Since deciding to move to Bulgaria, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling to former communist sites and monuments, a form of travel referred to as “Red Tourism.” This year alone, I’ve spent time in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Transnistria, Ukraine, and Macedonia, with plans to visit most of the countries from the former Yugoslavia in the next few weeks. My interest in this genre of travel will come as no surprise to those who met me in Russian class or found me pouring over notes about St. Petersburg architecture at Chipotle in college. My interests in Eastern European history was sparked early, watching Olympic gymnastics and learning about why the Soviet Unified team was no longer called the USSR or why the Romanian team had been affected by the downfall of Nicolae Ceaușescu.
Now that these places are so close, I can’t seem to stay away. And while I love visiting these countries, seeing the monuments, and learning more about the local history, I’ve had some ethical questions rumbling around my brain. This is one of the reasons I was excited when I got to know Darmon Richter from The Bohemian Blog. I met him when he was leading a day-tour of Bulgarian Communist sites, but I’d coincidentally been using his blog in the few weeks prior to plan my trip to Transnistria and touring Chernobyl. His knowledge of the monuments in Bulgaria is seriously impressive, and it was a great way to learn more about my new adopted home.
Darmon is studying for his PhD in communist-era monuments and leads tours to communist sites in Bulgaria, Ukraine, the former Yugoslavia, and anywhere else that strikes his fancy. Given this expansive academic and practical background in Red Tourism, I thought he’d be the perfect person to ask my burning questions.
(Note: I’ve left my questions in American English, but Darmon’s answers are in British English).
How did you get interested in traveling to Communist monuments?
It was a complete accident, really. I took a holiday in Bulgaria just over 10 years ago, and I kept on passing these great big angular monuments by the roadside. Workers, soldiers, women holding sheathes of wheat… it was a completely different style to anything I was used to back home in Britain, and there were so many more of them here.
It isn’t the political aspect that attracts me – I was never drawn to the ideology itself – but in many countries that experienced communism the ruling party would express its philosophy in symbolic terms through nationwide movements of art and architecture. I was fascinated by the grand scale of it… the way that even small, village monuments were being produced in the same style from one end of the country to the other.
You could argue that the movement limited the creation and expression of new artistic forms. That’s certainly true, but I think communist art is best considered as one huge piece of work that covers an entire country – which is quite an extraordinary idea, when you think about it, and some of the individual structures it created were world-class architecture in their own right.
In time my interest outgrew Bulgaria alone, and I began visiting other formerly communist countries to see how monuments looked there. I have been on these monument-hunting trips in almost twenty post-communist countries now, and the list is still growing.
What are some of your favorite communist sites?
That’s not an easy question to answer because the feelings I have for a lot of these places don’t translate well into concepts like ‘favourite.’ I find the Jasenovac Memorial Park in Croatia particularly fascinating, for example – both for its monumentation, and its historical significance – but having been built on the site of a former concentration camp where many thousands of Serbs, Jews and Roma were tortured and killed, the word ‘favourite’ doesn’t sit particularly well with me.
In that place, the (Yugoslav) communists were commemorating the victims of Nazi atrocities. But there are other sites I have visited, and which I felt were deeply significant, where the Communists themselves had been guilty of atrocity. It’s not enjoyment that I seek when I visit these places, and so I struggle with words such as ‘like’ or ‘favourite.’
One of the monuments I most feel drawn to return to is the Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State, in Shumen, Bulgaria. It’s a colossal structure built by the Bulgarian Communist Party, and it’s quite incredible in design. However, while it conforms perfectly to what we might stylistically think of as communist monumental architecture, the place is decorated with mosaic designs of Orthodox priests and ancient Bulgarian khans. Many people refer to it as a ‘communist monument,’ but really, the message it offers is actually quite anti-communistic.
So I think it’s best to say that I don’t have favourites… and that I don’t view these places as simply being communist or not communist in nature. There are many levels of complex interpretation involved, and I find it difficult to talk about ‘communist sites’ so much as objects created under some variable degree of artistic influence by communist ideology.
How did Red Tourism become its own travel genre?
I don’t think it ever wasn’t. Even during the 1950s, Westerners would travel to the Soviet Union for holidays, and often I expect it was largely out of curiosity to see how the other side lived. These tourists were all bringing their foreign money in with them, and Stalin famously referred to them as ‘useful idiots.’
People are naturally attracted to the foreign, the mysterious. In the case of the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe and Asia, where much of the current interest in ‘Red Tourism’ is focussed, it’s not that the practice is new so much as it’s now easier than it ever was before.
What are the benefits of Red Tourism?
There is a huge value here, I think, in overcoming past propaganda. I believe in the importance of cultural exchange, and so anything that brings different cultures into contact seems like a potentially positive thing to me. Western tourists travelling to post-communist countries cannot help but meet people along the way, and I like to think that they’ll typically get a more rounded experience than merely a voyeuristic glance behind the former Iron Curtain.
For the people and communities being visited, there is terrific potential for tourism revenue as a result. Some countries are better at capitalising on this than others – after all, it can take time to change social taboos – but it’s a slow process which inevitably seems to lead towards boosted local incomes.
Looking longer term, the increased interest in locations associated with former communist regimes can also offer an opportunity for the reappraisal of physical culture. Many of these countries feel no particular pride for the buildings and monuments left over from their communist past; but when foreigners are queuing up to visit them, it’s hard not to begin to reassess them. People in a lot of these host countries are gradually becoming more aware of how highly outsiders value their cultural heritage (even the ‘ugly’ bits!), and that in turn encourages preservation efforts and a reinforced sense of national identity.
What are some of the main criticism or downfalls to Red Tourism?
I don’t see reason to criticise it, personally. I think in principle the concept of tourists travelling to sites associated with former communist systems is a thoroughly worthwhile cultural exchange that can make for a powerful education.
Like any form of tourism, it might sometimes be conducted in poor taste or for less-than-positive motives. But I don’t see much use in suggesting examples. After all, these will likely have more to do with the traveller than with their mode of travel, so there are as many ways of doing this ‘wrong’ as there are people in the world.
As a general rule, if people travel to these places with an open mind, behaving safely, thoughtfully and respectfully, then I cannot think of any downfall worth speculating.
I’ve been struggling recently with why I want Communist monuments saved and Confederate monuments torn down. My gut is because the Confederate monuments were put up after the fall of the Confederacy, but I’m not sure if that’s a good enough difference. What are your thoughts about critics who say these monuments are glorifying a violent past?
That’s an interesting problem, and I can think of at least a few monuments in Eastern Europe that were raised to commemorate communist heroes – even after the fall of communism itself. I suppose the best way to approach it is by separating people from their flags. A town might be proud of their local hero, for example, even though that hero ultimately answered to leaders who followed a reprehensible idea.
I don’t know enough about Confederate history and its monuments to say much more than that. But I don’t think the two should necessarily be treated as different, and that’s why I was cautious earlier to avoid using words like ‘favourite.’ Although I can’t personally relate to the crimes of communism as I didn’t suffer under any such system myself, for many people in many places the ideology manifested as sheer cruelty and intolerance, which is why I tend to choose my words carefully when discussing its physical legacy.
The challenge here is separating the psychological ties that bind bad ideas to good art. If the art is good enough, then my feeling is that it’s worth the effort of trying.
What do you wish people understood before traveling to communist sites?
I wish for absolutely nothing. I see travel as a way of learning – so the less people understand in advance, the more they stand to gain from the experience.
Though having said that, I do believe it’s possible to travel without allowing oneself to learn anything in the process. Just once or twice, I’ve taken people on tours to communist monuments and by the end, I realise they’ve not taken anything in. Their heads are still full of the Cold War-era stereotypes that they learned in school and they have successfully resisted the correcting information offered by their physical surroundings. That doesn’t happen often, but I have seen it a few times now and it saddens me.
What is the future of Red Tourism?
People are always going to be interested in other cultures, other ways of living, and whenever once-forbidden knowledge of those cultures becomes easily accessible then I think there’ll always be a rush to consume it.
What we’re experiencing now is like a post-communism gold rush of information and visual sensation, being disseminated through Internet shares and first-hand travel experience. Some tourists go into that with misconceptions, some with a voyeuristic desire to gawk at the symbols of a collapsed regime… but I think that these more sensationalist approaches to Red Tourism are likely to die out somewhat, as the communist states of the 20th century are increasingly relegated to the history books in a process that strips them of their formerly ‘controversial’ status.
An earlier question asked about the “criticism or downfalls” of Red Tourism – but I think the future of Red Tourism is that it will eventually reach a stage of de-sensationalised knowledge consumption where such concepts become irrelevant. You probably wouldn’t think to ask about the downfalls of visiting Roman ruins, and in time, I believe the same will be true for tourism focussed on sites of communist heritage.
In the meantime, of course, many of the most culturally significant buildings and monuments created by formerly communist states are being allowed to slip into decline. It is my hope – and the main drive of my work, both in researching and leading tours to these places – that so-called ‘Red Tourism’ is normalised before all its most interesting artefacts are lost.
Further Reading about Red Tourism Sites
- Chernobyl Today: 30 Pictures that Show What Life is like at Chernobyl Now
- Chernobyl Tours: 10 Things to Know Before You Tour Pripyat and Chernobyl
- Listen: What Happened at Chernobyl
- Listen: The History of Kiev
- Listen: The Hermit Kingdom of Albania
- The Dry Bridge Market: the Funky Tbilisi Flea Market with History on Display
- Listen: Belgrade: The Rise of the White City