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Who's Afraid of the Bulgarian Banksy?

Date: 19.07.2011

Almost a month has passed, but we're still talking about it.

On the morning of Saturday, 18 June, the stone soldiers and commissars of the Sofia Soviet army monument woke up as Superman, Captain America, Ronald McDonald, Santa Claus, and the Joker. Beneath them was the inscription "Abreast of the Times." The inventive graffiti were quickly washed off in the middle of Monday night, but the story lives on in the heat of the Sofia summer.

Why this fuss? It is all about history – and history is much more interesting in Bulgarian public debate than the present, let alone the future. The Soviet army monument, unveiled in 1954, is where arguments over modern Bulgarian history converge.

It symbolizes the three most divisive political issues in Bulgaria – Russia, communism, and totalitarian symbols. Half of Bulgarians think Russia is a positive factor in times past and present; half of Bulgarians think communism was not all bad; half of Bulgarians hold that totalitarian symbols should not be erased. The other half thinks otherwise.

Both sides reacted as expected to the painting. Socialists, Russophiles, and old-guard leftists said the memorial had been desecrated. Elderly people paraded Bulgarian and Russian flags in front of it, singing "Katyusha" and other Soviet war songs. The opposite camp was no less vocal. Bloggers and center-right activists praised the inventiveness of the unknown artist and revived the question of dismantling the monument.

The arguments were also familiar. The exchange went like this:

"We should cherish the blessed memory of the Soviet army, which liberated Europe from the Nazis, including Bulgaria," claimed the first group.

"Not a single Soviet soldier was killed in battle on Bulgarian soil. The Soviet army declared war on Bulgaria when the country was just about to turn against Nazi Germany – and installed a totalitarian regime thereafter," retorted the second group.

"Neither Viennese nor Berliners destroy World War II Soviet memorials."

"But in these cities they don't dominate downtown. In Sofia it's 37 meters high."

"The monument was made by some of the best Bulgarian artists."

"But it's ugly and confrontational, and one of the artists, Lyubomir Dalchev, denounced it when he emigrated to the United States."

This debate could go forever. And indeed it has – year after year, neither governments nor citizens knowing what to do with the huge Soviet army memorials that shape the skyline of Bulgaria's two largest cities, Sofia and Plovdiv.

In this polarization voices of moderation are rare. Some bloggers think that the monument should be not destroyed but moved to the outskirts – or to the Museum of Totalitarian Art due to open this fall. Writer Vladimir Levchev offers another idea: if the monument stays, then it should be joined by another one – to the victims of communism. A bunch of young artists propose that the composition should be refashioned in a pop-art way, something close to what the unknown artist did last month.

The city and national governments, both dominated by the center-right, westward-leaning GERB party, had to temper their reactions carefully. There will be presidential and local elections in the autumn and nobody wants a defeat on the field of symbolism. Finally, though, mainstream opinion and diplomatic considerations prevailed over ideological purity. GERB criticized the vandalizing of memorials of any kind – and did not object when a Russophile organization used the cover of night to clean the sculpture.

You will not be surprised to know that foreign reaction was divided as well. Russia's media angrily lumped the Sofia graffiti in with acts against Soviet memorials in Central Europe and Estonia. Authors and anonymous Russians on the Internet used the occasion to criticize once again "ungrateful Bulgarians, who forgot whom they were liberated from." One the other hand, Western media seemed amused and puzzled. With lavish coverage, Bulgaria acquired unexpected fame. The mysterious artist was called the Bulgarian Banksy, after England's famous-yet-unknown street painter.

What did this entire story show? "We are deadly serious to the point of boredom; we can't take a joke," radio host Petar Volgin said. "That aside, both Bulgarian communism and Bulgarian anti-communism showed that they are two sides of the same coin: equally primitive, insincere, and [alien]."

Yet to use and misuse memorials, you have at least to understand them. I am not sure that was the case with Sofia's graffiti. I wonder why the true meaning of it escaped the majority of the politicized crowd. Were they too prejudiced and tradition-shaped not to see it? I don't know. But I (and some others) think the painting was a clear anti-capitalist, alter-globalist, even anti-American political demonstration. It said: "Come on, you new pro-American capitalist myth producers, you're no better than the Soviets before. Do you want to replace old empty figures with new empty ones, Soviet commissars with Captain America, communist kitsch with capitalist kitsch? If this is what you want, you are 'abreast of the times.'"

This is a leftist, even an ultra-leftist statement. But in Bulgaria it was attacked precisely by leftists, predominantly ultra-leftists. Those from the center right unwittingly supported it: and it is not surprising, since the Bulgarian center right is urban, with rock stars, heavy metal fans, and post-modern artists on its side. It is not new that in Bulgaria – and perhaps in other Central and Eastern European places – left is right and right is left.

History here is mined with unsolved dilemmas and sophisticated riddles. A healthy debate about the future would save the day, at least a little bit. Bulgarian politicians should try it in the autumn campaign, instead of digging backward.

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