Educating students on the chains of the past

The text first appeared on the blog of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

Educating students on the chains of the past

June 27, 2017

When he enters the classroom his chain rattles in his right hand. In 2014, when the world marked 25 years of the collapse of the Berlin wall, Georgi Saraivanov was 83. Gogo, as his friends called him, had sharp blue eyes and a notorious sense of humor. He was always dressed in a suit and tie. In 1954, at the age of 23, he had received the death penalty for alleged sabotage against Bulgaria’s communist regime. His real crime, however, was coming from a family of entrepreneurs. Gogo’s sentence was subsequently reduced from a death penalty to 20 years in jail. After serving nine years and three months, he was released. He attempted to flee the country unsuccessfully four times only to succeed on the fifth. The would-be entrepreneur settled in West Germany, where he became a taxi driver. He always used to say that not knowing your history is like driving a car without mirrors. Gogo returned to Bulgaria in 1996. Upon his return, he went to the jail one more time to demand they give him back his chain.

In 2014, Georgi became a participant in a nation-wide campaign marking 25 years of freedom in Bulgaria. He visited a number of Bulgarian schools and told students his story. He spoke a lot about his time in prison. He told the story of one of his guards hurling offensive names at him and threatening to go through with the execution. Afterwards, the guard mockingly asked him whether he had been scared. Most students had never heard a story like that and absolutely none of them had ever seen a prison chain. The story shook them, but it also showed them that the communist regime was real and had a real impact on the life of millions of people. It is not ancient history.

Georgi Saraivanov was the oldest of more than 30 speakers who travelled the country to deliver lectures on communism. The youngest—Tiberij Baramov, a history student—was only 23. Our three-month campaign, which included over 120 events throughout the whole country, was the first systematic attempt to approach the history of communism and civic education in schools in Bulgaria since the fall of the communist regime.

The campaign for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall began with a screening of The Lives of Others held in the empty area where the mausoleum of the former communist dictator Georgi Dimitov once stood, and continued with over a hundred events, including movie screenings, public discussions, conferences, exhibitions and even a rock concert. However, the most important part of all was arguably the series of lectures on communism in Bulgarian schools.

A national representative study from 2014 shows that 94 percent of Bulgarian millennials know next to nothing about communism and life before 1989. The little information they have is usually distorted through the lens of personal memory or even nostalgia. It is, therefore, of paramount importance to teach young people about the differences between democracy and totalitarian regimes so that we never repeat the mistakes of the past.

The topic of the totalitarian past is still a sensitive one in Bulgarian society. To avoid controversy, especially with parents, many teachers skip over the communist period when teaching Bulgarian history. This attitude is helped by the fact that communism is always put at the end of a densely packed curriculum. Students are also disincentivized from learning about the communist past because university entrance exams usually only ask about events before WWII. As a result, young people mostly learn about communism through the personal—and not necessarily objective—stories they hear from their parents and grandparents rather than through history books or even movies.

Instead of running away from the topic, Bulgarian society needs to tackle it head-on and reach a consensus on the historical narrative about this period. This is hindered by the fact that there are many living witnesses of the period and their memories are not necessarily coherent or without contradiction. At the same time, the sensitivity of the topic means that political will is necessary to move us forward.

Steps have already been taken in this direction. In 2014, Bulgaria officially marked an anniversary related to the fall of communism for the first time, largely because of the support of the then President Rosen Plevneliev. The President was a political pioneer in remembrance. He commemorated the victims of the communist regime in Belene, the site of one of the most sinister concentration camps, and was supportive of the idea of building a museum on remembrance. Before that, in 2011, Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov introduced a policy of removing all ambassadors who had been part of the State Security services during communism.

Gogo was an ordinary hero. His last school lecture was scheduled two days after the day he passed away. We at Sofia Platform wanted to create an oral history archive of him telling his story, but his death prevented us from doing so. Our work with Gogo and other witnesses of communism is an important way to educate young people in Bulgaria and forge the courage to move forward in a country where history divides more than it unites us.

By Louisa Slavkova