Thu, 12/03/2015 - 14:01

Bulgarian capital sits on the cusp between failed Communism and troubled democracy

sofia 1990s.jpg

After several years of hectic building and reconstruction – including new Roman ruins and roads that need repairing only two weeks after they have been inaugurated by the prime minister – Sofia looks transformed. In many ways it is. Chain stores and shopping malls dominate the urban landscape, foreign tourists fill the downtown area, and Western coffee culture is replacing the older, Balkan one. There is a metro, and the graffiti are much more sophisticated than the erstwhile political or emotional slogans scribbled on walls. McDonalds is not a novelty and sushi has gone out of fashion.

But how much has Sofia changed since Bulgaria emerged from 45 years of Communism and plunged into its own highly Balkanised version of democracy? The photographs in this portfolio, taken in the second half of the 1990s, provide some answers. Part reportage and part meditation on the transformation of a former Communist society, they show a grey Sofia, full of old cars and old people, many of them begging or selling home-produce. Young people, too, look poor and somewhat bewildered by the presence of a photographer interested in them. Blogs with street photos were then unheard of.

Compared to the Sofia of today, Sofia of the 1990s looks grimmer, colder and more inhospitable, but there is something in the people in the streets that challenges this perception. Look closely, and you will spot energy and optimism even on the faces of the down-at-heel street sellers, a spark that today is almost missing from Sofianites. The sense that things will improve, sooner rather than later, prevailed in Bulgaria between its domestic economic crisis of 1996-1997 and the world crisis of 2008. In this short timespan, Bulgarians believed in liberal democracy. Thousands celebrated the 10th anniversary of the fall of Communism. US president Bill Clinton came to visit. The general notion was that it was only a matter of years until Bulgaria would be "like the West": prosperous and corruption-free, a haven of free initiative and free media.

Some of these hopes materialised, some did not. Sofia in the 1990s may have been poorer, but it was more optimistic. Things were yet to happen.

Sofia, Bulgaria, the 1990s

Parking in Central Sofia was similar to 2015 except the City Council had not started collecting parking fees and cars were not towed away. Beggars were the same


Sofia, Bulgaria, the 1990s

Central Sofia was still full of small-time artisan shops like this one near the intersection of Vasil Levski Boulevard and Graf Ignatiev Street, selling cigarettes and hand-made brassieres


Sofia, Bulgaria, the 1990s

Western brands slowly made their way into Bulgaria in the 1990s


Sofia, Bulgaria, the 1990s

The leader of the BSP, Georgi Parvanov, was opposed to Bulgaria granting NATO an air corridor during the 1999 Kosovo war. Many of his sympathisers intoned, carrying placards saying "Yankees Out!" Bulgaria became a full member of NATO in 2003. Parvanov had become president thе previous year, and would hold the post until 2012


Sofia, Bulgaria, the 1990s

The Sofia Central Bath, behind the city's mosque, also stood in ruins through the 1990s. It was so dilapidated that it was cordoned off for fear it could collapse. In the 2000s it was restored and now houses the Old Sofia Museum


Sofia, Bulgaria, the 1990s

Visitors to Sofia in 2015 will find it hard to believe, but the empty space in front of the National Art Gallery was occupied by this monumental structure which was in fact... a tomb. The corpse of Bulgaria's Stalinist dictator, Georgi Dimitrov, lay mummified in it. The "mausoleum" was abandoned after the collapse of Communism. Through the 1990s it was used alternatively as a public toilet, a Socialist Party rallying ground, and an opera stage set until it was demolished in the summer of 1999


Sofia, Bulgaria, the 1990s

The BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, provided its supporters with free kebapcheta and even beer ahead of elections


Sofia, Bulgaria, the 1990s

The 1990s were the time where people started making money in Bulgaria's inchoate free market. Some made a little money and bought second- and third-hand Fords and Opels to replace their Ladas and Moskviches. But some made a lot - and got fabulously rich. So they could afford Rollses of the sort you see here parked, rather incongruously, in front of the Tax Office in one of Sofia's poorer neighbourhoods


Sofia, Bulgaria, the 1990s

Sofia Airport had just one terminal, now still existent but serving only low-cost companies. Balkan Airlines, the Bulgarian national carrier, continued to function until it was sold off to a private company and went bust shortly thereafter


Sofia, Bulgaria, the 1990s

The Central Food Halls, between Sofia's mosque and the Central Synagogue, is now a thriving shopping centre, but through the 1990s it lay in ruins. In the early 2000s an Israeli company bought it and turned it into what it is today

Issue 110 Communism PostCommunism

Commenting on

Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on 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 for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on 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


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

panelki neighbourhood bulgaria
With the mountains for a backdrop and amid large green spaces, uniform apartment blocks line up like Legos. Along the dual carriageway, 7km from the centre of Sofia, the underground comes above ground: Mladost Station.

boyan the magus
What do you do when the events of the day overwhelm you? When you feel that you have lost control of your own life? You might overeat, rant on social media or buy stuff you do not need. You might call your shrink.

Monument to Hristo Botev in his native Kalofer
Every 2 June, at exactly noon, the civil defence systems all over Bulgaria are switched on. The sirens wail for a minute. A minute when many people stop whatever they are doing and stand still.

st george day bulgaria
Bulgarians celebrate St George's Day, or Gergyovden, with enormous enthusiasm, both officially and in private.

Shopska salad is the ultimate rakiya companion
The easiest way for a foreigner to raise a Bulgarian brow concerns a sacrosanct pillar of national identity: rakiya, the spirit that Bulgarians drink at weddings, funerals, for lunch, at protracted dinners; because they are sad or joyful, and somet

"Where is the parliament?" A couple of months ago anyone asking this question in Sofia would have been pointed to a butter-yellow neoclassical building at one end of the Yellow Brick Road.

Boyko Borisov_0.jpg
Bulgaria's courts have been given the chance to write legal history as former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov is suing Yordan Tsonev, the MP for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, over Tsonev's referral to him as a mutra.

bulgaria underworld.jpg
Mutra is one of those short and easy-to-pronounce Bulgarian words that is also relatively easy to translate.

Magdalina Stancheva.jpg
Walking around Central Sofia is like walking nowhere else, notwithstanding the incredibly uneven pavements.

When a Bulgarian TV crew came to our village in northeastern Bulgaria to shoot a beer advert they wanted British people in the film, so we appeared as ourselves.
Lt John Dudley Crouchley, 1944.jpg
During most of the Second World War, Bulgaria and the United States were enemies. In 1943-1944 Allied aircrafts bombed major Bulgarian cities.

Happy families may be alike, unhappy families may be unhappy in their own way, but in Bulgaria all these come with a twist: a plethora of hard-to-pronounce names for every maternal and paternal aunt, uncle and in-law that can possibly exist.