Visit spooky site of Communist-era jammer of BBC and Radio Free Europe
If you ever find yourself in the Thracian Plain northeast of Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second largest city that holds many enticements to both expats and casual visitors alike, you will probably be bored. You will be doing the 20-mile drive over farming flatlands with little to distract the traveller's attention than the occasional roadside vendor selling tomatoes and peppers, or sometimes a mini traffic jam caused by a tractor going too slow. Then, quite surprisingly for a Bulgarian flatland where you are usually able to see for miles around, you will enter a thick grove. The road, of decreasing quality, will eventually end up in front of some derelict buildings with strange concrete installations around them. Most of them will be overgrown with lush Bulgarian vegetation. No one will be in sight: the place has long been abandoned and left to the elements.
You are at the Padarsko Jamming Facility, a Communist-era state operation that in the course of several decades tried to prevent the radio broadcasts of the BBC and Radio Free Europe from reaching the people they were targeted at.
To appreciate the historical significance of the site you will need some background.
Young people of the 21st century are usually glued to their smartphones and other interconnected "devices." They swish messages on WhatsApp and at least a dozen other "sharing platforms," and freely exchange any kind of information with friends, families and completely unknown individuals that can be located on the other side of the world. Usually, their judgment of what is right and what is wrong, what is just plausible and what is a verified fact, and the different measures of truth, half-truths, half-lies and plain nonsense a piece of news may consist of is based mainly on its headline – or the number of characters (spaces included) that the various messaging apps allow.
For the young people of the 21st century it would be difficult if not entirely impossible to imagine that just over 30 years ago Europe was divided in two by something called the Iron Curtain. West of that "curtain" life was not very different from what it is today. Travel was free, people were not scared to exchange opinions, tell political jokes, dress any way they liked, sport long hair and engage in whatever activity they wanted as long as it did not violate the law.
East of the curtain life was very different. You couldn't buy Beatles records. Pink Floyd's The Wall was banned because of the references to Brezhnev and Afghanistan. Those lucky few who could travel abroad had to undergo strenuous vetting checks with a unclear outcome. Families might be allowed to travel as long as at least one of their kids stayed behind, as a flesh-and-blood guarantee they would return.
Bulgaria, unfortunately, was on the east side of the Iron Curtain. Several generations of Bulgarians – all of the over-40s men and women you are likely to meet in today's Bulgaria had to live the humiliating life of citizens of a Communist country. They belonged to the Second World.
Significantly, one of the most important differences between life east and life west of the Iron Curtain was the lack of information. While people in the West had a plethora of news sources to choose from, all of them offering varied commentary and multifaceted opinion, the people east often did not even realise their governments deprived them of one of the most basic human rights, the right to free and independent media. In Bulgaria, they had to do with a handful of newspapers inevitably controlled and censored by the Communist party. And the two national TV channels they had carried mainly "news" about farming and industrial "conquests." Occasionally, a Western movie would be broadcast, attracting a huge number of viewers. But overall the media picture in Communist Bulgaria was as dull as life under Communism itself.
Here come the BBC World Service in London and the US-sponsored Radio Free Europe, collectively referred to by the Communist propagandists at the time as the "enemy" radio stations. While very different from each other in terms of editorial policies, goals, funding and so on, what they had in common was that they broadcast uncensored news and commentary to the people behind the Iron Curtain, including Bulgaria. And they did that in Bulgarian.
Predictably, the Communist authorities in Sofia did not like that. The Politburo, the secret police and various other agencies of the Communist state went to great lengths to silence the voices of freedom that the BBC and Radio Free Europe had turned into. For one, they developed an elaborate "counterpropaganda" classification system where they tagged the various Western radio stations according to the "harm" the Communist Bulgaria they could inflict. There was the "white propaganda": The Voice of America, an arm of the long defunct United States Information Agency beamed from Washington DC. With its Music-and-More model it was considered pretty innocuous. Then there was the BBC World Service, located up until the 2000s in Bush House, in Central London. The BBC was "grey propaganda." It did broadcast news about the British Commonwealth, but also sent out commentary and analysis on international developments – the Soviet Union invading Czechoslovakia and Vaclav Havel being put in jail again, Andrei Sakharov being confined to a psychiatric asylum in the USSR, Chernobyl blowing up and Gorbachev hushing it up, and so on and so forth – that drove a serious wedge in the Communist propaganda machine at the time. Yet "worse" was the "black propaganda." That was Radio Free Europe, which broadcast to Eastern Europe, and Radio Liberty, which sent out its programmes to the peoples of the Soviet Union. Since its inception in 1949, Radio Free Europe was supposed to be a "surrogate" radio station. In plain language, it was meant to send out uncensored news, commentary, responsible discussion and independent analysis to the peoples in the East bloc that they could have obtained themselves had they had free and independent media.
An early ad for Radio Free Europe
The governments in every country in the East bloc, including Bulgaria, spent a considerable amount of cash and human resources to prevent Radio Free Europe's airwaves from reaching the people they were supposed to reach. One relatively easy way to do that was by "jamming." Setting up jamming facilities across the East bloc was seen as a major method of "counterpropaganda." Up until 1989 the East bloc countries acted in coordination to prevent their citizens from being able to listen to Radio Free Europe's news. Bulgaria, for example, jammed Polish language and Czech-language broadcasts, while the Soviet union jammed Bulgarian-language broadcasts – up until 1989.
Padarsko was the main jamming station among at least half a dozen similar facilities in the People's Republic of Bulgaria.
As you walk among the ruins of the former Communist-era facility you will find little to indicate either Communism, or Radio Free Europe or jamming as such. Pieces of broken equipment scattered on the floor, empty mineral water bottles, remnants of chairs – everything you will find in other post-Communist ruins with which Bulgaria abounds.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr gives talks to RFE/RL in the 1960s
Outside you will see the former concrete pylons, in severe state of dilapidation, that used to prop the antennas.
Western demands to the East bloc in general and Bulgaria in particular to stop jamming as it violated the universal human right to free information were never taken seriously. In fact, in the 1970s and 1980s Communist Bulgaria repeatedly lied it was about to stop jamming – but didn't. At long last, jamming was halted as late as the end of 1988, less than a year before the collapse of Communism.
The Padarsko facility was then used to relay the foreign language programmes of the Bulgarian National Radio – up until 2012, when the GERB government pulled the plug on those too, and Padarsko was abandoned for good.
So now, if you ever go to Padarsko, whose Bulgarian name translates as the Village of Goatherds, close your eyes among the ruins and the destruction and think that fortunately you live at a time when you get your news from your smartphone – and no one, hopefully not in the predictable future, is going to jam it.