Crafting Contested Heritage Narratives in Times of Democratic Crisis: Comparison between 1993 and 2023

In the past thirty years, the “former East” and “former West” (Hlavajova, Sheikh 2016) are going through different processes that try simultaneously to define a path towards a common future and a clear separation from difficult pasts. Those processes have been observed in many different fields, including cultural heritage. In particular, heritage sites that concentrate a potential for conflict have been in the focus of attention, as they became a platform for expression of past and present injustices. And while, in the first years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, contested heritage was seen as a rite of passage of a society towards democracy, in the 2020s, it has become a symbol of the problems that persist in democratic societies.
We look at a debate concerning a single heritage site – the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia – in a time-lapse of 30 years. In 1993, a first attempt for its dismantlement was put in motion, and in 2023, a second one went a step further – taking down the central sculptural figure of the monumental ensemble. The analysis of the similitudes and differences of the public debates of these two events, of the ideological transformations and renegotiations of the pasts, of the creation and establishment of official contested heritage narratives, allows us to reveal a particularly representative fragment of contemporary memory politics in action. We will concentrate our attention on the part played by civil society actors in these processes, and on the radicalization in the political uses of heritage.