Abstract: Monuments traditionally impose emotional sovereignty over the territory: they are the expression of the cultural hegemony of the epoch. With the transition towards the second modernity in the 1980s, memorial objects start losing their consensual character; they start to provoke, to launch violent debates, to be vandalized. Could we say that the monument is no longer something durable and not to say eternal, that it gets closer to something like a situational artistic-political performance?  

Keywords: monuments, second modernity, emotional sovereignty, emotional hegemony, cultural wars


“There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument”. This famous phrase of Robert Musil seems only partially true. The modern era is full of battles about monuments and by using monuments as arms; at one moment they turn up at the centre of culture wars, then merge again into the background.

Emotional sovereignty

Take the equestrian statue of Louis XIV in the square Bellecour of Lyon. It was erected by the Sun King himself (1713-1720), who put this way his stamp on the unsubdued city that has traditionally been the rival of Paris. During the Revolution the monument is destroyed as a symbol of the hateful monarchy. The restauration period turned significations upside down and, in 1825, the citizens of Lyon collected money to reconstruct Louis XIV’s monument, seen now as an important element of their own anti-Parisian identity.

Similar fights about monumental art are common in the postcolonial world, too. In 1982, Martinez and Maldonado created a sculpture group, celebrating the birth of the new Mexican nation as personalized by the conquistador Cortez, his local interpreter and concubine, known as “La Malinche”, and the child, born from their union. Despite of the solemn inauguration by the president himself, the memorial was soon moved to an obscure park because of massive protests, accusing Cortez to be a rapist and la Malinche – a traitor, if not a prostitute. In 2013 a journalist found out that the mestizo child, resulting from the mixing of the Spanish and American Indian races, had disappeared from the group with no explanation (Castellano, 2007).

But memory wars are sometimes fought on more peculiar issues. In London, in 1906, compassionate citizens erected a monument to the small brown terrier dog, having come to symbolize the plight of animals used for vivisection. Medical students however felt insulted for being thus accused of heartlessness and launched protests that forced the municipality to remove the bronze sculpture in 1910. 75 years later the balance of forces between science and compassion shifted again and the monument was rebuilt.

Communism was notorious for its assault on the monuments of former epochs; so was the period on post-communism that replaced symbolically the regime leaders by monuments and memorials as targets of anger and resentment. In fact, this was one of the reasons for the revolutions to turn “velvet”. Who might have expected that those dull, bureaucratic statues, often the result of batch production,[1] will fuel such passions and inspire so many acts of artistic blasphemy! Moving the Soviet bronze soldier to the cemetery in Tallinn resulted in a real cyber war with Russia, where NATO had to step in, protecting the small Baltic state.  

In fact, memorial signs in the urban space are rather linked to emotions than to the past, and this explains the paradoxes of collective memory that is created by and within social frameworks (Halbwachs, 1925). I.e. it is not so important what sort of historical facts we remember, but that we experience the act of recollection together. If in the school textbook, the museum or in the TV series facts are at the forefront, in the case of the monument they are but a sort of cultural context. We know in advance what has happened then and there, and we are supposed to know what to feel: veneration, pride, gratitude, grief, shame. Collective memory is a localized, normative emotion, on which identities are erected.

This leads us to the reason why monuments are necessarily surrounded by conflicts. The problem does not consist in the fact that people remember differently. Conflicts arise because someone feels otherwise within my living space, thus undermining my emotional sovereignty over the territory. Instead of paying homage, they laugh. Instead of hating, they seem curious…  The arising clashes in such situations are pre-reflexive and this is linked to the bodily aspect of emotions, as well as to the physically framed rituals, through which the community manages them. An emotion that contradicts the group’s feeling rules (Hochschild, 1983: 268) is a menace, somewhat like an alien object that infiltrates our body.

The stabilizing of a society results in the imposition of a certain emotional hegemony (I am playing on Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony)[2]: one set of feeling rules are imposed as mandatory, others are marginalized and pushed out into the sphere of humoristic transgressions, yet others are prohibited. Emotional normativity is strongest around monuments; during the communist regime they are top security sites and the guard in front of Georgi Dimitrov’s mausoleum (a replica of Lenin’s) is more imposing than that in front of state institutions, whereas inside visitors are supposed to be quiet, mournful, decently clad and of course refraining from taking pictures.

Today, there are no armed guards, but society and the media keep watch over the monuments, especially if they are of the nationalist kind, and politicians eagerly engage in memory debates. Nevertheless, each new monument is met with a scandal; scandals burst out around old monuments, scandals welcome any new one.

Monuments as battleground

Fig. 1. The Monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia in the action of Destructive Creation. Photograph by Julia Lazarova, Dnevnik. Source: <http://www.dnevnik.bg/photos/2011/06/18/1108523_fotogaleriia_pametnikut_na_suvetskata_armiia_veche_e_v/>, (accessed 01.03.2018). 

Emotional sovereignty of commemoration have been imposed upon Bulgaria later than the rest of Europe, which had been covered by memorials after The Great War; the reasons might be linked to the relative poorness of the country as well as the unfinished construction of national identity. The first big memorial complex was Arnoldo Zocchi’s “To the Russian Czar-liberator – grateful Bulgaria”, accomplished in 1901; the next project of such scale was the monument to the Soviet army, again in Sofia, built in 1953–1956, i.e. half a century later. There are numerous soldiers’ memorial headstones, but they most often are signs of mourning, often erected by the relatives of the fallen. For instance, in the village of Konak the stele made by the families were simply taken out of the cemetery and moved to the centre of the public space.[3]

The story of “The mourning soldier” monument in Vidin, designed by the great Bulgarian sculptor Anrdey Nikolov, is worth considering. The monument, commemorating the Serbian-Bulgarian war of 1885, was created one year after the event, but for various technical and financial reasons inaugurated only in 1911. It represents an almost fallen bronze soldier, leaning on his flank, who does not seem to rejoice at the war he won, but rather to grieve because of the victims and sufferings that had been the prize of victory. Until this day citizens of Vidin think that it was dedicated to the legendary Bulgarian loser Giuro Mihaylov.

Opposition against the monument raised in 1930s, parallel to the mounting nationalist spirit of the times: they moved the monument outside of the centre; communist urbanism encircled it with highways, so that pedestrians could not approach it, not to speak of offering flowers or commemorations. The expert community appreciates highly the work not only for aesthetic reasons, but also for the complex humanist message, but large public and politicians think otherwise. The case is foretelling of later developments.

In 1950s, the mournful memorials were replaced by visualizations of triumph: victorious partisans, revolutionaries or simply Soviet soldiers. A similar shift is to be observed all around the socialist camp. For instance, in 1858, the DDR authorities inaugurated the grandiose Buchenwald memorial: it aimed at moving the attention from the exterminated Jews towards the heroic antifascist and communist resistance. The very strategy of urban rituals was transformed; the priest’s mass for the dead was now replaced by a militant speech of the party secretary, met by applause, weaving of preliminarily distributed flags and chanting of rehearsed slogans. The new emotional order implied not only gratitude, but also optimism, vigilance, bellicosity.

When communists came to power in Bulgaria they did not have a real monumental adversary as in other places for the reason mentioned above; the main blow was thus directed towards the mentioned soldiers’ monuments, which the regime declared to be nationalist in spirit. Towards the end of the period, nationalism grew stronger and one expression of this would be the renewed interest in them. For instance, between 1987 and 1990 the popular TV show “Every Sunday” managed to collect the enormous sum for that time of 3,5 million leva by donations for their reconstruction (the scandals around the sum afterwards could be seen as another sign of the disappearing emotional consensus during transition). Most of the soldiers’ monuments are stele headstones with lists of names; thus the first task of the new regime was not so complicated, the former lists were replaced by new lists, following the decision of the Ideology department of the party.

The whole heroism of liberation from fascism in Bulgaria was an import, because Stalin’s army met no resistance whatsoever; in order to reinforce the authenticity of memorials (like the one of the Soviet army in Sofia) they brought some remnants of soldiers fallen in Romania and Yugoslavia to bury under the construction. The local communists were far from the military glory of leaders like Mao, Tito of Ho Chi Minh, who took the power after defeating a powerful enemy. Due to this Bulgarian fake heroics, urban monuments could be easily instrumentalized, as in most cases they did not mean much, being free from any referent. But after the collapse of the regime such instrumentalization was turned around for the very same reason: if no single Soviet soldier had fallen for the liberation of the country, the monument could as easily become the symbol of Stalin’s occupation of the country.

With the consolidation of the regime urban spaces started to be more seriously permeated by ideology. The 1960s saw the emergence of a new generation of artists who challenged the Stalinist academism and attracted critiques of “formalism” and “modernism”. Velichko Minekov recalls how he all of a sudden won the first prize for the monument of the April uprising 1876, in the town of Panagiurishte, even if later his work was discarded for being “futurist”: “I think it was the first time they delivered a first prize at a competition; usually they gave a second, so that the work could be corrected”.

It goes without saying that the completion of the project was done under the surveillance of the respective party or municipal authorities. Then gradually the principle of required “corrections” was replaced by a relative autonomy of the artistic unions, who selected candidates within the general ideological framework; formalism and abstraction started to be tolerated with moderation.

The next turn was linked to the daughter of the dictator Lyudmila Zhivkova, champion of the arts; she undertook the task to enrich Marxism–Leninism with the universality of human values, including Agni-yoga, Theosophy, fortune telling, but also a certain dose of nationalism that irritated Soviet comrades. In fact, national restauration had begun before her ascent to power, when the country was covered by moustached hayduks with big fists, and at that times those monuments were getting ever more “modernist”.

The “Rules for the monumental, decorative and architectural works of art”, adopted in 1975, identified an indiscriminate creation of monuments throughout the country and set forth the task to centralize their production within a state commission, as well as synchronize it with the 5–year plans. The same year Lyudmila Zhivkova was elected as a chair of the Committee for Culture. The nomenclature of the works supposed to be controlled is impressive; it includes:

Memorial complexes, pantheons, sculptural-architectural monuments, architecturally, artistically or plastically designed squares, entrances of highways, interiors, historic spaces, pedestrian zones etc.; relief, mural, mosaic, sgraphito, ceramics, tapestry, woodcarving, stained glass, metal plastics etc. (CSA, 1975: sheet 35-42).

The “complex approach” of Zhivkova implied that all those arts became part of a totally planned living environment, ruled by the magic word of synthesis – synthesis of institutions and professional skills, of author and consumer, of local, national and international. With regard to monuments, the complex approach implies

The designing of a memorial cadastre and a national memorial scheme for the creation of memorial zones, ensembles and works of monumental art. (CSA, 1979: sheet 66)

This ambitious program culminated in the 1300th anniversary of the creation[4] of the Bulgarian state in 1981, which was an unparalleled peak of national ritual activity (cf. Elenkov, 2008: 399–400, et pass.). The aesthetic attack at the older monuments, engaged in the mid-70s, aimed at opening up more space for the construction of new works by a fresh generation of sculptors and architects, promoted by the group of Zhivkova.

As to the ideology of the period, it underlined the need for man to become the creator of his/her living milieu, because “we have put forward the great goal the fight for beauty to become a nation-wide movement“ (CSA, 1979: sheet 49). How do you combine centralization of cultural management, including “memorial cadastres” with the goal of promoting the creativity of the masses? For this regime it seemed obvious: by educating those same masses in the field of normative emotions. Mass organizations were mobilized to discuss (in fact convince people to like) the projects, artistic unions educated their members, local party groups transmitted enlightened central expertise; in short:

every single member of the socialist society is involved in the battle for beauty (CSA, 1979: sheet 63)”.

It seems unjust that the anti-communist rage in 1990s was directed towards the monuments of the more liberal Lyudmila Zhivkova’s period, some of them worked with much more artistic qualities than those of Stalinism. In Sofia, the dull, academic monument of the Soviet army is still in place, whereas the modernist one to the 1300 anniversary was destroyed by the municipality and replaced by a kitschy lion of the 1930s. Of course, Russia fiercely defended its army memorials, but there was more to it. People really did not like the modernist style of “1300 years of Bulgaria”,[5] whereas the naive figural depiction of the Soviet soldiers was easy to read, to glorify, as well as to denigrate. The problem of Zhivkova’s project was the attempt to rapidly impose from above a modern, total emotional sovereignty over the territory and this seemed to have produced the powerful emotional recoil.



CSA. 1975: “Pravilnik za monumentalnite, dekorativnite i arhitekturni proizvedenia na izkustvoto. Priet vaz osnova na Reshenie № 53/11. ІІ. 1975 g. na PB na TsK na BKP”, Central State Archives of the Republic of Bulgaria, Holding 405, Inventory 9, Archive unit 89. 

CSA. 1979: “Reshenia na V plenum na Komiteta za kultura ot 25 HІІ 1979”, Central State Archives of the Republic of Bulgaria, Holding 405, Inventory 9, Archive unit 255.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selection from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International Publishers.

Halbwachs, Maurice. 1925. Les cadres  sociaux de  la mémoire. Paris: Félix Alcan.

Hochschild, Arlie. 1983. The managed heart:  commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley:  University of California Press. 

Castellano, Cristina. 2007. “La Malinche: mediatrice transcontinentle”. Etudes culturelles et cultural studies, 24-25, 187-190.

Elliott, Cecil D. 1964. “Monuments and Monumentality”. Journal of Architectural Education (1947-1974), 18 (4), 51-53.

Elenkov, Ivan. 2008. Kulturniyat front [The Cultural Front]. Sofia: Ciela. 

[1] The exposition of Stalinist art “Images from the underground” (Sofia 2009, curator Bisera Yosifova), confronted us with a curious phenomenon: for many of the monumental sculptures it was impossible to identify an author.

[2] For Gramsci cultural hegemony is the consensus imposed by the ruling class upon society as a cultural norm (Gramsci, 1971).

[3] Curiously enough, the role of the heroes’ families in the construction of monuments remains central even today.

[4] In fact, the recognition by Byzantium.

[5] The simple minded dictator Zhivkov was said to have changed his daily itinerary in order not to have to see it.

Biographical note

Ivaylo Ditchev is a professor of cultural anthropology at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, working in the fields of political cultures, media and the city. His latest research project focusses on popular culture and politics. His latest book is entitled Kulturata kato distantsia. Edinadeset eseta po kulturna antropologia [Culture as a Distance. 11 Essays on Cultural Anthropology (2017). An essayist and a participant in the public debate.