Neither Nature Nor Progress: Unearthing Memories and Affects on the Flowering Benches of Kremikovtsi Open-pit Mine

An envelope with an image from the Kremikovtsi metallurgical complex with stamps depicting a Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula). Date unclear, stamp series released on 20 April 1965. Personal archive of the author.
Drawing on fieldwork, interviews, and audiovisual methods, Slava Savova examines the ecological and social legacies of the abandoned industrial site of Kremikovsti, Bulgaria, and reflects on its status as a perpetually in-between space of anthropogenic nature.
[This article is part of a dossier on Media In-Between.]

After waiting for more than a month for a rain forecast without a thunderstorm warning, we finally embark on a much-anticipated day of fieldwork, at the end of which we hope to have recorded a missing fragment of footage for a video installation. As the light rain oozes down, we gradually descend into a flowering abyss, saturated with the sensory signals of a thriving ecosystem invisible and inaudible beyond its vertical rims. We are spiraling down the benches of the disused open-pit iron ore mine “Kremikovtsi”, which once stood at the center of the ambitious industrialization campaign of Bulgaria’s postwar socialist government. The mine was meant to supply the largest metallurgical plant in Southeast Europe, also bearing the name of the nearby village: Kremikovtsi.1Now included in the wider Sofia region as a neighborhood of the capital. Since its closure in 2009, the mine has been suspended between former days of exploitation and future intentions for recultivation, locked in a perpetual state of “in-betweenness.” Emptied of the economic and political value it once held, the pit has now turned into unexpected infrastructure for a flourishing ecosystem, undergoing a process of unassisted rewilding.

The history of the open-pit mine in Kremikovtsi is a cross-section through the entangled making of hybrid nature, where the already ambiguous boundaries between nature and society are fading even further as both sides of the dualism appear to be locked in a continuous process of co-creation.2Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard University Press, 1993). Over the course of a year and a half, what started with occasional visits to the mine to record audiovisual samples for an upcoming exhibition evolved into a process of collecting and (re)assembling fragments of memories – narratives, objects, documents reaching into dozens of microhistories all originating from what is now largely perceived as residual emptiness. Similar to Bridget Crone, Sam Nightingale and Polly Stanton’s exploration of fieldwork, these field visits become much less a preliminary collection of data than a process “situated within material conditions, material processes, and their urgencies such that it cannot be presumed in advance.”3Bridget Crone, Sam Nightingale and Polly Stanton, eds., Fieldwork for Future Ecologies: Radical Practice for Art and Art-based Research (Onomatopee 225, 2022), 9. Or, as Kristen Sharp puts it, it is “both process and product,” something that unfolds out and involves negotiation with place through a set of relations, “materially, socially and symbolically.”4Kristen Sharp, “Open Fields: Fieldwork as a Creative Process,” in Fieldwork for Future Ecologies: Radical Practice for Art and Art-based Research, ed. Bridget Crone, Sam Nightingale and Polly Stanton, (Onomatopee 225, 2022), 50–52.

Between January 2022 and August 2023, I visited the village of Kremikovtsi and the open-pit mine located in its vicinity more than a dozen times to record the changing environment in the pit and to conduct long narrative interviews with residents — former workers in the mine and the metallurgical complex or their families. The interviews focused on the personal histories of the respondents, and while the trajectory of the conversations could not always be anticipated, they followed similar themes such as upbringing, education or professional training and employment in the metallurgical complex, domestic life, and the experience of the long “transition” period.5Beginning in 1989, ongoing. Marked by transition from a socialist to a capitalist economic model and the privatization of state-owned entities. The interviews contained recurring questions about environmental change, health, and healthcare, which provoked uneven engagement with these topics. A small collection of objects related to the metallurgical complex — books, brochures, stamps, envelopes, and industrial memorabilia I started to collect — became the tangible thread, linking the oral histories to materialities that have long since ceased to exist.

The north edge of the “Kremikovtsi” iron ore open-pit mine in June 2023. Image courtesy of Slava Savova.

This article attempts to explore different ways of making sense of the uneasy “in-betweenness”6See Bernhard Giesen, “Inbetweenness and Ambivalence”, in The Oxford Handbook of Cultural Sociology, ed. Jeffrey S. Alexander, Ronald N. Jacobs, and Philips Smith (Oxford University Press, 2012), 788–804. of anthropogenic nature by retracing the relations that bind a post-industrial landscape with its political and social history. Rather than following a linear chronological narrative grounded in archival data, it seeks to explore the unlikely connections between personal histories as told by ordinary voices and geological formations, groundwater flows, plant species, and air currents. It outlines the possible path of a research inquiry, by asking: What kind of memories, experiences, and affects could be excavated from the benches of a disused mine? What histories are submerged in the vast body of water flooding its pit? What are the afterlives of former places of extraction and what futures were discounted there?7See the perspective of Liliana Doganova, Discounting the Future (Zone Books, 2024). She reflects upon the economic model of discounting that leads to deprecation of the future which she proposes as the major cause of the accelerating climate crisis. The economic method of discounting is explained when one “look[s] to the future, make[s] the future commensurate with the present by reducing its value, following the assumption that what is distant in time is worth less than what is proximate.” (40).

Carving out the “New Human” from the slopes of the “Iron Ridge”

The Kremikovtsi metallurgical plant was a project of national importance that grew out of Bulgaria’s postwar economic and political course towards rapid industrialization, conceived during the 5th Congress of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BKP) in 1948.8Iliyana Marcheva Илияна Марчева, „Идеите за индустриализацията на България“ [The ideas for the industrialization of Bulgaria], Исторически преглед [Historical Review] no. 8-9 (1992), 77–96; Ulf Brunnbauer Улф Брунбауер, Социалистическият начин на живот [The Socialist Way of Live], (Ruse: Elias Kaneti, 2010), 137-176. Throughout the party’s subsequent congresses in the 1950s, plans for the restructuring of the labor and productive capacity of the country envisioned the redirecting of substantial resources from agriculture to heavy industry, and multiple projects were drafted for large-scale chemical and metallurgical factories, alongside the expansion of the extractive, energy, and machine industries.9Marcheva, 78. Despite uncertain forecasts about the quality and quantity of the available iron ore deposits in the village of Kremikovtsi,10Pencho Penchev Пенчо Пенчев, „Мизес и Хайек в МК „Кремиковци“ [Mises and Hayek in Metallurgical Plant “Kremikovtsi”], Епохи [Epohi] no. 27(2) (2017), 458-471. the project for the metallurgical complex, located 18km from Bulgaria’s capital, was approved as part of a campaign designed to facilitate the “great leap forward.”

As Ulf Brunnbauer points out, the importance of “Kremikovtsi” industrial complex extended beyond its economic function becoming an ideological tool for the socialist state.11Brunnbauer, 141. The metallurgical plant was conceived to double as a political technology12Bilyana Raeva Биляна Раева, „Миграцията село-град и Новият човек (по примера на Димитровград и Металургичен комбинат „Кремиковци““ [The migration village-town and the New human (after the example of Dimitrovgrad and Metallurgical complex “Kremikovtsi”], Българска етнология [Bulgarian Ethnology], no. 2, 2013, 215. designed to manufacture the “New Human,” in line with the state-sanctioned image of the exemplary communist worker.13Brunnbauer, 142. It operated at the crossing between the imperatives of the planned economy and the ideological value of labor – a critical component deployed in the formation of personhood that involved fostering symbolic traits such as self-sacrifice, heroism, and masculinity.14Bilyana Raeva Биляна Раева, Героизация и мъжественост по време на социализма в България през 60-те -80-те г. на ХХ в. /по примера на металурзите от МК Кремиковци/ [Heroization and masculinity during the socialist period between the 1960s and 1980s /after the example of the metallurgists from Kremikovtsi metallurgical complex/], Balkanistic Forum, no. 3 (2013), 152–163; Evdokiev, “In the Iron…”, 2. Despite the numerous shortcomings that accompanied the building and the subsequent 46 years of operations, its hazardous conditions, and the high rate of work-related accidents,15Penchev, 393. the industrial complex was the primary cause of migration from across the country into the capital,16Raeva, 210–223. which was considered to have exacerbated the rural-urban divide.17Iliyana Marcheva Илияна Марчева, „Съветският модел в българската икономика. Основни проблеми, идеи и перспективи на изследване“ [The Soviet mode in the Bulgarian economy. Key challenges, ideas and research perspectives], Исторически преглед [Historical Review] no. 3 (1996), 68. At a time of restricted mobility in Bulgaria, workers in the industrial giant near Kremikovsti could be granted much-desired citizenship in the capital, which alongside the higher wages offered at the metallurgical plant, became a common rationale for starting employment there .

The rise and decline of the metallurgical complex have primarily been examined through its political and economic history, while the typical worker that the cultural and social studies follow throughout his daily life is (almost exclusively) the migrating male worker, employed in the processing or manufacturing facilities of the complex. These perspectives, while offering very important insights into the inner workings of the plant and the wider sociopolitical context, are yet to include more extensive consideration of an important component of its functioning – the extraction of the primary substance supplying the complex and the local communities that simultaneously facilitated it and were affected by it.

“Happiness can be read on the faces of the miners from the small mine at the ‘Ore extraction’ branch. And this is for a reason. On October 5th they already completed their yearly plan and are now working on the plan for 1961.” Kremikovski metalurg, no. 12 (17 Nov. 1960), 2.  S.S. Cyril and Methodius National Library. Image: Slava Savova.

The facilities in Kremikovtsi were initially designed to transform the locally available iron ore into dozens of products. The development of the mine employed many of the residents of the nearby villages and its exploitation began in 1959, four years before the inauguration of the industrial complex.18“Editorial, “Numbers without comments”, Kremikovski Metalurg, no. 68, 26 August, 1967, 3. This caused major ecological and social ruptures that altered communities settled in the region long before the inception of the metallurgical giant.19A network of dozens of religious buildings ranging from early Christian basilicas to late medieval monasteries, one of which located just 2 km from the village of Kremikovtsi, speak of the historical importance of the region as a cultural and religious center. Today, the memories of Kremikovtsi’s residents are interwoven with alternating threads of conflicting experiences of loss of livelihood and economic betterment, narrated with a normalized sense of coexistence with severe environmental risk in the background. In the context of the long “transition” period, these accounts of lived experiences trace important continuities of an enduring industrial legacy, paradoxically nested in a sense of discontinuity and recurring hardship, that goes beyond the materialities of physical depletion.20Amy Walker, “Everyday Resonances of Industrial Pasts: Considering Lived and Affective Memories in Ex-Coal Mining Landscapes in a South Wales Valley,” in Geographies of Post-industrial Place, Memory and Heritage, ed. Mark Alan Rhodes II, William R. Price and Amy Walker (Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2021), 53.

“I can recall all of the houses as they used to be”

The one-and-a-half-kilometer-wide Kremikovtsi open-pit mine borders the very edge of the village it is named after. There is the last row of houses, a small stream running next to it, a street, a heap of earth about 50 meters wide, and suddenly the verge of a giant hole, steeply cascading down towards an expansive body of azure water, flanked by vertical rusty red rocks and screes.

On several occasions between May and July 2023, I met Yordanka Kirilova, secretary of the Community Center Svetlina in Kremikovtsi. Born and raised in the village, she recalled several important phases of the development of the mine and the metallurgical complex, her earliest account containing details never mentioned in the official narratives about the emergence of the industrial giant. Near the pit stands no sign commemorating the earlier history of the place.

As we are sitting in the grey marble-clad foyer of the late 1960s community center, Yordanka Kirilova describes the street network and the more prominent houses from her childhood in Kremikovtsi – single and two-story houses, the older ones constructed with a wattle and daub technique, and the newer ones made from brick, the streets between them covered in gravel. The village she remembers stood in the center of today’s pit and was cleared as the construction of the mine was due to start with the excavation of millions of tons of soil and rocks in a conquest to reach the vast deposits of iron ore essential for the operations of the metallurgical complex at that time already under construction. What appears today as a 20th-century monoindustrial settlement that emerged around its source of employment was the result of the displacement of a community that had existed for centuries in a place that suddenly acquired extraordinary economic and political value. The new village was the embodiment of resource-exploitation urban planning, its unrolling and execution evoking conflicting memories among its elderly residents.

The relocation of the village cemetery and the demolition of its church and chapel is a recurring episode in the respondents’ stories, which unlike other vivid narratives of environmental change that could be assigned to collective memory, appear to be strongly linked to specific family histories and personal experiences, in some cases exceptionally tragic. The relocation of the remains of close ones provoked the reliving of loss, especially among the families confronting recent deaths. In the words of the respondents it was described as one of the few villages in the country, and probably the only one that moved its cemetery.

As the mine development progressed and started taking the lives of workers, rather than linking the casualties to malfunctioning technical equipment, extremely hazardous work conditions, and a persistent inattention to safety precautions,21Brunnbauer, 65. in the narratives of Kremikovtsi’s residents the accidents are first associated with the demolition of the orthodox church and chapel that once stood where the pit is sunk today. Despite affiliations with religious entities being discouraged during the socialist period, the destruction of churches remained in common consciousness a sacrilege believed to bring extremely bad luck and even death to whoever demolishes or damages such buildings.22There are many instances of such saying, a more recent one linked to the demolition of the church Vseh Svyatih [All Saints] that in the late 1970s was replaced by a pantheon of the national revival heroes.

I meet three former workers previously employed in the excavation and transportation brigades of the mine and in different units of the metallurgical plant. After an hour-long conversation about growing up in Kremikovtsi and working in the complex in its earliest days, they take me to a chapel built on the northern edge of the pit on one of the highest points along its perimeter. The chapel was erected after the end of the socialist period in the 1990s with donations and voluntary labor. The small, unpretentious structure was built at a time of a growing number of accidents in the pit and was named after St. Michael (Archangel) after a chapel with the same name demolished in the late 1950s to make way for the open-pit mine. Every year a korban23A ritual common among both the Muslim and Christian populations in Bulgaria, originally involving the sacrifice of a lamb, which is then served as a communal offering, usually to ensure its good health. It could also be performed on anniversaries of unfortunate events to ensure they will not recur. would be held in the new chapel on St. Michael’s Day as an offering in exchange for the deity’s protection for the workers in the mine.

The chapel acts as a crossing between the technological, the natural, and the supernatural, the last overarching and extending its benevolence upon all the material world beneath it. In the workers’ stories, the mine seems to possess a personhood, an entity with its own will that could be projected upon other living beings, but also tamed by a higher force. Beneath us, none of the sounds and sights of progress and risk remain, nor a hint of the conflicted history of the place. As we stand on the edge of the pit, a flock of waterfowl slowly glides upon the reflective surface of the artificial lake. The mine is rimmed by alternating layers of rusty red slopes and benches covered in green, marking the last horizons24The terraces formed during the excavation of the mine. still remaining above the rising level of water. The pit has taken the unexpected function of a nature’s refuge in a region still coming to terms with its post-industrial present.

The building and inauguration of the chapel St. Michael (Archangel) located on the northern edge of the open-pit mine. The image is kept in a photo album in the chapel, documenting the phases of its construction. Image Slava Savova. July 2023
The building and inauguration of the chapel St. Michael (Archangel) located on the northern edge of the open-pit mine. In the middle photo, the cars are parked on the edge of the pit. The image is kept in a photo album in the chapel, documenting the phases of its construction. Image Slava Savova. July 2023
The building and inauguration of the chapel St. Michael (Archangel) located on the northern edge of the open-pit mine. The image is kept in a photo album in the chapel, documenting the phases of its construction. Image Slava Savova. July 2023
“The progress started because people had iron”

The geological ruptures transforming the “Iron Ridge” unlocked socioeconomic restructurings across near and more distant communities as a result of the employment-driven incoming migration. “Many poor people came” and others, “more intelligent, apparently from the cities, with better means, that made us feel inferior, somewhat more backward than them,” the former likely arriving from smaller settlements or poorer regions, and the latter possibly belonging to a formerly wealthier class, displaced after the nationalization of their properties.25One of the respondents describes them as “not getting along with the ruling class”. The “others,” in the words of the respondents who were born and raised in Kremikovtsi, were described through their different clothing and manners – the neighbor with the hand-knit fistanel26A dress-like undergarment without sleeves. In this particular account the person wore it as a dress. made of undyed wool fastened with a piece of twine personifying the poorer newer residents in the village, or the haughty person belonging to the former bourgeoisie, who called the local people “wooden shop”,27Shop (sing.), Shopi (pl.) is a Bulgarian ethnic group living in the region surrounding the capital. “Wooden” a metaphor for stubborn and unrefined. with whom “we never had any problems,” except for when they “started to ridicule us.”

Kremikovtsi not only had to urgently rehouse its displaced local population but also to provide homes for the incoming workers by offering various types of units – land plots for the building of houses, apartments in housing blocks, or rooms in dormitories. As I speak to several people, either born in Kremikovtsi or married “into” the village, contrasting accounts emerge of the housing crisis, triggered by the exploitation of the open-pit mine. While the evictions were scheduled according to the planned development of the mine, and were non-negotiable, the construction of new houses was the responsibility of the displaced who could choose to share two-bedroom apartments with others instead, while often having to move in with large families that once lived in detached houses. As the majority of the local construction workers were employed at the metallurgical complex, acute shortage of materials and labor would leave the families waiting or pressing them to start the construction of their new houses by themselves as assistance from the state was usually limited to the provision of a land plot.

The proximity of the village to the mine meant that the residual dust particles, noise pollution, and hydrological disruptions would spill into the everyday life of the residents. While all respondents mentioned they were content with the living standard they acquired after the relocation, and some felt it improved significantly after they completed their new houses, the unusual coexistence with the mine would reappear in the interviews, assuming mundane outlines, normalized on account of the repetitiveness of incidents that had come to be an inseparable part of life in Kremikovtsi. Every day at noon the sirens were sounded, alerting the village residents to take shelter as controlled blasts were to follow.28Two different accounts were recorded – one claiming the explosions took places daily and the other less than once per week. Taken that both the mine and the metallurgical complex operated 24/7, and that the second respondent was inclined to portray the discussed period in distinctly positive outlines, while diminishing any negative experiences, the first account is given regarding the frequency. Fragments of rocks would often fly out and land in the middle of the village square, or damage windows and roofs. When asked about the damages, the respondents would speak of those in diminutive form – the houses may “crack a little bit” and the ground might “shake slightly” as a nod to their strength in the face of any adversity, this one considered a minor nuisance.29Raeva. One day the shockwave broke all the windows of the community center. At the Repairs and Mechanical Industrial Unit of the complex, glass would always be stocked up for the repair of frequent breakages.

The only nature remaining untamed, not harnessed yet within a technonatural political project — the air — seemed to also be the only element preserving its regenerative power, providing relief from the growing environmental pressure upon the region. The natural currents descending from the mountain are frequently brought up in the conversations, as Kremikovtsi’s residents eagerly refute the unfair reputation of the village, linked to the severe air pollution emitted from the complex. “People spoke that Kremikovtsi was very polluted,” which according to several of the respondents was “two times per year, when the wind blows from the East” – the fumes from the industrial giant would usually drift towards the capital, except for a few days per year “when you hang the diapers on the clothesline it would turn into that color,” pointing to dark grey. The industrial legacy of the plant would travel and disperse across the entire country through outgoing and incoming material flows and social and economic arrangements.30Peter Oosterveer, “Governing Environmental Flows: Ecological Modernization in Technonatural Time/Spaces in Technonatures,” in Environments, Technologies, Spaces, and Places in the Twenty-first Century, ed. Damian F. White and Chris Wilber (Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2009). https://www.google.bg/books/edition/_/l9zfAgAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0 To an equal measure, these were the particulate matter carried away by air currents and the flows of laborers relocating in search of better opportunities, the distribution of ready produce within and across the country, and the lasting formation of new topographies of discarded nature.

A collection of anniversary badges, produced for different units of the metallurgical complex. The open-pit mine is also represented with a badge (small identical red badges on the lower left side, produced for its 20th anniversary – 1959-1979). The badges and pins were collected from more than ten sellers, living in different part of Bulgaria. The largest collection came from the son of a former worker in the complex. Personal collection of the author. Image courtesy of Slava Savova.

For the workers in the mine and the industrial complex, the exposure to hazardous chemicals, extreme temperatures, and the impact of physically demanding jobs were to be offset by their visits to one of the many prophylactoria and factory resort camps built to secure the productive capacity of the workers by encouraging access to cleaner air, rest, and recreation. In conversations with four of the respondents, they provide a detailed account of the opportunities for recovery created by the factory management – prophylactoria near the water reservoir in Pancharevo, in the balneo-resort of Velingrad, or near the mountain peak of Goten. One of the respondents could even describe the interior and the number of stories of the two hotels built by the metallurgical plant in the seaside resort of Kiten. As the conversation progresses, these facilities are unveiled as the sites of collective memory that were never visited by any of the respondents but were an important part of a nostalgic narrative of care and economic security that was abruptly terminated with the onset of the “transition” period.

“This is a lot of water. How dangerous it is for us, I don’t know”

On the northern edge of the pit stands the only remnant of infrastructure that still hints at the scale of operations that took place beneath it. This groundscraper of sorts descends some 320 meters into the rock mass and projects about 30 meters above ground level, visible from all sides of the pit resembling a monument from the distance. The dewatering shaft was used to lower the water table by pumping out the constant inflow of groundwater into the mine, averaging 68 liters per second, which was then channeled via a pipe network into the different units of the metallurgical complex.31B. Stefanov Б. Стефанов, Екологична Оценка На Подробен Устройствен План – План За Регулация и Застрояване За Отреждане На Терен На Площадка Хан Богров За Завод За Преработка На Битови Отпадъци От Района На Гр. София и Столична Община [Environmental assessment of the detailed regional plan – Plan for regulation and construction for the assigning of terrain on a land plot Han Bogrov for a Domestic waste processing plant for the region of Sofia and Sofia Municipality], (Sofia: Scientific and Research Projects, University of Chemical Technology and Metallurgy, 2007), 71.

The excavation of the mine transformed the hydrology of the region by disrupting the water flows moving through several strata of geologic time from the Holocene and Pleistocene epochs reaching to the Jurassic and Triassic periods.32Ibid, 71. The hydraulic conductivity that took millions of years to form was restructured within four decades, taming the invisible streams of subterranean waters that were now to propel the productive capacity of the metallurgical plant. The waters descending from the southern slopes of Stara Planina33A mountain chain crossing the entire territory of Bulgaria along the east/west axis. were fed into the production of steel, cast iron, metal sheets, ferromanganese, pipes, reinforced concrete, and custom-made construction components for large-scale buildings, which then departed to different parts of the country. Just as this “industrial water” flowed as an invisible constructive force into multiple modernization projects, it seeped into the bodies of the residents from Kremikovtsi, as they attached extensions to the pipes, diverting small quantities of the liquid to water their vegetable gardens.34See Astrida Neimanis, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).

This process of restructuring of the hydrosocial territories35Rutgerd Boelens, Jamie Hoogesteger, Erik Swyngedouw, Jeroen Vos, Philippus Wester, “Hydrosocial Territories: A Political Ecology Perspective”, Water International 41, no. 1 (2016): 1–14. of the region was accelerated by a sudden interruption, transforming the abundant quantities of subterranean water flows from an industrial residue into a post-industrial artificial waterscape and a source of growing concern for the communities nearby. Over the four decades of exploitation of the mine, the extraction gradually declined due to the poor quality of the iron ore requiring a resource-intensive beneficiation process. While the initial quantities of imported ore were planned to be 20 percent of the total ore used, in the 1980s more than 75 percent was imported from the Soviet Union.36Brunnbauer, 150. The inland location of the complex, which increased the transportation costs of imports, the outdated factory equipment, and the growing environmental concerns forced the closure of the metallurgical complex in 2009. As soon as the electricity of the dewatering shaft was cut, the mine started flooding.

The dewatering shaft and other auxiliary buildings above the open-pit mine “Kremikovtsi”. The village is visible behind it. August 2023. Image courtesy of Slava Savova.

In the past thirteen years, the water level in the pit has risen by more than one hundred meters, making it the deepest lake in the country. If the dewatering does not resume, the reservoir will start spilling onto the arable lands located southwest of the mine, forming a river streaming from the ramp once used as the entrance to the mine. After the liquidation of the metallurgical complex and the demolition of the majority of its industrial units, the mine remains the largest single infrastructural gesture that preserves the material legacy of the ambitious postwar industrialization campaign of the country.

Discounting nature in the crevices of industrial pasts

At the end of March 2024, Petko Tzvetkov, an ecologist based in Sofia, conducted his monthly bird census of the open-pit mine. In the past five years, he and his colleagues have been observing a steep decline in the number of wintering waterfowl, going down from 500–600 to about 100–150 this year. He is cautious to point out a reason, as this could be the result of multiple factors. Despite the expansive volume of the pit and its current surface area measuring nearly 700,000 m2, the water level has been rising by more than a meter per year. Such a dramatic change makes the nascent ecosystems along the shore unstable, with the aquatic flora forming in the shallower parts of the pit lost to constant flooding which also affects the habitats of other species. The slopes of the mine are home to sand martin colonies, which rebuild their nests every year, as the water rises. Despite the unusual ecology of the artificial lake, it is visited by great crested grebes, Eurasian coots, mallards, great cormorants, great herons and great egrets. Common ravens and birds of prey are also drawn to it such as common and long-legged buzzards, and kestrels. European bee-eaters nest in the upper horizons of the pit. Hares, European pond turtles, and grass snakes also find a refuge there.

Black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) on the eastern edge of the mine. Research on the flora of the pit conducted in 2009 did not record members of the Solanaceae family, which probably hints at a growing diversity of the flora. May 2023. Image courtesy of Slava Savova.

In 2009 the flora in the pit already consisted of 74 species37Vasil Vutov Васил Вутов and Dimitar Dimitrov Димитър Димитров, Флора и растителност на рудник „Кремикоци“ [Flora and plants in the iron ore mine “Kremikovtsi”,  Лесовъдска мисъл [Forestry thought], no. 1 (2009), 49–52. from the umbellifer, daisy, borage, crucifers, carnation, goosefoot, horsetail, spurge, legume, rush, mint, willowherb, poppy, plantain, knotweed, buttercup, figworth, reseda, rose, and grapevine families in addition to many other species from the grass family. There were conifer trees and willows. In 2024, botanist Ani Becheva noted that based on photos from my fieldwork, the diversity appears to have increased since the 2009 report, which can be verified if further records are made following the established methodology for documenting individual specimens.

After a decline in the exploitation of the region’s resources following the closure of the metallurgical complex and the mine, in recent years the anthropogenic pressure upon the environment has been increasing again, if not with the same intensity. There are several illegal waste dumps along the periphery of the mine storing domestic and construction waste, which threaten the already fragile ecosystem in the pit. The flora and fauna, anchored to the benches and slopes of the mine seem to be subjected to the very uncertainty that defined the three decades of the “transition” period that accidentally shaped the hybrid ecology of today’s pit. While in Kremikovtsi the disused mine is perceived as a wasteland and as the opposite of the security and predictability that its exploitation once provided, the biodiversity flourishing there today seems to emerge from its very productivity, nested in the workers’ microhistories, in the invisible natures flowing into bodies and industrial units, and in the economic and ideological imperatives that could slice through geological time. In this text, I have outlined how unlikely threads can be weaved into the telling of the history of anthropogenic nature while reconsidering the nature and society binary that sort the world into categories that are never pure.

Still from the solo show “Ore” in KO-OP, Sofia. July 2023. Image courtesy of Slava Savova

Acknowledgement: The initial phase of this research was supported by the National Culture Fund – Bulgaria (2021) and the latter by the “Taming the European Leviathan: The Legacy of Post-War Medicine and the Common Good” project (ERC-2019-SyG – ERC Synergy Grant). The resulting solo show “Ore” was first presented in KO-OP gallery from 27 July to 8 August 2023. I would like to express my gratitude to my respondents from Kremikovtsi and the Community center “Svetlina” for supporting my research. My fieldwork was assisted by Harry Yanev, Kamen Nikov, Maria Nalbantova, and Velko Kalchev.

Notes

Notes
1 Now included in the wider Sofia region as a neighborhood of the capital.
2 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard University Press, 1993).
3 Bridget Crone, Sam Nightingale and Polly Stanton, eds., Fieldwork for Future Ecologies: Radical Practice for Art and Art-based Research (Onomatopee 225, 2022), 9.
4 Kristen Sharp, “Open Fields: Fieldwork as a Creative Process,” in Fieldwork for Future Ecologies: Radical Practice for Art and Art-based Research, ed. Bridget Crone, Sam Nightingale and Polly Stanton, (Onomatopee 225, 2022), 50–52.
5 Beginning in 1989, ongoing. Marked by transition from a socialist to a capitalist economic model and the privatization of state-owned entities.
6 See Bernhard Giesen, “Inbetweenness and Ambivalence”, in The Oxford Handbook of Cultural Sociology, ed. Jeffrey S. Alexander, Ronald N. Jacobs, and Philips Smith (Oxford University Press, 2012), 788–804.
7 See the perspective of Liliana Doganova, Discounting the Future (Zone Books, 2024). She reflects upon the economic model of discounting that leads to deprecation of the future which she proposes as the major cause of the accelerating climate crisis. The economic method of discounting is explained when one “look[s] to the future, make[s] the future commensurate with the present by reducing its value, following the assumption that what is distant in time is worth less than what is proximate.” (40).
8 Iliyana Marcheva Илияна Марчева, „Идеите за индустриализацията на България“ [The ideas for the industrialization of Bulgaria], Исторически преглед [Historical Review] no. 8-9 (1992), 77–96; Ulf Brunnbauer Улф Брунбауер, Социалистическият начин на живот [The Socialist Way of Live], (Ruse: Elias Kaneti, 2010), 137-176.
9 Marcheva, 78.
10 Pencho Penchev Пенчо Пенчев, „Мизес и Хайек в МК „Кремиковци“ [Mises and Hayek in Metallurgical Plant “Kremikovtsi”], Епохи [Epohi] no. 27(2) (2017), 458-471.
11 Brunnbauer, 141.
12 Bilyana Raeva Биляна Раева, „Миграцията село-град и Новият човек (по примера на Димитровград и Металургичен комбинат „Кремиковци““ [The migration village-town and the New human (after the example of Dimitrovgrad and Metallurgical complex “Kremikovtsi”], Българска етнология [Bulgarian Ethnology], no. 2, 2013, 215.
13 Brunnbauer, 142.
14 Bilyana Raeva Биляна Раева, Героизация и мъжественост по време на социализма в България през 60-те -80-те г. на ХХ в. /по примера на металурзите от МК Кремиковци/ [Heroization and masculinity during the socialist period between the 1960s and 1980s /after the example of the metallurgists from Kremikovtsi metallurgical complex/], Balkanistic Forum, no. 3 (2013), 152–163; Evdokiev, “In the Iron…”, 2.
15 Penchev, 393.
16 Raeva, 210–223.
17 Iliyana Marcheva Илияна Марчева, „Съветският модел в българската икономика. Основни проблеми, идеи и перспективи на изследване“ [The Soviet mode in the Bulgarian economy. Key challenges, ideas and research perspectives], Исторически преглед [Historical Review] no. 3 (1996), 68.
18 “Editorial, “Numbers without comments”, Kremikovski Metalurg, no. 68, 26 August, 1967, 3.
19 A network of dozens of religious buildings ranging from early Christian basilicas to late medieval monasteries, one of which located just 2 km from the village of Kremikovtsi, speak of the historical importance of the region as a cultural and religious center.
20 Amy Walker, “Everyday Resonances of Industrial Pasts: Considering Lived and Affective Memories in Ex-Coal Mining Landscapes in a South Wales Valley,” in Geographies of Post-industrial Place, Memory and Heritage, ed. Mark Alan Rhodes II, William R. Price and Amy Walker (Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2021), 53.
21 Brunnbauer, 65.
22 There are many instances of such saying, a more recent one linked to the demolition of the church Vseh Svyatih [All Saints] that in the late 1970s was replaced by a pantheon of the national revival heroes.
23 A ritual common among both the Muslim and Christian populations in Bulgaria, originally involving the sacrifice of a lamb, which is then served as a communal offering, usually to ensure its good health. It could also be performed on anniversaries of unfortunate events to ensure they will not recur.
24 The terraces formed during the excavation of the mine.
25 One of the respondents describes them as “not getting along with the ruling class”.
26 A dress-like undergarment without sleeves. In this particular account the person wore it as a dress.
27 Shop (sing.), Shopi (pl.) is a Bulgarian ethnic group living in the region surrounding the capital. “Wooden” a metaphor for stubborn and unrefined.
28 Two different accounts were recorded – one claiming the explosions took places daily and the other less than once per week. Taken that both the mine and the metallurgical complex operated 24/7, and that the second respondent was inclined to portray the discussed period in distinctly positive outlines, while diminishing any negative experiences, the first account is given regarding the frequency.
29 Raeva.
30 Peter Oosterveer, “Governing Environmental Flows: Ecological Modernization in Technonatural Time/Spaces in Technonatures,” in Environments, Technologies, Spaces, and Places in the Twenty-first Century, ed. Damian F. White and Chris Wilber (Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2009). https://www.google.bg/books/edition/_/l9zfAgAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0
31 B. Stefanov Б. Стефанов, Екологична Оценка На Подробен Устройствен План – План За Регулация и Застрояване За Отреждане На Терен На Площадка Хан Богров За Завод За Преработка На Битови Отпадъци От Района На Гр. София и Столична Община [Environmental assessment of the detailed regional plan – Plan for regulation and construction for the assigning of terrain on a land plot Han Bogrov for a Domestic waste processing plant for the region of Sofia and Sofia Municipality], (Sofia: Scientific and Research Projects, University of Chemical Technology and Metallurgy, 2007), 71.
32 Ibid, 71.
33 A mountain chain crossing the entire territory of Bulgaria along the east/west axis.
34 See Astrida Neimanis, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).
35 Rutgerd Boelens, Jamie Hoogesteger, Erik Swyngedouw, Jeroen Vos, Philippus Wester, “Hydrosocial Territories: A Political Ecology Perspective”, Water International 41, no. 1 (2016): 1–14.
36 Brunnbauer, 150.
37 Vasil Vutov Васил Вутов and Dimitar Dimitrov Димитър Димитров, Флора и растителност на рудник „Кремикоци“ [Flora and plants in the iron ore mine “Kremikovtsi”,  Лесовъдска мисъл [Forestry thought], no. 1 (2009), 49–52.
Savova, Slava. "Neither Nature Nor Progress: Unearthing Memories and Affects on the Flowering Benches of “Kremikovtsi” Open-pit Mine." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 9, no. 2 (June 2024)
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