I’m 38 years old, male, from Bulgaria. I live in Plovdiv, my country’s second largest city, and Europe’s oldest continually inhabited city. I like to travel a lot, and share the stories of my wanderings with everyone around me. My work as a real estate broker has helped me meet with interesting people, and gain a cosmopolitan perspective on the world, which I would gladly employ in my writing endeavours.
Since recently I’ve been hearing the talking points of some Russophiles both at home and abroad taking precedence over common sense, I’ve bothered to do some work in summing up some facts, which I hope would help put those Putinite talking points into perspective. Because the Russian propaganda ain’t sleeping for a minute, definitely not around these latitudes. Just a disclaimer: the lines below are not directed at the Russian people as a people. Indeed, they’re quite lovely people when taken individually. What I can’t approve of is the way that nation has allowed itself to be ruled for centuries, and the results that’ve come out of it. So do bear with my diatribe.
1. By various estimates, Russia ranks 8th or 9th in terms of GDP. However, the Russian economy is about 7 times smaller than those of the US and EU, 3.5 times smaller than the Chinese, 1.3 times smaller than the Japanese, and 0.73 times smaller than the German economy. But what’s more interesting, a country with 148 million people like Russia is producing GDP which is twice smaller than that of a country like Italy, and just barely bigger than Canada’s, which is many times smaller in population. If anyone claims this is a sign of an efficient economy, I’d recommend they re-read their economics study-books. Source: here.
^ See? Doesn’t look that big now, does it? (No, Russia ain’t the huge green blob. Russia is the squashed blue stain that’s squeezed between the real players.
2. 95.7% of Russia’s national treasure is formed by natural resources, and 70% of the Russian exports are oil and gas. Whichever way we look at it, Russia is a mere supplier of raw materials for the more developed economies of the world. If we believe the Russian economy is capable of producing cheap products of good quality, we’d better think of how many Russian goods (affordable, and of good quality) we’ve bought anywhere for the last 5-10 years. Personally? I haven’t bought even one. And I live less than a thousand miles away from there. Source: here.
3. I’ve been hearing Russians spouting the narrative that Russia is some kind of defender and paragon of Orthodox values, as opposed to the rot of the godless West. Personally, I can’t wrap my mind around this notion – I don’t get what makes the Russian Orthodox “values” so different from the standard Ten Commandments, and how is Russia propagating these values, since the divorce rate in that country is 51%. The US divorce rate is comparable, 53%. What’s more, evidently even the most prominent “defender” of Orthodox values could himself be divorced, which is exactly Putin’s marital status. It’s a public secret that the reason for his divorce was his romance with Alina Kabayeva, a former Soviet gymnast. On top of all that, if the purported Orthodox traditions are so strong in Russia, then how come the words “Russian woman” have long been associated with “harlot” around here (especially along our coast, which is so full of temptations)? Source: here.
4. Russia has the highest documented abortion rates in the world (34.7 abortions per 1000 births). Yep, you heard me. The highest in the world! But that’s just one factor for the rapidly waning population of that country. Immigration is the other. People are voting with their feet, apparently. I suppose Western liberal democracy is to blame for that as well? Source: here.
5. Barring the African countries (with the exception of the Maghreb), Russia has the highest registered HIV-positive rate in the world – 1.2 million infected. Source: here.
6. Russia has hard drug use levels (1.8 million people) which are comparable to those of the Third World. Source: here.
7. The homicide rate in Russia is 9.2 per 100,000, while that in the US is 4.7. And the US is being criticized for being a violent place!? Mind you, Russia shares the same area in the ranking with such nice places like Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Burundi, Somalia, Burkina Faso, Iraq, Guinea-Bissau, The Philippines, Gabon, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Angola, Djibouti, The Gambia, Haiti, Togo, Zimbabwe and Uganda. Among the more developed countries, only Mexico and Brazil are higher. Source: here.
8. The levels of corruption in Russia are staggering. And that, for a country that claims to be a leading economic powerhouse. The latest Transparency International ranking puts Russia at the 136th place (out of 174). Only Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya, Venezuela, North Korea and a few former Soviet republics are worse than that. Quite a nice record indeed. Source: here.
9. Russia is ranked 152nd out of 178 in terms of freedom of the press. Again, quite a remarkable record. Again, Russia shares the company of such nice Third World countries like Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and North Korea in this respect. Source: here.
10. Despite the constant muscle-flexing, Russia isn’t the military juggernaut we usually see on the Red Square parades, either. The US spends between 581 and 610 billion dollars on defense, China follows with 129-216 billion. Russia is either 3rd or 4th with 70-84.5 billion. Saudi Arabia is somewhere there as well, then follows Britain, France, Japan, India and Germany. One must be very infected with confirmation bias in order to believe they’re the most badass force in the world. Source: here.
11. Russia ranks 10th in the world in terms of suicide rates per capita, with 19.5 suicides per 100,000. Only Turkmenistan, South Sudan, India, Burundi, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Tanzania, Mozambique, Suriname, Lithuania, Sri Lanka, South Korea and Guyana are worse. The US is 50th with 12.1 suicides. I don’t know, Russians must be killing themselves so much out of sheer happiness for living in such an awesome place – or something. Source: here.
12. Russia is 4th in the world in alcohol consumption per capita (over 15 years of age). Only Belarus, Moldova and Lithuania are ahead. I’ve mentioned what “Russian woman” is associated with; well, in the meantime, “Russian man” is associated with “drunkard” around these latitudes (and not only). Source: here.
13. Russia has one of the highest homeless populations in the world, about 5 million. In comparison, those are 3 million in the EU (with almost 3 times more population), and in the US that number varies between 0.6 and 2.5 million, depending on the estimate (with twice the total population). Source: here.
14. You’d think people in the Middle East and East Asia are slaughtering each other like flies on the roads? Wait and see what’s happening in Russia. Most countries that rank higher than Russia in that respect are in Africa and Latin America (excepting Saudi Arabia, China and India out of the more developed countries). On the other hand, the road victims in Russia related to the number of vehicles is 4 times that in any developed country. Source: here.
15. You’d think Russia is preaching to the West out of some sort of pride for its social achievements? Well, in terms of social inequality Russia isn’t much better than, say, the US (a Gini coefficient of 39.7 against 41.1). Mind you, the highest concentration of billionaires (read: fraudulent exploiters) is in the US (190), while the billionaires in Russia (read: generous, socially responsible folks) are 86. Given the population differences, their concentration isn’t that different. Source: here.
16. In terms of government budget, Russia is 12th in the world. The revenue part of its budget is 1/6 of the US one, 1/4 of the Chinese, and 1/3 of the Japanese. What’s more, Russia has a state budget that’s a tad smaller than Australia’s (16% smaller revenue), and just a bit bigger than the Dutch one (try to compare Russia to the Netherlands on the map). Source: here.
17. That said, about half the budget revenue in Russia comes from the sales of oil and gas. This makes Russia resemble the likes of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, rather than the US, Japan, China, Germany, Britain or France. No need to even begin discussing how the lack of diversification puts that budget in tremendous risk. Because it’s already happening (really: check the Rouble and compare its fluctuation to the movement of the global oil prices – noticing something?) Source: here.
18. The economic freedom index ranks Russia 139th out of 177. In terms of business climate, it’s 92nd out of 189 (although improving slightly in recent years). Source: here.
The list could go on for a while. The point is, the inconvenient truth for Russia, which too many Russophiles around here are willingly failing to see, is that Russia has turned itself into a country that’s a mere resource and energy appendix to the world economy. It’s got a un-free, corrupt and demoralized population, but meanwhile a large military and most importantly, aggressive, self-centered leaders. In many of the indicators for social, economic and political development, Russia rather resembles a Third-World country, only with a much colder climate, plus lots of nukes.
I also don’t get the argument that Russia is somehow a paragon of something, an example to be emulated, hence superior to others in some way (except for size). A protector and champion of traditional values? Doesn’t seem to be the case, no. It remains a mystery how exactly these values are manifested, since Russia is among the worst in a number of negative rankings that are directly related to ethics, morality and the personal value system. I wonder how come at least part of the so loudly preached traditional Russian values haven’t been harnessed and channelled into creating more wealth and prosperity for the Russian people, as is the case in so many other more developed countries. Are Western liberal democracy and “tolerasty” to blame for Russia’s dire predicament? That doesn’t make sense.
Now looking at the facts and the data, I wonder which area of social life does the Russian state excel at, where exactly is it superior to the rest of the world – that’s important for me to know, if I am to be following the Russian model of governance and societal development, as some people are trying to convince me. What useful and important contributions has Russia done for the last few decades, which may’ve changed the world to the better? Apart from various forms of dictatorship, oppression, iron-fist governance, oil, and gas, I mean? Is there a product, a service, a technology, a model which the Russian society has offered to the world lately, which has made humankind’s existence easier, better, and all in all, more meaningful? And isn’t it a bit sad that such a huge potential is lingering dormant, useless, and utterly suppressed under a mountain of apathy and mediocrity? Hell, Russia could’ve become a truly prosperous country by now! After all, it’s not like it hasn’t given tons of amazing geniuses to humankind! Then what has happened? Where has all that gone?
Well, here’s what. The one thing that has been hindering the Russian people from unleashing their true potential, is the fact that they’ve always been stuck under the heavy boot of their own rulers, face firmly pressed against the mud. They’ve been oppressed, humiliated and used since time immemorial. They’ve been ruled by despots. And we’re seeing the results now. As for our very own Russophilia or Russophobia, they’re here to stay for quite a while. We East Europeans would always be divided on those issues. It’s inevitable, given our own complicated history. The real question we should be asking ourselves though, is: where do we go on holidays, what currency do we keep our savings in, where do we want our children to study, which foreign language do we want to learn, where would we rather immigrate, what music do we listen to and what books and movies do we read and watch? No need to give me an answer. I think everyone could easily answer this for themselves. And the answer they’d get would be the best proof which model we’d choose for ourselves.
In a couple of weeks we will mark 27 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. No doubt November 10 is a very symbolic day for my society. On that day, 27 years ago, democracy “exploded” here in Bulgaria. Well, maybe not exactly. But it felt like it at the time, at least for a while. One thing is for sure, though. Things haven’t been the same ever since. Even if only prompted by events abroad, we did do our best attempt to erase and forget the past, sometimes with more success, sometimes with less. But the idea was there. However, one’d think that some things just can’t go away like that. You’d think it would take several generations for a society to completely shake off the legacy of the past, especially if that system had been instilled into the brains of people for decades, ultimately distorting the very culture of said society, and the mentality of its people. No, good things don’t just happen overnight.
Really, we’ve gone through all sorts of hardships for the last couple decades and a half, all sorts of transformations, and we’ve experienced what it’s like to learn the lessons of history within a very compressed period, and catch up with what the rest have achieved in many decades, but learn it all the hard way. We saw the ugly face of “wild capitalism”, while we were kicking out the memory of communism. We saw the Al Capone era being played out right in front of our eyes. We saw what hyper-inflation means, what queueing for bread with food coupons means, what “baseball-bat business” is, what Thug-o-Baroque architecture, lifestyle and mentality looks like – we’ve seen it all. But, at the end of the day it was all worth it. Hell, it really was!
And probably all that remains now to remind us of that “Time Long, Long Ago”, is the various memorabilia remaining from the commie times, which are gathering more dust as the time passes, only to fuel the feeling of nostalgia among the fading older generation. And of course the awesome anecdotes from the time of the “Sotz” (as we used to call socialism), which were being whispered under the breath; the sharply humorous and penetrating caricatures of the Sotz leaders that were being spread around like apocrypha; and the stinging lyrics of Vysotsky, the genius “Bard of Freedom”.
Now, 27 years later, most of the young generation have largely forgotten a past they never lived in, in the first place. Twenty-five years after the democratic changes started here, the collective memory about the Socialist times is fading away fast, and knowledge of that period is disappearing. Maybe because of shame from what we did to ourselves, and what sort of society we allowed ourselves to become. But the past shouldn’t be forgotten, lest its mistakes be repeated again.
Forgetting the past is a natural thing, though. I can’t blame the youth for 94% of our people aged between 16 and 30 not knowing almost anything of that period, which wasn’t that far back in time. A recent research (.doc) shows that 40% of them can’t say if communism fell after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, or the Moscow Wall, or the Sofia or Chinese Wall. 92% of them don’t know which countries the communist bloc consisted of. Their knowledge about the communist epoch boils down to impressions obtained from conversations with older people. The number of people who could name a single book (10%) or movie, or publicist TV show (16%), or school or university (10%) from that time, is minuscule.
The lack of debate on that topic in the media and the public space, and the abdication of the cultural and education institutions from the issues of that period, are depriving the new generations of knowledge about the ideological and political nature of the communist regime, its scope and impact, and the reasons for its collapse. Thus, socialism and communism is getting fast forgotten, and the hardships of the post-communist, quasi-democratic period are being unnecessarily mythologized and ideologized.
For a significant part of the Bulgarian citizens, the prominent political names and events from the late 90s, like Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, the fall of the Berlin Wall, are now being pushed aside by the everyday problems like making ends meet – and that’s normal. Now, in the mid 2010s, our society is wandering between the idealization of the years “when we were young”, the times “when there was work for everybody”, free health-care, and the scattered memories about the “manifestations” (highly politicized, compulsory official parades on special occasions), the deficit of essential goods at the grocery, the travel restrictions beyond the Iron Curtain, the lack of freedom, and the repressions against free-thinkers.
The attitudes to these things are entirely determined by one’s ideological convictions and political affiliations, which is why they remain extremely polarized. So, leftist-leaning people would inevitably see mostly tranquility, predictability, social immobility, security, free health-care, excellent free education and extensive industrialization in that period. While right-leaning people would emphasize on the oppressive, Big-Brother-style regime restricting basic human rights, a period of dystopian pseudo-utopia, state paranoia, mass brainwashing, ridiculous political slogans, and literally fatal deceit. And, while the leftist approach would fail to see any stain on socialism, the rightist one would acknowledge some social achievements which we can only dream of now: like high-quality, universally accessible health-care, remarkable heights in education, science and sports, almost non-existent unemployment, amazing safety, etc.
Solely left at the mercy of personal impressions, third-hand memories and the fading nostalgia for the lost security, and the waning knowledge of its dark sides, the assessment of the communist epoch is gradually losing its political overtones, while continuing to fuel old worn-out myths while creating new, distorted ones.
There were high expectations among my compatriots in the years after those memorable moments in 1990: about opening the borders and freedom to travel, about improved incomes and well-being, about the development of a free-market economy and new opportunities for work, about more human rights and freedoms, restoration of private property, free election of representatives. All things that are taken for granted in the West, but had to be earned and learned the hard way here. Now, most of these expectations have been realized to one extent or another: we’re a EU and NATO member, those of us who can afford it, could travel freely, private property has been restored, and we have a multi-party system (even a bit too “multi” party if you ask me). But the general subjective perception remains that the realization of some of the initial expectations that came with the “explosion” of democracy has been half-assed, to put it mildly: only 2% of the polled believe that the expectation for the primacy of law has been fulfilled, 5% believe that democratic institutions have been fully established, 10% believe they have a real choice to freely elect their representatives in open, transparent and honest democratic elections.
If the attitudes to communism still remain polarized and strongly affected by people’s individual background and their political orientation, the assessment of the so called “Transition period” is mostly realistic-to-cynical, with strong negative overtones. But that’s another story. My story here is about communism itself, or rather, the attitudes to it.
So here are 25 socialist things that some people miss, and I don’t.
1. Sofia citizenship. People younger than 25-30 years here don’t remeber what that means. The reason is that this is something almost no one talks about these days, because it was the reason for many sad and comic marriages, where people would marry only to obtain the coveted Sofia citizenship, which granted some extra citizen privileges – the same way many people marry abroad today, to get foreign citizenship. I’m sure there are lots of parents out there who wouldn’t like to tell these stories to their grown-up kids. Indeed, the restriction on your choice of residence within your own country is a major restriction of a basic individual right. Moreover, the desperate attempts to bypass this restriction would often lead to absurd results like forging documents, even fictitious marriages. The only possible positive result was the temporary prevention of the country’s capital city from succumbing to the so called “Mexican model”, where a huge chunk of the country’s population is crowded in and around the capital district, while the rest of its territory begins lagging behind and even slipping into desolation. Of course, an artificial administrative measure like that would only postpone that outcome. On the other hand though, the removal of that restriction does not necessarily automatically remove the effect. The economic and demographic desolation in the rural areas continues to this very day. Even cities like mine, Plovdiv which is the country’s 2nd city, has suffered from administrative stupidity, where the borders of its municipality were shaped in such a way that the city itself was squeezed between two artificially created surrounding municipalities – and the result was that Plovdiv became the most densely built and populated city on the Balkans.
2. Exit visa. Today, Bulgarians can travel everywhere. Until about a decade ago though, they had enormous difficulties entering most other countries. And until a quarter of a century ago, they weren’t even allowed to exit their own country (with the exception of several hundred thousand BG citizens who were, on the other hand, being insistantly urged to leave – for political reasons). Of course, it’s a stupid thing, evil even, to stop people from moving around freely. This only fueled the myths and legends about the magical life beyond the Iron Curtain. In reality, the practical lagging behind the West happened as late as the 80s. Here the reason for these restrictions is rather a servile attempt to be more liked by the USSR, and fear of using the Yugoslav model (our western neighbors and fellow South-Slavic cousins did find the middle ground between capitalism and communism, for which they were being secretly praised and envied by everybody here under their breath). The result of all this became immediately visible with the fall of the border restrictions. People who were absolutely unprepared for the cultural shock, found themselves standing like cattle at the open barriers, while the rest rushed into the brave broad world, never to return again. 2 million out of 9 million of my compatriots fled abroad that way, arguably the cream of the nation. That’s probably the grandest brain-leak in Europe for the last half a century.
3. Fleeing across the border. Well, it wasn’t as deadly as trying to jump over the Berlin Wall, I’ll give you that. But if someone traveled abroad and didn’t come back in time, chances are they’d be considered a fugitive. Their relatives couldn’t leave abroad to join the fugitive, and the fugitive was no longer allowed to retrurn home even if they wanted to. They were considered a criminal, an alien. What an incredibly stupid way to create unnecessary foes both at home and abroad, and ignite discontent. The other option would’ve been much more pragmatic: my country could’ve benefited from exchanging experience and know-how with the West, like Yugoslavia did. The saddest thing is, we did all this even without being asked by the Soviets. That’s what awesome ass-lickers we were!
4. 100% voter turnout without even having compulsory voting. Sure, technically, voting on elections wasn’t compulsory. But 98-99% of all voters went to the polls anyway. The polling stations competed among themselves which would wrap up their ballot boxes first. And everyone was jubilant, and music was everywhere, and people were queuing with sparkle in the eye, praising the Mother Party! There was no tension, no suspense, and no unpredictability about the election results. Because the Mother Party always won 99% of the vote, and the fictitious “opposition” Fatherland Front (a mere extension of the Communist Party itself) would win the rest. There was no vote fraud like now, no corporate vote, no ethnic vote. Just fear and utmost respect for the State (capital S) and the party (capital P).
5. Holiday subscription vouchers. For today’s equivalent of 10-15 euros, one would get a holiday/excursion voucher. Each (state-owned) enterprise had its own collection of hotels and holiday spots that its employees would use at ridiculously cheap prices. They’d spend a couple of weeks with their colleagues and their entire families. Sunbathing or skiing. And of course, surrounded by over-zealous staff who’d do their best to observe the proper behavior and appropriate conversations between the holiday-goers. And if, God forbid, one applied or was sent on a business trip abroad, the explanations that were required about the reasons for that trip could amount to many pages. Yes, in written form. And just you dare behave inappropriately at the holiday resort! You dare tell a political joke or two, or drop some skeptical commentary about the advancement of socialism. Sure, the more innocent cases tended to be overlooked by the authorities, but there were people who’d end up in the labor camps if they were considered “system offenders”. In any case, most people had a political dossier that the State Security services used to keep and maintain, thanks to their extensive network of loyal informers. Yep, even your best friend could turn out to be an agent reporting on you. Many friendships and families were broken that way, after the dossiers were (only partially, and often selectively) declassified in the 90s.
6. News of the harvest. For some reason, the first pages of the newspapers and the news broadcast on the radio and TV used to constantly inform the public about the progress of the harvest collection, the seeding and deep ploughing campaign. It’s as if nothing else was happening, and everything was sooo allright! There were no droughts, no floods, no wildfires, no diseases on the crops and the livestock. And certainly nothing new was happening on the political scene, what with all those 99%-majority elections. Sure, collecting the crops is important! Much more important than meaningless celebrity gossip, the results of the latest Big Brother or TV-karaoke-show nomination, or the dramatic clash between the football fans at some backstreet, or the Survivor camp in Thailand… or the tons of criminal crap we’re getting served these days. It is important, in case there are any crops. Because nowadays there’s almost no agricultural production here, most foods are imported. And we used to be the bread-basket and vegetable and fruit garden of the Eastern bloc. I suppose the reason for the popularity of those agricultural programs was that most people were still rural by origin if not by identity back then. I dunno. It just looks weird from today’s standpoint.
7. American movies for Easter, and imported citrus fruits for New Year. That was the only time you could queue for hours and buy a couple of kilos of bananas and oranges (Cuban production, of course). As for those movies, whoever tells you they were being repressed for not being allowed to go to a church, is bullshitting you. One of the most intriguing sources of entertainment no doubt was the American movies, which would be broadcast until late at night around Easter time, and thus distract people from the traditional midnight church mass on Easter Eve. Neat trick, eh? On normal days, the TV program would abruptly end sometime shortly before midnight with a Russian movie (about the war, naturally), and some news (about the harvest, of course). Not on Easter, though! The crafty TV gurus would trick the folk into ignoring the religious festivities, lest they miss the only American movie they could watch throughout the year. But then again, if people would prefer a movie, be it a western or action movie, over visiting God’s house on the greatest church holiday of all, then they mustn’t have been too devout in the first place, no? Besides, with the shy but gradual introduction of VHS, one could still record those American movies while being away from home, and watch them later. My home was full to the top with video cassettes, I kid you not!
8. Concrete residential blocks, or as they were called here, “panelki”. That was a very popular means of construction at the time. Easy and fast to build, nothing special in terms of technical requirement. And it was a natural continuation of the older “communist realism” style in architecture from the time of Stalin (heavy grey mastodons of a building that were being raised to last for centuries, and mar the beautiful face of mother Earth for generations). For many years, most buildings and factories were constructed out of concrete panels, so that the happy proletariat could merrily live and work in them. There are over 700 thousand “panelki” apartments still habitable across the country today, and no one friggin’ knows what to do with them. Of course, that type of construction wasn’t invented here. I’m being told the first prototype came from Britain, and was then fully embraced by the USSR. A huge chunk of today’s Bulgarians were born and raised in such apartments that we call “little boxes”. That these blocks are miserable, lacking green areas, have crumbling facades, and are covered in graffiti, is our own doing, not that of the apparatchiks at the Politburo of the Communist Party. It’s useless to blame someone else for our own misdoings. Then again, there was the compulsory “Lenin’s Saturdays“, where residents were “invited” to come clean the spaces around their blocks, wash the staircases, get rid of their garbage, and all in all, behave like responsible citizens at least for half a day.
9. Gift packages. An interesting way of twisting the customer’s arms by the simple economic principle about supply and demand. For example, if you wanted to buy high-quality plum brandy (“rakia”), or red wine that comes from the duty-free shelves that are meant for export (i.e. unusually good quality), you’d be offered a book with short stories about the Partisans who were fighting the good fight against Hitler, or a flasket of rose oil. All of this would be wrapped inside a nice paper package, saying “gift package”. After all, planned economy deemed it very important that no goods remained unsold, including books by not-very-successful authors. You can forget about free market choice.
10. House (or rather, block) managers. The chairman of the “cooperative residence block” was the only official in the country who was truly freely elected by their peers. Believe it or not, that was considered a genuine job. House-manager. They’d deal with the paperwork, repairs, utility bills, residents’ records. They’d even maintain a dossier for all residents. You better hope they wrote some nice words about you, or else. There was also the frequent “Exemplary Home” plate that the best blocks and houses would be awarded. That was the utmost pride for any resident! Most of these house-managers either had close dealings with the State Security, or were recruited to become their agents at some point. Best way of keeping things under control. Many of them were being re-elected for many terms in a row, since most people can’t be bothered to deal with all that organizational crap anyway. The upside of their function was that they maintained order, ensured the regular payment of maintenance expenses, presided over residents’ general meetings, planned and supervised the repairs on the common parts, introduced improvements – all in all, they were a useful bolt in the flawless machinery of the People’s Republic.
11. Active Fighters Against Fascism and Capitalism. That was a special status that was granted to people with certain background (my grandfather provided logistics for the Partisans during WW2, for which he was given a couple of medals, and an “Active Fighter” status, which gave him a small extra stipend and some minor privileges). The most precious of the bonuses that came with the title was that you’d be given a certain bonus score when applying for a university or a top-ranking language school, thus increasing your chances of ending up in a high-quality education institution. And people were OK with that, since hey, these are guys who’ve done something good for the People’s Republic! Thing is, after the communist coup at the end of 1944, the number of former Partisans and other Active Fighters exceeded the size of the regular army somewhat – and today, the number of faux “dissidents” who are beating their chests, claiming how they actively fought against the communist regime, by far exceeds that of our present regular NATO-member army (which definitely ain’t as big as it used to be in commie times, anyway).
12. The game of marbles. That was the way most boys would spend half of their spare time – at least until the age where they figured that girls could offer them something far more interesting (in turn, the girls would play a version of “dodgeball” somewhere until that age). That was a cool game, and will always remain cool, no matter how many iPhones and Playstations you’d brainwash your kids with. Sure, the game of marbles is probably many centuries older than communism, and will certainly outlive it, despite the Xboxes and iPads. It’s got nothing to do with socialism, but since the time of its peak happens to coincide with that epoch around these latitudes, I couldn’t help including it here.
13. Russian tourist groups. If Bulgarians couldn’t travel abroad (read: beyond the Iron Curtain), then Russians not only couldn’t, they found it almost absolutely impossible. Granted, they’d only occasionally visit Bulgaria in groups, usually formed along the lines of their membership in various Central-Asia-based Kolkhoz workgroups. In other words, they were “Russian” only nominally. These quasi-Russian groups were subject to constant ridicule, and sometimes pity, due to their apparent backwardness. A Bulgarian tour guide once lined up 120 Russian seaside tourists who were seeing a paper tea bag with a thread at its end for the first time. They asked how this thing was used, and he got tempted to tell them that they should put the tea bag in their mouth, while the thread should remain sticking out, and then drink hot water. You should hold the water in your mouth until it became tea, then swallow it. So the 120 Russian tourists duly got the tea bags in their mouths, they dropped the threads out of their lips, and started sipping hot water. The tour guide eventually lost his job for the prank, but later on, he used to gleefully say that the sight had been worth it.
Dunno how true that story is, but what I know is, many local baywatch guards (called “glarusi” [seagulls]) spent lots of wild nights with cute naive Russian girls looking for adventure at the seaside, and even some curious Russo-Bulgarian offspring got born out of it. I suppose the guide’s story was true, as was the other one about those Russian tourists who’d carefully jump over the tram rails in Sofia so that they wouldn’t be electrocuted. There are lots of Russian tourists here nowadays, too. Actually we’re very dependent on their money – just as we were until 25 years ago. They’ll be missed if they somehow went away. Thank goodness that many are now fleeing here to live permanently, to get away from all that bullshit back home (their own words). And that says a lot about this place – at least it’s not as crappy as Russia, although I can’t quite wrap my mind around how that’s possible. Meanwhile, the hungry sex predators are still roaming our beaches, looking for fresh flesh.
14. The Corecom. That was a special sort of shop, which very much resembles those horrible duty-free shops around the airports. That was the place where one could buy whisky, Western tobacco and cheap German candy. Of course, with dollars. How the hell you’d get your hands on some dollars, is an entirely different story. The most prominent item at the Corecom was the so called “Corecom egg” (read: chocolate egg with a toy inside).
15. Yugoslav TV. Or, let’s face it, Serbian TV. See, Yugoslavia was considered a “Western” country here, even if it wasn’t. Everything looked to be “freer” over there, at least from this side of the border. The TV spewed Serbian pop-folk 24/7 – how much freer could it get? Living in the Western Bulgarian border regions, despite sucking in every other way, had this one advantage: you could watch Serbian TV. There were two types of people in those regions: those who had a TV antenna catching the Serbian TV, and those poor inferior folks who didn’t. Indeed, the Serbs were watching dozens of channels on cable TV long before us. They remained an open society throughout most of the socialist epoch. Nothing else to say here. Their TV and their music was their best export to us, while we were exporting cucumbers and brandy for them. Their products would enter our black market illegally, the video and audiocassettes with Serbian music were the top item here, and an indicator of “freeness”. Scantily-clad Lepa Brena and Saban Saulic were superstars in Bulgaria as much as they were in Yugoslavia, and probably even more. And look where that has brought us now, crappy “chalga” culture permeating our very existence at every possible level.
16. Shortwave radio. That was the “deep underground” realm where you could catch all sorts of forbidden radio stations. Ones that would play The Beatles, rock-n-roll, or, *gasp* speak of nasty things like democracy! VOA Europe, Deutsche Welle… I remember my grandpa locking himself up in his cabinet, listening to those under the blanket so that the neighbors couldn’t hear (remember, thy neighbor could be thy bane). The shortwave range still exists to this day, but it seems no one is paying any attention to it any more.
17. Radio Free Europe. That one deserves special attention, along with VOA and BBC Bulgaria (broadcast from a studio somewhere in London, with genuine Bulgarian dissidents living in the UK). The weirdest of all was Radio Luxembourg (or rather, “Laxemberg”), which didn’t really speak of politics at all. In fact no one ever spoke on it; it had a far more subtle and sinister way of recruiting us for the evil capitalist cause: pop music! People were no longer just divided into those who had a TV antenna with Serbian TV and those who didn’t, but also those who listened to Radio Laxemberg and those who didn’t. Today, the children of the former tend to vote for the Democrats or the Center-Right; while those of the latter, for the Socialists. Like I said, some things tend not to change overnight.
Btw, I still keep much of my grandpa’s VHS cassette collection. Part of it was seized during a Militsiya raid at his home one day in the late 80s. It must’ve been after some report from a neighbor or something. Fortunately, my grandpa didn’t disappear like his father did back in 1944 (his sin had been that he was an evil “bourgeois”, i.e. a craftsman who had his own business). Anyway, long story.
18. Confectioneries. That was a special kind of institution, where one could have some pastry, boza and lemonade. Sorry, no coffee. That’s a decadent capitalist beverage. But you could always have a banitsa with boza. The latter is said to boost boob size. Heh.
20. Beer pubs. Another specific institution. You’d often have a pint while standing upright on the sidewalk. Nothing original or specifically “socialist” there, right. But behold the special evolved version thereof: the HoReMag! That was a combination of Hotel, Restaurant and Shop simultaneously (“Hotel / Restorant / Magazin”). Most villages still have those nowadays, they’re the focal point of any small community, where the local drunkards and pensioners could gather over a bottle of rakia, play some backgammon, and discuss politics and sports. You know how it is.
21. State Councils. Another hugely important institution, fashioned after the infamous Soviets (“soviet” or its derivatives means “council” in most Slavic languages). No one really knew what the State Council’s job was – just like with most other state institutions of that sort. But the State Council building was always the most imposing and impressive Stalin-style building in every town center, no doubt.
22. “Udarnik“. I don’t even know how to translate this. In fact, “udar” means “hit”. But “udarnik” was a special breed of work hero, an excellent worker who was like the worker’s version of Superman. In other words: Superworker! The Udarnik was the one who could operate two looms, pour twice as much concrete as their more “ordinary” counterparts; all in all, work like a robot. They were the guys who’d constantly receive medals on the TV, and flash their honorable ribbons on street parades (“manifestations”), and entire schools and universities would constantly blabber with reverence about their working heroism. Given today’s unemployment levels, we could argue that anyone who works at all, is eligible for such an honorable ribbon. We could use the encouragement and stimulus, no doubt. I don’t know, it’s not my place to say how contagious or stimulating the Udarnik’s example must have been. I guess we’ll have to ask the older folk.
23. Committee on Prices. Ironically, it was dissolved in 1988, and the regime collapsed just a year later. But that’s normal for a planned economy. Some say that institution managed to contain lots of financial crises and prevent a number of inflation situations. The fact is though, that Bulgaria was the only country to default 4 times during the communist era (and twice before that). Says a lot really.
24. Education Program. Every day on the radio, at some special Soviet wavelength which doesn’t exist any more, there was a two-hour Education Program. There were lectures in physics, chemistry, geography and whatnot. There weren’t many humanitarian subjects, so the program wasn’t too ideologized. Hundreds of thousands listened to all sort of curious stuff about CO2, procariote cells and the Mariana Trench. I loved geography, so I was cool with that. Most kids were very well educated and informed overall, highly literate (almost 99%), knew how to write a composite sentence without messing up with the punctuation, even knew more than a dozen poems by heart; let alone about the world’s geography. Indeed, that was what our education was about, back then (and traces of that are still visible today): developing universal non-specialist general-knowledge know-it-alls whose brains were full with factoids learned by heart and readily parroted at any given moment. Meanwhile, they were well trained in practical stuff like changing a light-bulb or patching their socks. Today, most of the kiddos can’t tell a donkey from a horse, believe that the EU is a continent, and find difficulties spelling their full name. They probably wouldn’t survive for more than two days in the wilderness without internet access on their mobile, where they could google how to light a fire. Oh, but they do know everything about the latest underwear of the most famous pop-folk superstars, or the newest tattoo on their fave footballer’s butt. And they can send a Tweet on their iPhone, written in “monkey Latin alphabet” that only looks like Cyrillic, and full of at least a dozen errors.
25. Cinema newsreel. Yep, there was that. Before every movie in the cinema. It lasted for a quarter of an hour, and usually informed the audience about… well, the harvest, the latest work heroics of the Udarniks who were now operating three looms at a time, or pouring thrice as much concrete as their mortal counterparts. Then there was a small pause, and then the actual movie would begin. The cinema tickets costed mere cents. There were an incredible number of cinemas everywhere, and always well maintained. After all, wasn’t it comrade Lenin who once said, “Cinema is the most important art”? And also: “Communism is Soviet power plus electrification”. But that’s another story.
…I could add the Labor Troops (Construction Forces) to the list, the lowest of the lower levels of the military (conscription was universal and compulsory, btw), dominated by minorities (mainly Gypsies) who’d work the hardest of hard labor over the toughest construction sites around the country – and hell, were there tough projects at the time! Much in the same league is the “Work Brigades”, compulsory time that every student would spend in summer working at the crop fields or in a factory. You know, just to get a “taste” of what real life looks like. Curiously, and much Stockholm-syndrom-ey, my parents used to insist that those were the best times of their life. Bending your back picking peppers under the scorching sun can and should be fun, as long as you do that alongside your best friends, no? Oh, did I mention that all of that labor was for free?
Now that a almost a year has passed since the act of barbarism in Paris which was instantly branded by some smartheads (and politicians) “a clash of civilizations”, perhaps it’s time to sit back a little and assess things a bit more soberly. In my opinion there’s no such thing as a war of the civilizations, not really. Of course there can’t be a yes or no answer to such complex issues spanning generations and even centuries, but still. On one side, this isn’t a Muslims vs Christians clash per se. It’s rather a conflict of values, one side refusing to adopt the other’s values even when the former is being hosted by the latter, with all the hospitality that comes with that.
But even then, these are not “Christian” values by definition, but rather values of humanism. Free expression included. Unfortunately, many among the Muslim community do not necessarily identify with these values, or at least do not place them anywhere near the top of their list of priorities – but instead they fear they could lose their identity and damage their own culture and faith if they do. This couldn’t be any further from reality, though. Adopting the principles of secularism, humanism and the Age of Enlightenment that have become so fundamental for the West would not only not undermine the Muslim world – it would most likely enrich it and allow it to develop – a process that Europe has been taking for granted for quite a while now. It’s no surprise that the main factor for that was the separation of church and state, of religion and politics.
Some might remember the time when Europe was discussing its new constitution, how Romano Prodi and Valerie Jiscard Distain asked the now much revered Pope John Paul II for his opinion on the project. He wrote to them that it was very good and all, but there was a flaw with it, namely that there wasn’t a word about the role of the church in state matters. They both responded to him that the function of religion on this continent has become a personal rather than state matter for a long time. Indeed, Europe had paid a steep price in its effort to separate church from state. And today religion serves to sort out the individual’s relation with God, which is why it has no place in political matters.
Fast-forward to the beginning of the 21st century, and have a look at the Muslim world. What does the separation of church and state mean for that part of the world? Well, there are at least two major aspects of this issue that need to be looked into. The first one indeed concerns the relations of the Muslim world to the West. Like I said, it’s not so much a brutal clash of entire civilizations – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a clash of some sorts, and tensions. I’d venture to argue that this mostly stems from the general alienation of the Arab and Islamic societies from the new realities of the modern world. That in turn is a result of the deepening globalization.
The development of such a process worldwide creates deep psychological problems for the societies that find themselves at the receiving end. They see that everything that’s happening nowadays, development-wise, is mostly a product of the Western world, which they (erroneously or not) tend to associate with Christianity. In practice though, it’s not merely a Christian world, it’s the *secular* world of modernity. It’s this world that has worked hard to separate church from state – and Muslims are largely feeling marginalized and very offended by that, because they feel they’ve had little to no contribution to what’s happening in the world today.
They feel they’ve turned themselves into mere end consumers of the products that are being created and promoted elsewhere on a daily basis – a consumer who has no say in the shaping of the product. Which is why they tend to turn back to the past with nostalgia, and try to compare themselves to a society that used to exist about 1200 years ago. Back then, Europe was in the Dark Ages, while the Muslim world was enjoying its early Renaissance. So they now say, “We used to rule half the world back then, but today we are downtrodden, subordinate, and marred by warfare”. So they live with deep contradictions: they simultaneously strive to emulate the Western values and achievements to an extent, but out of some sort of twisted cultural pride, they also refuse to allow it to access their communities and societies. They long for the splendor of the Islamic Caliphate of old, although they know very well that such a form of government is completely contradictory to anything existing today – because we’re no longer in the 9th century, but in the 21st.
And here’s the whole absurdity in their confusion: because they have little clarity as to what exactly they want for themselves, and are so shockingly and numbingly confused about their own place in the world, they end up both supporting and opposing the likes of the Islamic State – even in the regions it controls with a bloody iron fist, where the bulk of the victims to its terror are exactly Muslim.
That said, it’s deceivingly easy to conclude that the Quran is to blame for all this. That’s the easiest excuse. But when we look a bit under the surface, we’d encounter the first complication. The question arises, which Quran exactly? The US have tried aiding the so called “moderate Islamists”, although frankly, a “moderate Islamist” sounds like an oxymoron to me. There can be only one fundamental Islam, the one written in the Quran. Problem is, it tends to be interpreted in all sorts of ways by the various Islamic denominations. There’s Salafi Islam, Wahhabi Islam, Turkish Islam, also Malaysian and Indonesian Islam, and many many more. Now tell me, which of them is to be chosen as the universal one? You guessed right: none can.
The original Quran was written 15 centuries ago. So who wrote all those subsequent addendums? Who edited it over and over, and for what purpose? Ultimately, whose is the ultimate Islamic “truth”? All these complications are causing additional pressure and chaos both in the Muslim’s mind and in the real world. And naturally, there comes the statement of the Egyptian general/junta-boss/president Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, which went largely unnoticed by the Western media by the way. A few days ago, he gathered many major religious leaders and essentially told them: “You are all responsible for what’s happening, and you should initiate a religious revolution. Otherwise the whole world will start perceiving us all as aggressors, because we only tend to attract people’s hatred and distrust. You shouldn’t keep raising the young generations in this manner, otherwise we’re all doomed!” Or something to that effect.
I think he does have a point. But the conflicts will continue, until civic societies arise in all (or at least, most) Muslim countries. If the dictatorships go away, that’d strengthen the economy, and that’ll have to be coupled with the painful process of separating religion from state, empowering women and minorities, etc – otherwise these societies are truly lost.
It’s a long and painful process, yes. It can’t happen overnight. That sort of transformation takes many generations. It looks like the Muslim societies are now going through a process that Europe had passed a long time ago, a process that turned the European societies into what they are today. The most immediate goal of the Muslim societies now has to be to interrupt the vicious cycle of militant Islamic fundamentalism. They need a new interpretation of the Quran, they need to perceive religion in a more humble and realistic way. But, as the European experience shows, this requires a lot of time, and probably going through tons of wars and blood – so things will have to get much worse before they start to get better, I’m afraid. And the recent signs that things are even going in an opposite direction, are not helping make us optimistic about it at all.
See, I’ve met with pals who are former Iraqi students here, and Syrian students, and Libyan students. Most of them are well-educated, smart, ordinary people. They remember the times when you couldn’t see a single burqa on the streets of Baghdad or Tripoli or Damascus. All women used to dress as they pleased. But now they’re all in black, covered from head to feet. Why is that? Did they suddenly discover their faith or something? No, of course not! It was always there, it’s just that this is a display of the loss of cultural identity that I talked above. So now many of them are deliberately walking the European streets covered in black from top to bottom, as if they want to yell to the world: “Look at me, I’m Muslim and I’m not ashamed of it!”
This is why I suspect this will be a century of ethnicity and religious identity. I think the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam will be largely defining those societies for a long time to come. And no one is able to predict for sure where it’ll all end up.
No doubt, one of the most crucial problems is the subordinate position of women in these societies. And by extension, it also relates to the total disregard of the rights of any minorities. We could also add the lack of free media, and then of course there’s the merging of the mosque with the state. That’s where all problems emerge from. That’s why right now, the Muslims are most vulnerable and sensitive about their religion. It’s the last thing they’ve got that they could cling to, and draw some pride from. That’s why they constantly turn back to history, and dream of great holy Caliphates even when they know full well that these are impossible in the modern world.
But here’s the paradox: there *are* Gulf countries with extremely modern infrastructure, perfect roads, and everything the most developed countries could envy them for. But still, much of their population suffers from a malfunction in what I could call the “infrastructure of spirit”. And that’s the most important part: how you raise and educate your own people, and in what direction you’re leading the future generations.
Still, there’s some of room for optimism, because it’s not like there aren’t any good examples of the opposite. Tunisia is one. It has always been a secular state, and its new constitution only comes to confirm this. The Islamists did win the elections some time ago, they got 38%. But what happened next? They lost the latest election, only being able to garner 15%. And who voted for them? Mostly the elderly people, the Tunisian equivalent of what we here in Bulgaria call “red grandpas” (who always vote Socialist, because they’ve known nothing else). Those people vote out of delusion, because they’re being told “We’re the only true representatives of Allah”, so they cast their ballot exactly the way they’re supposed to. At the end of the day though, the Islamists lost all the recent elections they ran in, including the presidential one.
They lost to the young generations of Tunisia. They lost to the women of Tunisia, who’ve been a very significant factor. They’ve had equal rights for 30 years now. And they were the ones who neutralized the Islamist agenda where it even remotely existed. It was thanks to Tunisia’s women and the preservation of their rights that the modern civic society in Tunisia has been sustained.
I can’t say for sure if that’ll happen in the rest of the Muslim world any time soon, but something tells me that’s inevitable in the long run. If for anything, at least because there’s been a Western type of mentality in Tunisia for a long time, in the most general meaning of the word. So the Tunisian people cannot be tricked by populist religious propaganda – not at this point. And when a model works, others would sooner or later want to emulate it. Good example, just like the bad one, tends to spread like a contagion.
It was for similar reasons that Egypt ended up deposing of its Islamist government (no matter how “moderate” it claimed to be), less than a year after it was sworn in. 22 million Egyptians signed an impeachment petition against now former president Morsi. The military instantly seized the opportunity to present itself as the protector of the interests of the people, not the state itself – with which it practically asserted its claim to dominion on Egyptian politics (just like the Turkish military used to be pre-Erdogan). Where the Islamists tried to kick the secular military out through the door, it came back through the back window, seized the moment, and destroyed the Islamist agenda by force. Different method, same result as in Tunisia.
All the trouble of course started from Syria. And not because the West intervened or anything like that – just on the contrary. Because it did not. Until very recently, there were few to no Islamists in Syria, it was a modern society with normal people who just wanted some dignity and freedom to go about their life. They were fed up with the conditions of dictatorship they had lived in for more than half a century. But Assad didn’t want to go without a fight, he unleashed his repressive machine upon them, so the conflict soon escalated and started expanding, and the terrorists didn’t come late. Many of these were imported from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East, the end goal being to remove Assad. But these calculations turned out wrong, because the Russian factor had been neglected. Big mistake.
Right now, Russia is playing the Syrian, Iranian, and now the Ukrainian card, in order to essentially show the US and the West that they’ll do their best to prevent things from happening by the Western scenario, and that Russia is a factor to be reckoned with. That’s why Russia took the side of Syrian despotism. And I won’t be surprised if the US is eventually compelled to get involved in yet another armed conflict.
The West is understandably reluctant to enter conflicts of any sort, granted, and it should’ve probably pressed Assad to reform his government and allow Syria to follow the Tunisian scenario. But now that Russia has been involved as a destabilizing factor, things have become rather complicated. As for Russia itself, it has two problems: one is with the West, the other with its own Muslims, who are not few at all. And they’re Suni, just like those fighting against Assad in Syria. But that’s another type of clash, which is a whole other story. By the way, there’s been a huge protest in Grozny against the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as we speak. And this says a lot.
So what’s Europe’s responsibility for what has happened in Paris? Well, for more than 15 years Europe has been witnessing its Muslim communities further encapsulating themselves, alienating themselves from the host societies. In the meantime though, anyone who thinks this is a social problem, is being misled. After all, what social problems could exist in a country like Denmark? I have friends who’ve emigrated there, and they’re given a place to live and a job almost as soon as they arrive, and even from now they know in advance that they’ll be granted a 1400 euro pension when they retire. Education and health care is free for their kids, and they have a number of other privileges. And most importantly: a sense of stability.
What about Sweden? Are there social problems of a magnitude that would render entire segments of society disillusioned to a point where they’d join an extremist cause? Or what about France, the most-pronounced welfare state? Or Germany? What social problems are we talking about? Whoever truly wants to work hard, is given the opportunity to work – what’s more, unlike here in BG, they know exactly how much their work costs, and exactly what they’re working for. This is not a matter of social problems – it’s rather a matter of alienation and cultural marginalization. It’s a matter of neglect, and failure to care and to understand. And it’s becoming ever more serious, and is deepening with every next generation of Muslims, who’ve been born and raised in Europe. So we end up with a number of these youngsters looking for adventure, or just having psychological problems caused by wrong or brutal upbringing and/or education, and ending up on the side of Jihad eventually.
We shouldn’t also underestimate the role of the social networks in recruiting such people. A new term has been floating around the blogosphere as of late, “electronic Jihad“. That’s a problem, granted. But we shouldn’t allow the main issue to get out of our sight: it’s that Europe has welcomed these communities to its society, but it has failed to prevent them from drifting apart from society, and feeling alien. Instead of recognizing and tackling this problem, Europe prefers to sit back and either rant about it, or mock its Muslims, and poke them into the most sensitive part of their wound. And when they react, it acts surprised, offended, and all in all, defiant. This betrays a profound disconnect that has existed under the surface, which few have raised a voice about. It displays a deliberate unwillingness to understand the core of the problem.
The problem is not Muhammad. The problem is that Muhammad has become the last resort for many Muslims in Europe – and for a reason. And, instead of punishing its Muslims, Europe should ask itself the hard question how it has come to this, and what can be done to amend it.
In the meantime though, it’s also true that many of these Muslim communities have been allowed to encroach dangerously into the most fundamental tenets of democracy that the Western societies hold sacrosanct – for the sake of coming across as tolerant and inclusive. They’ve now entered Britain’s state education institutions; in Belgium and Germany there’s even “Sharia police“, which is supposed to “protect the Muslims from having their rights violated”. What sort of violation are we talking about here, given the fact that the very fundaments and rules of a secular system are being undermined, its laws disregarded, the principles of the host societies disprespected? Is it just now that Europe has decided to notice that its own citizens are flocking into the ranks of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq? Did it take a tragedy like Paris to turn our attention to that?
Europe shouldn’t forget that today there are no borders, everyone has access to everything, and with this, the threats are becoming greater and more complex. But isn’t that what Europe wanted for itself? A borderless, open all-European society? There are risks that come with this. Risks to Europe’s very cultural model. And instead of acting defiantly, it better look into that matter. The current situation presents us with a chance to do just that. It shouldn’t be wasted.
We may’ve already become aware of how the profile of the regular Jihadist generally looks like. Well, first of all, here’s a disclaimer: there’s no such thing as one single profile of the Jihadist. Because there aren’t only Muslims among them, but also Christians, even Jews – as absurd as that may sound! The lower age bar is constantly dropping, now it’s between 16 and 24. These are young boys and girls, most of whom know almost nothing about Islam, nor about religion as a whole. They’re driven by internal, psychological problems, or by neglect, or lack of understanding in their environment. Some want to prove themselves as men. But all of them lack something in their culture and upbringing, and a realistic view of the world’s processes.
In other cases, these are just rejects. For example there are people who’ve tried to enlist in the French military, but despite their ambition to become fighters and learn to kill, or defend, all they’ve seen is locked doors. So they’ve turned to the Jihadists as plan B, and the Islamic State has been happy to provide them the opportunity to do what they consider to be “something meaningful” with their life, and contribute to some cause – any cause. And these cases are thousands, and they come from all sorts of surprising places, many of which are “very European”, if you know what I mean. So why are we even talking of Islam, Islamism and Jihad here at all? Aren’t the various neo-Nazi groups much the same? Extremism is not restricted to any one group of people, least of all ethnic group – it tends to rear its ugly mug whenever culture, upbringing, family, and the sense of belonging to community is destroyed.
Is there a threat to my country? Sure there is, as is the case with any other country. This threat exists in the Islamic countries themselves, but it’s also become a total problem. Without necessarily succumbing to paranoia, it’s something we should learn to live with. And here the state certainly cannot deal with the problem on its own, because these terrorist organizations are not centralized. These groups are fragmented, they act on their own, they could consist of just a couple of individuals, and their actions are unpredictable, undetectable – but they do know how to communicate between themselves, and how to win hearts and minds through the means of modern communication. So, modern society needs to adopt new approaches about tackling it – and indeed, such proposals abound. Bottom-line is, though, that we should do better in addressing the core issue, and this time we better be smart about it.
Communal apartments, or Kommunalky. You can see most major Russian cities being encircled by those mastodons of Socialist-realist architecture. They look grand, imposing, intimidating even. But what’s life like in those? And I do mean *is*, not *was*. Because a huge chunk of the Russian people still live there. I’ve been to Moscow over a dozen times through the years, but I must admit this is the first time that I’ve come to know Russians so intimately.
So, about the kommunalka. Visitor’s first impression: the staircase stinks! It literally reeks. I’ve thought Russians bake and boil and fry stuff at home only when they’re on holidays at the apartment complexes that they’ve bought along the sea coast of my country, but no. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. When you enter an actual Russian kommunalka, you get instantly hit by a thick wall of odors. All sorts of meals can be felt from a hundred yards. They mix with each other into some sort of omnipresent, omnipotent, all-enveloping, invisible (and often visible) mist of smells, among which, after taking the second breath, you can no longer distinguish the separate meals.
If you somehow manage to survive this initial shock and make it to the, let’s say 3rd floor of this shabby juggernaut of a building, you’d go through another shock. You’ll end up in Heaven! Or rather, a haven for voices and moods, and all sorts of opinions, and meals, and rumors, and stuff.
Actually the typical communal home does encompass the entire floor (and it’s a huge floor, mind you). On both sides of the long corridor there are tiny rooms. Each is no more than 10 sq m. At the end of the corridor, there’s the bathroom and toilets. And one kitchen, shared by all 16-24 families. All women and men, children, elderly folk. They’re all in this together.
It’s a dark corridor. The plaster is coming off the walls, and you can’t recognize what color it might have been once. Most lights have gone dead way ago. There’s a ray of light at the end of the tunnel, though. It’s the kitchen window. There’s one. It’s the kitchen that these 16-24 families consider their HQ, the heart of the community, the very command center of the kommunalka. I meet a lady called Nastya who was born here, has always lived here, and has almost never left the area. She’s something like a chieftain here. That’s an interesting and long story really. While Russian men may appear manly and powerful in politics and sports, deep in the bowels of these homes of theirs, they’ve been ruled by their women ever since the two world wars, when women became the dominant power due to the shortage of men, and the fact that women were running the whole economy – and they’ve never relinquished that position since. Anyway; Nastya has some special privileges in this place. There’s a certain hierarchy, practically a matriarchate. Those who’ve lived in the kommunalka the longest have the most rights. They can choose which corner of the table they’ll sit on at dinner (or even have separate tables of their own). Or which side of the stove they’ll sit beside (that’s kind of important; Russian winters are quite tough).
There are 5 tables and 2 stoves in the kitchen. And 16 families. If you want to cook, you’ll have to wait for your turn. The single washing machine works non-stop, 24/7. There’s lots of pants and shirts and diapers to wash, after all. I wait in line for the toilet. In a minute, Pavlik, Nastya’s son, comes out, pink toilet paper in one hand, a round wooden board with a hole in it in the other. Yep, every family brings their own toilet board with them. Hygiene matters! You know, the line between privacy and community are kind of blurred in a place like this. At that point, another lady goes through the corridor (littered with personal stuff, btw – I thought Russians were weird for putting their shoes in front of their doors at our holiday complexes, despite having all that space inside, but now I understood where that habit comes from; they’re just not used to having space). The lady is wearing pink bunny slippers. They’re fluffy. She looks Asian. I start a conversation. Turns out she’s Uzbeki. Never learned her name, though. Almost half of the 16 families on that floor are Uzbeki or Turkmen, I later learned. Guest workers who are treated like cattle in Russia, but still make double the money they’d make back home. Or triple. Most seem cautious about making new contacts, at least initially. After some ice-breaking, they open up and tell me curious things.
Unlike them, Nastya is quite talkative. She knows everything that’s going on in their section of the kommunalka (there are about 20 sections, each with its own entrance, separate lift – it’s another society, another planet; you rarely meet many people from outside your own entrance). Nastya invites me to their family’s room (I wouldn’t even call it home, or apartment; it’s just one room). I’m welcomed by their cat, who looks at me from his personal armchair with suspicion. The cat’s armchair, all in scars, is a separate sovereign territory, I’m told. I dare not dispute this.
We sit around the tiny table. And then I ask the question that’s been on my mind all the time: why do you guys live in such a place, if there’s so little space and almost no comfort? Why not somewhere in the burbs, you could have a small house and yard there? It’s actually quite comfortable, and it’s very cheap, she responds. They pay a quarter of what folk would pay living in the center. Besides, it’s actually quite cosy. There are all those typically Russian carpets on the walls (and floor). Only problem is, the Uzbeks are increasing in numbers, and taking over, she says. The Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajiks and Kyrgyz have become a feature of the big Russian cities for quite a while. You won’t see a cashier at a supermarket who isn’t Asian any more. Or a taxi driver. Or street cleaner.
One word: “pilaf”. That’s what the Uzbeki woman with the fluffy bunny slippers drops at me while passing beside Nastya’s open door. Sounds like an invitation. Seems like there’s a hospitality competition going on here, so I can’t refuse. I’ll be treated to the traditional Uzbeki meal with rice, lamb and carrots. Top taste, I must say. But if you thought the inhabitants of the kommunalka dine together, you were wrong. The meals they cook together in the kitchen are soon distributed to their respective recipients. Yeah – they eat in their rooms, where they sleep and raise their kids. Some families even eat on the floor, as they don’t have enough chairs. The hospitable Uzbeki family are no exception. I bend my knees and sit the Eastern way on their amazing carpet (stained, unfortunately), and I enjoy the pilaf.
Soon I’m back with Nastya. There’ll be vodka and gurkins, I’m promised. Can’t miss the vodka. But first there’ll be coffee. “We live all in peace, together”, Nastya tells me later while we’re having coffee back in her single-room home. It’s Kitchen Philosophy lecture time, apparently. “There are parliamentary elections in a week, you say? Hmm, let me think. When was the last time I voted on those?” Her son Pavlik reminds her it must have been the year 2000. “So who are we voting for this time? There’s no real opposition with a program of their own, no one to promise us a better life. Cherish what you have, they tell us. And we do”. Pavlik, who seems more philosophically inclined, remarks that in a huge country like Russia, the only way to keep so much folk in line is to rule with an iron fist, govern with an imperial style so to speak. “There’s no way Russia could ever have democracy. No way. We’d plunge into chaos. We tried that for a while, and it didn’t work”, he concludes. He means Yeltsin’s time, obviously. “It was total chaos. And we don’t want chaos. We fear chaos. We’ve seen what chaos looks like, and we don’t want that. We prefer stability, no matter the cost”.
I quit my intentions to question their relationship with totalitarianism. It’s pointless. Russians obviously do like their oppressors the way they are, and they even love them. Because they bring stability. Period.
“Today’s Russia reminds me of the 70s”, Nastya says. “I was young then, but I remember”. Her prediction sounds ominous: “Everything will collapse eventually, everyone knows that. And there’ll be a revolution, and then we’ll all live a new life. But I won’t be around to see that. It won’t be too soon. So I’m not making any long-term plans for the future. No one is”. Pavlik adds, “We live here and now, for this moment. But that doesn’t stop us from being happy in our own way. Of course our country has many flaws. Who doesn’t? But we love what we have, and we’re happy with it”.
Comrade Putin has enjoyed a 70%+ landslide victory because of people like Nastya and Pavlik. Of those there are many. His future, and that of his clique and whoever he happens to hand-pick for his successor, is ensured because of people like them. But for how long? Given the current economic insecurity, Russia’s mid- to long-term future seems rather uncertain at this point. Despite the strict hierarchy, the total government control on all institutions, the media, and the economy. And despite the deeply inbred proneness of the Russian people to put up with whatever form of oppression they’re presented with. Whatever happens, the kommunalky will still be there, standing tall above the cityscape. It’s where people will keep finding their safe, cheap haven – or Heaven. Despite the strict hierarchy. Or maybe exactly because of it. It brings stability, doesn’t it?
Hi all! I’m 38 years old, male, from Bulgaria. I live in Plovdiv, my country’s second largest city, and Europe’s oldest continually inhabited city. I like to travel a lot, and share the stories of my wanderings with everyone around me. My work as a real estate broker has helped me meet with interesting people, and gain a cosmopolitan perspective on the world, which I would gladly employ in my writing endeavours.