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Escape From Ignorance and Chalga (Part 1)

February 4, 2013 ·

Over the last quarter century, the population of Bulgaria has dropped from 9 to 7.3 million people.

Over the last quarter century, the population of Bulgaria has dropped from 9 to 7.3 million people.

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Vihar KrastevThere is a joke in Bulgaria. What are the two ways out of the current crisis?

Terminal One and Terminal Two.

Those would be, of course, the terminals at the Sofia airport. An enormous number of people have left Bulgaria since 1989. Over the last quarter century or so, the population dropped from approximately 9 million to approximately 7.3 million people. Some of the population reduction is the result of a low birthrate. But the rest just left.

In 2011, Bulgaria earned the dubious distinction of topping the list of the world’s most rapidly shrinking countries.

This outmigration is often referred to as a “brain drain,” though many people who have remained in Bulgaria naturally bristle at this phrase.

Vihar Krastev is one of the many people who left Bulgaria in the 1990s. He’s also part of the more recent and more modest wave of returnees. Not long ago, he retired from his job in Canada and now lives in a lovely house in the hills above the port of Varna, on the Black Sea. The house is filled with the beautiful weavings of his partner, Yassena Yurekchieva.

I met Vihar in 1990 when he was working at an opposition newspaper called Vek 21 (21st Century) which was affiliated with the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), the coalition of opposition groups. At the time he was quite enthusiastic about the changes and was optimistic about how quickly Bulgaria could be turned into a westernized country. He was also about to take his first trip to the United States, to attend a journalism seminar at Tufts.

A couple decades later, he looks back at that period with no small amount of bemusement and honest self-criticism. “If I have to be more honest: some of us including myself — and I don’t know if I said this in my first interview — were in favor of shock therapy. I knew nothing about economy, about shock therapy! I must have been influenced by the Polish experience: what Walesa was talking about, the Polish leading experts. I must have been a parrot who heard something and said, ‘Oh, wow, why not?’ That’s an example of my own stupidity, ignorance, and incompetence. And that’s how the UDF lost their position with society, and that’s how people started disliking the opposition.”

Vihar Krastev has been through a lot. When I met him in 1990, I didn’t know about all the twists and turns his life had taken before he landed at Vek 21. And, of course, I could know nothing about all the subsequent snakes and ladders he would traverse after 1990. It is a powerful story, and I am grateful that he sat down for two hours in Varna to relate it to me. Below this, I’ve also reproduced our discussion from 1990. 

Interview (2012)

Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall fell and what you were thinking?

I remember when I heard the news about the Berlin Wall being stormed and when it fell and when Berlin was no longer divided. I was driving a city transit bus along the streets of Sofia. During its last 2-3 years, the socialist-communist regime banned me from being a teacher or a journalist, jobs which I used to have. I couldn’t do anything except be a menial worker, which I did not mind, because I could talk to people.

It wasn’t a shock because I’d read about the Prague Spring, and in Bulgaria we had the Ecoglasnost movement in my native city of Russe where people were disgruntled with local policy and the thoughtless, irresponsible industrialization of both Bulgaria and Romania. So I knew that things were in the air. And we knew that in Moscow the regime was crumbling. With Reaganomics, it was clear that communism wouldn’t survive. It was clear in my mind back in 1989 that it would not be long before our wall – we didn’t have a real wall, just an imaginary wall — would fall too. It happened a little sooner than I expected. I thought it would be within one year, and it happened within a few weeks.

Did you think about what the impact would be for Bulgaria?

I did. I have to admit that there were a couple of things that I could not envision — because I was not at that time, being 22 years younger, as familiar with human nature as I am now. I knew that liberalism and liberal values were somehow vague and ill-defined, and different people view liberalism differently. And liberalism comes with different adjectives: like “welfare” and “social.” In Canada, they even had a liberal-conservative party, which is an oxymoron, but it existed. So, I was expecting that there would be some confusion in Bulgaria about the values of liberalism, and free society, and less state involvement in our lives. But I had no idea that people would feel so excessively unrestricted as to disregard the law and to disregard decency, and that there would be so much loose behavior. Yes, we have natural rights and liberties and that’s great and the sooner we have it, the better. But we still have our responsibilities at the same time.

My first awakening was the night of August 11, 1990 when the former party headquarters was set on fire. I was there….

I think I saw you there. I was there as well that night. We met again in the crowd.

As a journalist, I was running all over the place that night. Then I realized that the police were not there and that nobody feared the police any more. What I didn’t realize when the Berlin Wall fell — during that beautiful autumn when the Berlin Wall fell and made the fall even more beautiful — was that once the fear disappears, society cuts loose. Crime becomes rampant, and there’s chaos. The inherent qualities of human nature — greed, selfishness — had been more or less subdued during the authoritarian regime. Not even half a year later, there was no fear of God, because religion was exterminated in this country and this part of the world. There was no fear of government, because it was a government-less country. There was no fear of the police and no fear of the law, because there was no concept of the rule of law. There was no mechanism to control the rampant horrible qualities of human nature.

I was much more optimistic about the change. I was part of the effort to educate people about the free market economy and competition and the John Stuart Mills idea that the government should not interfere apart from preventing people from harming other people (with the one possible exception of economic competition where I can hurt you because I am better in fair competition). I thought this would happen quicker with the shock economy. I thought it would be a couple of years. But I had not anticipated, in the very first couple of weeks and months in this exhilarating expectation of faster change, I had not envisaged the tax evasion, the incompetent bureaucracy, the incompetent leadership. The failures of the transition in my view are due to incompetent managerial skills on behalf of every government that has been in power since 1989. I expected things to happen faster and in a better way. I was very quickly disappointed. That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t want to stay here.

Was there a moment when you were in university or before when you thought, “I am out of touch with the dominant politics of this society. I consider myself either a liberal or a dissident.”

There was a long period of such moments, starting in 1968 when I was 14. I was accepted at my mother’s request or insistence — she kind of begged me – into an English-language school in Russe. I knew that she wanted a better future for me. I was her only son. She knew from coworkers about this English-language school. At 14, I loved playing in the streets. I was not an excellent student by any standard. I read a lot, and I had an inquisitive mind. But I didn’t like the way things were taught at school. I wasn’t liked by my teachers, particularly in the “propaganda” subjects in the socialist curriculum like literature, where they teach you about socialist realism and the proletariat and the proletariat poets, which is bullshit, pardon my French. It wasn’t poetry. It was just about praising the workers and the working class. It was a misinterpretation of Marx, because Marx’s philosophy is not communist propaganda if you read it properly and you don’t misinterpret the economics of Marx.

Even then I had my misgivings about the world I was living in. I did not want to go to this English language school. The foreign language schools, English or French or German, were set up in mid to late 1960s throughout Bulgaria. They were elitist schools for the offspring of the communist nomenklatura, the idea being that they should learn languages and then go on to become diplomats and/or KGB spies.

The instruction there was way better, and you had more open horizons. I learned a lot from my British and American teachers. It changed my whole perspective on society. When I went to that school, I felt that the world outside was no longer my world any more. But inside the school, most of my classmates were the offspring of very special people, while my mother was an ordinary office worker in the employ of the national railroads, a working person. I didn’t belong in their society. Ever since I was 14, I felt like a tree without roots. I didn’t belong anywhere. I knew differently — not more — about the world outside of school. But at the same time, that clique of people who were my mates at school was not really and entirely my sort of people.

Come to think of it, that was basically the beginning of the end. What happened in 1989 was basically sowed in the 1960s, because the nomenklatura educated the people who were to subvert their own system. Their own children, by learning from English or foreign teachers and reading in foreign languages and listening to The Beatles and to the British invasion, were the ones who said, “We don’t want to live in this world anymore. We don’t want to represent our nomenklatura parents abroad. We want to change this world.” Most of the active people in the velvet revolutions, or whatever you want to call them in our countries, were the graduates of foreign language schools.

Then, after I graduated from university, I went to teach. I didn’t like teaching. I taught between 1980 and 1982, that’s how much I liked it! You were not required to be a good teacher. You were required to be strict and to be a good brainwasher. The other teachers were accustomed to this or didn’t want to resist, while I did. I introduced certain novelties in the schools where I taught. For instance, I refused to allow the students to call me Comrade Krastev. “If I call you by your first names,” I told them, “you should call me Vihar or Vic. And if you insist on calling me comrade, then I’ll have to call you Miss or Mister.” They couldn’t believe it!

I did two lessons in class and then the third time, I would take them out of the classroom – to a movie in English with subtitles. Or I would take them to a café. I talked to the waiters beforehand and said, “I’ll bring a group of people who don’t know much English if any, but I want you to talk to them only in English.” That really motivated the kids. They were trying to learn. It was a practical application of their limited knowledge of the English language. None of them was going to become an English teacher. They were going to be accountants or chemists. The other teachers didn’t like that. It was revolutionary. “Why are you taking kids out of the school?” they asked. “Who allowed you to do that?”

I was more liberal with grades. I gave them all As one semester. Then, at the beginning of the next semester, there was a teacher’s conference, and other teachers said in a bitter tone, “How could you have given all the girls As?” They were implying that maybe I had more than a teacher-student relationship with them. I said, “Come on, they will never know English as much as a teacher will. I’m not teaching English linguistics. They will never teach English themselves. It’s about the willingness to learn, with or without mistakes. I’m not judging their errors. I’m judging their efforts. I believe all teachers should be like that.”

We had these ideological subjects, like the history of the communist party of Bulgaria. And the way that history was taught in school, it was very nationalistic: Bulgaria versus everyone else. “There was the Russo-Turkish war, and Bulgarians were liberated, then the Turks were animals and we won, and then we won over the Serbs, and then we own Macedonia and the Macedonians, and then we beat the Romanians….” Balkan people still live in the past. They still hate each other. Like most of southern Europe, we still live with what happened in the past. We should forget about that. We should even forget about 1989 and the sooner the better. We should pay attention to what’s in front of us. Going back is not only painful, it’s counterproductive in my view. Here, when people look back, they look back in anger, with more anger than normal.

I couldn’t survive in teaching, so I became a journalist wannabe. I was working for the national TV’s local affiliate in Russe. Whatever you did in those days, even writing the local weather forecast, you had to give it to the censor – the communist party secretary — to read it. And s/he’d say, “You can’t say it’s too bright for tomorrow. It can’t be too gloomy either. It has to be just right.” It was horrible.

In the early 1980s, Solidarity emerged and grew in Poland. I began writing about it. Solidarity was, I felt, the promise of the future.

You were writing about Solidarity for the TV station in Russe in the 1980s?!

Yes, I was trying to. And for certain newspapers as well. I was about 30 years old. That wasn’t accepted very well. You couldn’t talk or write favorably about Solidarity. So I left Russe and went to Sofia. I wouldn’t have lived much longer if I kept praising Solidarity — not just Solidarity, but the winds of change, the need for “socialism with a human face,” as we called it back then. No, I was not allowed to do that. That’s why I wasted two years being the manager of pop singers.

Why do you say that you wasted that time?

It was stifling the way pop culture was used and abused, the way some of the singers and entertainers were forced to sing about socialism. They were given lyrics to make a song. It wasn’t conducive to their personal development as creators and songwriters and lyricists. They were kept on a short leash. That’s why some of the better and smarter entertainers left the country and went to work abroad. But the “creative intelligentsia” as they were called could make lots of money if they stayed and glorified the communist regime or painted pictures that were approved as socialist realism — with a factory worker next to a person from the fields, the sickle and the hammer. If they did that, the regime paid a lot of money and gave them all the goodies they wanted.

That’s why it was a waste of time for me. It wasn’t developing the culture or the aesthetics or the good taste of the young generation through the music we created or performed at concerts. I felt guilty at times. Those teenagers who crowded the concert halls were hungry for music, for entertainment, like all young kids. But we didn’t give them really good music. Most of the “hits” from back then have faded and are forgotten now. We did not produce a smart generation through the Bulgarian music of that time. That’s why Tangra and many other bands left — they couldn’t take it either. On top of that, which was the worst part, the Bulgarian version of Stasi was spying on this sector. That German movie, The Lives of Others, you’ve seen that? That tells you everything. Everyone who was in this field of writing or journalism or music or creativity would think, “I don’t know which person in this room will be telling things tomorrow.”

Who were you working for at that time?

I worked from 1984 to 1986 with twin male singers who were very popular at the time: Bratya Argiroivi (the Argirov Brothers duet). They were from Plovdiv. If you ask anyone from Plovdiv, anyone in their 40s, they’ll know this duo.

After that, I had different jobs here and there, like writing scripts for concerts to glorify the achievements of communism. I was good at it, and they paid me good money. I also worked for those large communist enterprises. They had a house of culture where workers would be entertained in the way that increased their feeling of belonging to the working class. That was an easy job to make money from.

I also worked with a folk dance ensemble that had an exchange with a volunteer folk dance club in Scandinavia. Every summer, the Scandinavians would pay to go to a particular country and specialize in the local folk dance tradition there. They came here in the summer of 1986 for a month to learn from Bulgarian folk dancers and choreographers. I was attached to the Scandinavians as their interpreter and to organize their accommodations. We toured the country.

Right after that, I was accused of being too close to the foreigners. They wanted you to work with the foreigners, but they didn’t want you to commit to them; they wanted you to be their host, but at the same time “keep your distance because they come from Scandinavia, they’re capitalists, some of them must be spies.”

In the autumn of the same year, after the Scandinavians were here, the Bulgarian folk dancers were invited to Scandinavia and I was supposed to go with them. But guess what: I was not given a passport. Freedom of movement didn’t exist back then. Even worse: I was born in Russe and I was supposed to live in Russe. Instead, I was unlawfully residing in Sofia. Nobody could live anywhere without the permission of the Communist regime. Also, travel abroad required a special passport, which I did not get — because I was told that I was suspicious and too fond of being with foreigners. They said, “We can’t risk sending you out because you probably won’t return.” That was probably September 1986 when I realized that I was not particularly liked by the regime. It might also have been the previous sin of writing about Solidarity.

Or it may have been an even earlier incident that took place in our graduating year at the English language school in Russe. Back then we were studying shorthand. At the end of the school year, we were sent to the capital city for two weeks to practice shorthand at the National Assembly and the National Radio. We watched shorthand stenographers to see how shorthand is done. On the last day, we were to travel back by train at night, and the day was given to us to enjoy in Sofia, to visit friends, relatives.

Four of us got together and wandered around downtown. The American embassy in those days was in downtown Sofia, next to the Central Bank, in a very old building. You walked along the street and in the window of the embassy you saw lots of pictures. This was June 1973. We stopped outside to look at those pictures of American reality, Apollo rockets and so on. And there was a sign that said in English and Bulgarian that the library of the embassy was open to all citizens. Curious as we were, we walked through the door. The library was in the very first hall behind the entrance doors. You didn’t even have to penetrate the embassy any further than the hallway to enter this small library. We looked at some poetry, some magazines. We spent less than an hour in there. We were kids, 18-year-olds. We talked to the Bulgarian librarian. We approached her because we were wondering whether she spoke English or Bulgarian. We were very proud of our English after four years of study. But it was rudimentary, really. We didn’t know any English at all. But when you’re young, you think you know everything.

We walked out. We were joking about maybe being taped and how do we look on camera, and so on. We walked less than a block. There was a traffic light that was red. As we waited for the light, a gentleman came up behind us and grabbed us from behind. When the light became green, we crossed the street together. It was so unbelievable. He sort of hid us in the corner of the building across the street. So, we were in the street, people passed by, but nobody realized that something was happening to us.

This person started to ask questions: “Why did you go to the embassy? You can’t go to the embassy.”

“Why not?”

“It’s the American embassy, you can’t do that.”

“But it says the library is open, it says you can do that.”

“Where did you go? Who did you talk to? Who did you meet? Who told you to go in there?”

“No one,” I told him. “I looked at this magazine, this book, I read about Apollo.”

“Let me see your IDs.”

The other three kids were either too smart or much smarter than I. They didn’t produce IDs. Back then we didn’t have ID cards. We had this funny booklet called an internal passport. I had it on me and showed it to him. The other three said they didn’t have it. I loved those guys dearly, we grew up together from 14 to 18. But all of them had fathers in the nomenklatura, I was the only one who was different. They did not antagonize me. They did not treat me as though I was different. They respected me. At that age, you mix. You’re not really aware of those caste differences, so inherently typical of socialism, that one probably enjoys later. But I felt different. I knew their parents would come in limousines for parents’ meetings. And that proved to be a critical point.

When we went back to our city a week later, we started to be called to the state security, like the Stasi. And we had to repeat the story over and over again. Eventually, the question was asked, “Who gave the idea to walk into the embassy?” And guess what: I was pointed to as the instigator.

Now, I’ve thought about it a lot, and it must have been this 1973 juvenile sin of walking into the American embassy. And then the 1983-4 sympathy for the Solidarity movement, and then this Scandinavian affair…

Was there any punishment associated with that visit to the embassy?

No. There was just a stern warning that we should never do such a thing again. There was no immediate punishment in terms of the legal system. But if you think of the methods of the communist regime, the punishment is that you don’t have any future any more. It’s a long-term punishment. Technically, you are not given a verdict. But you are deprived of a normal future. If I had attempted to study anything other than linguistics, I wouldn’t have been allowed. If I tried to travel abroad, I wouldn’t be allowed. In 1986, the Scandinavians were very pleased with the time they spent here. They insisted that I accompany the Bulgarian group on the trip to Scandinavia. They were so insistent that they wanted to cancel the trip if I couldn’t accompany them. Which made it even worse for the police: “Oh really, so that’s how important you are for them? They insisted that you have to go?” Maybe they drew the conclusion that the Scandinavians wanted me there to keep me there.

There’s an old saying: the snake bites worst when it feels that it’s dying. That was the communist regime in its last years. From the late 1970s to the collapse, those were the worst years of the state security. The events inThe Lives of Others movie took place during the same period – 1980s. They were feeling the end coming.

That happened in September 1986. I knew that I was doomed. I didn’t want to even go back and work for this cultural house. At that time, friends of mine who worked for an interpretation bureau called me and said they needed someone for 45 days. There was an American exhibit coming to Bulgaria under an agreement between the State Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with a Bulgarian exhibit also going to Washington. They needed someone available for 45 days to help the American manager of the exhibit as a personal assistant. For me that was wonderful. We came here to Varna in mid-October and stayed until the end of November.

I became very close with Richard Browne, the American exhibit director, who became a very good friend of mine. But I was accused again of being too close to foreigners. It was an American this time, so even worse. There was a break for the New Year, and then the exhibit was supposed to move from Varna to Sofia to reopen in February. But I was called in and told that I was not going to work with the exhibit. Actually, I was told that I couldn’t work on anything else. I was to be put on a bus and sent to Austria. I refused to do that. The other option was to have my family interned in a very small village on the Turkish-Bulgarian border. I checked: there were fewer than a 100 elderly people living in that place, with no school and no jobs. I was in my early 30s. My daughter was about nine years old. My wife was 30.

I said, “What are we going to do there? There’s no school there, there’s nothing. You’re sending me there basically to die.”

They said, “If you don’t like communism, you do whatever you want there.”

I said, “I can’t live there. If you want to kill me, do that, but don’t kill my family. Really, isn’t there something else I can do here?”

That was my first actual punishment — to answer your earlier question. They told me that I couldn’t work as an interpreter, a teacher, an editor, an intellectual, anything. They told me I could do any menial labor that allows people who are not officially residents of Sofia to work in Sofia due to the deficiency of menial laborers. “If you find a job like that,” they said, “we’ll allow you to be in Sofia.”

Militiamen were coming to the house each morning, early, waking up the family. My daughter would be horrified and would be crying. Everyone would be scared. They brought me to the 6th precinct where there was a bad cop and a good cop.

The bad copy would yell at me and say, “You’re in trouble now, really in trouble, you’re a traitor, you betrayed us. You have to sign this document that you’ll never talk to a foreigner again.”

I said, “Come on, you’ll send someone tomorrow to ask me the time in English, and someone else will see this person talking to me and then you’ll accuse me of talking to foreigners. I’m not signing anything.”

As things got desperate, the “good cop” came in and said, “Hey, he’s a good guy. Let me try. Hey son, what have you done, why are they torturing you?”

Eventually, this good cop says, “Go find a job, and let me know when you get one.”

I went out and saw this advertisement for a training course to operate electric trolleybuses in Sofia. It was probably in the middle of the week, and the ad said that there would be a training course starting the following Monday. I went to the HR hiring office. They said, “We never had a university graduate come for training. Wonderful! Come on Monday morning for the training.”

Stupid as I was, when I found this new job driving a trolleybus, I called back the “good cop” and told him that I had found this job starting Monday morning. “Excellent,” he said, “Good luck, go ahead.”

On Monday morning, there were about 15 of us. They led us to a training room. As we are entering the room, a lady pulls me to the side and says, “Unfortunately you can’t start your training today.”

“Why not?”

“I didn’t realize that you’re not a resident of Sofia.”

“But I told you this. I gave you my documents.”

“Yes, but I overlooked this. Unless you go back to your native city and get permission from the local committee of the Communist Party, you cannot start the course.”

“How about if I go to Russe today and get the permission and come back tomorrow morning?”

“Well, no, then you’ll have missed the day of training.”

Obviously they received a call. The security police were trying to force me into a corner. Even worse, they sent over to my house a classmate of mine, probably my closest friend. His father was a traffic police officer — police is police, right? – and this person was probably helped by his father to get a job with state security. They sent him to conduct surveillance on me and to talk with me. If I confessed that I had done a crime against the state, that I had been an American spy or collaborator, he told me, then they would be merciful. “We’ve been good friends,” I told him, “but if you come to my door to talk like this, I don’t want to see you any more.”

Did you ever find out what happened to him?

I’ve heard from other classmates that he left the Stasi police after 1990. He was married to a Russian woman. It was an advantage to marry a Russian if you worked for state security: they’d give you large apartment, a better job. He left the secret police and I heard from someone else that he started an import-export business with Scandinavian partners.

So, they didn’t let me drive the trolley bus. That same day, when they turned me away from the course, I was walking home and I was desperate. I didn’t call this “good cop”. I was passing by a streetcar depot. I saw at the entrance of the garage that they were hiring people to work night shifts fixing the brakes on the streetcars. I went in and asked if I could start. They said, “Sure, tonight!” So I started. Several days later, I called the guy at the police station and said that I’d been working for three days. And he said, “Why didn’t you call me?” Because I didn’t want to call you! I worked there about two months every night fixing the brakes of streetcars.

Something you learned on the job!

It’s not difficult. You just replace the disks. It’s a tough job, but it’s not difficult to learn. It’s not brain surgery. Two months later there was a training course for bus drivers. Being in the system of the transit corporation, I just moved to that. And I learned to drive a bus. From the spring of 1987 to late December of 1989, I drove busses.

You mentioned that you were part of a blockade.

In December 1989, I was the leading force organizing a strike. We bus drivers went on strike. We were joined by other city transit workers. The transit in Sofia stopped for about four or five business days.

The specific demand was….?

The specific demand was better salaries, better working conditions, and better social benefits. But it was clearly a political strike, because it happened in December when events were brewing and the Union of Democratic Forces was being formed. I assume that this enhanced the development of all those events. That was in late December, early January 1989. And then days after that I went back to journalism, toDemokratsia and Vek 21.

End Part 1.