WHAT FEEDS BULGARIAN NOSTALGIA FOR COMMUNISM?

text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Collapse of 'Bulgarian Dream' suits politicians left, right and centre

communist bulgaria youth

Some years ago the Pew Research Center in Washington DC produced a survey indicating the levels of nostalgia in Bulgaria surpassed by far longing for the past everywhere else in the former East bloc countries. How come? Why would the citizens of what today continues to be the European Union's poorest, most corrupt and least free state want to return to a nebulous and increasingly distant totalitarian past? What differs the modern Poles, Czechs and Romanians – not to mention the former East Germans – who have long forgotten about Communism from their peers in the southern Balkans? Significantly, how can younger people who have no direct memories of Georgi Dimitrov, Todor Zhivkov and the Communist Party apparatchiks that ruled over their lives really believe that life prior to 1989 was really better, more organised and just for everyone?

These questions have multiple answers. First come the simple, easy-to-stomach explanations. Communist-era propaganda, shoved down the throats of generations of Bulgarians, continues to work its way into the hearts if not the minds of today's voters. But, as everything else in the Balkans in general and Bulgaria in particular, simple explanations rarely tell it all. The more complex story, which requires knowing and understanding intricate backgrounds and thinking patterns, is not as easy to palate, but it illuminates the deeper causes of Bulgarian nostalgia. And it may shed light on why a significant number – as many as 10 percent – of Bulgarians, comfortably in both the EU and NATO as it were, now support a party that wants to take the country out of both, rejects the euro and openly support Russia's Putin.

Firstly, the Bulgarians' notorious preoccupation with history. Unlike Western nations that will happily admit ignorance of what happened in the Middle Ages because they are a lot more interested in the present and the future, the Bulgarians seem to spend a significant portion of their lives in the nearer or more distant past. What happened in 1877 or 1988 seems to matter a lot more than what was going on in 2021. At some point, most restaurant table conversations in Bulgaria inevitably turn to national, Balkan and world history, the Great Powers of the 19th and early 20th century, the role of Russia and so on and so forth. There are some very visible consequences of the Bulgarian penchant for history. One is the obstinate insistence that modern Turkey, Bulgaria's neighbour to the south and a fellow NATO member, threatens to resurrect the Ottoman Empire, which had "enslaved" Bulgaria in the 15th-19th centuries. Another concerns the modern Republic of North Macedonia, the current ado about which illustrates perhaps best that history in Bulgaria is an emotional rather than a common sense issue.

young bulgarians communism

Even going on an obligatory labour camp called brigade was fun when you were 20

The situation becomes worse when discussing less distant history. Some would brush aside anything achieved during the 45 years the People's Republic of Bulgaria existed, from 1944 to 1989. Others continue to see the world in terms of "fascists" and Communists. Typically, for them the Red Army, which entered Bulgaria in September 1944, was a liberator. The others claim it was an invader.

Why would Bulgarians want to spend so much time bickering about past events is perhaps a matter for social psychologists, maybe even psychiatrists, to study. Yet, the unscrupulous politicians left, right and centre that this country keeps on electing have wily channelled the public frustrations with the past into their own political agendas. Sad but true: in Bulgaria history, including medieval history, is being used to justify present-day polities and attitudes.

Add the overwhelming amount of conspiracy theories promulgated by some politicians and then pinned on social media, the almost complete lack of critical thinking and the low levels of media literacy and it will not be difficult to see why the public debate in modern Bulgaria has become so befuddled and obfuscated that even experts of the social sciences have trouble understanding what is really going on.

This is reason number one for the significant levels of nostalgia. In the "good old days" you had one Party and one Leader, collectively known as the Politburo. Everything else was secondary and everyone was subservient. The only way for people to get along was to go along. Life was simpler.

When life was simpler, it was easier. Human memory tends to "redact" traumas out. The overwhelming majority of Bulgarians who feel nostalgic for the past have forgotten about the long lines in front of shops selling toilet paper, which was habitually in short supply. Conscript army service – in spite of its indoctrination and viciousness – was what made "men" out of boys, they tend to believe, forgetting the thousands of ruined lives as a result of the utterly unacceptable treatment of draft soldiers. Even the Communist-era brigades – in modern standards, slave labour school pupils and university students were forced to do by the Communist Party – are being fondly remembered. Not for the amount of often meaningless drudge that had to be toiled, but for the after-hours parties, the songs and the guitars, and first and foremost the opportunity to spend some time away from home and parents – with the girls and boys you fancied. Communism as such did not matter. This is the second major reason for Bulgarian nostalgia.

The third, and perhaps the most permeating one, is the collapse of the Bulgarian Dream. A Bulgarian dream? Yup, you've read that right. It was not unlike the much more famous American Dream, obviously in local standards and dimensions. In essence, it came down to your success being guaranteed if you did the right things at the right time. You went to a good school. Then you were conscripted in the Warsaw Pact People's Army. You believed the Americans and their proxy, the Turks, would attack any minute. Then you went on to university. You were an exemplary member of the Komsomol, the Bulgarian Communist Party youth branch. You went on those brigades every summer and autumn. When you graduated as an engineer or a doctor or a teacher you would be "distributed" to a village or a small town to work for several years. Your post-grad employment was not only guaranteed, it was obligatory! By that time you had already become a member of the Communist Party and started attending its long, vacuous meetings. You got married and stopped paying the "bachelor tax" (young people in Communist Bulgaria had to pay a tax for if they were unmarried). In a few years' time it would be your turn to buy a Lada or a Moskvich. If you were lucky, or if you were a particularly conscientious Party member, you might even get an apartment. That would be your ultimate success in Communist Bulgaria. It had all been lined up for you.

Nothing of the sort is conceivable in post-1989 Bulgaria. A dozen governments of various shades and hues did make promises of various magnitude, but it soon turned out they were unable or unwilling to keep them. What they did persistently was change the rules all the time, sometimes at short or no notice. What had been white once was now black, and vice versa. If you are a wage earner, you can hardly make ends meet – especially at these electricity prices. Your parents can no longer help you because they themselves have to live on a pittance the government calls "pension." Your kids' only dream is to get away as fast as possible, never to return – not very difficult now Bulgarians can travel freely because they are equipped with EU passports. Your identity crisis has intensified. Miss your Bulgarian Dream already? The abovementioned cunning politicians have made good use of it. Remember: Kostadin "Kostya Kopeykin" Kostadinov's Revival party got many of its votes not in the derelict and depopulated villages or rundown small towns in the northeast. Bulgarians with voting rights in Chicago and London preferred to trust his unabashed populism rather than the self-proclaimed rightwing, pro-Western intellectuals of Democratic Bulgaria. They want Bulgaria out of both NATO and the EU. They want North Macedonia to become a province of Bulgaria. They adore Putin. And possibly because of nostalgia for the not-so-distant past, they want the pro-Western intellectuals to be sent to labour camps. 

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