COLD WAR REMAINS AT PADARSKO, BULGARIA

text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Visit spooky site of Communist-era jammer of BBC and Radio Free Europe

urbex bulgaria cold war radio jamming site

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.

abandoned cold war jammer bulgaria

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.

abandoned cold war jammer bulgaria

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.

abandoned cold war jammer bulgaria

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.

abandoned cold war jammer bulgaria

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.

Radio Free Europe advertisement

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

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. 

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

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

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

WAR & PEACE IN CENTRAL SOFIA
Squirrels and small children frequent unkempt alleys under towering oak and beech trees; а romantic wooden gazebo is often decorated with balloons forgotten after some openair birthday party; melancholic weeping willows hang over an empty artif

SOFIA'S BEST-KEPT SECRET
In 1965, Dimitar Kovachev, a biology teacher from the town of Asenovgrad, was on a field trip to Ezerovo village.

WHAT IS DZHULAYA?
How often do you hum, while driving or doing chores, Uriah Heep's song July Morning? Is it on your Spotify?

MYSTERY CAVE
Bulgaria has its fair share of intriguing caves, from the Devil's Throat underground waterfall to Prohodna's eyes-like openings and the Magura's prehistoric rock art.

RHODOPE'S MANMADE LAKES
Owing to its geological history, the Rhodope mountain range – in contrast to the nearby Rila and Pirin – lacks any impressive Alpine-style lakes. However, where nature erred, man stepped in.

IS RACISM IN BULGARIA ON THE RISE?
"We are fascists, we burn Arabs": the youngsters start chanting as soon as they emerge from the metro station and leave the perimeter of its security cameras.

HOW WOODROW WILSON AND CHARLES DARWIN CAME TO SOFIA
The names of foreigners, mainly Russians, are common across the map of Sofia – from Alexandr Dondukov and Count Ignatieff to Alexey Tolstoy (a Communist-era Soviet writer not to be confused with Leo Tolstoy) who has a whole housing estate named after him.

EMBRACE THE PAST
Picturesque old houses lining a narrow river and tiny shops selling hand-made sweets, knives and fabrics: The Etara open air museum recreates a charming, idealised version of mid-19th century Bulgaria.

JESUS CHRIST ASTRONAUT
Christ was an alien. Or if He was not, then four centuries ago there were UFOs hovering over what is now southwestern Bulgaria.

OF SHPAGINS, TANKS AND ALYOSHAS
Unlike other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which removed, stashed away or demolished most remnants of their Communist past as early as the 1990s, Bulgaria is a curiosity.

VARVARA'S IRON TREE
Agroup of friends meet each summer at the seaside, a small community who know one another so well that boredom becomes inevitable, and so do internal conflicts. And death.

TAILLESS CATS AND MADMEN MAKING POLITICAL DEMANDS
Descendants of millennia-old rites, the scary kukeri, or mummers, are the best known face of Bulgarian carnival tradition. Gabrovo's carnival is its modern face: fun, critical, and colourful.