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'Banksy of Bulgaria' paints the Red Army pop

A Sofia monument's pop art overhaul has driven a debate on the national identity.

“Monuments sometimes work best when they are abstract,” wrote Ian Buruma in a 2005 essay. “The more real an artefact is made to look, the phonier it often seems.”

Perhaps something of that was in the mind of the unknown artist or artists who embarked upon an eye-popping bit of guerrilla art in the centre of the Bulgarian capital a few weeks back. Overnight, the lifesize Red Army soldiers of a Soviet monument was transformed into a cast of western pop culture. They were now, among others, Superman, the Joker, Robin, Santa Claus and Ronald McDonald, above a spraypainted legend “In step with the times”.

“For some it was an insult and for others it was an inspiration,” said the Sofia Echo. The significance of Bulgaria’s “divisive” memorial, like so many similar monuments across that part of Europe, looms over the nation’s identity:

The monument commemorates the Soviet "liberation" of Bulgaria’s capital city in September 1944, which opened the way for the communist regime that was to rule until not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. During communism, it was a place of pilgrimage for communist leaders like Georgi Dimitrov and Todor Zhivkov, but since the advent of democracy some pressure groups have been lobbying for its removal

The embellishment was removed within days, but not before the unknown artist or artists gained the inevitable sobriquet “the Bansky of Bulgaria”, after the stonkingly famous British street artist.

Bulgarian ministers deplored the “vandalism”, while Moscow condemned the “desecration of the memory of Soviet soldiers who fell in the name of freeing Bulgaria and Europe from Nazism", while others - not least online - lauded it as a welcome pop-art intervention in the region’s long-running debate about the politics of monuments.

The controversial Sofia paintjob invites comparisons with the pink tank of Prague, which was returned to the city recently after 20 years away as part of the annual festival that commemorates the Soviet departure from the city.

The twin stories encouraged Transitions Online to compile a selection of controversial monuments in Central Asia and the Balkans – “ranging from the kitschy to the megalomaniacal, from the grotesque to the blatantly offensive”.

Academic and columnist Boiko Penchev cheered a stunt aimed squarely at a national “mentality that leaves Bulgaria a country that resists change”. “The anonymous painters did not just paint over the grey figures of the monument,” he writes in the newspaper Dnevnik, in a piece that has just been translated at PressEurop.eu. “They painted over the grey face of power itself.”

Monuments are an attempt to cloak clashing interpretations of history behind figures of bronze or granite. But it is impossible to escape the war over the past. Especially where the Soviet army and its monument are concerned. That's why arriving at its visual transformation is a logical step. What is surprising in this case is the intelligence and artistic subtlety of the work.

Painting a Soviet soldier as Batman is a sacrilege. It’s an “undermining of historical memory” when history is rewritten in a non-organised way, without the sanction of the party and state. And that is the case before us.

And their work is indelible, said Penchev. “Despite the clean-up, the monument will never be the same – the photos and memories will stay.”

It lives on in commerce, too. “To show that Bulgaria is not without its entrepreneurs,” noted the Echo, “online sales of T-shirts emblazoned with the made-over monument followed swiftly.”