DIY spaces of remembrance: Artist’s tribute to Bulgaria’s gulag prisoners

<span>The Neighbours. Supporters of the installation say it is an overdue act of resistance against oblivion.</span><span>Photograph: Lubov Cheresh</span>
The Neighbours. Supporters of the installation say it is an overdue act of resistance against oblivion.Photograph: Lubov Cheresh

When Petko Ogoyski was released from communist Bulgaria’s gulag in 1953, he built a six-storey memorial tower in his home village of Chepintsi. Enraged by the lack of state recognition for the suffering he and thousands of others had endured, Ogoyski – who had been imprisoned for writing poems comparing Soviet rulers to Satan – filled it with artefacts redolent of detention and deprivation.

Two chunks of dried bread representing daily rations. A cloth harness used to move heavy stones in the quarry where prisoners were forced to work. A wooden clog with a hollowed-out heel, used for everything from holding pencils to smuggling notes out of the camp.

Such “DIY spaces of remembrance” are common across Bulgaria, says Lilia Topouzova, a Bulgarian-Canadian scholar who has spent the past two decades collecting the voices of the former prisoners, visiting hundreds of “vernacular museums” in homes up and down the country, including that of Ogoyski, who died in 2019.

“Petko’s was the most elaborate, but what all the survivors’ living spaces have in common is that there is always a piece of the camp in them,” she says. “This, I believe, is because as a memory it is not part of the public realm, it only exists in the domestic space.”

Topouzova’s study, an attempt, she says, to “un-silence” the prisoners, will form the backbone of Bulgaria’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The museums showcased tell the stories of the silenced survivors of state violence – from artists and LGBTQ+ people, to Turkish, Roma and Muslim minorities, and innumerable others seen as deviants simply for dancing the swing or wearing a western-style coat.

These people suffer to this day, says Topouzova, not only because of their historical persecution but because of a lack of public and state recognition and a widespread hesitancy in Bulgaria to confront the past.

Supporters of the biennale installation say it is a long overdue act of resistance against oblivion, led by a new generation. (Topouzova, a documentary film-maker at the University of Toronto, was just 10 when communism collapsed; her fellow artists Krasimira Butseva and Julian Chehirian were not born.)

Curated by Vasil Vladimirov, the installation, entitled The Neighbours, has recreated the domestic interior of a camp survivor, which on first glance is a typical apartment but on closer inspection includes items such as stones, soil, grass and water collected from the former gulag sites. The voices, sighs, sobs and sometimes laughter of the survivors evoke their presence.

It is, some say, a welcome sign that the culture of memory in perhaps the most loyal to Moscow of all the Soviet satellites, is finally changing as Bulgaria, an EU member since 2007, finally asserts its own identity. They also point to the recent toppling of a 37-metre-high (121ft) monument to the Soviet army in the centre of Sofia, sparked by outrage over the atrocities in Ukraine and marking a rupture in a traditionally close relationship with Moscow.

For Sabri Iskender, a human rights activist who was sent in the 1980s to the largest former camp, Belene, the installation should bring long-awaited recognition to him and others, even as the survivor numbers dwindle. “It doesn’t make up for the lack of justice, but it goes some way at least to informing Bulgarians and the wider world about our history,” he says.

Others have criticised what they believe is a negative depiction of Bulgaria as it prepares to present the scars of history on the international stage.

Amelia Gesheva, Bulgaria’s deputy culture minister, admits a sense of ambivalence but says overall the country should take pride in the pavilion. “This is the largest such project of its kind on this topic we have ever had”, she says. “The Neighbours represents all those stories that have hitherto not been told.”

A government initiative, she says, will soon grant Belene, on the Danube River, the status of a national heritage site. Until now none of the 40 former gulag complexes has been preserved. Instead most have been discarded, left to the weeds, or in some cases repurposed as a high-security prison, a police shooting range or a crash forensics site.

At the site of Lovech camp in north-central Bulgaria, makeshift memorials put up by survivors at a rock quarry where prisoners were forced to work and where many died are the only indication of what was once deemed the harshest labour camp. A miniature ceramic church houses plastic bottles of rakia brandy and candles to honour the victims. On the ruins of a camp building someone has painted one of the slogans with which prisoners were once confronted: “If you want peace you have to labour.”

Where the barracks used to stand is a police forensic collision investigation site. Interior ministry guards shrug when asked what they know about Lovech. “We didn’t learn about it at school, so what I know about it is from what I’ve seen on the TV,” says one, in his 50s. “It was a prison for enemies of the state and criminals.”

Christofor, 66, who lives. in a nearby retirement home built by prisoners with rock hewn from the quarry, identifies himself as a former member of the communist secret police. “Most ordinary people were oblivious to the existence of the camp,” he says. “That was deliberate.”

The justice system has not brought redress for gulag victims. The only trial related to the camps – in which five people were tried for abuses carried out in Lovech – was discontinued because it came up against the 35-year statute of limitations; one of its main witnesses, Nadia Dunkin, an actor sent to Lovech in 1961 and featured in a BBC Panorama documentary, was found murdered in her home in 1994.

Gesheva does not think trials would help. “I think at some point the survivors just want to put it all behind them,” she says.

Iskender, who was imprisoned for refusing to submit to the government’s forced assimilation of the country’s Turkish population, disagrees.

“You know they beat me so badly my back resembled a grilled aubergine. I suffer from nightmares and a pain in my shoulder to this day. I will not, cannot, put it behind me,” he says.

“We know the names of those who beat us, those who were behind the forced assimilation, who are still alive, but they are protected and there is not the will to pursue them. I would dearly love to see them appear in court but I fear it will never happen.”

One of the latest gulag survivors to die, in February, was Tzvetana Dzerhermanova, 96, who was arrested in 1948 in a campaign against anarchists and sent to a forced labour camp where she was held for three years. “After that experience, nothing in life fazed my mother,” says her daughter, Elza.

Elza believes she has suppressed much of her own pain. “For years there was no one to share it with,” she says, alluding to the lack of discourse in society. “In comparison to my mother, I didn’t suffer, but now I recognise the trans-generational trauma.”

It is hoped that The Neighbours, being assembled in an industrial warehouse in Sofia, will have a life after the biennale, as most Bulgarians will not get to see it in Venice.

“The biennale should just be the starting point of this conversation,” says Topouzova. She looks forward to the day when DIY museums and the un-silencing of victims is no longer necessary. “I hope that eventually we are able to exit these rooms as the memories become part of the public space instead.”