Moving With the Times, Are We?

Picture: Tsvetomir Dimov

Picture: Tsvetomir Dimov

 

AWE
LONG-READ

Here is a story about a square. Exact location: 42.6907° N, 23.3345° E, situated right in the heart of the most beloved and visited park in the great city of Sofia in Bulgaria. Many young people gather here during the warmer months of the year.

by Niya Shekerova

Right In the centre of the square is a huge monument - The Monument of the Soviet Army - which in the last decade has, on multiple occasions, been used as a canvas by rebellious graffiti artists for anonymous political statements and provocations. The monument was built in 1954 and portrays a soldier from the Soviet Army as a freedom fighter, as well as a man to his left and a woman with her infant child to his right. 

A view from the monument in 1999, personal archive

The public discussions that have arisen ever since have been a significant reflection of what has profoundly characterised Bulgarian contemporary history, namely the painful and lengthy transitional process of building a civil society based on civic participation. 

For as long as I can remember, all the minor attempts and major revolutions took place at this exact small square, only a short distance away from Sofia University. 

In the morning of June 2011, all citizens of Sofia (sofiantzi, as we refer to ourselves) witnessed the monument sculptures’ intriguing overnight transformation into well-known Western comic book heroes such as Superman, the Joker, and Batman's assistant Robin, as well as into other Western figures such as Santa Claus sporting a pair of binoculars, and the playful clown Ronald McDonald of the hamburger empire.

Pictures by Jordan Simeonov

The Soviet flag had been sprayed onto an American one, and below the sculptures an inscription had been written: "В крак с времето", which means "Moving with the times.

As soon as it happened, there wasn’t a single person who wasn’t talking about it, and many sofiantzi went to see it with their own eyes and to take pictures.

The media, however, were a little puzzled as to how to cover the incident, so they left it up to the citizens. Many known commentators in the public sphere tried to analyse the message behind the act. Some claimed the graffiti-donned statues were a general critique of our contemporary consumerist society, others argued that they represented the country’s unconvincing leap from a Soviet centrally-planned economy towards a liberal market and democracy.

As usual, the majority of Bulgarian youth did their best to turn away from the rapidly politicised debate that raged. However, what is interesting about the case is that it aroused us from our mostly notorious indifference and marginalisation from the global scene. It has also gathered people from different age groups and political views to pose in front of the monument for at least a Facebook photo.

The monument was cleaned within a day or two.

Less than a year later, in February 2012, the monument was yet again the victim of graffiti. This time the soldiers were given the mask of the British revolutionary Guy Fawkes, as waves of anti-ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) protests swept across all of Europe. Later on, the protesters renamed themselves Angry Crowds Taking Action.

In August 2013, the Soviet soldiers underwent a similar process once more: they were painted entirely in pink, in honour of the anniversary of the Prague spring. An inscription in Czech read “Bulharsko se omlouvá" ("Bulgaria apologises").

Pictures by Jordan Simeonov

The debate escalated to all forms of media and types of interest groups. The Russian embassy also demanded an explanation from the Sofia municipality and asked the municipality to take stringent measures, conduct an investigation and eventually sanction those responsible for the act.

The year 1968

In the debate, two main groups with anti- and pro- Russian attitudes crystallised. Yet, the unambiguous reference to the Prague spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was supposed to help us “swallow the guilt” of the role Bulgarians played in the conflict. 

The year 1968 was truly significant for most countries in Europe, forging a path to a longing dream of possible unity. Bulgaria, on the other hand, has a different relationship to 1968: our most widely translated contemporary writer, Georgi Gospodinov, calls it“one unhappened year”, referring to the lack of any arousal of protest similar to the upheavals in the rest of Europe at that time, and the silence that replaced it, and has settled since then. 

Young representatives of the Social party organised the cleaning of the monument with a request to civil society to try to “once and forever overcome history, and focus on the future”.

In the following years the monument has been the canvas for responses to other global political agendas. During the peak of the Orange revolution in February 2014 the monument was painted again, this time with the colours of the national flag of Ukraine and the slogan “Glory to Ukraine”.

The debates comprised a passionate undertone, and it was obvious that this time a new pattern was coming into being. Interest groups started to take advantage of the situation by trying to hijack the political message for the sake of their own agendas. The contemporary urban curators group's movement in Sofia called Destructive creation decided to claim responsibility for the very first transformation called Moving with the times. Others assumed that different opportunists, inspired by the first “Destructive creation”, painted the monument with their own messages, acting independently from one another.

Pictures by Jordan Simeonov

A place to bring people together

What I find really interesting, regardless of the discussion centred around whether these were acts of vandalism or artistic masterpieces, is the way in which such provocation is able to uncover the common apathy in our civil society, and the different layers of our common ground.

It makes the encounter of different opinions possible. It invites everyone to participate: both those who try to remember and those who try to forget, as well as those who agree and those who disagree. This is what a modern urban space is meant to do: it should be socially flexible, neutral, and personal at the same time; a space that brings together many competing conceptions and confronting stories.

Unity is not about prevailing over differences, nor does it mean aggressive assimilation. Nobody wins when many lose, and victory has proven to be a temporary pleasure. Cities are about coexistence.

As mentioned by Bulgarian political analyst Ivan Krastev in one of his interviews, we are part of “the E generation”: a sterile society in which we enclose ourselves in comfortable bubbles of isolated interests, never really meet those who think differently, and this way avoid the clash of hypothetical disapproval with our beliefs.

We should become more aware of the fact that there are many people around us all living in 'our' city, one that seems so familiar to us, who might disagree with us. Those who work in the same office building, walk on the same street, drink the same beer at the same square, even those with whom we shared the same bench at school - may disagree with us.

If we don’t, then we run the risk of remaining trapped in this one-way perspective of “my people, my buddies, my pals. 

And that shouldn't matter. They may have followed alternative paths to ours, but the biggest challenge we face as part of a global society has a lot more to do with getting to know our neighbours better than with traveling 3000 miles to go backpacking with someone just like us - someone we feel comfortable with.

If we don't, then we run the risk of remaining trapped in this one-way perspective of “my people, my buddies, my pals”. 

Frankly, any form of urban expression should not shift the focus from important matters in the contemporary Bulgarian political reality. Instead, it should make us realise that we can sometimes pay a little more attention to those living around us.

Our neighbours in Romania recently performed a massive midnight light manifest in Bucharest, just next door and only five hours away by car from my beloved square - in the heart of Sofia.

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Niya is a bulgarian master student and is part of the European horizons thinktank in Paris