Did I get your attention with that pic, eh? Well, that’s because this is a regular sight at the place where I’m currently writing from. See, there’s hardly a hotel left in Bulgaria, which doesn’t proudly wear a grand-sounding name like “Something-something Resort”, “Something Spa Palace”, or “A-lot-of-Something Resort & Spa Palace”. In the worst case, either “Something Beach”, “Anything Del Mar” or anything related to a lot of awesomeness amidst a presumed sea of tranquility and relaxation.
In reality, though, the picture looks much different. The BG seaside resorts are a curious and colorful ecosystem of its own that’s full of internal inconsistencies and abounds of striking paradoxes.
See, the 4-5-month summer season at the Black Sea coast passes along laws of physics and biology of its own, as if pulled out of some sort of parallel universe. For many visitors, the few days/weeks they spend there with the intention to relax, often turn into some kind of resilience and endurance test – both for the human body (primarily through various types of intoxication), its physiology (after (un)intentionally falling down from balconies of varying height), or a test of the limit of human tolerance to physical confrontation, and excessive amounts of loud, horrible music.
Both to the north and south of the place where the long Balkan mountain range plunges into the sea (a spot that happens to be near the location where my employer company operates, and where I spend most of the summer time, working amidst all those cheerful procrastinating folks), there are tons of unique local color that’s capable of capturing the imagination of any connoisseur of abstract art, post-modernism, gangster cinema and horror literature. And oh, where without the so-called Thug-o-Baroque style, of course. From June to September, now world-famous places like Sunny Beach, Golden Sands, Nesebar, St.Vlas, Primorsko, Sozopol, Kiten, the larger cities of Varna and Burgas, and the many locations along the Black Sea aquatorium, many of which have now practically merged into one humongous Spain-style conglomerate of resort craziness, attract hundreds of thousands of seekers of extreme sensations.
The ceaseless flow of crowds who love to “unhinge their heads” as the local saying goes (meaning, to blast oneself with drinking), are staggering. Many of those peeps spend most of their time around here in a constant state between alcoholic nirvana and aesthetic inferno. And they all love it. Because it’s cheap, it’s crowded, and it’s crazy.
I once saw a few UK guys being interviewed for a local TV after a week’s stay at a local all-inclusive hotel. “Did you guys love Bulgaria?”, the reporter asked. “Sure we did! We didn’t leave the room for six days; the drinks are really cheap here, and the room-service is 24/7, way cool!”, they retorted. Yep, that’s all this is about. Boobs, drugs & booze all night long. What more can you wish for? Doesn’t matter that there’s an ancient town sporting some of UNESCO’s most notable sites of interest just a couple of miles away. Who cares.
If they could squeeze 15 minutes of relative sobriety out of their almost uninterrupted state of amok, perhaps some of those tourists would’ve realized that the formerly cute, cozy little resort towns along our cost that used to harbor a unique atmosphere and culture, have now grown into gigantic super-urbanized mastodons of concrete, glass and steel, with their own unwritten rules of existence. It’s good that most people tend to leave this place with almost no memories remaining within their alcohol-filled skulls anyway, which is a form of bliss, I presume.
A short stroll across the most crowded of these resort places leads you alongside rows of artificial palms, in turn lined with tasteless (but expensive) hotels with prefixes like “Golden” and “Grand”, and suffixes like “Beach”, “Resort”, etc.
The showcase of posh, kitsch resort places begins from the very beach line, and ends at the nightclubs. A 24/7 spectacle, drowned in neon lights and loud pop-folk (“chalga”) music, that’s become the symbol of the post-communist “Transition period” that’s been going on for decades here now.
The nature of local resort life is quite eclectic. There’s huge amounts of virtually everything: classic thugs (called “mutri”, i.e. ‘mugs’ in local slang), a remnant of the 90s, which were the years of the peak of thug-o-cracy during the height of the Transition to Democracy(TM); confused foreign tourists representing the cream of the working class of Western and Northern Europe; Russian parvenus with their families and huge SUVs, as well as local BG students who’ve been saving money from their meager stipends all year, just to come here and splash them over booze, drugs and boobs for the 5 days of their stay at the Bulgarian Riviera(TM).
Meanwhile, the more posh places of nightlife provide an opportunity to check your watch with the latest tendencies of plastic surgery. Silicon is more abundant in lips than in boobs. The modern-day Cinderellas of the pop-folk “chalga” generation have magically transformed themselves into princesses of kitsch. They dismount lushly tuned pompous carriages, the metaphorical steel pumpkins of modern time, in turn driven by pumpkin-heads looking like brainless Terminators. Mounted on their 9-inch shoe platforms, tattooed from top to bottom with trendy hieroglyphs, thick artificial suntan and leather dresses of tiger patterns, these modern Cinderellas proudly enter the palaces of kitsch and “chalga”, nose up and shiny purse in hand.
In the larger resorts like Sunny Beach (where I’m currently stationed), one could clearly notice the gap between the local show-off parvenus and the “deluded” all-inclusive foreign tourists. The newly spawned local “upper class” can be noticed from a mile within this famous Black Sea reservation of special humanoid species. They park their second-hand limos worth 200 grand right in the mud beside the huge nightclubs at the very sand dunes on the beach, essentially “chalga” clubs and palaces of vanity and pomposity. Their very presence there is considered a sign of social prestige. Inside those mysterious places, a fierce competition rages between the various thug-o-cliques: everyone is striving to show off as the one commanding the largest horde of the most scary-looking, neckless, and utterly useless gorillas that in some circles are passing for “security”. The unsuspecting observer could be shocked at the sight of a club table, densely encircled by a dozen of those monsters, who’ve blocked any access and any vantage point of observation towards their precious untouchable employers. Every now and then, behind the forest of muscled arms and skin-shaven, neckless heads, a tender female arm or two would pop up, clapping in semi-trance or clicking their jewelry-laden fingers in rhythm with the sound of loud pop-folk.
While (in)famous (and quite successful) local drug dealer and pimp Tosho the Shark orders malt elixirs 400 bucks apiece (but not before having filled his nostrils with an ounce of the most expensive coke in town), just a few blocks away from this palace of grotesque luxury, the average Sven from Sweden is actively turning himself and his peers into a semi-sentient cretin, by means of gargantuan amounts of super-cheap, super-shitty Bulgarian alcohol. Cheers! Nazdrave! Or as they say in Sweden, “skål”!
Somewhere after the 15th shot, Sven and his folks will stagger out into the Main Street of Sunny Beach, now on all-fours, without knowing where he is, what he’s doing, and what sort of creature he is any more. He’ll then be stopped by a tender voice emerging from behind the open back-door of a parked yellow taxi, a local nymph of unspecified ethnic origin inquiring in broken English whether he wouldn’t like to perform a sexual contact with her, in exchange for some coins. The almost dead-drunken Sven will gladly accept the offer, and a quarter of an hour later he’ll have parted ways with 200 bucks of the money that his oldies had given him for this vacation, after a quick and instantly forgotten coitus. Much of those 200 bucks will then end up straight in the luxurious leather man-purse of the above-mentioned Tosho the Shark, who’ll be spending it responsibly on more cocaine and malt. No surprise the likes of IKEA have come up with adverts of this sort:
That said, no doubt, next year Sven will be recommending this amazing place to his cousin, along with another 10 of his pals back in Sweden. They’ll come to Sunny Beach or Golden Sands, and in turn, duly “unhinge their heads” in quite a similar manner. They’ll have joined innumerable hordes of Russians, Germans, British, Norwegians, Poles, and our very own local brand of super-dudes. One or two of them will end their holidays with fractured limbs after one of those famed “balconing” sessions after having consumed a litre of alcohol in their hotel rooms. Granted, that’s a practice so tempting that there’s no way it could be resisted, so there goes.
And all of that, at the background of the concrete brutalism and infrastructural insanity that reigns supreme along our seaside, where every vacant square inch of interior has been turned into rooms for rent, and every inch of exterior – into parking lots.
The only thing that’s saltier than the sea itself, are the local prices. A litre and a half of simple water is worth 4.50 bucks at the beach. Tap water being posed as mineral water, presumably (but not really) originating from our famous spa resorts in the interior of the country, ya know. Horrible, yet expensive food. Tons of concrete and silicon everywhere. These resorts sometimes resemble a students’ town on steroids, and at other times a shooting site for a crappy low-budget Felini movie.
But no one can take the spectacularness and grandeur away from these monstrous chalga-polises. They’re the aggressive, concrete confirmation of William Blake’s famous words, “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom… You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough”.
Whether you are visiting the high Alpine peaks of the South-East Balkans for the first time or you consider yourself a skillful and experienced mountaineer, becomes most evident at a first glance. There is one simple way to tell, and that is not exactly the type of equipment you have furnished yourself with. Neither are your physical capabilities and endurance a primary indicator of your mountaineering prowess. What distinguishes the true mountaineer from the rookie is the way they react upon first encounter with strangers along their path. The way you greet them, and then receive their greeting in return.
It is really this simple: if you look them straight in the eye and welcome them with a smile and a salute, it doesn’t really matter how many hours you have spent around the wind-swept peaks and cliffs around these wild corners of the world; it is a sign that you do indeed carry the magic spirit of the mountain in your heart. But if you startle and cringe inside your shell, and only mumble a muted “hello” long after you’ve passed by them, there might as well be some hope still. The mountain and yourself may yet be at odds at this point, but you are on the right track. If you just look through the fellow climber with unseeing eyes, gazing into the nothingness, and pass them without a moan… well, I do hope chance would toss you into the Pirin mountain at some point, and you would take one of the myriad of routes to the Koncheto summit eventually. For I’ve yet to come upon a person who has seen the world from atop this fabled needle of stone, and has not yet realised how fragile and humble before mother nature we humans really are. Indeed, spots like these do tend to change people forever.
As one of the plenty of mountaineer stories goes, Koncheto is called that way (Bulgarian word for ‘the Little Horse’) because long before the safety wires were spread along its sharp ridges back in the 60s, the tourists would often sit upon it and traverse the toughest part of that walk by prostrating themselves forward and crawling on all fours – just like that famed circumnavigation of the sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet, which the locals call “parikrama“. In a way, a visit to the Pirin mountain in South-West Bulgaria is like a pilgrimage. If anything, it is an ultimate test to the senses, the power of the human will, and the physical capabilities.
Mind you, Koncheto is not even the highest peak in Pirin – it is 2800 m high, which is 114 metres below Vihren, the topmost point there (which, in turn, is 11 metres below Musala, the highest summit in the Balkans, located a few dozen km north in the neighbouring Rila mountain). But Koncheto has become a natural focal point of all routes crisscrossing Pirin, this most extreme of mountains in this part of the world. Whichever path you take from any of the small towns and villages surrounding the mountain, chances are you’d end up at this ridge eventually. But beware: you would need very good equipment, lots of good food and fresh water, and of course, a pair of strong legs. The altitude you’d have to overcome is immense, but you shouldn’t give up at any point. Just distribute your rations smartly, because you wouldn’t be able to replenish the latter before reaching the Suhodol lake, which is located very high in the heart of Pirin. And the most important part: surround yourself with good friends who share your passion for the mountain, and are prepared to lend you a hand in trouble.
Here are some tips along the way. The higher you advance, the narrower the path to Koncheto becomes. Do not try to walk shoulder to shoulder with your companions. Here the only way is one in line. If you decide to take photos of the majestic scenery, or just take the occasional deep breath and have a broad look around, better stop in one place. The moment you look aside while still walking, chances are you’d end up with terrible dizziness, and if luck is not on your side and the day is foggy, it may occur to you that the clouds are trying to assault you from all sides. However, do not take too long breaks, especially while eventually sitting on the back of the Little Horse. Just walk on. And, once you have grabbed the iron rope that serves as parapet along the ridge, hold it tight. The winds could be really fierce up there. Do not panic, the trek to the top shouldn’t take too long from the base camp.
At long last, you have now found yourself on the summit. Now take a deep breath, and allow the fresh oxygen to pinch the inside of your lungs. How do you feel now? Tiny? Colossal? A winner? As far as the gaze can reach, there is only sky, peaks, white pyramids of pebbles and gravel, and below, an immeasurable sea of green grass and pine forests. It often happens that one side of Koncheto is baked in the scorching sun, while the other is drowning in a foggy maze. It is probably because this is the exact place where all blizzards and all other types of weather have their regular meeting, before each takes on its own path across the world beneath.
Needless to say, the most spectacular option, especially if the weather permits, is for you and your group of enthusiasts to cross the entire “saddle” of the horse. Just hold a firm grip on that iron parapet, do not look down into the abyss, and watch your steps: the ridge could narrow down to just 40 cm in the toughest places. It would often happen that another group is coming against you – do not panic, there is always a broader spot that you could use to pass each other. On the upside, that sort of closeness provides ample opportunity to get to know your fellow mountaineers better, shake hands with each of them as you help each other along the way. Safety and courtesy, all in just one gesture – what could be a better way to socialise?
If you have made the wise choice of visiting the Pirin mountain in late July or early August and you happen to have brought a good sleeping bag and a warm coat along, you could spend a night at the small hut just next to the summit. It comfortably hosts about a dozen persons, although, granted, electricity and tap water are luxuries you shouldn’t be expecting from such a place. Yet, despite all the hardships, greeting the rising sun early next morning from the roof of the Pirin is an experience that is strongly recommended to backpackers seeking the romantic side of the mountain. It is guaranteed that this moment will remain in your memory until your last day!
Conversely, if you prefer the warmer and relatively comfy bed in the mountain hostel, using the small hut on the ridge for a short breakfast stop is still an option – the trek back into civilisation is a long one, after all. Just choose a large rock to use as a sofa, and lean back for a panoramic view. Open your eyes and ears, and let the majestic tranquility of this place chase all your fears, fatigue and troubles away. Here you would feel the closest to God.
For those more adventurously inclined, pay attention that before reaching the hostel, you would clearly see a sinister giant of rock protruding into the nothingness – it sprawls on the right-hand side of the path down from the peak, and runs perpendicularly to Koncheto. A much narrower ridge, without safety parapets, this part of the mountain is called Koteshki Chal (Cat’s Cap). But do not let the looks shock you: the route is passable even without specialised climbing equipment, although you would certainly need to be extremely careful. The views from the edge are worth all the effort.
One thing is for sure after this ordeal. Once you are back into the world, you would be changed forever. Cleansed, pacified, different. You may not notice it right away, and it may sound a bit pretentious and extravagant as I’m saying it now. It makes no difference. What matters is, you would have conquered Koncheto, the most inaccessible, yet most charming and spiritual place in the Pirin mountain. And you will be at peace with yourself.
In order to reach Koncheto, the best starting point is the Vihren mountain hut, which is located some 12 km from the Bansko ski resort, using a good asphalted road. You could climb the Vihren summit on the way, which is Pirin’s highest peak (2914 m), or go around it at first, leaving it for dessert. Make sure you have allowed at least 3 hours for the trek from Vihren to Koncheto, or 4 if you plan to make more frequent stops. The route is marked with red colour along the way – just follow the signs leading to the Yavorov hut, if you are to reach Koncheto without taking the steep climb to Vihren.
Arrive at the Sofia airport. Take Sofia metro to the Central Railway station of Sofia. — 1 hour
Take Sofia train to Septemvri. — 2 hours
Take the narrow-gauge line from Septemvri to Bansko. — 5 hours
Take the asphalted road from Bansko to the Vihren hut. At the Varbovets water fountain, the road becomes a mountain path. — 4 hours
Trek from the Vihren hut to Koncheto, possibly passing through the Kutelo and Vihren peaks on the way. The route starts with a climb to the Suhodol lake, then climbs steeply to the Koncheto hut. — 5 hours
Traverse the Koncheto ridge, and get back to the Vihren hut. — 6 hours
Go back to Bansko, possibly following the Banderitsa riverbed. — 5 hours
Take the bus from Bansko back to Sofia. — 3 hours
Backpack (40-50 litres)
Comfortable and strong tourist shoes, preferably tightly engulfing the ankles
Warm sweater and t-shirts (polar)
Spare socks and underwear
Fees along the way
Sofia metro ticket – 1.60 lev
Sofia – Septemvri – Bansko train ticket – 11.30 lev
Vihren hut bed day one – 12 lev
Vihren hut bed day two – 12 lev
Bansko to Sofia bus ticket – 13 lev
Sofia city bus ticket – 1.60 lev
This is going to be about the way history itself can be treated, and twisted, and perverted, for political purposes. Do bear with me. For the target of my contention is your fave boxing bag too: Russia. And for a good reason.
December 5, 1931 was a dark day in history. One of many at the time. It was the day that Stalin ordered the demolition of the Christ the Savior cathedral in downtown Moscow. That same day, the magnificent Memorial of the Bulgars was also blown up in Kazan, in Tatarstan, to the east of Moscow. In the meantime, along with this destruction of massive cultural treasures, a hectic effort in rewriting the history of the Russian Empire was going on. Because it was supposed to be substituted with the glorious history of the emergent Soviet Union. The drive of the Bolshevik propaganda to redraw not just Russian history but the history of all the parts of the world it could put its paws upon, was meant to prove to the peoples of the new empire that the spiritual and historic legacy of imperial Russia was supposed to be perceived as solely the achievement of the Russian people and no one else – and not just any Russian people, but the “right” social groups. Everything that dared to contradict this fantasy, was doomed to oblivion. As collateral, the Bulgar(ian) role in Russian history became a victim as well.
Saints Cyril and Methodius were two titans of the Early Medieval Renaissance with huge significance for the Balkans, East Europe and the Slavic world. Their disciples brought their legacy and their work to Russia as well, among other places. This fact became a primary target for the Soviet historiography, and was a taboo topic in Russia for a long time. The very thought that the Slavic alphabet that was so important for an entire civilization, was brought by a tiny country like Bulgaria (an empire at the time), was unbearable and unacceptable for the Kremlin. Russia had to be the standard-bearer of the Slavic civilization, and it wasn’t meant to share that pedestal with anybody else. So, the historical truth was quickly substituted with a pseudo-scientific theory about Cyril and Methodius’ imaginary “mission” to the Crimean Khazars in 860. A scribe at the time wrote that Cyril was shown a Bible that was written in a local runic alphabet. That detail is at the core of the Soviet myth that the Slavic alphabet was created in Russia (or under Russian influence). What’s more likely than that story is that Cyril was familiar with the Varangian (Viking) runes that were popular among the northern merchants who were quite influential in Byzantium at the time, and who, among other things, were the trigger factor for the creation of Russia. In fact, the Russian tribes intentionally invited a clan of Swedish Vikings (later dubbed the Rurikids) to come show them how to build a state of their own. Another historical fact that was (and still is largely) a taboo topic in Russia, by the way.
Even a cursory glance at the Grand Soviet Encyclopaedia shows that Cyril and Methodius’ mission and significance is deliberately disparaged, and for political reasons. Instead of clearly stating their South Slavic identity and the explicit Bulgarian patronage of their disciples’ work, they’re being associated with some sort of vague “Slavic influence”.
Plenty of Bulgarian history teachers now recall that in the Soviet era, they would frequently hit all sorts of road-blocks and wade into all sorts of trouble if they ever dared to cite actual historical facts about the key role of the First Bulgarian Empire for the development and popularization of Orthodox Christianity throughout East and Central Europe, including Russia. The fact that Bulgaria was the first enlightenment factor in this half of the continent, long before Russia, was yet another taboo topic. Which hadn’t been the case before the Bolsheviks – in fact, many Russian writers and academics have acknowledged that “our southern cousins taught us to read and write, and to pray to God”. Citing these was also forbidden in Soviet schools, and severely frowned upon in Bulgarian schools, pre-90s. A pre-Bolshevik professor named Yuriy Venelin (whose words I’ve just quoted) had his grave and memorial plate blown up by the Soviet Moscow authorities in the 30s in result of that stance.
Another victim of this hectic historical revisionism was St. Cyprian of Bulgaria. He became a Bishop of Moscow and All Russia in the late 14th century. He was born in Tarnovo, Bulgaria, and was among the most influential figures in Russian history, with huge importance for the Russian Orthodox Church. As is the case with Saints Cyril and Methodius, Constantinople was the facilitator of the Russo-Bulgar relations at the time. Cyprian, who was a friend and ally to our own legendary patriarch Euthymius of Tarnovo, was sent on a mission to Russia to help spread Orthodox Christianity in a country that was being torn by civil war and threatened with Asian invasions. The tremendous talent of the Bulgarian cleric managed to bring the warring lords to the table, achieve internal peace, and mobilize the Church and hence the populace to unite against the Tatar threat. Cyprian gained huge support among the people, and embarked on a unifying and enlightening mission until his death in the early 15th century. He was head of the enormous Muscovite and All-Russian Patriarchy.
Centuries after he was canonized and proclaimed a Saint though, his origin and role for unifying Russia and the Church began to be undermined and questioned. At times he was declared a Greek, and his contribution as leader and reformist of the Russian faith started to get ascribed to some imaginary Russian hermit. After long negotiations between the Bulgarian and Russian Patriarchies, about 16 years ago Cyprian’s bones were re-buried at the Uspenski Cathedral within the Kremlin complex. The visitors can now see his tomb, with an inscription from the Russian Orthodox Church, acknowledging his true origin and his significance for the formation of the Russian nation. He had to wait nearly a century to re-gain his status. And that says a lot.
There’s yet another episode in the history of the bilateral relations that is much darker than this. The 1917 Bolshevik revolution gave way to illusions among the heirs of the Volga Bulgars (living between the Volga and Kama rivers) that they’d be granted a revival of their national identity. They did not want to be falsely given the identity of the Tatar invaders who had conquered Volga Bulgaria centuries before, so they were naive enough to believe the new Soviet regime would help them. But the Bolsheviks first used them for their civil war, and then removed the threat from a possible Bulgar revival by either massacring, deporting, or generally repressing any and all activists who were hoping for a Bulgar autonomy. Instead, the Tatar Autonomous Socialist Republic was created around the city of Kazan. And the dream of Khan Kotrag’s heirs was drowned into the Volga and Kama rivers.
A USSR census conducted at the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika gave a chance to the long-oppressed people to raise their head once more. However, as soon as our newly born democracy attempted to voice its support for our cousins around the Volga, Moscow sent us an angry note, ordering us to refrain from “meddling in the internal affairs of the Russian Federation” (while simultaneously not shying away from meddling into our own domestic affairs, regarding our energy industry, etc). Naturally, being true to its old instinct of laying lower than the grass until all storms have passed, BG duly obliged and shut up. A few years later, a petition was signed by 150 thousand Volga Bulgars who demanded that a Bulgar nation be recognized within the Russian Federation was sent to the Russian embassy (other nations have been recognized for far less, btw). But it so happened that the Second Chechen War broke out at that moment, so our “leaders” figured the moment to press such claims that could be interpreted as “separatists”, was inappropriate. So the cause of the heirs of the Bulgars was again drowned somewhere into the bog of political expedience and coyness.
Of course, Soviet “national engineering” has been well-known far and wide for years. Formerly influential regional powers like my country have been of particular interest in various partitioning efforts, for the sake of fulfilling various geopolitical purposes. The peak of this was reached during our own pro-Soviet regime (1944-1989), where our obedient Soviet marionette governments were actively used to “create” such mongrels like a Macedonian, Moesian, Thracian and Dobrudja nations. Moscow built a neat and nice theory regarding the establishment of a new “Gagauz” nation in the Ukrainian and Moldovan autonomous republics, especially in the regions tightly packed with ethnic Bulgarians. The ripples of all this nation-building can be felt even today. Brothers are pitched against brothers, arguing who’s more authentic than the other. The purpose of all this was clear: rob nations of their identity, dilute their historic legacy. Divide and rule, you know.
We’ve often been told that we owe our freedom to the benevolent Russians, because they liberated us from the Ottomans. In fact, ever since the Russo-Turkish wars of the 19th century, we, along with a number of our Balkan neighbors, have consistently been used as both a source of manpower for the Russian nation-engineering and re-population purposes (the Southern Steppes of Crimea and Caucasus had to be Russianized and absorbed into the expanding empire, after all), and as a host territory to dump the respective indigenous Crimean and Caucasian peoples into, in exchange (particularly in the eastern portion of Bulgaria). Given the Russian efforts from the near past to erase our legacy and diminish our role for the formation of the Slavic civilization, I could say that if anyone still believes that Russia’s intentions towards my country have ever been benevolent (and I’m speaking of Russia the state and the government, as opposed to the Russians-the-people), then they’re as naive as a 3rd-grader. Because if anyone has been paying attention in history classes, they’d have noticed by the 3rd grade that something’s terribly wrong with the whole “Russia is our friend” narrative.
Of course, that’s not just directed at us. We’re no special snowflake. In fact, Russia likes to do that all the time, with anybody. Kremlin’s historical revisionist prowess has been well-known. As any other craft, it’s been passed from master to apprentice. Therefore, it’s hardly a surprise that the various artificial nations that have sprung from this nation-building frenzy would start inventing histories of their own at some point. Just look at the way the “antique” history of the Former Yugoslav Republic of…. Blabla-bla, was invented, perfumed, put in a shiny package, and sold to the public. After all, the complexes and deficiencies of a (quasi-)nation that has not existed until recently and is therefore rather confused about its own identity, always tend to reflect on the way its (hi)story starts to look under closer scrutiny. And some national stories do reek of cartoonish ridiculousness, indeed.
WARSHINGTON, The Land of the Brave and the Free. The US government has surprisingly announced that they’re planning drastic measures against Bulgaria because of suspicions that the tiny Balkan country is developing nuclear weapons with the help of Russia and North Korea.
Pictured: An American bald eagle looks sternly at the rogue Bulgarians
The US Department of State has denied the rumor that the decision has something to do with last week’s discovery of oil deposits in the Bulgarian Black Sea shelf, adding that such allegations are part of the hybrid war that everyone has gotten so worked up about.
“I’d also like to point out that there’s no democracy in Bulgaria, everything is a smoke-screen, and the Supreme Court of that country is designed after the Soviet model”, Secretary of State Jim Kerry said. “Oh, and they still keep a monument to the Red Army in the center of Sofia. What other proof do you need?”
The Bulgarian authorities were this close to giving an actual response to the US decision, but then they had second thoughts and figured a more adequate course of action would be to wait for people’s reactions around the social networks. The people should be first and foremost after all, right?
In turn, Russia has announced they’re prepared to defend their interests, and is planning to shortly dispatch a bunch of overly polite drinking guys and topless chicks to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, to investigate the situation with the oil (and those beaches).
Mityo “The Gun”, the most colorful presidential candidate in BG, has proposed a modest yet cheap solution to this situation: invite both sides of this geopolitical conflict to his ranch deep in the Balkan Mountain, and buy the sympathies of the Great Powers by buying Coke for the Russians and vodka for the Americans. Perhaps, if they taste each other’s fave product at a neutral territory, they’d lighten up a bit and start thinking about more important things – like the Cubs’ win in the “World” Series, and Philipp Kirkorov’s new mistress.
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?