by Kjell Engelbrekt; photography by Anthony Georgieff, BTA

Student brigades and the Warsaw Pact may be a thing of the past, but totalitarian mentality still pervades Bulgarian society

communism girls.jpg

Everyone born in the 1990s and now attending college wonders how the 20th Century could have been dominated by two extremely absurd ideologies: Nazism and Communism, collectively known as totalitarianism. How could millions of people be led to believe what essentially was a thoroughly imaginary philosophy propagating the supremacy of one race – in the case of Nazism? Likewise, how could millions of people be ruled by a single supposedly omniscient party claiming to rule by decrees in all areas, from biogenetics to sports – in the case of Communism? Most countries that have experienced either Nazism or Communism have been trying to come to grips with their murky past. Bulgaria, which has experienced both, hasn't.

Making sense of today's Bulgaria can be an arduous task. Different backgrounds play their part, but the major responsibility rests with the country's reluctance to come to terms with its past in order to understand better why today it is what it is. It's clear that a wide variety of institutional and cultural legacies, repercussions and historical traces of Communism exist and have only been slightly modified. But, on the other hand, there are demonstrably a great number of aspects of Bulgarian society that have been profoundly transformed – and previous trends that have been reversed.

Bulgaria and the rest of the Soviet-sponsored East bloc – now often referred to as the "Wild East" – lived under a totalitarian regime for decades in a hegemony partly maintained by persuasion, but mostly through coercive means. The formal expression of this hegemony was the infamous constitutional paragraph of the leading role of the Communist Party. When that paragraph was abolished by the Bulgarian National Assembly in early 1990, very little stood in the way of political pluralism.

Most of Bulgaria is still dotted with Stalinist monuments to the Red Army. The current establishment considers the Red Army

Most of Bulgaria is still dotted with Stalinist monuments to the Red Army. The current establishment considers the Red Army

The period, often referred to as Promenite, or The Changes, is frequently a taboo topic – in sharp contrast with every other former East bloc country where links to Communist pasts are continuously unravelled and researched. Such discussions run the risk of becoming too personal and controversial. After nearly 19 years of transition to a multiparty system, with new political and business elites in place, hardly anyone knows who did what under Communism or what made Bulgaria what it is today. The elderly don't know because Bulgaria is the last former Soviet satellite that is trying to come to terms with its repressive past by belatedly lifting the lid on the State Security files, whereas the children just don't care. The failure to document and record this important era in Bulgaria's history fostered a simplistic image in the nation's collective memories, which is fading fast. So, what's next?

To put it briefly, stories must be told. Movies, books and other human artefacts may help to get the imagination going, but in a nutshell, stories must be told – and told well.

I'm sure that there are many Bulgarians who tell such stories, and tell them extensively and in considerable detail within the biographical framework of their own lives.

A monument to the builders of Hainboaz Pass

A monument to the builders of Hainboaz Pass

This means that their children and grandchildren are able to glimpse a part of what formed the people who raised them, but not everyone has great storytellers in their family.

A timid first step to provide an effective and fruitful context for such storytelling remains a conventional one – a museum. True, museums today come in all formats and levels of ambition. But this should be a museum that will wholeheartedly accept the challenge of portraying Bulgaria's modern political history, using many of the latest didactic and technological tools.

That museum – currently non-existent bar a modest subsection of the National History Museum in Boyana – would, firstly, serve as a meeting-place for different generations. Second, it would be a place where factual data and authentic historical records would serve as the common foundation for historic interpretation. Third, it would be a place offering space for contrasting views on various episodes of Bulgarian history.

Between 1945 and 1989 numerous tanks lined up at the Turkish border

Between 1945 and 1989 numerous tanks lined up at the Turkish border

Controversy shouldn't be a dirty word for an institution of this kind and calibre. The result would not be a single narrative, but a discourse, among scholars as well as between scholars and the public.

I believe that a "Museum of the 20th Century" would serve Bulgaria best. Whilst the Communist period spans the most recent half of that period, the first decades of the 20th Century are very helpful in putting later developments into perspective. Indeed, the early history of Bulgaria's 20th Century is in many ways every bit as fascinating as what followed after 1944. There are a few sources already in existence that would aid the assembly of such a museum.

"We went on holidays to the sea for a whole month, went skiing, planned hiking tours along the 100 sites itinerary. We had a Zhiguli car. My grandparents had a Moskvich. I was never worried, nor my parents, that we played until late somewhere in the neighbourhood. We would buy a sesame ring and boza for seven stotinki. And so on…"

This Communist reminiscence is an excerpt from a well-known in Bulgaria site, called I lived Socialism on The site has a plethora of nostalgia inducing information suitable for museum features. Website founders, Diana Ivanova, Rumen Petrov, Kalin Manolov and Georgi Gospodinov, have brought together accounts and anecdotes of hundreds of Bulgarians from all walks of life. It's an extraordinary collection of eyewitness accounts – the Second World War, the Communist takeover and the ensuing crackdown on the opposition, the launch of the first Communist brigades, and the building of the nuclear power plants, to name a few. The site could be further expanded and filed according to academic methodological standards.

A second, very different, source of information and spring of the same constructive spirit is Yana Genova and Georgi Gospodinov's photo-book of consumer goods from the 1950s through the 1980s, Inventarna kniga na sotsializma. This is a splendid collection of objects that can make the hearts of many Bulgarians aged above thirty beat a little faster, and may bring back long-lost memories to individuals and families. Experiencing these objects in real life, in a museum, would be even more enjoyable to those who remember them well.

Under Communism private affairs, including weddings, had to be done under the watchful eye of Big Boss Todor Zhivkov

Under Communism private affairs, including weddings, had to be done under the watchful eye of Big Boss Todor Zhivkov

A third element comprises dozens of short film sequences uploaded to the widely popular All devoted to Bulgarian political history during the inter-war and Communist era, the majority of the films are gathered under the heading of “Bulgaria XX Vek.” This particular initiative represents the single-handed effort of a Bulgarian-born journalist who has spent years assembling such footage. Here you can see short films showing the 1945 arrival of Andrey Vyshinski to help organise Bulgaria's Interior Ministry and Darzhavna sigurnost, or State Security – Bulgaria's version of the Stasi, along Soviet lines, as well as the current state of the once lavishly monumental Buzludzha conference centre in the Balkan mountains, and a number of other relevant film sequences.

A museum alone will not accomplish the ambitious task of re-engaging Bulgarians with their recent history, though it may bring them a few steps closer to self-awareness. The main purpose of a museum of 20th Century history would become a meeting-ground for factually based, legitimate arguments about Bulgaria's recent history. Already the electronically based, "virtual" memory banks mentioned above can be useful, but physical facilities are significant as they allow for people to meet face to face and exchange views and ideas instead of remaining anonymous behind computer screens.

And then, of course, there is at least an additional "selling point" that can be used to persuade Bulgarian decision makers, businessmen and perhaps EU officials to support the establishment of a museum. It has become a truism that remembering and analysing the past ensures that it doesn't repeat itself, but in cash-strapped Bulgaria it would be better to point out that this kind of museum, if given a central Sofia location, is likely to become one of the capital's major tourist attractions.


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