text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Living under Communism had some good points, but did they outweigh the daily struggle?

beating ostalgia.jpg

If opinion polls are anything to go by, Bulgarians are the most pessimistic Europeans. In contrast to the Danes who, despite – or perhaps because of – their climate and taxation levels, have persistently, over the course of many years, emerged as the most contented people in Europe, Bulgarians are becoming increasingly unhappy and morose.

If you have spent enough time in this country it is not be hard to see why. A series of inefficient, if not downright ridiculous, governments have failed to implement much needed reforms and to tackle pressing issues such as corruption, organised crime and the standard of living. Membership of NATO and the EU have meant little if anything to ordinary folk who do not, as a rule, travel outside the country, except perhaps for brief holidays in Greece – or because they want to emigrate. The economic crisis in what most Bulgarians, with a lack of political correctness, call the "White World" may be easing, but in Bulgaria itself it threatens to become more or less permanent. Prices are skyrocketing, because a handful of monopolies condoned by the state are doing whatever they want in the areas of telecommunications, oil and energy supplies and distribution, and retail sales. Come election time, Bulgarians vote with their feet: very few of them show up, unless they are paid to do so. Not a happy picture, eh?!

The sorry state Bulgaria finds itself in at the moment is, of course, chiefly the responsibility of Bulgarians themselves and their elected politicians. This explains why an increasing number of people, especially the middle-aged who have first-hand memories of Communism, are turning towards their collective past, and wistfully recalling the times when a loaf of bread cost 28 stotinki, justice worked – perhaps slowly but it did function – work was guaranteed, the traffic police did not demand bribes, and health care was free.

Nothing out of the ordinary, some will argue: many other East Europeans experienced the same kind of Ostalgia in the 1990s when they became disenchanted with their own governments and the pace of economic reforms, and discovered that free speech and the ability to travel meant little if there was no bread on the table.

But things, of course, are not so black-and-white. There can be no denying that the achievements of post-Communist Bulgaria in the areas of human rights, the economy and even the media (with some very big reservations) by far outweigh its starting point in 1989, when Todor Zhivkov was in control, Bulgarian names were forcibly imposed on Turks and people could be sent to jail for telling political jokes.

Human memory tends to work selectively, retaining the good stuff and quickly getting rid of what was bad. So, for those who would prefer the "good old days" of cheap tram tickets and crime-free streets, here is a little checklist to refresh their memory.

You wake up in the morning. That is – you wake up in the morning if you were able to get to sleep at all. Soviet-made alarm clocks of the 1980s produced an inimitable and sometimes very loud tick-tock that many people found hard to live with. No electronic gadgets, no gentle waking-up to the clock radio. If you wanted one, your only chance was to buy some US dollars on the black market and go to the Corecom, Bulgaria's dollar shops. Corecoms were the preferred place for shopping for anything from deodorants and chocolates to jeans and wooden clogs. Actually, I am wrong. Corecoms were the only place to obtain such items unless, of course, you wanted to look as if your clothes had been designed by the manager of a tractor factory. I am quoting Bill Bryson, who had the chance to visit Communist Bulgaria in the 1980s.

You want some coffee to perk you up? Two options. Polish Inka coffee, made of soya beans or, if you had an aunt who was a state-employed shop assistant, you might be able to obtain some Vietnamese coffee. People joked that it smelled and tasted like boiled napalm.

Newspaper at your breakfast table? You could choose between Rabotnichesko Delo, or Worker's Deed, Otechestven Front, or Fatherland Front, and a handful of others. Truth be told, there were some differences between them.

Sit at the computer. I am not joking. Under Comecon (remember what that was?) rules, Bulgaria was designated as a manufacturer of... computers. A huge plant for both software and hardware was built in Pravets, the birth place of no less a figure than Comrade Zhivkov himself. What it did was reverse-engineer Western computers and then assemble its own brand, the Pravets. You don't want to touch these, believe me.

Curiously, the Communist managers of the time chose to work on the basis of Apple Macintosh computers, rather than the IBM machines that would later evolve into the mainstream PC. Three cheers for them.

Think that you no longer want to live in a pre-fab block of flats. Then quickly remember that you can't sell it or buy a new one, because there is no property market at all. Anyone wanting to purchase a "housing unit" for themselves had to put their name on a list. That list was approved by the municipal authorities, or People's Councils. Taking into consideration the size of your family, your performance at work and, last but not least, your position in the Party hierarchy, they would allocate one to you – in 15 to 20 years. If you were an artist, a writer, an architect or worked in TV you could go to your professional association. If you had connections there, life might become a whole lot easier for you. This explains why some huge blocks of flats in Sofia's then posh neighbourhoods are still referred to as the "Writers' Block" and the "Journalists' Block."

You want a car? See above. No Western cars, please. Zaporozhets, Moskvich, Trabant. Ladas were considered a luxury. Polski Fiats were hard to get. 20 years waiting time.

Go out of your pre-fab block of flats. For some strange reason that had to do with the encouragement of a "Socialist" lifestyle, men with beards and long hair, as well as women with short skirts, were looked down upon. You couldn't be a proper Party member if you had long hair because you looked like, well, The Beatles. Likewise with short skirts. At one point in the history of Communism the government issued a decree regulating how long a short skirt should be to be considered acceptable: five fingers above the knee.

Want to listen to the radio/watch TV? One easy option would be to switch on your radiotochka, or radio point. No tuning required. It had been preset to broadcast one or, in the case of major cities like Sofia, several radio stations. You could choose between Programa Horizont and Programa Hristo Botev.

You had a bit more choice with TV, providing you owned a TV set. Colour television was slow to reach Bulgaria and the only option for a set was a Soviet-manufactured Elektron, which looked like, OK, it had been designed by the manager of a tractor factory. It weighed in excess of 30 kilogrammes and the colours were somewhat less than realistic. Never mind – Blaupunkts and Telefunkens at the time were only marginally lighter. The trouble this side of the Iron Curtain was that even the Elektrons were in short supply. Waiting lists, connections to state-employed shop assistants, the whole hog. In the 1980s Bulgaria did start to manufacture its own brand of colour TVs. They were called Veliko Tarnovo, but I don't know what happened to them.

Go shopping. The phrase pusnali sa..., which roughly translates as "They have released..." dates back to those times. People did not shop for whatever they needed, they shopped for whatever was released in the state-run shops. Bananas, oranges and lemons were released only for New Year – Christmas was banned. You might end up walking 10 blocks to buy beer, because even beer was in short supply. Good beer like Zagorka was reserved for "special" customers. Coca-Cola was mainly served as a "post mix" – bar tenders were given Coca-Cola "concentrate" which they themselves had to mix with soda water. Imagine what it tasted like.

Entertainment/culture. OK, there was no chalga. There was estradna muzika. It spoke of love and patriotism. The tunes were pretty innocuous, no hard beat. There was, however, a significant undercurrent of Western culture that somehow managed to seep through the Iron Curtain. People did know about The Beatles, although only one Beatles LP was ever released in Bulgaria, the one with Tony Sheridan in Hamburg. ABBA was OK.

Film? If you wanted to see a good film you had to go to a filmotechno kino, a kind of non-membership film club. Felini was on, and so was Joseph Losey. Some Glasnost-era Soviet films were an instant hit, but they were released with caution. The Godfather Part 1 was heavily censored of its more violent scenes.

Having watched a movie you want to go home in a taxi. No problem. Plenty of state-owned taxis hanging around Orlov Bridge. Trouble was, they would stop and collect anyone who waved them down after you'd already got in. Not to have an empty ride, if you know what I mean. Of course, I cannot but admit that living under Communism was, in a way, fun because people used to tell so many political jokes, and not everyone went to jail for telling them as long as they exercised a reasonable amount of common sense. Not a good idea, for instance, to tell one to an undercover cop, the sort of guys who, after Communism fell, turned coat and quickly got to run the new country. As a kind of consolation, though, I can only point out that the culture of political jokes is rapidly returning to the lives of ordinary Bulgarians, now they have Boyko Borisov and his boys. Keep on reading Vagabond for a latterday selection.


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