By Boyko Penchev

A quarter century after the events of late autumn 1989, it is harder than ever for Bulgarian society to reach a common understanding of what has happened to us over these years. We call them “the Transition,” but above all we remember them as a cascade of crises. There is no other similar case in our most recent history. Bulgaria has faced many challenges, but it has never lived with the perception that it has existed in a historical hole for 25 years. The crisis has devoured our horizon in its entirety. Bulgarians, be them ‘red’ or ‘blue’, protesters or counter-protesters, are indeed united. They are united in the feeling of failure. We only fight about the reasons and who the guilty ones are.

Instead of analyzing for yet another time the dynamics of Transition, let us look closer at something seemingly more neutral.

What happened to our language during these 25 years?

Not with language in general, but with the words through which we describe ourselves as a society with a common past and future. In what way have the social changes settled in our language? The first thing, which can be noticed immediately, is that all the words which express this ‘civilizational choice’, which we allegedly made after 1989, turn out to have already been loaded with negative connotations. They have become pejorative, as linguists like to say. Let us start with ‘democracy’ – the password from the beginning of the changes. Obviously, the word itself is so powerful and inspiring that the dissidents from the Club in Support of Glasnost and Restructuring changed the name of their organisation to the ‘Club for Glasnost and Democracy’ almost immediately after November 10th. A little later, the newly formed opposition named their newspaper ‘Democracy’. It is no accident that later attempts to revive the newspaper using the same name turned out to be, generally speaking, unsuccessful. From the beginning of the 1990s we witnessed a growing tendency for the word ‘democracy’ to be used ironically, knowingly raising a few eyebrows. The Starshel[1] newspaper used to publish caricatures with the slogan “Without words,” meaning that the situation was self-explanatory. Every time we witness a scandal today, instead of applying the label ‘without words’, we call it ‘democracy’.

This degradation has been most obvious in the emergence of variations on ‘democracy’ with openly derogative content, such as ‘demoshitting’, ‘demosteal’ and ‘democroak’.[2]  Likewise, most of the other words we used to define the steps towards dismantling the totalitarian system were discarded. Restitution gave birth to ‘restitute’[3]; ‘reform’ was pronounced in a heavy provincial accent to become ‘rIform’, underlining that it is not what it should have been. The heralds of reformist policies were not spared either – equating them negatively with homosexuals and pedophiles coining the terms ‘SDS gay’,[4] and later ‘libero-gay’ and ‘tolero-gay’ (usually combined with ‘Sorosoid’[5]).

Language outrage over democracy and market economics also happened on the geopolitical level. The terms ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’, which were almost extinct during the late socialist period, were revived at the beginning of the 21st Century. What is more they were not used ironically, but just as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin had wanted them to be used. We saw the introduction of newly coined words of contempt, such as ‘Euro cabbages’ and ‘Euro gay’. And for suspected local accomplices of imperialist robbers, a pseudo-Botev lexical layer was reactivated where one could discern such literary gems as ‘lickspittles’, ‘national apostates’, and ‘matritraitors’.

One could object that this is the language of a politically-biased periphery, whose place is in the pub and its virtual cousin is the internet forum. Jokes about Brussels flora and fauna are far from being Bulgarian specialties. The problem though is whether there is a public sphere here in Bulgaria which would be able to sustain this new Bulgarian nihilism in the zone of the emotional discourse and public behaviour. Put simply, can swear-words remain swear-words and politics remains politics?

Obviously not, if one judges by the success of Slavi Trifonov’s talk show which for so many years has mixed entertainment and political tirades. There are plenty of satiric broadcasts in the world which make fun of politicians, but nowhere else, as far as I know, do scriptwriters stand as a moral and intellectual tribunal passing judgment on the burning political issues of the day to the extent that Trifonov’s scriptwriters often do.

Associating negative language with ‘democracy’ and everything related to it is a symptom of a serious deficit in Bulgarian society. The biggest problem is that language in our public space is schizophrenically divided into a high Eurocentric norm, paradoxically represented most clearly by Lyutvi Mestan, and a low idiom, sunken in the body-physiological, and according to which everything is reduced to the domination of possession and to be understood economically and sexually. Let us remember how for two months, the media and politicians described the potential ruling coalition with the language of weddings. Democracy is a system in which all that happens is that one person takes another one for a ride. In this sphere, high and low appearances fuse.

Of course, some may be outraged that, taking into consideration the country’s missing billions, we are preoccupied with language and the way we speak. Still, language is a mirror, and what the mirror tells us is that the alleged consensus in Bulgaria regarding democracy, market economics and European orientation is actually false, hollow and made of cardboard. On the one hand it is a declarative, dolled up euro-jargon and on the other, macho mockery and folk-style humour. Why do we wonder that politicians cannot lead meaningful dialogue between themselves? Have we seen such dialogue in the public space?

Of course, our language is not to blame. People are justifiably right to be unhappy with what they went through during the Transition years. It is natural that social convulsions, during which there were both winners and losers, should have an impact on the linguistic image of ‘democracy’. The strange element is the alternative that is gradually gaining popularity. For many the crisis could be fought not by addressing it head on, but by winding the clock back. Nostalgia for Zhivkov’s socialism has various dimensions, one of which is linguistic. Is it an accident that recycled linguistic fossils are to be found spinning around the public space?  Socialism is in fashion. Martin Karbovski has called his broadcast ‘Fatherland Front’[6], and the new season of Celebrity Big Brother is entitled Exemplary House[7]. We could just say that this is a media trick, but on what kind of attitudes does this trick rely? Is it not the astonishingly significant majority of people, who agree with the pathetic argument of the anonymous internet forum-writer, who wrote: “What has the eu dun for me, which todor zhivkov wouldn’t of done anyway?”

It is clear from the spelling of this post, but where does the ‘grammar’, of such a mentality come from? From some kind of natural unpreparedness for democracy on the part of the Bulgarian man!? This is doubtful. Most likely it comes from an unfortunate combination of two factors. The first is a conscious brainwashing carried out by the architects and builders of Transition. Bulgarian society had to be persuaded that incomprehensible forces, but not the Bulgarian Communist Party and its formal and informal derivatives, had brought about our difficult situation. The culprit is called by different names, but all of them signify one and the same thing: imperialists, the ‘Rand Plan’, neo-colonialists and their Bulgarian servants – these are the villains who destroyed Zhivkov’s prosperous state and just socialist society. If we can brag about something unique from the other countries from the former Soviet bloc, it is that in Bulgaria the communists ruled the country for such a long time after the fall of the Berlin Wall that they have had to convince us that it has been someone else governing us since 1989. By the way, the more stubbornly the renamed Communist Party failed in government the more popular the idea became that we had fallen victim to international imperialism, corporations, and Soros etc. During the 1990s such fables could only be read in the Bulgarian Writer newspaper, published by the Union of Bulgarian Writers and presided over by Nikolay Haytov. Later, they were taken up by Volen Siderov and now we can hear them everywhere.

The other problem is the mistaken vision for statehood and order, which the majority of Bulgarians share. Bulgarian society does not remember any other ‘order’ but that of the totalitarian state. It was an order imposed by a multitudinous and privileged police-bureaucratic apparatus. The privileges for members of the apparatus were the main reason for discontent during Zhivkov’s time. However, now the privileges have been forgotten and what is left is nostalgia for the security – a security ensured by a state of policemen and bureaucrats. Obviously, it is still difficult for us to imagine the possibility of a state which is not based on the police-bureaucratic model of the Eastern dictatorships. The idea that there could be a different type of order, based on personal responsibility and civil participation, is still a little alien to us. But if we are not ready to invest our efforts in the construction of this type of modern state, then we deserve the state in which we currently live.


Boyko Penchev has combined his research and teaching activities at the Department of Bulgarian Literature, Sofia University ‘St Kliment Ohridski’ and New Bulgarian University with administrative work and journalism. He has been Director of the BA Programme in Literary Studies and Anthropology, New Bulgarian University (1997 – 1998), Member of the Expert Council of the Literature Programme at the Soros Centre for Arts, Sofia (1999); and Director of the MA Programme ‘Literary Studies’ at the Faculty of Slavic Studies, University of Sofia (2001 – present). Since 1993, he has regularly contributed to major Bulgarian culture and daily newspapers (Literaturen Vestnik, Dnevnik).


[1] Starshel (‘Hornet’ in English) is a Bulgarian satirical newspaper.

[2] All words are puns combining the word ‘democracy’ with other Bulgarian words.

[3] Restitution was the process of restoring property that had been seized by the communists after 1944 to their original owners or their heirs. Some people resented the sudden wealth these owners received, and so referred to them as ‘restitutes’, a play on the word ‘prostitute’.

[4] SDS is an abbreviation of UDF (Union of Democratic Forces, which was one of the first opposition parties in Bulgaria after the Fall of the Berlin Wall)

[5] ‘Sorosoid’ is a derogative term for Bulgarian protestors, who were accused by left-wing politicians of being sponsored by Hungarian-born American business magnate George Soros.

[6] Before 1944, this was a coalition of extreme leftwing parties. After 1944 it continued to exist as an umbrella group, dominated by the Communist Party.

[7] Homes were expected to meet certain standards of cleanliness and sometimes even devotion to communism (statues of Lenin in the backyard were encouraged), so a commission awarded ‘Exemplary House’ status to well kept and well politicized homes.