A communist symbol, a huge ruby-red five pointed star is seen at the entrance of the new Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. A new art museum opening in Sofia symbolizes Bulgaria’s long and painful farewell with its totalitarian past. Hundreds of paintings and statues from the Communist era that had been gathering dust in cellars are now being restored for a place in their new home. AP Photo/Oleg Popov.

Giant statues of Soviet dictators Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin. Paintings of enthusiastic socialist laborers. A huge red star that graced Communist Party headquarters. As Europe marks the 20th anniversary of the Soviet collapse, this nation that’s still shaking off its troubled communist legacy is opening a museum dedicated to the totalitarian past.

A debate’s raging on whether the museum romanticizes the Soviet era or teaches new generations about its horrors. Other former communist countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary have long had similar museums; the fact it’s taken Bulgaria this long to open one is a sign of its fraught transition to democracy.

Pulled out of cellars and warehouses, more than 100 artworks will be put on display in the museum that opens next month in a Sofia suburb, and will showcase a period of Bulgaria’s history when art had to be created in line with strict ideological rules.

Along with the statues and busts of communist leaders, there are also oil paintings exalting the supposed “eternal friendship” between Bulgaria and the Soviet Union.

Bulgaria’s government recently adopted an ambitious strategy to promote the capital, Sofia, as an attractive culture and travel destination.

Along with the museum of totalitarian art, the initiative also includes a museum of contemporary art and a museum dubbed the Bulgarian Louvre, which is to showcase the best of the country’s culture stretching back to antiquity.

“A new generation will emerge, young and pure, which must not be deprived of the history and heritage of its people,” said Culture Minister Vezhdi Rashidov.

He said much of the socialist art goes beyond propaganda.

“Many of the objects here have a high art value,” said Rashidov, himself a well-known sculptor and a driver of the project in which the state has invested euro1.5 million ($2.1 million).

The project had been presented for months as a “Museum of Totalitarian Art.” Ahead of its opening, however, workers fashioned stone letters on the main wall spelling out its new name: “Museum of Socialist Art.”

The sudden switch has some critics complaining of a whitewash carried out by a Bulgarian political elite with roots in the communist past.

“A feature of the Bulgarian transition is that it was organized by the communist nomenclature itself and controlled by the structures of the former secret services,” said Andrey Kovachev, a Bulgarian European parliamentarian.

“The history debate was frozen and overshadowed by nostalgia for the repressive dictatorship, driven by its successors.”

Asked about the reason for the renaming, museum curator Bisera Yosifova spoke of “emotional extremism” in evaluating the past, and argued the museum contains valuable works by some of the best known painters and sculptors of the time.

“An exhibition of totalitarian artifacts could be staged at some point in the future,” she added.

Georgi Lozanov, a media expert, said Bulgaria must have a museum of communism that will tell new generations the story of a period that should never again become reality.

“We are the last country of the former socialist countries which has no such museum,” Lozanov said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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