Student brigades and the Warsaw Pact may be a thing of the past, but totalitarian mentality still pervades Bulgarian society
Issue 24, September 2008
by Kjell Engelbrekt; photography by Anthony Georgieff, BTA
Everyone born in the 1990s and now attending college wonders how the 20th Century could have been dominated by two extremely absurd ideologies: Nazism and Communism, collectively known as totalitarianism. How could millions of people be led to believe what essentially was a thoroughly imaginary philosophy propagating the supremacy of one race – in the case of Nazism? Likewise, how could millions of people be ruled by a single supposedly omniscient party claiming to rule by decrees in all areas, from biogenetics to sports – in the case of Communism? Most countries that have experienced either Nazism or Communism have been trying to come to grips with their murky past. Bulgaria, which has experienced both, hasn't.
Making sense of today's Bulgaria can be an arduous task. Different backgrounds play their part, but the major responsibility rests with the country's reluctance to come to terms with its past in order to understand better why today it is what it is. It's clear that a wide variety of institutional and cultural legacies, repercussions and historical traces of Communism exist and have only been slightly modified. But, on the other hand, there are demonstrably a great number of aspects of Bulgarian society that have been profoundly transformed – and previous trends that have been reversed.
Bulgaria and the rest of the Soviet-sponsored East bloc – now often referred to as the "Wild East" – lived under a totalitarian regime for decades in a hegemony partly maintained by persuasion, but mostly through coercive means. The formal expression of this hegemony was the infamous constitutional paragraph of the leading role of the Communist Party. When that paragraph was abolished by the Bulgarian National Assembly in early 1990, very little stood in the way of political pluralism.
The period, often referred to as Promenite, or The Changes, is frequently a taboo topic – in sharp contrast with every other former East bloc country where links to Communist pasts are continuously unravelled and researched. Such discussions run the risk of becoming too personal and controversial. After nearly 19 years of transition to a multiparty system, with new political and business elites in place, hardly anyone knows who did what under Communism or what made Bulgaria what it is today. The elderly don't know because Bulgaria is the last former Soviet satellite that is trying to come to terms with its repressive past by belatedly lifting the lid on the State Security files, whereas the children just don't care. The failure to document and record this important era in Bulgaria's history fostered a simplistic image in the nation's collective memories, which is fading fast. So, what's next?
To put it briefly, stories must be told. Movies, books and other human artefacts may help to get the imagination going, but in a nutshell, stories must be told – and told well.
I'm sure that there are many Bulgarians who tell such stories, and tell them extensively and in considerable detail within the biographical framework of their own lives.
This means that their children and grandchildren are able to glimpse a part of what formed the people who raised them, but not everyone has great storytellers in their family.
A timid first step to provide an effective and fruitful context for such storytelling remains a conventional one – a museum. True, museums today come in all formats and levels of ambition. But this should be a museum that will wholeheartedly accept the challenge of portraying Bulgaria's modern political history, using many of the latest didactic and technological tools.
That museum – currently non-existent bar a modest subsection of the National History Museum in Boyana – would, firstly, serve as a meeting-place for different generations. Second, it would be a place where factual data and authentic historical records would serve as the common foundation for historic interpretation. Third, it would be a place offering space for contrasting views on various episodes of Bulgarian history.
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