MY 1989

By Vladimir Levchev

Even the best economists fail to foresee major world crises. Even the best seismologists are powerless to predict catastrophic earthquakes. The Marxist theory of the predictability and ‘inevitability’ of historical processes has proved to be wrong. Communist ideologists were confident that a ‘new and fair society would defeat capitalism, but the actual society that came to be represented little more than the folk wisdom: ‘Man proposes, God possesses.’

The ‘new and fair society’ of brotherhood and equality was not what it was claimed to be, but a brutal Communist Party dictatorship. And of course, it did not defeat capitalism. At the end of the Cold War it became clear that Marxist theory had seriously miscalculated.

Even Zbigniew Brzezinski had not anticipated the sudden collapse of the totalitarian communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

There are unexpected revolutionary waves, sudden tsunamis that flood the world, or a part of it, and sharply change the map as well as the cultural and political climate of a region. Though it became clear long ago that the Soviet Bloc had lost the Cold War on the economic front, no one expected its sudden collapse.

The sudden revolutionary wave in fall 1989.

Conspiracy theorists nostalgic for communism saw, and still see, the long arm of Washington behind everything. According to them, evil Uncle Sam and Uncle Reagan organized the collapse of communism with the cooperation of their secret services. But if the American secret services were able to organize nationwide protests and revolutions that overthrew regimes, the Cold War would have ended in the early 1950s. And if the KGB was able to organize revolutions or nationwide protests, communism would have succeeded in London, Paris and Washington.

Undoubtedly all interested intelligence services try to interfere in revolutionary situations and take advantage of them. But no agent can convince millions of people to forget their fear of a dictatorial regime and go out on the streets to protest - not just in a single country, but throughout half a continent.

The earthquakes that caused the tsunami that hit Eastern Europe in the autumn of 1989 had happened long before. Communist regimes from East Berlin to Sofia were swept away, but no-one could predict what exactly would replace them. Todor Zhivkov lost power on November 10, only one day after the Berlin Wall fell. That same autumn there was a ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Prague, and a very ‘un-velvet’ civil war in Bucharest.

In the second half of the 1980s, despite retaining the illiberal and centralized state economy of the USSR (this was an error), Gorbachev had begun to democratize Russia. Censorship was weakened, political persecution declined and there was a movement to create a new ‘communism with a human face’, but it was the same communism that had tried to impose Leonid Brezhnev 20 years previously at the time of the Prague Spring.

The Soviet model of democracy without economic reform led to the creation of a powerful KGB oligarchy. Communists became the new capitalists. Unfortunately, this also happened to some extent in Bulgaria after November 10, 1989.

In the mid-1980s, everyone in Bulgaria started reading ‘Ogonyok’ magazine and watching Russian Television (the ‘Second Channel’, which until then had been synonymous with boredom.) This was a paradox because while the USSR was being democratized under Gorbachev, Bulgaria was still facing economic decline, political backwardness and a state of general limbo. At the same time, Zhivkov’s program of forcibly renaming all Turks living in Bulgaria (a policy known as the ‘Revival Process’) was well under way. There were also severe electricity shortages and the population experienced general impoverishment. The heightened misery and stagnation on the streets and in people's souls was depressing.

Rising discontent.

Even taxi drivers began openly to curse Zhivkov to their passengerswhich in an earlier period would have been unthinkable. Gorbachev lifted the suppression of Radio Free Europe, Deutsche Welle and Voice of America so it became easy for us to listen to them - not in public places of course, but quietly at home. We listened in order to hear ourselves, because the truth of what was happening in our country was still suppressed by our government-controlled media.

There was no internet, Skype, or Facebook. The Iron Curtain was physically palpable and could not be removed by any means, just like the concrete wall shooting at everyone in the centre of Berlin could not be removed. A very small percentage of Bulgarians were allowed to visit the West, even if only for short trips. Visiting the western world or even working or studying there was a mirage that people could only dream of while on their way home to their apartments with no electricity, or when standing in line at the bakery.

In the late 1980s, a few workers at the State Security office could afford to drive western cars in the streets of Sofia and had begun to secretly transfer government money to western banks.

The ‘Club in Support of Glasnost’ was created in the autumn of 1988 in Sofia. Similar organizations had already been established such as the Ruse Committee, which campaigned against chemical pollution in the Danube town of Ruse, and the Independent Society for the Protection of Human Rights. The ‘Ecoglasnost’ movement was also founded around that time. These were illegal organizations, and even protests against the pollution in Ruse were banned. Everything that was not organized by the Party or the state under its control was treated as hostile activity.

The notion that there was no resistance in Bulgaria before November 10, 1989 (or at least until the final months of the Zhivkov regime) and that Bulgaria was the most loyal satellite of the USSR, is still widespread. To this day, many believe that all dissidents in the late 1980s were proxies of the secret services, and that in the early years there were no grievances or protests against the regime. This falsification of history was begun deliberately in the early 1990s by those very same people from the secret services, many of whom were also frantically laundering money outside Bulgaria. It is true that many secret service agents had infiltrated dissident groups. But that does not mean that all these groups were front-men and that there were no dissidents.

However, today most young people cannot imagine the scale of repression in Bulgaria that began immediately after the Soviet occupation on September 9, 1944. Students are not taught in school how many hundreds of thousands of people were killed or abused in camps and prisons during the communist period. Until recently, nothing was said about the ‘Goryani’ guerrilla movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which was likely the largest armed resistance group against any communist regime in Eastern Europe.

Severe repression at home

In the late 1980s, even among those who were aware of the repression of the 1950s, there were many who believed that under Zhivkov there were no longer camps and political prisoners. We knew nothing about the camps in Lovech or Skravena or about the re-opening of Belene in the 1980s. No-one knew that people like Alexander Strezov or Lubomir Sobadzhiev had spent years in prison for expressing their discontent with the regime in public or to ‘close friends’. The public did not know that jazz musician Aleksandar Nikolov, better known as Alex Sweet, was sent to a camp and executed in 1961 because he had made jokes about communism. The history of the communist period is yet to be written, a history that 25 years later is not taught to students while many others are unaware of what really happened.

What was the year 1989 for me?

I will allow myself to start with a little personal history. When people who know little about me hear my last name, they ask "When did this man manage to reinvent himself." It is well-known that my father, the poet Lyubomir Levchev, and other Bulgarian writers and artists of the time were close to Ludmilla Zhivkova. In my early childhood my father was a young poet living with the parents of my mother, artist Dora Boneva, and in my great-grandfather’s house, a near-ruin with an outside toilet. My father’s political career started later and as a teenager I enjoyed the privileges of his family - a large apartment, a car and a holiday home. I also benefitted from the privilege of living in a home where art and culture were prized above all else. After graduating from the English language high school and from the Art Academy, I worked as an editor at People's Culture magazine and translated American poets such as Allen Ginsberg.

In the early 1980s I wrote the poem Comrades with rifles over their fireplaces.

Not only boars, but also humble pigs are killed for Christmas. In the same way I had my own file containing 300 pages of denunciations, but which, I recently discovered had been destroyed in 1990. I do not think of myself as a hero but I mention these facts as a defence. I know very well that under communism, tens of thousands of people were repressed, imprisoned or killed for expressing their opinions or simply because they came from ‘bourgeois’ families. It would be absurd to compare myself with them.

In January 1989, the poet Edvin Sugarev and I started our self-published magazines, Glas (‘Voice’) and Most (‘Bridge’). At the same time, a petition was circulating in support of another poet, Petar Manolov, who was being persecuted by the police. One day I visited Blaga Dimitrova and asked her to sign the petition. I knew that she and her husband, Jordan Vasilev, were members of the Club in Support of Glasnost, and I wanted to know how to become a member. At her house I met with Zhelyu Zhelev, the author of the banned book, Fascism, and later Bulgaria’s first freely elected Prime Minister. A little later both Edvin and I became members of Ecoglasnost.

Edvin and I initially thought to prepare two copies of the magazine, so that if one of us was arrested after the first issue, someone would remain to release the second. But we later decided to issue two completely separate magazines instead. The magazines were written on a typewriter. The cover of mine (Glas) was designed by Stefan Despodov, and the cover of Edvin’s magazine (Most) by Vlado Rumenov.

We did not have computers at the time, not to mention printers. The Internet would not appear for another six years. At this time in Sofia there were only two publicly available Xerox machines, both of which were under surveillance. It occurred to Edvin to use double-sided photographic paper to print the magazines, which we could buy at a regular photographic store. With one ordinary light bulb in a dark room, we printed the typed pages onto photographic paper, then exposed the images in the bathtub. It was a time-consuming process.

Among the authors published in Glas were Zhelev, Mihail Nedeltchev, Ani Ilkova, Georgi Rupchev, Miglena Nikolchina, Alexander Kiossev, Boris Rokanov, Rumen Leonidov, Ivan Krastev, Dejan Kjuranov, Mirjana Basheva, Victor Paskov, Elka Konstantinova, Elizabeth Moussakova, and Blaga Dimitrova, as well as Krasimir Damianov, Radoy Ralin, Asparukh Panov, Tzvetan Todorov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Czeslaw Milosz in translation.

We produced 50 copies of Glas and Most and distributed them in person to people who had democratic beliefs. Many of them then made additional copies and distributed them further, thereby continuously increasing circulation. However the magazines gained real popularity only after Rumyana Ouzounova discussed them on Radio Free Europe.

The main activity of various informal groups was to sign petitions and letters of protest which were then disclosed publicly through self-published magazines or Radio Free Europe. The Czechs and Poles had already been doing this for many years. Some of the most prominent Bulgarian intellectuals were involved in such organizations, including Radoy Ralin, Blaga Dimitrova, Boris Hristov, Zhelyu Zhelev (Chairman of the Club in Support of Glasnost ), Mihail Nedeltchev, Dimitar Korudzhiev, Marko Ganchev, and Georgi Velichkov. Edvin and myself were among the youngest activists.

In the third issue of Glas we published an open letter to Polish intellectuals, including Andrzej Wajda, and also to the Minister of Justice of the People's Republic of Bulgaria, in which we appealed for the release of all Bulgarian political prisoners. We specifically listed ten names, including some Bulgarian Turks.

I remember how Rumyana Ouzounova, on reading out another Bulgarian protest petition on Radio Free Europe, said: "The most amazing thing is that among the names of the signatories is the son of the President of the Union of Writers Lubomir Levchev." Only later did I have the chance to meet with her personally.

Edvin Sugarev and myself were fined for "the publication of unregistered periodicals." The fine was large considering the standard of living at the time. I lost my position at People's Culture and was taken to the Bulgarian censor and threatened with prison if I attempted to put together any further issues of the magazine. However, I managed to publish another issue during the International Ecological Forum (‘Ecoforum’) in Sofia in October 1989.

Many foreign journalists came to the forum. Ecoglasnost collected signatures in the garden in front of Crystal restaurant for a petition against two insane construction projects for the Rila Mountains and the Mesta River. (Ecoglasnost was against the construction of the nuclear power plant in Belene.) People would stop as they passed through the garden and sign the petition, and we managed to gather several thousand signatures. However, despite the presence of foreign journalists, state police came and arrested and beat some of the activists collecting signatures.

But on November 3 a large protest was organized in front of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.  Around seven thousand people gathered, and the petition was publicly and loudly submitted to the National Assembly. It was the largest crowd of protestors ever to gather in communist Sofia. But the article in the official regime newspaper, Rabotnichesko Delo, the following day reported the event only at the bottom of the penultimate page (the back page being too visible), and in tiny letters stated that "a group of citizens” had submitted a petition to the National Assembly, without specifying its contents. To mark the occasion, I wrote the poem, A Group of Citizens.

Nobody could have imagined then that just one week later, Todor Zhivkov would resign as Secretary of the Party, under pressure from a group of younger communists who supported Gorbachev. Zhivkov declared that he would wait “for the storm [of perestroika – transformation] to pass”. But the storm, instead of passing, swept him away. Perestroika did not save Gorbachev either - he who had believed, naively, that communism could transform and democratize itself.

The Soviet communist order was rotten and it simply collapsed, largely under the weight of its economic bankruptcy and not because of Reagan or Gorbachev. Nevertheless, it was the discontent of the people that ultimately overthrew the system.

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time,” proclaimed Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, in our country many people allowed themselves to be fooled more than once - all the time..

What has happened over the last 25 years is a further, and no less important, issue. To a large extent, the turmoil of these years and our status as the poorest country in the European Union is due to the fact that our inheritance from the communist era is still a sad reality. State Security tried to control our transition, but, thanks to God, with many difficulties, we have taken the Euro-Atlantic path.

Our life is not a song, but anyone who says that Bulgaria is now worse than it was during the communist period is either deliberately lying to young people, or lying to themselves.

I lived in America between 1994 and 2007. When I returned to Bulgaria, I was amazed to see the positive change in the country.

From a distance you can see the overall picture more clearly. If we manage to deal with our corruption issues and lack of a fair judicial system, we could be even better. But nothing should ever stop us and take us back to those dark times.

Vladimir Levchev is a Bulgarian poet, novelist, journalist, politician, activist at Ecoglasnost and professor at the American University in Blagoevgrad. Before 1989 he was editor of the publishing house "National Culture" and issued the illegally printed in that period magazine "Voice". He is the author of 14 books of poetry and four novels published in Bulgaria, as well as 5 books of poetry, published in the United States. From 1991 to 1994 he was deputy editor of the “Literary Gazette”. He was a lecturer of Literature and Writing at the University of Maryland, Montgomery College, George Washington University, American University (Washington) and the American University in Blagoevgrad.