25 THINGS WE LOST FOR 25 YEARS
By Julian Popov
After the fall of Todor Zhivkov’s regime, some of my friends - Solomon Passy, Vladislav Todorov, and two or three others - and I decided to create a Committee for the Inventory of Communism. The idea was that once the communist system had gone, all of its art should be carefully described, numbered and stored in a safe and isolated place. This would have enabled the people to be healthily rid of communism. Without this process, we feared that the works of communism would begin to break down and small particles would be dispersed, thereby infecting more people, and they would never be able to rid themselves Communism.
Our program would not only include monuments, but also various other works and institutions such as the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and the Warsaw Pact. The inventory began solemnly with the monument of Lenin in downtown Sofia. In front of a camera crew from Panorama, one of the most popular television programs at the time, I glued a sticker to the monument with the words: Inventory number 1. Newspapers, television and radio news programs were interested in what we were doing. But people thought it was all a big joke, the full inventory never took place, and as for the infection, I do not know. But here are 25 things (in no particular order) which could be in the front pages of the Inventory catalogue, and the memory of which, at least on the surface, we lost in the last quarter century.
1. Sofia Residence. Anyone who is under 25 or 30 years old does not know what Sofia Residence was. The reason why this is an unknown phenomenon is because it led to many sad and comic marriages. Parents today avoid talking about it in front of their children.
2. Exit visas. Bulgarians may now travel anywhere, even though a decade ago it was difficult for them to enter many countries. However, a quarter of a century ago, they needed permission from their own government to even leave Bulgaria, with the exception of a few hundred thousand citizens who were persistently asked to go away.
3. Running away abroad. If a Bulgarian left the country and did not return at the expected time, he or she automatically became a fugitive or a citizen without any right to return (there is a slight difference between the two). Even their relatives could not accompany them or meet them anywhere. They were officially deemed to have escaped abroad.
4. Full turnout without mandatory voting. Voting was never mandatory, but around 98% of the population expressed their right to vote. Polling stations competed with one other over which one would be the first to have a full turnout. Everyone was happy, music was played and people danced. Elections were not the depressing event that they are today.
5. Vacation coupons. For 22 or 34 leva people could receive a coupon for a ‘Vacation Home’. There they could spend two weeks together with their colleagues and families, and relax in bikinis and shorts. They would also be surrounded by ‘responsible’ people, who monitored their behaviour and listened to their conversations. If a Bulgarian was not allowed to take a business trip outside the county they would never be told why, but one of the reasons could be a slight joke made about the regime or a skeptical comment questioning the progress of socialism uttered while on vacation. The exact cause would remain a mystery.
6. News of the harvest. Who knows why, but the headline news was constantly informing us about the harvest, planting and plowing. Everything was going well. There were no drought or flooding, any wheat or pig diseases.
7. American films at Easter. Whoever tells you that he was suppressed because the state did not allow him to go to church is talking nonsense. People did go to church but various methods were used to turn them against religion. One of the most intriguing of these was the broadcast of an American film at midnight on Easter Sunday, to distract people from attending mass. Every other day however the television broadcast would end at 22:30 with a Russian film or news (about the harvest).
8. Prefabricated apartments. Or rather the construction of flatpack apartment blocks. For many years, most buildings were ‘constructed’ in factories for prefabricated structures then assembled on site, so that first workers, then everyone else, could be happily housed. Today, 700,000 apartments built this way are still standing and no-one really know what to do with them.
9. Gift aggregate. This was a very interesting approach for manipulating the simple economic principle of supply and demand. For example, if you wanted to buy or export aged plum wine, it would be accompanied a book by Krum Kyulyavkov and a vial of rose oil, all presented in one beautiful package labeled ‘gift aggregate’.
10. House manager. Every apartment building had a president, who was elected, and a house manager, which was a constant position. This house manager reported on the residents, so if your file contained positive comments about how you went about your daily life, it probably meant that you had good relations with your house manager.
11. AFAFC. An Active Fighter Against Fascism and Capitalism (the two went together) was a particularly privileged character enjoying special perks such as vacation homes and other public luxuries. The most valuable of these was the official preferential marks given to the children of AFAFCs when they applied to university or language school - a fixed rate that was added to their GPA and was visibly recorded on the noticeboard alongside their test scores (something akin to corrupt police officers recording the amount of money they have secretly received). The question of ‘who’ in this sense had a very clear answer, which perhaps was why people did not protest.
12. Games of marbles. This was the way most boys spent at least half of their time, until they discovered girls who, hitherto, had been playing dodge ball.
13. Groups of Russians. If Bulgarians could not travel abroad, then Russians could not travel at all. They would come to Bulgaria only in groups, usually formed in distant Asian collective farms. In other words ‘Russian’ was a generalized term for any Soviet citizen. Russian groups were a constant target of sarcastic comments, and even pity. There is an urban legend (so I am not sure if it is true) of a Bulgarian tour guide showing around a group of 120 Russian tourists who had never seen a teabag before. On being introduced to them for the first time by the guide, they were curious to know how they worked. Unable to resist the temptation, the guide told them to place the bags in their mouths, with string and label hanging out, and slowly sip hot water. The 120 Russians dutifully complied. The guide lost his job, but said that it was worth it for the view.
14. Corecom. This was a specialty store reminiscent of the duty-free stores at the airport. You could buy whisky, cigarettes and cheap West German chocolate, all, of course, with dollars. How to get hold of dollars, on the other hand, was another story.
15. Yugoslavian television. Or Serbian Television. Yugoslavia was a Western country. Everything was so free there, or so it seemed from Bulgaria as Serbian music flowed from the television set. Living in Kyustendil or somewhere in the Tran region had its privileges. People were divided between those who had Serbian antenna (so called "Do you have antenna for Serbian channels?"), and those who did not.
16. Short-wave radio. There were radio stations which were banned because either they were playing the Beatles or they were talking about democracy. Short waves still exist, but no one listens to them anymore.
17. Radio Free Europe (and, of course, Voice Of America and the BBC in Bulgarian). These were the short-wave stations. The most bizarre was Radio Luxembourg, or "Laksemberg" which only broadcast pop music and where words crackled and nothing was particularly comprehensible. People were divided between those who had an antenna for the Serbian channel and those who listened to Radio “Laksemberg”. Today the children of those who watched Serbian television vote GERB and the children of those who listened to Radio Luxembourg vote Reformist Bloc.
18. Labor troops. If there was a phenomenon that came closest to the concept of ‘Turkish slavery’ it was the ‘labor’ or ‘building’ military units. It was ‘slavery’ because people would work there for two years without payment; and ‘Turkish’, because it was where the state would send all the Turks. Thus the state killed two birds with one stone: on the one hand, the Turks, our dangerous enemies from Under the Yoke, needed to be dealt with; on the other, hard-labor projects required conscripts. (Those interested in the roots of the ‘Movement for Rights and Freedoms’ party should investigate this phenomenon more deeply.)
19. Coffee shops. Interesting institutions that sold cakes, lemonade and a fermented wheat drink known as boza. But not coffee.
20. Pubs. Another specific institution. People would drink there, standing at the bar. Such places had no food.
21. Council of State. Also a very important institution, but no-one knew precisely what it was for. Much like most institutions of this kind.
22. Udarnik. This was a special kind of labor hero who would weave on many looms simultaneously or pour more concrete than any other worker. They received special recognition and frequently appeared on television, in parades and at schools, where they would talk about labor heroism.
23. The Committee on Prices. It closed in 1988, and a year later the whole regime collapsed.
24. Program Knowledge. Every day the radio broadcast Soviet ‘Knowledge Programs’. We were treated to various lectures on physics, chemistry, geography and suchlike. There were few lectures on the arts, in other words, the program was not particularly ideological. Instead, tens of thousands listened and learned about carbon dioxide, Euglenoidea and the Mariana Trench.
25. Cinema preview. Before any film was shown viewers would enjoy a 15-minute information program, usually reassuring them that everything with the harvest was going well, workers were weaving on ever increasing numbers of looms, and concrete production was at an all-time high. After a short pause the movie would start. Tickets were 20, 25, 30 or 35 cents – for as Lenin used to say: "For us, cinema is the most important art." It is debatable if ever there was a sentence, thanks to which so many resources were directed to one particular genre.
Many people miss these things now. It is very difficult to judge exactly who misses what, but the degree to which they miss the peculiarities of communism inform the way they vote today.
Julian Popov is European Climate Foundation Fellow and has been an adviser to the ECF since 2008. Julian is a former Minister of Environment of Bulgaria, the founding CEO and current Board Member of the New Bulgarian University, the former Chairman and current Board Member of the Bulgarian School of Politics and the co-founder of the Tunisian School of Politics. In 2014, he was appointed as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Buildings Performance Institute Europe. He is Member of the Advisory Board of GridTech, Member of the Advisory Board of BETTER Project, Founding Member of the Governing Board of Sofia Platform, Member of the Steering Committee of Grantmakers East Forum and Honorary Treasurer and Director of the UK charity Friends of Bulgaria.
 In communist Bulgaria, it was not possible to move to a new city without the Party’s permission unless you married a citizen from that city. Sofia Residence was a special permit that allowed non-Sofians to settle there.