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 last 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 and is set to be a big tourist attraction.

“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 sculpture of the Soviet Union’s founding father.

Most of the works indeed impressed by just being gigantic – huge sculptures of Bulgaria’sfirst communist leader GeorgyDimitrov, 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.

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

The government hopes the €1.5 million museum will pay for itself in two years through ticket sales. The tickets are priced at €3.

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 toreit down,” 35-year-old YanaSimeonova 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 on the bronze soldiers.

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

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