since been smashed and removed, leaving huge window frames overlooking a modern windfarm and animals grazing nearby.

There were once amazing sculptures in Buzludzha, commissioned from artists all over communist Europe and built from the finest materials. It’s not clear which ones were removed and which were left to be destroyed by marauders and vandals, but there’s some sad evidence of them. In a hallway I picked up a small lump of green glass with the fine detail of a feather engraved on one side, jagged edges on the other where the piece had been broken apart. I noticed hundreds of others around my feet.

Some of the mosaics were intact. They lined almost every spare piece of wall and depicted important figures, structured patterns, or indecipherable scenes which give you a weird insight into the people who built this place. They led around the maze of corridors that circle the main building and to stairways that drop into the darkness of the basement.

We explored Buzludzha for hours, some braving the dark climb up the tower while I circled around and around the arena and the galleries, finding new angles and chasing the light which would appear and quickly disappear as patchy clouds moved overhead. Other visitors came and went, drawn by the same curious instinct we had felt when we first found out this place existed.

Given a different course of events, Buzludzha would be a major point on a trail of Bulgarian highlights. Tour buses lined up outside, visitors milling around a museum of artifacts and diplomatically written history boards, with a gift shop selling ice cream, postcards and small plastic replicas.

But Buzludzha is more special for being abandoned. No-one is sure what will happen to it as more and more visitors arrive in the country and the money from tourism increases. For now, it’s a strange relic, impressive and imposing, but derelict and gradually falling apart.

Years of politics and history have spat out a building which it’s hard to believe really exists: an incredible modern day ruin which not only looks like it doesn’t belong, but that it never should have been.

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One response to “Buzludzha: Exploring the Ruins of Communism”

  1. Bob Garrigus says:

    Excellent article and photos! Must have been a surreal experience.

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