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Bulgaria showcases communist-era art in new museum

A huge statue of Vladimir Lenin presiding over busts of Soviet-era leaders and proletarians exalting the state: communism returned with a vengeance to Bulgaria this week.

But only in a museum.

Two decades after the Soviet collapse - when hunger strikers pushed for the removal of all propaganda statues, red stars and hammer-and-sickle symbols from Bulgaria's squares and public buildings - authorities resurrected them in the country's first ever Museum of Socialist Art.

"It was high time to put communism where it belongs - in a museum," Culture Minister Vezhdi Rashidov said at the opening Monday as visitors rushed to take pictures and buy memorabilia.

Retrieved from cellars and warehouses, the 60 paintings and 25 statues inside and the 77 giant sculptures in the garden glorified a regime that lasted for 45 years before it was toppled in 1989.

Initially put forward as a Museum of Totalitarian Art, the project underwent a last-minute change of name to avoid controversy.

"I remember this Lenin back from the time it stood downtown. But there it was on a pedestal and looked even bigger, grander," 79-year-old Metody Stoyanov said, standing next to the imposing five-metre (16-foot) sculpture of the Soviet Union's founding father.

But if scale fits well the sculptures in the 7,500-square-metre (80,729-square-foot) outdoor exhibit space, the size of some of the paintings in the 550-square-metre hall put off some visitors.

"They suffer from their scale. It is oppressing... But that was their purpose," said a 58-year-old interpreter, refusing to give her name, while pointing to a wall-sized painting of a World War II resistance fighter.

Back at the entrance, two art students pondered in front of the ruby-red steel-and-glass star that used to adorn the communist party headquarters in downtown Sofia.

"Is that it? I thought it was bigger. They once said it was a real ruby," 32-year-old Veselina Nikolova said.

Most of the works indeed impressed by just being gigantic - huge sculptures of Bulgaria's first communist leader Georgy Dimitrov, angular Lenin heads cast in bronze, and scores of much smaller heads and busts of long-ruling Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov.

Other oeuvres glorifying the working classes drew smiles - and sniggers - for their blatant propaganda: an oil painting of a proud sickle-wielding harvester in the fields wearing three communist medals on his pristine white shirt or a miner who is shown smoking and reading the communist party newspaper after his shift.

Apart from the personality cult and the propaganda, all were truly fine pieces of art, said the culture minister, himself a sculptor.

"These art works, discarded as 'totalitarian,' are true masterpieces," Rashidov said, hailing the "masterful craftsmanship, brilliant compositions, beautiful artistic solutions."

The government hopes the 1.5-million-euro ($2.1-million) museum will pay for itself in two years through ticket sales. The tickets are priced at three euros.

A small shop at the museum also hawked Lenin and Dimitrov postcards along with mugs and T-shirts with the museum's logo.

Visitors could also view 45 minutes of communist-era newsreels, which notably featured the destruction of the mausoleum in downtown Sofia where Dimitrov's embalmed body was exhibited.

It was finally blown up in 1999 following years of raging debates on its fate.

"Tourists would have swarmed to see that. It's a pity they tore it down," 35-year-old Yana Simeonova said.

Large crowds had thronged this summer to an otherwise neglected Soviet Army monument still standing in a public garden in Sofia when a group of artists painted pop culture icons such as Superman, Captain America and McDonald's clown mascot Ronald on the bronze soldiers.

The transformation lasted for just three days before being cleaned amid angry protest notes from the Russian embassy in Sofia.

But it was a crazy break in the long-running debates on what to do with a number of communist-era monuments that are still left standing across Bulgaria and are anyway too large to fit in a museum.