A country increasingly difficult to understand even by its own citizens, Bulgaria stands unique in Eastern Europe in at least two respects: it is arguably the least reformed former Warsaw Pact state and – if international surveys and indices are anything to go by – it is populated by the unhappiest people in Europe.
Why is that? Local political scientists of varying degrees of knowledge and intelligence have made it their business to broadcast explanations on a daily basis, but these explanations often fail to answer some simple yet very pertinent questions about Bulgarians and the Bulgarian Weltanschauung, or world-view. Why do the Bulgarians hate the Turks? Why are the residents of the bigger towns and especially of Sofia wary of people coming from the villages? What about the Gypsies? Why do the Bulgarians have a penchant for conspiracy theories? Why do they live in the past, sometimes a very distant past, rather than look forward to the future? What are the whims and quirks of everyday life in Bulgaria that make the country so different from its Balkan neighbours? Why do an increasing number of Bulgarians lament Communism, the system they were so enthusiastic to do away with in the 1990s? Why would many Bulgarians be happy to take to the streets and protest but would then prefer to go picking mushrooms on election day? What makes the Bulgarians so suspicious of one another? What makes the Bulgarians so suspicious of their elected and unelected officials? Why are the Bulgarians so impenetrable to foreigners, even if they speak the language and know the contexts?
The answers to these questions may best be arrived at through the personal testimonies of "ordinary people," through their experiences, habits, inclinations and individual ways of handling the smaller and bigger challenges of life. This is not the realm of political scientists and historians but the domain of ethnologists.
Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life After Communism by Kristen Ghodsee (published by the Duke University Press in 2011) is a book, one of the few of its kind, that provides real answers to these questions through real-life people and situations.
Ghodsee first passed through Bulgaria on a 30-hour (!) transit visa in 1990, but her interest in the country dates back to her high-school days in San Diego, California, and then the universities at Berkley and Santa Cruz. Having spent some time in Bulgaria in the 1990s and 2000s and eventually getting married to a Bulgarian, she now lives in Maine where she is a John S. Osterweis professor at Bowdoin.
Don't be misled: although this is an academic work written by a noted American scholar, it is very easy to read and is, in fact, impossible to put down, largely because it is so well-written. To arrive at the conclusions, many of which are rather unpleasant, about life in Bulgaria Ghodsee looks at and analyses a great variety of experiences here and in some neighbouring countries. These range from her initial train journey from Istanbul to Belgrade, where she shared the compartment with a bunch of young Serbs who looked and behaved like, and probably were, smugglers to the imaginary story (Ghodsee calls it "ethnographic fiction") of the young Muslim woman from Madan, in the Rhodope, who goes to Sofia to earn money to buy medicines for her father but eventually has to sell her hair to get a ticket back home. There is the hilarious story of Ghodsee's two bassets barking at a flock of sheep in a disused football stadium and there is the memorable trip to Zagreb to attend a U2 concert. There is the Bosnian girl who memorised Tito trivia in order to win a school quiz, whose main regret about the Balkan wars in the 1990s is that they prevented her from actually winning it, and then there is Ghodsee's personal experience of the 2008 munitions depot explosions in Sofia, which resulted in the cancellation of her plane to Berlin – and of the partly scary, partly comical way the Bulgarian authorities handled the consequences.
In 2009, the US-based Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project conducted a survey to investigate how post-Communist countries were faring 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Less than 50 percent of the populations in all former Warsaw Pact states, with the exception of the Czech Republic, were skeptical, with the numbers being most striking in Bulgaria. Just 11 percent of the Bulgarians surveyed claimed that "ordinary people" were better off then than they had been in 1989. Even the Ukrainians and the Russians were more optimistic. 76 of the Bulgarians said that they were dissatisfied with how post-Communist democracy functioned in their country.
In her travels and meetings with various people in Bulgaria, Kristen Ghodsee meets just one person who has a decidedly negative attitude to Communism – and that is based on a failed love affair with a foreigner and the pervasive role of Darzhavna sigurnost, or State Security, in people's personal lives. Most of the others' experiences suggest a nostalgia for the pre-1989 past, ranging from mild to hardcore, and that involves, significantly, even young Bulgarians who have little or no memories of how the Communist system functioned. The sentiment is best reflected in a statement by Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria's democratically elected prime minister 2009-2013, as quoted by Ghodsee: "It would be a tremendous success for any government to build one percent of what Todor Zhivkov built for Bulgaria... and achieve the economic growth of the state at that time," Borisov said, and went on: "The fact is that for 20 years now we have been privatising what had been built during his time."
Ghodsee asks: "From where does the cynicism toward democracy and capitalism arise, and how can it be that people really feel that their lives are worse off today than they were in 1989, when there were travel restrictions, consumer shortages and secret police?
A possible answer is to be sought in the Bulgarians' predilection for conspiracy theories. One of them, quoted by Ghodsee as it was related by a Bulgarian friend, goes something like this. In the late 1980s the Soviet Politburo came to the realisation that they could not afford to keep up with the West, which outperformed the East in every respect including military technology. For years the KGB had been trying to steal Western technologies, but by the late 1980s it transpired that it would be easier to just ask the West to lend a helping hand. As long as the Communists were enemies, however, that was out of the question.
So, in keeping with a secret plan, the Soviet Union faked its own collapse. It let Eastern Europe and some of its own republics go their own way. Soviet enterprises would be sold off to foreign investors who would bring new technology and fresh cash. During this period the Communists would keep a low profile and let capitalism have its way. Once the Russian economy had sufficiently caught up with the West and the Russian people had had enough of organised crime, oligarchs and polarisation of incomes, the Communists would reemerge and go ahead with nationalisation.
The ideological justification of this is easy to see. Marx said that to have Communism you must pass through capitalism. Russia and Bulgaria jumped over capitalism and entered Communism straight from their feudal societies. People need to experience the injustices of capitalism to see the value of Communism. Thus, when the time comes, the Communists could come back, protecting the rights of workers, women, the elderly and the poor, and extracting surplus value for the good of the people.
The above story delves as much into the peculiar inner workings of the Bulgarian mentality as it indicates what the Bulgarians want to believe in. Communism may never come back again, but capitalism might someday meet the same fate.