SOFIA – It’s hard not to miss the massive 11-meter-tall statue that towers over Plovdiv and stands proudly on the Bulgarian city’s second-highest hill.
The giant figure named Alyosha, a generic diminutive referring to Soviet soldiers, honors the Red Army soldiers who fought in Bulgaria during World War II. Some sources, including the Russian Foreign Ministry, legal action that Alyosha was based on a photo of a real Russian soldier then fighting in Bulgaria.
With Russia now waging an unprovoked war against Ukraine, Soviet war memorials have attracted renewed attention across Eastern Europe, with memorials honoring the recently crushed Red Army in Poland and Latvia.
French artist Mitch Brezunek has found a new and unique way to confront the past: by turning Alyosha into a ghost. The digital manipulation is part of his exhibition The Ghost Is Here, which opened September 9 in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city and cultural hub.
During communist rule, Red Army memorials were erected throughout Bulgaria to honor Soviet soldiers and their role in defeating Nazi Germany in World War II. They were considered symbols of Bulgarian-Soviet friendship, even though the Red Army occupied Bulgaria and the Soviet Union declared war on the country in 1944.
After the fall of communism, Soviet monuments and war memorials throughout the former Eastern Bloc became lightning rods for discussion and reckoning with the past. Angered by Soviet occupation and more recent Russian military intervention, many have advocated removing the statues and monuments — proposals that have drawn the ire of Russian officials and sparked public and diplomatic controversy.
There have been several attempts to remove Alyosha in Bulgaria, but none have been successful.
When Estonia removed a World War II memorial from central Tallinn in 2007, the city was wracked by violent unrest and the country suffered a massive cyberattack that was later blamed on Russian hackers.
Born in France in 1989, Brezunek has been living and working in Plovdiv since 2016. However, the Soviet monuments impressed him when he first came to Bulgaria 12 years ago and began to study the country’s history.
“These monuments are everywhere here. They never go unnoticed because of their size and location. In Plovdiv, for example, Alyosha dominates the city and the sky,” the Frenchman told RFE/RL. “It’s impossible not to ask yourself every time you see the monument: ‘Why is it here? And how did it end up here and what message is it sending us?'”
In his exhibition, Brezunek digitally alters images of 12 Soviet monuments in different cities across Bulgaria, their transformations, the artist said, are not only a message about the past but also a reflection on Bulgaria’s present as a member of the European Union.
Monuments are all around us for a reason, Brezunek said while promoting the show, to remind us of the past and the mistakes we made.
“Can we learn from past missteps and create a better future? The spirit is here to remind us that history often repeats itself,” says Brezunek.
The heart of the exhibition is a 7.5 meter high screen, on which a slightly smaller Aljoscha transforms into a giant ghost. The other Red Army monuments that Brezunek has digitally transformed are the Hill of Soviet Soldiers in the city of Dobrich and the Monument to Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship in the port and seaside resort of Varna. Other monuments were located in Sofia, Burgas, Stara Zagora, Ruse and Byala Slatina.
Taken together, they form the final component of Brezunek’s exhibition, a 3D digital map that, as the artist puts it, shows “the two faces of Bulgaria”. On the one hand the past, the monuments of the Soviet army, on the other “the present, Bulgaria’s membership in the European Union”.
Brezunek also uses his art to raise money for Ukraine, which has been waging an all-out war against Russia since February 24. a unique digital collectible based on blockchain technology:
According to the exhibition organizers, each 3D artwork at the Monuments-in-Flux will be sold every week through November 9, with 70 percent of the proceeds going to support artists and cultural events in Ukraine and Bulgaria.
In recent years, NFTs have become popular in the world of arts, culture and sports, despite regulatory and environmental concerns. “3D is a fantastic feature because you don’t have physical limitations, so you can really explore a new kind of creative freedom,” Brezunek told RFE/RL.
According to Brezunek, the digital artwork is just the first phase of the project. In 2023 he is planning a physical installation at the Aljoscha memorial: “I would very much like to see Aljoscha as a phantom under a golden shroud,” he said.
The date – September 9 – that Brezunek chose to open the exhibition was no coincidence. Four days earlier, in 1944, the Soviet Union declared war on Axis ally Bulgaria. And on September 9th there was a coup d’état in which the government of Konstantin Muraviev was overthrown and the pro-communist resistance movement, the Fatherland Front, took power, marking the beginning of Bulgaria’s communist regime, which remained in power until 1989 .