by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Under Communism, Bulgaria tried to become a technological giant. It failed


Bulgarians are present in many fields of modern science and engineering, from medicine to space exploration, pushing new boundaries and breaking new grounds. If you have not heard much about it, it is because the great majority of them work for foreign universities, scientific institutions and R&D teams. As a result of the decades-long neglect of the fundamental and the applied sciences and of engineering in Bulgaria, academically gifted Bulgarians go abroad the moment they graduate from secondary school. There is already a second generation of Bulgarian scientists and engineers who, after the collapse of Communism in 1989, emigrated to build their careers in the West as the opportunities to do this in Bulgaria became – and remain – extremely limited and do not pay much. Academia is notoriously underfunded in Bulgaria, local businesses complain that scientific research is not focused on solving practical problems, and the general public, often with reason, sees scientists in state institutions as, at best, useless.

Statue extolling the triumph of science in Tsarevo's seaside park. Under Communism, Tsarevo was called Michurin, after the Soviet botanist who created a number of hybrids to yield better harvests

When walking the streets of Bulgarian towns, however, you will see signs that show that, until 30 years ago, the state's attitude towards developing science and engineering in Bulgaria was quite the opposite.

These signs usually take the shape of public art: mosaics and murals from the 1970s and the 1980s depicting confident young scientists dressed in white lab coats, holding test tubes, surrounded by atom nuclei and electron clouds, cogwheels and what looks like early computer motherboards. All of these are the visual propaganda of Communist Bulgaria's obsession with what it called "scientific-technological progress."

A road sign to the Nuclear Power Plant at Kozloduy

Developing science and technology along Soviet lines was the mainstay of its economic doctrine. It was the belated Communist answer to the Big Science surge in Western industrial nations in the 1940s. Specifically, the Eastern bloc aspired to rapid industrialisation and the implementation of new scientific discoveries, technologies and automation.

Communist Bulgaria restructured its scientific potential to catch up with Western economies and boost the standard of living. That was its declared aim. It focused on applied mathematics and engineering, and larger plants and factories had scientific and development units to devise and implement new technologies. In the 1960s, Bulgaria focused on the development of IT technologies for the Eastern bloc and affiliated countries. To a significant extent, the new developments were based on stolen technologies from the Western countries, which had banned the export of such goods to the Eastern bloc. Communist Bulgaria developed partnerships with Japanese companies, while State Security had a special department for economic intelligence, which was dealt mainly with industrial espionage and stealing technologies from the West. Arguably the most brazen of those operations was the theft a whole IBM factory for magnetic discs that was based in Portugal. The plan was ingeniously simple and it worked – the factory was purchased by a front company owned by the Bulgarian state. This was one of the steps that made the production of the Bulgarian Pravets computer in the 1980s possible. Interestingly, its early models were reverse-engineered from Apple Macintosh I and II, while the later ones were lifted from IBM.

Atoms buzzing on the wall of a prefabricated block in Kozloduy

Communist Bulgaria prioritised nuclear power engineering, heavy industry and machine-building, agriculture and biotechnologies, along with informatics. It did succeed in constructing its own nuclear power plant at Kozloduy, made exclusively with Soviet technology and commissioned Chernobyl-type reactors, and exported its Pravets computers to other Eastern bloc countries. Yet the great aim, to catch up with the West, was never attained.

The reasons for this failure were many and varied, but came down to the very nature of the planned economy of Communism. The scientists, inventors and engineers might receive bonuses but could not patent their discoveries. Naturally, they preferred to work piecemeal, often exaggerating the efficiency of their innovations. Bulgaria had to sell its information technology in the Eastern bloc at prices fixed by the state. In the West, advanced technologies were aimed first and foremost at the consumer market, to be sold to citizens with increasing needs for entertainment and communication. In Bulgaria they were to be implemented first and foremost in industry.

This "peaceful atom" adorns a building in central Burgas

The technological abyss between the West and Bulgaria grew wider as Communism showed early signs of exhaustion. After 1989, when the system collapsed, most technological development units and scientific institutes attached to the various industries were discontinued. So were the industries themselves. Thousands of scientists and engineers were rendered unemployed. Even successful products and technologies that could be used in a market economy were scrapped and are now totally forgotten.

Today only a few elderly Bulgarians would remember the "intensive agriculture" scientific institutes and the DZU in Stara Zagora, the plant to manufacture hard and floppy discs.

Early computer code and punched cards are featured in this mural on the building of a former cables factory in Burgas. Today, it hosts the offices of Information Services, the state company that is supposed to build and maintain e-government in Bulgaria

The young engineers and scientists who epitomised Bulgaria's scientific-technological strife in the 1970s and 1980s are now retired. Many of their children and grandchildren have probably left the country altogether. The only reminders of the massive endeavour to turn the People's Republic of Bulgaria into a high-tech Communist society are the fading graffiti and mosaics with atom nuclei, test tubes, cogwheels and... what looks like computer motherboards.


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