Like any post-Soviet country, Bulgaria has a wealth of socialist-realist art left over. Socialist realism is a style of art that’s one of the things most indelibly associated with Communism. Marxism-Leninism would create a proletarian paradise, a world of plenty in which individuals didn’t suffer the alienation that capitalist exploitation. In a world like this, what would be the point of representing something that didn’t exist?
Socialist realism, reacting against the avant-garde trends of styles like Expressionism, sought to glorify this world that workers had created. The fact that the style avoided abstract forms was also an ideological rejection of the “decadent” values of other art. This was art that would speak to all of society, not solely the bourgeois leisure classes, whose domination of the means of production afforded them the time to ruminate about what that cluster of cubes and cones represents. Art that invites one sole interpretation (Like “Youth Meeting at Kilifarevo Village to Send Worker-Peasant Delegation to the USSR”) is also a useful tool to impose uniformity of thought, at least on paper.
Since socialist realism was the official state style of the Eastern block, art was the site of a heated Cold War battle. During the Red Scare, American reactionaries decried, hunted, and blacklisted countless artists who possessed even the most tenuous connections to socialism. Concurrently, the CIA was covertly funding modern art through countless government-backed funds and foundations. CIA money brought abstract expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Koonig to the world through a fruitful relationship between the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and America’s clandestine services. Music journalist Adam Krause explains:
Why did abstract expressionism fit the CIA’s needs so well? The CIA’s goal in the Cultural Cold War was not just the denigration of Soviet Communism, but the promotion of the free market as well. Jackson Pollock and the other abstract expressionists were useful for each of these goals. The collectivism glorified by (the often rigid and never abstract) Soviet Socialist Realism could be set in stark opposition to the rugged individualism and “freedom” of these distinctly American abstract expressionists.
Just as indelibly as rock and roll is associated with America (and later, Britain), the visual signs of socialist realism will be instantly recognizable to those who visit the Museum of Socialist Art. As mandated by the Bulgarian Communist Party, art featured workers manning gargantuan machines in factories and farmers reaping wheat in the fields. The museum’s exhibits are devoted to the September uprising of 1923 (“then defined as the first anti-fascist uprising”), the Second World War, “portraits of the great leaders,” and “various topics, some related to socialist construction – co-operating on the land, the brigadier movement, industrialization.” A legacy of “great leaders,” engineering achievments, and defeating Nazis. Say what you will about the shortcomings of Marxism-Leninism: things were built to last, and they really hated fascists.
The bulk of paintings found in the exhibit hall are dedicated to the greatest great leader. The art that is not dedicated to The Revolution or The Workers honors Georgi Dimitrov, the first General Secretary of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. Dimitrov, a Marxist theoretician, had to flee Bulgaria in 1923, following an abortive Communist counter-coup attempt. He fled to the Soviet Union, where he lived until 1929, when he moved to Germany. He was arrested on charges of participating in the 1933 Reichstag fire, the event that catalyzed Nazi rule over Germany. Despite the presumed guilt of all the alleged co-conspirators, Dimitrov chose to represent himself, and he gave a defense so brilliant and impassioned that he was acquitted. Given that the Nazis weren’t known for their leniency, it must’ve been a pretty incredible speech.
From 1934-1943, Dimitrov chaired the Third International in the USSR. Bulgaria had been pressured to join the Axis in 1941, under the threat of a German invasion and the promised restoration of lost territory (Bulgarians love Greek beaches). From 1941-1944, the Bulgarian Communists were the most active and well-organized face of the anti-fascist resistance. When the Soviet Red Army entered Bulgaria in 1944, Dimitrov returned. He became Premier in 1946 when the Bulgarian Communist Party took total control—hence the wealth of Dimitrov-related art.
Dimitrov ruled for a brief period before his death in 1949, during which time he and Marshall Josip Tito explored the possibility of uniting Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Macedonia into a Balkan pan-Slavic Federation. Plans fell apart when it became clear that Tito envisioned simply absorbing his neighbors into Yugoslavia. Had Tito succeeded, it would’ve been the sort of interesting political experiment possible in the early days of socialism, like the United Arab Republic, as well as a total dick move. The fact Tito and Dimitrov were working on a union that would’ve been too powerful for Moscow to control, coupled with Dimitrov’s unexpected death, have led to rumors that Dimitrov was poisoned on Stalin’s orders.
The iconography of an authoritarian Communist country is consistent across national boundaries. The flag of the People’s Republic of China attests to this. One large star with four others surrounding it: different social classes orbiting the leadership of the central Communist party. Bulgaria’s new society was idealized in the same way. Art lionized the social groups whose work was considered essential to making a Marxist-Leninist society work. Urban factory workers, agrarian farmers, and intellectuals play their vital roles, under the fair and wise leadership of the central Party.
Dimitrov, who chaired the Third International and enjoyed the patronage of Stalin, was an ideal vessel to embody the new People’s Republic of Bulgaria. And speaking of consistent iconography, when he died in 1949, the next Party Secretary General, Valko Chervenkov, was ported in.
The largest painting in the exhibition hall is one of Chervenkov receiving gifts and good wishes from the Bulgarian proletariat (h/t to commenter Constantin for pointing this out). Under the approving visages of Stalin and Dimitrov, Chervenkov and his wife (Dimitrov’s youngest sister) greet an enthusiastic young couple (aka THE FUTURE), as villagers in traditional folk costume queue up to give him gifts of homemade textiles and bunches of flowers. Next in line is a man who looks like Nikola Tesla, itching to gift the Premier with a couple of heirloom pigs.
All the paintings of Dimitrov and then Chervenkov position the Premiers as hero, guide and benevolent patriarch. In one painting, Chervenkov embodies the Communist leader archetype by standing in a wheat field in a Mao suit, with factories and power lines on the horizon. The iconography is universal to the former Soviet block:Chervenkov’s face could be swapped out for Stalin’s, Mao’s, or Kim Il-sung’s and the signs would still be legible.
When he died in 1949, Dimitrov was embalmed and laid to rest in an enormous mausoleum, like Lenin, Stalin, and Ho Chih Minh. After “The Changes” in 1989, Dimitrov was cremated. When the mausoleum was demolished in 1999, it took 4 attempts to bring the structure down. Say what you will about Marxism-Leninism, but it builds things to last.
Today, the only remaining monument to Premier Dimitrov stands in Cotonou, Benin. From 1975-1979, Benin was Marxist, erecting statues of Lenin and Dimitrov. After Benin reverted to capitalism, Lenin’s monument was torn down, but Dimitrov was left standing—not famous enough to warrant a statue-tearing at the hands of the Beninois. Ironically, Dimitrov’s monument remains as a testament to his obscurity.
November 10, 1989, one day after the first chunks were torn out of the Berlin Wall, Dimitrov’s successor, Todor Zhivkov, was ousted by popular protests. On the former Bulgarian Communist Party headquarters, the hammer-and-sickle was removed, and the red star atop the spire airlifted off. Today, the building is the administrative office of the National Assembly, and it flies the Bulgarian tricolor. The red star, made of synthetic ruby, sits in the outdoor statue garden next to the entrance to the Socialist Art museum.
In June 1990, Bulgaria had its first multi-party elections. The US’s National Endowment for Democracy poured $1.5 million into the elections in order to defeat the Bulgarian Socialist Party. The Socialist party won, so America dumped additional money to ensure that Washington’s interests would be secured. The US ultimately got its wish, which has led to the creation of contemporary capitalist Bulgaria.