SOFIA. It’s hard not to notice the gigantic 11-meter statue towering over Plovdiv on the second highest hill in the Bulgarian city.
The giant figure, named “Alyosha” – a diminutive used to refer to Soviet soldiers – honors Red Army soldiers who fought in Bulgaria during World War II. Some sources, including the Russian Foreign Ministry, demand that Alyosha is based on a photo of a real Russian soldier who fought in Bulgaria at that time.
Now that Russia is waging an unprovoked war with Ukraine, Soviet war memorials across Eastern Europe are gaining renewed attention, and Red Army monuments have recently been demolished in Poland and Latvia.
French artist Mitch Brezunek has found a new and unique way to confront the past: turning Alyosha into a ghost. The digital falsification is part of his exhibition “The Ghost Is Here”, which opened on September 9 in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city and cultural center.
During communist rule, Red Army memorials were built throughout Bulgaria to honor Soviet soldiers and their role in the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. They were considered symbols of Bulgarian-Soviet friendship, despite the fact that the Red Army occupied Bulgaria and the Soviet Union declared war on the country in 1944.
Since the fall of communism, Soviet monuments and war memorials have become lightning rods for discussion and reckoning with the past in the former Eastern Bloc. Angered by the Soviet occupation and the recent Russian military intervention, many advocated the removal of statues and monuments, proposals that drew the ire of Russian officials and led to public and diplomatic spats.
In Bulgaria, there were several attempts to remove Alyosha, but none of them were successful.
When Estonia removed a World War II monument from downtown Tallinn in 2007, the city was rocked by violent riots and the country was hit by a massive cyberattack later blamed on Russian hackers.
Brezunek was born in France in 1989. Since 2016 he has been living and working in Plovdiv. However, the Soviet monuments made an impression on him when he first came to Bulgaria 12 years ago and began to get acquainted with the history of the country.
“These monuments are everywhere. They never go unnoticed because of their size and location. For example, in Plovdiv, Alyosha dominates the city and the sky,” the Frenchman told RFE/RL. “It’s impossible every time you see a monument not to ask yourself, ‘Why is it here? And how did he get here and what message does he send us?
In his show, Brezunek digitally alters the images of 12 Soviet monuments in different cities of Bulgaria, their transformation, according to the artist, is not only a message about the past, but also a reflection of the present Bulgaria as a member of the European Union.
Monuments are all around us for a reason, Brezunek said as he promoted the show to remind us of the past and the mistakes we’ve made.
“Can we learn from past mistakes and create a better future? The ghost is here to remind us that history often repeats itself,” Brezunek says.
The central element of the exposition is a screen 7.5 meters high, on which Alyosha turns into a giant ghost. Other Red Army monuments that Brezunek has digitally transformed are the Mound of Soviet Soldiers in the town of Dobrich and the Monument to Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship in the port and seaside resort of Varna. Other monuments were in Sofia, Burgas, Stara Zagora, Ruse and Byala Slatina.
Together, they make up the final component of Brezunek’s exhibition, a three-dimensional digital map that, according to the artist, shows “the two faces of Bulgaria”. On the one hand – the past, the monuments of the Soviet Army, and on the other – “the present, Bulgaria’s membership in the European Union.”
Brezunek is also using his art to raise money for Ukraine, which has been waging a full-scale war against Russia since February 24. A 3D animation of Alyosha becoming a ghost is being sold as a non-fungible token (NFT). a unique digital collectible built on blockchain technology:
According to the organizers of the exhibition, every week until November 9, every 3D work from the monuments under construction will be sold, and 70% of the proceeds will go to support artists and cultural events in Ukraine and Bulgaria.
In recent years, NFTs have become popular in the arts, culture and sports world despite regulatory and environmental concerns. “3D is a fantastic property because you don’t have any physical limitations, so you can really explore a new kind of creative freedom,” Brezunek told Radio Liberty.
According to Brezhunek, digital work is only the first stage of the project. In 2023, he plans a physical installation at the monument to Alyosha: “I would really like to see Alyosha as a ghost under a golden shroud,” he said.
The opening date of the exhibition by Brezhunek – September 9 – was not chosen by chance. Four days ago, in 1944, the Soviet Union declared war on Bulgaria, which had joined the Axis. And on September 9, a coup d’état took place, during which the government of Konstantin Muravyov was overthrown and the pro-communist resistance movement Fatherland Front seized power, which marked the beginning of the communist regime in Bulgaria, which remained in power until 1989.