In 1949, when hundreds of young Bulgarians enthusiastically built Dimitrovgrad, an entire town that would supposedly epitomise the triumph of Communism in their country, a 19-year-old man joined them. He was Penyo Penev. Born in the village of Dobromirka, near Sevlievo, he was one of the thousands of Brigadiri, or young "volunteers" working on Communist infrastructure projects, and was attracted by the idea of building Dimitrovgrad, the "City of Dreams."
Penyo Penev was very likely not the only young Brigadir who dabbled in poetry, but he went on to become the poet who best expressed the enthusiasm of the Brigadiri movement, the search for meaning in the new society and, towards the end of his life, the inevitable disenchantment with the realities of Communist Bulgaria. Unlike most other early Communist poets, who wrote odes extolling the ruling Bulgarian Communist Party and accepted well-paid jobs at editorial offices and professional associations, Penyo Penev remained an ordinary journalist and published, before his death in 1959, just one book of poems. Under Communism, however, his work was included in the school literature curriculum, mainly optimistic poems such as "Me, One of the People":
I do not dream
And about easy roads, but I dream about a quilted workcoat
For the wintery day. Immortal
To all eternity, what was built here
What the school pupils in those times did not know was that the "Poet With the Quilted Workcoat," as Penyo Penev was called, had killed himself in a Dimitrovgrad hotel room. The reasons for his death are still a matter of speculation. Some propose that Penev had suffered from a long-lasting depression, a failed personal life and/or poverty in the "City of Dreams." The more romantic version equated his suicide with the disappointment of a young idealist with the realities of the Communist regime.
Central Dimitrovgrad was built in keeping with the tenets of Stalinist urbanism
In contrast to other Communist poets, Penyo Penev was not forgotten after 1989. Young people continue to read him, and Facebook has a page dedicated to him. The explanation perhaps lies in the sincere idealism of his early poems as well as the arresting melancholy of his later work, in which he sought to find the meaning of life in a Socialist society. To play around with such topics in the first decades of Communism was blasphemy. The official ideology of the regime could not imagine that the men and women of the new order could feel anything except happiness and faith in the bright future, regardless of the difficulties of the present. Asking existentialist questions was, at least, frowned upon.
The Dimitrovgrad History Museum had an exhibition about Penyo Penev as early as 1964. Today Penyo Penev's home is a museum (9 Dimitar Blagoev Boulevard) and his life-size statue at the entrance is a selfie location for both locals and visitors.
Scarcely any Bulgarian has not heard the lambent phrase A Man Is a Man When He Is on the Road. Regrettably, few would know that this is the last line of the "Days of Roll Calls" poem which deals with the inherent conflict between ideals and reality.
The bedroom of Penyo Penev's flat and museum shows the spartan living conditions in early Dimitrovgrad
Dimitrovgrad epitomises this. The "City of Dreams" sports a centre of Stalinist architecture with large boulevards and massive neo-Baroque buildings symbolising the rule of a single party over a whole nation, but soon after Communism collapsed, in 1989, Dimitrovgrad reinvented itself to fit the needs of the free market. In the 1990s, as chemical plants closed down due to lack of markets and people started to leave, the town became the centre of the Bulgarian Chalga music industry and a large open-air market appeared that supplied the whole country with cheap Made-in-Turkey goods.
Today, some of the chemical plants are still in operation but the population of Dimitrovgrad has dwindled. The Chalga industry relocated to Sofia, and the open-air market has shrunk to a shadow of its former self, owning to pressure from even cheaper Made-in-China goods and the rise of shopping centres. The evidence of the economic boom of the 2000s is now fading, just like that from the 1950s, turning Dimitrovgrad into a miniature version of Bulgaria over the past 70 years.
Living room in the Museum of the Socialist Lifestyle
Under Communism, Bulgarian children would play on rocket-shaped swings and slides. They were all made of metal, today it would be perceived as dangerous
Stalinist architecture aims to inspire the feel of powerlessness in the individual
A community house, Dimitrovgrad. In Stalinist architecture, ornaments that in Baroque would depict nymphs and deities represent the heroes of the regime: workers, farmers and scientists
Communism as entertainment: visitors to the local museum are invited to step into the shoes of the Brigadiri, the builders of Dimitrovgrad
People still inhabit the homes built in the first years of Dimitrovgrad's existence
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.