SORRY FATE OF BULGARIA'S 'SCIENTIFIC-TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS'

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Under Communism, Bulgaria tried to become a technological giant. It failed

karlovo.jpg

Bulgarians are present in many fields of modern science and engineering, from medicine to space exploration, pushing new boundaries and breaking new grounds. If you have not heard much about it, it is because the great majority of them work for foreign universities, scientific institutions and R&D teams. As a result of the decades-long neglect of the fundamental and the applied sciences and of engineering in Bulgaria, academically gifted Bulgarians go abroad the moment they graduate from secondary school. There is already a second generation of Bulgarian scientists and engineers who, after the collapse of Communism in 1989, emigrated to build their careers in the West as the opportunities to do this in Bulgaria became – and remain – extremely limited and do not pay much. Academia is notoriously underfunded in Bulgaria, local businesses complain that scientific research is not focused on solving practical problems, and the general public, often with reason, sees scientists in state institutions as, at best, useless.

Statue extolling the triumph of science in Tsarevo's seaside park. Under Communism, Tsarevo was called Michurin, after the Soviet botanist who created a number of hybrids to yield better harvests

When walking the streets of Bulgarian towns, however, you will see signs that show that, until 30 years ago, the state's attitude towards developing science and engineering in Bulgaria was quite the opposite.

These signs usually take the shape of public art: mosaics and murals from the 1970s and the 1980s depicting confident young scientists dressed in white lab coats, holding test tubes, surrounded by atom nuclei and electron clouds, cogwheels and what looks like early computer motherboards. All of these are the visual propaganda of Communist Bulgaria's obsession with what it called "scientific-technological progress."

A road sign to the Nuclear Power Plant at Kozloduy

Developing science and technology along Soviet lines was the mainstay of its economic doctrine. It was the belated Communist answer to the Big Science surge in Western industrial nations in the 1940s. Specifically, the Eastern bloc aspired to rapid industrialisation and the implementation of new scientific discoveries, technologies and automation.

Communist Bulgaria restructured its scientific potential to catch up with Western economies and boost the standard of living. That was its declared aim. It focused on applied mathematics and engineering, and larger plants and factories had scientific and development units to devise and implement new technologies. In the 1960s, Bulgaria focused on the development of IT technologies for the Eastern bloc and affiliated countries. To a significant extent, the new developments were based on stolen technologies from the Western countries, which had banned the export of such goods to the Eastern bloc. Communist Bulgaria developed partnerships with Japanese companies, while State Security had a special department for economic intelligence, which was dealt mainly with industrial espionage and stealing technologies from the West. Arguably the most brazen of those operations was the theft a whole IBM factory for magnetic discs that was based in Portugal. The plan was ingeniously simple and it worked – the factory was purchased by a front company owned by the Bulgarian state. This was one of the steps that made the production of the Bulgarian Pravets computer in the 1980s possible. Interestingly, its early models were reverse-engineered from Apple Macintosh I and II, while the later ones were lifted from IBM.

Atoms buzzing on the wall of a prefabricated block in Kozloduy

Communist Bulgaria prioritised nuclear power engineering, heavy industry and machine-building, agriculture and biotechnologies, along with informatics. It did succeed in constructing its own nuclear power plant at Kozloduy, made exclusively with Soviet technology and commissioned Chernobyl-type reactors, and exported its Pravets computers to other Eastern bloc countries. Yet the great aim, to catch up with the West, was never attained.

The reasons for this failure were many and varied, but came down to the very nature of the planned economy of Communism. The scientists, inventors and engineers might receive bonuses but could not patent their discoveries. Naturally, they preferred to work piecemeal, often exaggerating the efficiency of their innovations. Bulgaria had to sell its information technology in the Eastern bloc at prices fixed by the state. In the West, advanced technologies were aimed first and foremost at the consumer market, to be sold to citizens with increasing needs for entertainment and communication. In Bulgaria they were to be implemented first and foremost in industry.

This "peaceful atom" adorns a building in central Burgas

The technological abyss between the West and Bulgaria grew wider as Communism showed early signs of exhaustion. After 1989, when the system collapsed, most technological development units and scientific institutes attached to the various industries were discontinued. So were the industries themselves. Thousands of scientists and engineers were rendered unemployed. Even successful products and technologies that could be used in a market economy were scrapped and are now totally forgotten.

Today only a few elderly Bulgarians would remember the "intensive agriculture" scientific institutes and the DZU in Stara Zagora, the plant to manufacture hard and floppy discs.

Early computer code and punched cards are featured in this mural on the building of a former cables factory in Burgas. Today, it hosts the offices of Information Services, the state company that is supposed to build and maintain e-government in Bulgaria

The young engineers and scientists who epitomised Bulgaria's scientific-technological strife in the 1970s and 1980s are now retired. Many of their children and grandchildren have probably left the country altogether. The only reminders of the massive endeavour to turn the People's Republic of Bulgaria into a high-tech Communist society are the fading graffiti and mosaics with atom nuclei, test tubes, cogwheels and... what looks like computer motherboards.

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

OF SHPAGINS, TANKS AND ALYOSHAS
Unlike other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which removed, stashed away or demolished most remnants of their Communist past as early as the 1990s, Bulgaria is a curiosity.

VARVARA'S IRON TREE
Agroup of friends meet each summer at the seaside, a small community who know one another so well that boredom becomes inevitable, and so do internal conflicts. And death.

TAILLESS CATS AND MADMEN MAKING POLITICAL DEMANDS
Descendants of millennia-old rites, the scary kukeri, or mummers, are the best known face of Bulgarian carnival tradition. Gabrovo's carnival is its modern face: fun, critical, and colourful.

LET'S PICK SOME ROSES
Both high-end perfumes and more run-of-the-mill cosmetics would be impossible without a humble plant that thrives in a couple of pockets around the world, the oil-bearing rose. Bulgaria is one of these places.

FROM BLACK ROCK DESERT, NV, TO NOVO SELO, BG
Organisers of the notorious Burning Man festival seem to have heeded the lessons of 2023 when festival-goers, paying uprwards of $500 for a ticket, had to wade, owing to torrential rains and flashfloods, through tons of mud in the northern Nevada desert.

AMAZING PLANTS & ANIMALS OF BULGARIA
In Bulgaria, nature has created a number of little wonders. They might not be spectacular or grandiose, but they constitute a vital part of the local wildlife, create a feeling of uniqueness and are sometimes the sole survivors of bygone geological epochs.

THE MANY FACES OF PALIKARI ROCKS
Next time you visit Sozopol, pay more attention not to the quaint houses in the Old Town, the beaches around or the quality of food and service in the restaurants. Instead, take a stroll by the sea and take in... the rocks. 

MOSQUE OF LEGENDS
Bulgaria's Ottoman heritage is the most neglected part of the rich past of this nation. This is a result of the trauma of five centuries spent under Ottoman domination additionally fanned up under Communism and up until this day.

CITY OF EAGLES
As the official symbol of Bulgaria, lions can be seen everywhere, from the national coat of arms to architectural ornaments to "patriotic" tattoos.

SOFIA'S STRANGE MONUMENTS
Some monuments impress with their size, artistic value or historical significance, and some have a hidden history to match.

KUKERI AND THEIR DANCES
From Venice to Rio, carnivals are a time honoured tradition to celebrate the end of winter with a riot of noise and dance, with masks and a temporary subversion of established social roles.

THE VELCHOVA ZAVERA HIKE
Еvery April, since 2020, hundreds of young Bulgarians gather in Veliko Tarnovo and embark on a meaningful journey, retracing the steps of a daring rebellion that took place in the town and its surroundings, in 1835.