REGIME CHANGE, An excerpt
This text has been workshopped during Travis Holland's What You Know: Writing Our Way Into the World course, organized by the virtual Writing Center of Elizabeth Kostova Foundation
The white Renault parked in front of the House of the Communist Party. The chauffeur rolled down the window to have a smoke. Dimcho took a few moments sitting quietly in the back seat.
Today, Dimcho was on his way to see Tsanov, his boss, at Tsanov's expansive office in the House of the Communist Party. Tsanov had a new assignment for Dimcho – something about finding contacts in the northeast to choose a location for an agrochemical factory. Tsanov had been the Minister of Agriculture back in the 1960s, and though he moved up to the Politburo, he still appreciated fields and tractors. Dimcho found it unsightly but, of course, was very discreet about it.
It was a bothersome assignment, but not a difficult one. Dimcho still remembered everything about the flat wheat country where he came from. He could easily say who was who among the stingy, sulking people of that region.
Dimcho had long ago left the sorry small town he was born in. Now, he was Comrade Dimchev, member of the Communist Party and first-hand man to Tsanov, one of the Politburo secretaries. The secretary's secretary. How far he'd come.
Dimcho adjusted his horn-rimmed spectacles and smoothed his thin pomaded hair. He pulled out a pocket mirror to make sure his shirt collar and tie were in order. He walked up the front steps and through the heavy metal doors of the House of the Party. A guard nodded and escorted him to the elevator.
On the second floor, someone stepped out and Dimcho got a glimpse of Gavazov, the Bulgartabak director, walking down the hallway. He's off to an early start today, Dimcho thought. An enterprising man, and good for him. He must be visiting Politburo Secretary Filipov. Too bad Gavazov didn't know that the funds for his growers were slashed – he'd be lucky if he got half of the generous gifts he enjoyed last year. Computational machines were the order of the day now. After the successes of the Sofia electronics factories, Zhivkov, the country's leader, was investing in a passion project – a new plant in his hometown of Pravets. It would make small computational terminals to compete with the Americans.
The Party men did not care for computers – unlike tobacco, they were at once complicated and boring. But, of course, everyone liked the chance to boast to everyone from the Yugoslavs to the Koreans.
Good things were ahead – if only Gavazov lifted his head up from his primitive, small-scale tobacco growing in those godforsaken villages. Dimcho smiled a tight-lipped smile. But he quickly restored his clean-shaven face to its usual placid, pleasant demeanor. Of course, things with Gavazov could sweeten at any moment. The Communist way was prosperity for all.
The chromed doors of the elevator slid apart and Dimcho got off on his floor.
"Tsanov is waiting for you," said the receptionist presiding over the north wing of the sixth floor of the House of the Bulgarian Communist Party. She was fixing her permed curls in a mirror but looked aside for a moment to give Dimcho an approving look. "Is it still cold out? That wool coat really looks good on you, Comrade."
"Sonya, you are too kind," Dimcho said. "Tsanov is already in, you say?"
"Yeah, he's been busy for an hour already – calls with Moscow. Something about economic reports. You know how the Russians are, very stern, but to be honest with you, it sounds good. That's your morning briefing, now, Comrade Dimchev," Sonya smiled. She went back to sorting typewritten memos spread out over an open issue of Today's Woman magazine.
"Dimchev, come in," said Tsanov with raised, open arms. He was sitting cross-legged in a tubular steel chair, his shirt rumpled, the tip of his heavy boot shaking back and forth. After all those years in the halls of Party power, Tsanov still wore the same standard-issue workingman's shoes, as if at any moment he may need to step into the fields to inspect the grain harvest. Papers were scattered on a coffee table in front of him. Tsanov held up a loose sheet with handwritten notes and waved it at Dimcho.
"Look here, now. The Politburo are in on the electronics business. Will consider approving three additional plants, they said. Dimchev, Communism is entering the digital era! But please, sit down, my boy."
"This is excellent news, Comrade Tsanov." Dimcho flicked aside his coattails and sat on the uncomfortable tubular-steel chair across from his mentor.
"I didn't even offer you a treat. See here. Smoked Spanish ham, my boy. Gavazov, you know him, the tobacco guy, routed this somehow through Berlin. Turns out those fascists make excellent ham! I'd offer you a whisky with it, but I know your tastes, it's still too early for you. Consider yourself invited later."
"Thank you, Comrade Tsanov. Now, I hear from Sonya that you had a phone call with Moscow this morning?"
"Ah yes, a sharp ear, that one. You look at her – she's leafing through a magazine. But all the while, she's listening. Good thing I hired her. But yes, the Russians." Tsanov stroked the stubble on his chin as he spoke. "Well – things are sounding good, Dimcho. The econ committee are not too worried about the debt, it turns out. They want to keep investing in productive sectors of the economy. The Russians are smart men – you don't make money from shrinking the economy. And I completely agree. We need to keep building! We have so much potential. Fertile lands. Capable engineers. A strong base of industrial facilities across the country. How much we've built in four decades of Communism. And how much more there is to come!"
Tsanov had evidently had a whisky with his jamón already. It was hard not to catch some of his elation. Yes – there was work to do. None of this was guaranteed, and there was plenty that could go wrong. But it's not like the West didn't go through economic downturns, either. If they played their cards right, this small country could even surpass the USSR in some ways… The Soviet political machine was just too old, too attached to the past. All their "perestroika" – so many nice words. But Bulgaria – a state where everyone more or less knew each other… Here, if you had an idea, you could always find a way.
"I trust your vision, Comrade Tsanov," Dimcho said. "I think we can do it."
"Yes, how right you are, my dear boy. It is a vision, and we will work for it. So now, as you know, I have a task for you."
"Yes, please, I'm here to learn the details so I can set out right away."
"Dimcho, you are always a step ahead. How right I was to hire you all those years back." Tsanov smiled. "Here is what we will do. As you know, we are developing new industries here in Bulgaria. Socialism is progressing and we are inventing more ways to improve the life of the workers. We are going to transform your region, Dimcho, the Deli Orman. It is beautiful, prosperous country – your people make the wheat and the bread that we eat. But they have even more potential. We need to combine agriculture with modern production. So I have a project... We'll start with an experimental pharma plant in the town of Isperih, and you will help us grow from there."
"In Isperih?" Dimcho repeated. He sat up as far as the unstable chair would allow him. He was lost for words for a moment. But he calmed his breathing and returned his expression to one of agreeable curiosity.
Tsanov looked Dimcho in the eyes. "I know you would rather not be tied up with your hometown, Dimcho. You can be sure I am aware of this and am not meaning to set you up for a return to the pastoral countryside. We have to keep the bigger plan in mind, my boy. This is a temporary task that will put your brilliant mind to the service of the country. You may not like it there. I understand. What can I say – our provincial folk are still backward and living in ignorance. You can help them move forward. One day, they may put your monument in the town square. Zhivkov has his factory in his hometown of Pravets, and you'll have yours in Isperih!"
Tsanov put both his feet on the floor and leaned forward. "But let's speak concretely. You'll only need to go once a week, at most. And only in the beginning. You will keep an eye on factory construction. After that, you will scout locations for a few more. You will find the hardest-working collectives and the most capable leaders. Together, we will turn the Deli Orman into a hub for sophisticated production."
"It is a great idea, Comrade Tsanov," Dimcho said, standing still and composed in his chair, even though the taut piece of cloth stretched between metal tubes would let him neither sit up, nor lean back. "Of course, I am happy to help. You know the countryside is not my personal favorite, but we need to serve Party and country. Please, do tell me more about the project. So you have plans for the pharmaceutical industry?"
"Oh, my boy, I didn't even tell you about that. Yes, well, pharma – but not only. Our chemists will bring together the new materials industry and pharmaceuticals. In this plant in Isperih, we'll be betting on plastics. Syringes, pill bottles… You know these new plastics, clear, bright, hygienic. They look like glass, but are almost weightless – the wonders of modern science! We will create a combined plant – pharma and plastics. And then, we will bring in electronics. This will be a smart factory. Button-operated production lines! Isperih is going straight into the future. We will build a beautiful factory, several blocks spread out." Tsanov waved his hands about. "I've spoken with architects and it will be a marvelous plan. We will need lots of flat open space, so Isperih is perfect. It will be on the plane, between the agricultural fields and the forest – surely you know the spot."
Dimcho smiled graciously to mask the fact that the blood had drained from his face. He breathed and stilled his heart. Of course he knew the place. In his mind, he saw Tsanov's new factory in the fields behind his father's house. He willfully directed his attention to the rest of the information Tsanov shared. Computers. Engineers. After all, it would be a perfect occasion to get a foothold in those circles. If these wondrous new machines had to be in Isperih, then so be it.
Ani Kodjabasheva lives in Sofia. A newcomer to fiction, she specializes in art writing and regularly contributes features to the US-based magazines Pastel Journal, Watercolor Artist and Artists Magazine. She is part of The Collective Foundation, which creates inclusive public spaces through urban design and community. She holds MAs in art and architectural history from Columbia University and the University of Oxford. She has worked as a teaching assistant at Columbia and has coached students in writing about architecture and the city.
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