Formerly pride of the emerging Bulgarian economy, Sugar Factory now stands for dereliction
Issue 49-50, October-November 2010
by Bozhidara Georgieva; photography by Anthony Georgieff
When you arrived in Sofia, what was the first place your Bulgarian friends took you to? They probably showed you St Aleksandr Nevskiy Cathedral, took you for a stroll along the yellow brick road from the National Assembly to the Stalinist "Largo," or did you go shopping in one of the new "malls," the hit of the Bulgarian economy? Maybe you already tasted rakiya and shopska salad, or been to the chalga, your first experience with Bulgar pop culture?
But no one took you to Zaharna Fabrika, or Sugar Factory.
Perhaps with a good reason. A few years ago the area became a killing field. A band of Gypsies attacked a local restaurant where some Bulgarians were celebrating a friend's school graduation. A university professor was murdered in the process, and Bulgaria learned that life in Sugar Factory could be as risky as an unprovoked attack in some Latin American shanty town. The only difference was that in Rio fightings are between rival drugs gangs, while in Sofia it was between Bulgarians and Roma squatters.
The Sugar Factory suburb may be infamous but, as anyone who dares branch off Slivnitsa Blvd after the bridge at Zaharna Fabrika railway station will discover, it also has the charm of a place where time has stopped.
The cafés and small shops, the façade of the old cinema, the cars and the washing hanging from windows: everything looks like the last 20 years have bypassed the area, speeding down the renovated Slivnitsa Blvd. Sugar Factory is probably Sofia's only neighbourhood where the spaces between the blocks of flats, instead of cars and building sites, are still filled with tall shrubs, verdant trees, green grass and the attempts of amateur gardeners to grow flowers.
This is also the site of Bulgaria's only "home" for retired artists. An institution founded years ago by the Culture Ministry, it has little resemblance to old folks homes in the West. Upstairs from the local cinema – long disused but with the sign still on – it is a place where actors, artists and singers with no relatives to care for them spend their sunset years in modest misery.
But the main reason to visit Sugar Factory is, well, the sugar factory.
It has not been functioning for decades. Some of its halls were used as warehouses by various companies, and the Bulgarian National Television housed its film archive there, before the building became dangerous. But in spite of the decay, the red brick façade with its high, almost Gothic windows and crenelated roof, which you can see from Slivnitsa Blvd bridge, is the most beautiful old industrial building in Bulgaria.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers