Socialist parties in some European countries – from the UK’s Labour Party to Podemos in Spain and the Greek Syriza – have been mobilised by winning the young vote. Meanwhile in Bulgaria, the 70 years since the Communist Party came into power have left pensioners nostalgic and the youth uninformed.
In a popular Bulgarian joke, a son repeatedly asks his father what colour the communists were. After being ignored several times, the son says, “Come on dad. Is it true the communists were red?”
To which the father replies, “Red? Compared to the ones we’ve got now, they were solid gold.”
70 years after the establishment of socialist Bulgaria – lead by communists, yet never fully communised – conversations about the past are often sparked by the frustration with local politics.
In the past two years, Bulgaria has seen the failure of KTB, one of the country’s leading banks, a subsequent bank crisis, the resignation of the controversial “Oresharski” government and countless political scandals. That, alongside Bulgaria’s reputation as the poorest country in the EU, triggers the natural comparisons with life pre-1989 – commonly referred to not as a revolution, but “the change”.
The change was a bumpy ride for the majority of Eastern Europe. But by the mid nineties, analysts had already replaced the Iron Curtain with a less visible divide between the nations – countries with a fast-tracked shift towards the West like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and countries that still hovered somewhere between communism and democracy. While Bulgaria was put into the latter category, it was not hovering because of an ideological pull toward its communist past.
In attempts to abolish everything communist on its territory, every factory, enterprise and institution was torn down in less than ten years. Some institutions, like the ‘pearl of European shipbuilding’ KKZ Varna, were sold for one US Dollar.
Why the youth don’t know or care
Just 26 years after the political switch, 94% of 16 to 30 year olds admit to knowing almost nothing about communism in Bulgaria. The information and impressions they have gathered are mostly from parents’ and grandparents’ stories. Only a sixth of that generation admits to learning about this period from books, school, university or televised programmes, reported Alpha Research last year as part of their “25 Years of Free Bulgaria” campaign.
This lack of information is often classed in the media as the youth’s apathetic approach to their nation’s history. In reality, information about socialist Bulgaria is slowly disappearing from textbooks.
When local television TV7 conducted a social experiment and asked kids and teenagers if they recognised the portraits of important communist figures, most did not. When showed the picture of Georgi Dimitrov, the first communist leader of Bulgaria, only one girl said she recognised his picture from a textbook.
Teachers who have been in the profession for more than ten years have witnessed the gradual change. Rumiana Savova, a history teacher at the Panayot Volov primary school in Varna, says it would not surprise her if this period of time is completely erased from the books in the next decade.
“We are all disgusted at how little information is left about our national figures from that time. It is getting more and more summarised, to the point where we now have only one chapter about it in our primary school history books. The only two figures we discuss are Todor Zhivkov (the longest ruling Bulgarian communist leader) and Leonid Brezhnev (former leader of the Soviet Union). Even with them, there are almost no pictures left and no time during the week to properly discuss them.”
At its expense, a lot more chapters and time are dedicated to two more recent parts of Bulgarian history: its presence in the EU, and its famous cultural figures in sports, film and music. That, in combination with the parliament’s decision to forbid mentioning the crimes of the Communist Party in history textbooks, makes it difficult for the youth to form an educated opinion on the past.
Nostalgia: brought to you by disappointment and poverty
As a priority of communist regimes, education was of a much higher standard before 1989. In Alpha Research’s study, over half of the people said education had seen a “significant decrease” in quality in the past 25 years. At the time, the limitations on freedom of speech made it difficult for students to excel in creative areas and the humanities, but the support given to the more exact sciences – math, physics and chemistry – was behind the country’s fast-paced progress in many fields. The country excelled in astronomy, IT and sports; today, with almost no local production left, Bulgaria is struggling to compete with the West.
The socialist generation – currently over 60 years old – has found it difficult to grasp the decline of the country they helped build. Their nostalgia has not dissolved over the years; if anything, their evaluation of the “old days” has become more optimistic.
One of the first studies conducted after the fall of socialism in the country asked people what they thought of the former communist leader, Todor Zhivkov. Three quarters of the population assessed him negatively. Only 25 years later, when asked the same question, more than half the people gave him a positive rating.
It is natural for memories of communism to soften, especially in countries where “the change” did not deliver the promised results. In Bulgaria, even though assessing it differs between right and left-leaning ideologies, both associate the past with two main things: free healthcare and no unemployment. Both of these offered people better quality of life, and both are missing today.
Historian Bozhidar Dimitrov thinks the country’s economic status is another main contributor.
“A big portion of the nation doesn’t talk about what democracy has brought us like freedom of the press, freedom of movement and freedom of political organizations because these things do not concern everyone directly. But a series of other things that are important to almost everyone – severe unemployment, incredibly low incomes which make it impossible to live a comfortable life, expensive and corrupt healthcare and education systems – make people sigh over our past social security.
“If the average wage in Bulgaria was not €300 but €1500, there would be no nostalgia for communism.”
The generation of the change regrets it most
What set Bulgaria apart from many of the other former Soviet republics was that prior to the change there was never a strong revolutionary body. The so-called “Autumn of Nations” – strikes and anti-communism demonstrations across Eastern Europe – was most noticeable in Poland and Hungary where the change was branded as a clear public uprising. Bulgaria never showed a clear anti-communist attitude.
Todor Zhivkov was ousted by his own political bureau just hours after the fall of the Berlin wall. The political demonstrations that did precede it were lead mostly by youth revolting against crimes committed by the communist party and the repression of freedoms. The disappointments came, as political analyst Ivan Krastev says, after realizing how little “the change” would change.
“The disappointments with communism don’t necessarily bring about nostalgia but for many, the disappointment is that nothing has changed. The people ruling the country are still the same. That’s why for some people in that generation, the problem isn’t that communism went away but that it never truly did. Communism is bad for both sides, in a way – bad because it’s gone and bad because it’s not. Both sides do not accept the change.”
The generation that has lived half of its life under, and the next free from, communism should be able to have the most objective view. Yet its judgment is clouded by comparison with what followed – namely increased corruption in all levels of government.
The country’s most recent position as the most corrupt in the EU (alongside Greece and Romania) was barely publicised in local media possibly because it comes as no shock. As journalist Vlado Bereanu puts it, the communists score a lot of points with this generation because, while they committed their fair share of crimes, they did not steal as much as the next governments did. Under socialism, they never had to.
A Western appetite for Eastern communism
While Bulgaria’s youth struggles to recognise the country’s leaders from two decades ago, the Western youth continues to support socialists. The youth campaigns for Labour, Podemos and Syriza have given them an undeniable push. In a largely capitalist society, what pushes them to support a system they have never lived under?
Dr Vikki Turbine, politics professor at the University of Glasgow and speaker at last year’s Communist Nostalgia conference, says it might be the frustration with capitalism itself.
“The West has not actually experienced a regime that claimed it was a socialist state. People that have lived in Bulgaria or other parts of the Union have the understanding that when it was put into operation, it had a very different flavour. Young people in the West are responsive to the extreme financial crisis and are looking for an alternative.
“The question is whether the attraction is socialism, communism or social democracy.”
For a glimpse into what the old and new generation think about socialist morals, nostalgia and Bulgaria post-1989, watch the full documentary.