Episode 25

25. The Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia, Bulgaria is Figuring Out What to Do With All the Lenins

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About this Episode

After the fall of communism in Bulgaria in 1989, statues of Bulgarian communist leaders, idealized revolutionary workers, and Lenins were taken down all over the county. Some of these statues are now in the Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia. Bulgaria doesn’t have a history museum that explores its communist past. The Museum of Socialist Art doesn’t fill that void, exactly: it is an extension of the Bulgarian National Gallery of Art.

In this episode, museum director Nikolai Ushtavaliiski and art historian Elitsa Terzieva talk about organizing the past by focusing on art. The outdoor sculpture garden, above, is unorganized, with statues placed wherever there is room. The indoor galleries, by contrast, are organized by exhibitions exploring specific themes. Even though the museum stays as far away from politics as possible by focusing on the art, these exhibitions provide the framework to start interpreting the era. At some point, there will be a museum that explores the communist era in Bulgaria, but until then this collection of artwork gives you a lot to think about.


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This Episode was recorded at the Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia, Bulgaria on July 6th, 2017.

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 25. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

I'm standing at the museum of socialist art and Sofia, Bulgaria. Standing next to me is art historian Elitsa Terzieva. We're surrounded by Soviet era statues. These statues were erected in various public squares in Bulgarian cities and have since been collected at this museum in an outdoor garden. There are statues of good-looking workers, heroically turning a crank. There are statues of important bespectacled leeders, and there are quite a number of Lenins keeping watch over everything with what I can only assume is a dignified expression.

I ask Elisa what these statues of Lenin mean to her.

Elitsa Terzieva: Well, for me it's a bit controversial because, as a young person. Am I young? I'm 26. Maybe. I have heard about him from my grandparents, from my parents, but it's something like a horror movie, I've heard of, but I haven't even watched it. The other side of my perception is an art historian, because I have studied everything in detail, so I know much more about it compared to if my profession was, something else.

The statues were obviously made with a great deal of technical skill and they look like they were built to last forever.

Elitsa Terzieva: They were made by the best sculptures and artists at the time. They were forced to make them, they couldn't make the things they were used to.

Elitsa Terzieva: So if they wanted to be sculptures and artists and painters, they should get used to the new regime and everything that goes with it. It is like you say, that they could last forever. Like the pyramids. That is some parts of the aesthetic dogmatism of the periods they had to lork monumental. And that is not just the vision, but a material that they're made of.

The museum of socialist art is about art. During the period of communist rule in Bulgaria 1944 to 1989, it only focuses on the art itself. The museum is actually an extension of the Bulgarian National Gallery of Art. According to museum director Nikolai Ushtavaliiski, that makes this museum unique among museums about communist times in other Eastern European countries.

Nikolai is the one speaking Bulgarian. Elitsa was kind enough to translate into English.

Nikolai Ushtavaliiski: This of the few, if not the only one in Europe, but the museums that focus on the art side of things because. Most of the museums and there were very few in the other countries are centered on the historical side of things, not visual material, just history, the political side.

The communist period is not well represented by museums in Bulgaria, but at some point when the era becomes less about memory and more about history, museums and Bulgaria will cover this period.

I asked Nikolai about how he sees the interpretive role of this art museum.

Nikolai Ushtavaliiski: He thinks that we doubt a simple historical base, it is impossible to get into things, although we have texts or something else because we are in the field of art history. So we cannot, make things look another way. We work with these things so we can understand the main things to these, but it's not enough. Here comes their own education, but it's not around the visitors. It's not very well organized. Especially for this period.

Nikolai Ushtavaliiski: It's a pity that it is not well organized in the education because you know that we were under Turkey yolk and liberation was 1878, so you can count from then to now how many years we have. And such a big part of our history as a new born country, were under this period.

I see this feeling in other Bulgarians I know. Because Bulgaria is such a young country, those years of communist rule, in addition to everything else they took away, took away the formative years that could have helped solidify an identity. My Bulgarian grandfather would always subtract 45 years from his age whenever he was asked, because to him, those years under communism were lost years.

While I was at the museum, Nikolai was doing interviews with the Bulgarian Press for the opening of a new temporary exhibition that he curated called Mythologoligins of the Heroic. This exhibition lives in an inside space of the museum consisting mostly of paintings, contrasting the outdoor sculpture garden. While the outdoor sculpture garden was presented without any organizational hierarchy, just sculptures placed wherever they would fit from places around Bulgaria, the Mythologoligins of the Heroic exhibition had an organizing theme. The pieces were presented by the values they represented, courage, determination, sacrifice, and self-denial in the name of freedom.

Even though the museum stays as far away from politics as possible by focusing on the art, exhibitions like the Mythologoligins of the Heroic provide the framework to start to interpret the era.

Even if Bulgaria still doesn't have an in depth museum about the communist period, seeing the artwork organized like this can help give you a sense of the era.

Nikolai Ushtavaliiski: For this period, the aesthetical perhameriters were not that big like we're used to. Because we know that these were a very powerful tool for the politicians to program the minds of the people. So it has to be explained. It's not beautiful. It's something that you should see. It should make you think about something else.

This has been Museum Archipelago.