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Sofia, Bulgaria: What’s it Like Thirty Years After the Fall of the Iron Curtain?

Imagine the latest political leader of your country announcing a new system, starting immediately: all companies need to pay 100% tax on profits and every rich person needs to give the government all their excess wealth (government determined of course). The government will then divvy it up, so that everyone has some extra money, and likely some McMansions that have been reclaimed from the wealthy. Happy days, right? It’s replacing a warlike monarchy with the Tsar on the tippy-top and a wide, poor pyramidal base dedicated to agriculture and being foot soldiers, so a welcome change for so so many.

What would happen next? The first year would probably be a bit rocky, but most people would have a lot more than they had ever had before. Party hearty for sure. The people who had received money would find that the first year had been amazing: plenty of cash, plenty of work, education for all, no more wars, loads of new houses on the market as second, third, and fourth homes of the wealthy were redistributed and suddenly affordable. They would say, quite reasonably, ‘This was the best change ever made – well done current political leader!’

Central Sofia Classic Communist Architecture
Central Sofia Classic Communist Architecture - The type of nice buildings you would want your new government to build for itself

The second year, though, would start to get problematic. Every company that was able to would be gone, poof, vanished. Maybe to the Seychelles or Switzerland. Every company that had stayed would have no 'excess' money to invest in growth and production, and no leeway for an unexpected cost or an unexpected lack of demand even short-lived, as all profit would be taxed, and the only wiggle room would be to artificially increase company costs (read: a type of fraud which would not be treated kindly). To deal with this, the government would start taking over different collapsing companies to keep them running.

All the once-wealthy people who had had their money reclaimed by the State would either have a) left, to rebuild their lives elsewhere or b) joined the government, as that’s where all the (remaining) money resides.

Jobs would continue to vanish as companies left or closed, and the remaining jobs would be in the now-government-controlled businesses where corruption was becoming more common as power is centralised and unchecked. To compensate for the shrinking private sector, the government would move into new industries to fill the gaps. But wait, the government didn’t wake up one morning with massive unheard-of-experience in hundreds of sectors and industries it hadn’t managed in detail before. Recipe for disaster? Recipe for disaster. And so, inefficiency would become a problem, and again corruption as people who have no idea how to run these new companies fight to stay in charge, to hold onto the best-paying job out there (with perks and power). Salaries stagnate or fall as the new system stumbles and all the people who had enjoyed Year 1 start to think that Year 2 is not living up to expectations.

Sofia Bulgaria Palace of Culture
What do you do when the system is collapsing? Commission some big new buildings and assassinate the daughter of the president who dared to celebrate non-Bulgarian culture in the Palace of Culture

What happens next, in Year 3? Either a rapid collapse as people protest against the system and try to remove the current leaders, or a hardening of the system as the government cracks down on dissent: you don’t like the system exactly as it is? Time for you to vanish. You want to keep some of the money you’ve earned? Vanish time. You want to argue for a different political system, celebrate other cultures or suggest changes and improvements? That’s traitorous! It’s a perfect system! Nothing is better! Prepare to be disappeared.

Let’s jump ahead to the collapse of the system, once it has become so bloated and inefficient it can’t survive any longer: the government-run companies have collapsed, so there are few jobs, little food and limited electricity . The government also has no one left to tax, and their spending was based on 1) tax income and 2) selling goods and services made by the companies. Only one option left: print money! (Or ‘seigniorage’ for economics aficionados, a word not even MS Word recognises.) Everyone can now get paid, but this triggers massive rapid inflation and the collapse of the currency. Too much money chasing too few goods. Supply and demand, Economics 101. So now there are no jobs and no money and no companies. The country starts going bankrupt with increasing regularity. No one is allowed to leave and hunger becomes a common meal.

Year 4 will likely involve the creation of a new government (probably staffed by the same politicians and government workers that were in charge in Years 1-3, but with a different leader with capitalist policies and with an arms-wide-open invitation to businesses and investors to return to the country. Low tax rates! Friendly business policies! Generous investment incentives! Minimal regulation! Cheap labour! Please come back!! And those that return will want assurances that they can flee quickly if they need to, with flexible labour practices (you’re hired, you’re fired) and reduced rules (who needs that clean river anyway).

[ Proof that the Socialism and the Communist Experiment has well and truly ended: Michael Bolton performing at the National Palace of Culture, while Subway and McDonalds look on ]

Okay, story-time over.

The million-dollar question: If you asked the average person on the street, Which year was best? You can guarantee that they would say, ‘Year 1, definitely. Money, food, work – perfect. I want that again please.’ Now let’s say the new system, slowly being cobbled together in Year 4, is given the name ‘capitalist democracy’, but is a far cry and several decades off Scandinavia. And let’s say the old system from Years 1-3 is called ‘socialism’ even though it contained a lethal dose of totalitarianism. (Just FYI for anyone who's only ever read American textbooks, Socialism the ideology absolutely does not require totalitarianism despite that constant narrative.)

Berlin Wall Sofia Bulgaria
A piece of the Berlin Wall, on display in the centre of the city's central park. Pieces of the wall were shipped to all the ex-Communist countries, so that no one will ever forget that walls are not the solution.

And so we have a rough-around-the-edges allegory of Bulgaria. Except their Years 1-3 lasted from the 1940s to 1989, and Year 4 is still happening. It is still climbing out of its post-crash crisis, an effort hampered by the enormous theft of state assets (e.g. gold) when the Iron Curtain fell. Recovering from a wholesale system crash (whatever the system) takes a looong time and substantial political will.

In the three decades since the Communist Party fell and the Soviet socialism system imploded, Bulgarians have watched multiple political parties rise and fall, all pledging to reduce corruption and then helping themselves to state money. The most promising leader was Tsar Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (British readers might recognise that surname!), who had briefly ruled Bulgaria as a child prince in the 1940s before fleeing. He visited Bulgaria on holiday with his family in the 1990s and thought, “Maybe I should lead Bulgaria again.” So he created a party, ran for office and, yes the ex-Tsar of Bulgaria won a landslide election. Under him, Bulgaria made a successful application for membership to the European Union and everyone was hopeful. Then, a few years later, he was ousted due to…corruption.

Here’s the kicker though, we of course can imagine the benefits of the EU with trade and ‘convergence funds’, but what about this: due to joining the EU and Schengen Zone which allows for free movement of people among all EU member states, the young and talented of Bulgaria have emigrated to better paying jobs in other countries. Bulgaria now has one of the largest diasporas on Earth as a percentage of the (tiny) population. Who’s left? The retirees, who remember the glorious days under the Communists where every day was sunny and the streets were paved with equally distributed gold. And who votes in the elections? The youngsters who are starting lives and families in Germany? Nope. The pensioners? Yup. And so, our Bulgarian friends tell us, the ex-Communist Party and the anti-immigration, anti-liberalism parties revolve through government.

And that brings us up to our visit in July 2019.

What was it like to visit the capital, Sofia? Was there any sign of recent history on a daily level? What could we see? We saw a city of contradictions. The average monthly salary in Bulgaria is €600 (which is considerably higher than the minimum wage of €286/month by the way) and long black cars as common as in Kensington, with Mercedes S-Classes and even Maybachs purring along the streets. For the non-car-buffs reading, the cheaper ‘no-frills’ Maybach starts at $170,000, or 25 YEARS of the average wage. Where did that money come from?

Street cats Sofia Bulgaria
Street cats in Sofia were consistently fat, confident and extremely fussy when it came to food

Around the very centre we saw shiny storefronts and luxury boutiques opening on to broken pavements with wobbly paving stones. We saw dangling wires while using fibre internet (kudos to them here), and dozens of fat street cats turn up their noses at the cheap dried food we’d bought them. We saw the down-at-the-heels Terminal 1, and the gleaming, under-used Terminal 2, both situated next to the building site of Terminal 3 with ‘EU FUNDED’ signs. We saw the layers of political ideologies reflected in the crumbling buildings and streets, the ancient Roman temples hidden behind carefully placed Soviet architecture, the yellow cobbled roads around Parliament, the abandoned Communist statues in the suburbs, and the popular Gucci outlets.

[Left: The final resting place of all the Communist and Socialist statues that had filled the city under the Communist Part. Note the enormous statue of Lenin tucked in - that statue had been at the main crossroads of the centre of the city. Right: It was replaced by a golden statue of Sofia, which no one really likes except that she is NOT Lenin.]

We saw beautiful multi-story homes decaying in front of us, again in the very centre of the capital (see photo to left). Vines and trees poking out of the cracked stone and plaster, cats darting in through empty windows. These, adjacent to trendy bars and hotels, and even across from the central park. Why? Because, after the system fell, the government said that all original owners of the buildings (from pre-1945) could have their seized assets back. However, instead of it being one family member now, it is a few generations along and the ownership is split equally across all the living family members. Imagine trying to organise a summer holiday with your distant cousins – tricky. Now imagine organising renovations, maintenance and a house sale (or rental) with fifty of them across multiple generations, villages, towns, cities and countries. Result? A shocking number of abandoned buildings in prime locations.

The hidden churches were something we almost didn’t see, and it took a guide to point them out to us. Under Communist rule in Bulgaria, religion wasn’t officially banned (unlike in the USSR), but it was frowned upon. Therefore, churches were allowed to exist, but the state built walls around them hiding any evidence there was a church there. There is one street corner in Sofia where you can look around and have zero idea there are four churches surrounding you. If, though, you already knew the location of your place of worship, the priest was an informant and passed on key details such as how often you attended, if your children were baptised, and who was invited to any weddings or funerals. If you worshipped too actively, there were a range of consequences: perhaps your spouse would be transferred to another city, your child wouldn’t be admitted to any of the promising university courses, or you wouldn’t get the promotion you desired. Or maybe you would just disappear.

Sofia Bulgaria Round Church
A great example of a hidden church: this church was built in ~350 AD (!!). To hide it, the Communist Party built an enormous hotel and apartment complex in a square around it. Now the church is invisible unless you venture through the arches or hallways of these buildings, or wander down some small alleys. History was not destroyed, it was hidden so that time would do the erasing. Inside, the temple is falling apart and its frescoes are in a sorry state. Not enough visitors, as no one can find it...

When the system collapsed in 1989, the new government opened up all the state records to public scrutiny (respect!). Once the journalists had finished digging through and analysing the 45 years of government secrets, they discovered that roughly 25% of the population had been employed as a government informant. One in four. The amount of marriages that ended due to the revelation that one’s spouse had been reporting on the family is less clear, but likely a similar figure…

Bulgaria’s Museum of Socialist Art, the repository of Communist statues and propaganda, is undeniably positive towards the entire system and chapter of history. If I were to only learn via their exhibits, I would want to overthrow everything and return to those golden days. No mention of the hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed, the interrogations, the informants (likely tortured into accepting the role of government agent), the starvation, the abuses, the total control of the press and free speech, and shocking mistakes made by the government (‘Stop growing food, we all need to be engineers and join the space race’ is a good example). Just nice videos of children dancing and the leaders waving at industrious partisans (party members).

Our month led us down the rabbit hole of political question and debate. On the one hand, an attempt was made to improve the world, to introduce the next great system that would help everyone prosper and enjoy life. However, it was completed poorly and brutally. Should a flawed attempt tar the whole concept and ‘–ism’? Of course not. On the other, if every time a government chooses to take all the power and to attempt to control the economy centrally, it fails miserably, then surely that means something?

Monument to the Soviet Army Sofia Bulgaria
This is the Monument to the Soviet Army, a statue remembering the Soviet lives lost during World War II. Bulgarians are quick to note, though, that zero Soviet soldiers were killed on Bulgarian soil, so it's odd that Sofia has a statue in their remembrance. Because this feels like continuing control by the Russians, this statue has become the go-to site for political protests. The main approach has been repainting the soldiers into comical figures (superheros being one of the most dramatic, see below). The Russian ambassador has made it clear this is unacceptable, and now the monument is surrounded by CCTV cameras, and graffiti gets removed VERY fast.

Perhaps, simply put, the ideology is nice (‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ and all that), but humans are not. If a system can never be implemented, is it a good system? Or perhaps it still has potential, but society or humanity can’t deal with it yet? Marx himself said capitalism was necessary to pave the way for socialism. Only when scarcity had been eradicated by the extreme productivity of capitalism can Socialism be implemented and eventually Communism arise. Is this concept true, on a theoretical level? Once scarcity is done for, it certainly would be a utopia almost by definition. So was Marx right in principal but wrong with his timing and dates?

Street puddle Sofia Bulgaria
Infrastructure in Sofia has been neglected: this is one of the main street corners in the city centre, with broken drainage, on-going construction and broken pavements. It's quite pretty though...

What we know is that until that day where everyone has what they need, scarcity brings out the worst in all of us. As we have more and more, we are happy to pass more regulations, repair and improve our infrastructure, and enforce the rules, happy to give to charity and fund a system to help the most in need. And when we have less, as the Financial Crisis has aptly demonstrated, we swing towards nationalism, protectionism, and fearful responses that allow us to hoard our precious resources.

Another slant is that the story of socialism in Bulgaria is nothing new: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So when your new idealised system demands all power to be centralised, no matter the positive intention, you better have some fool-proof ways of preventing and limiting corruption – ‘cause guess what, politicians are humans too.

A Bulgarian friend cut through our ponderings to offer a commonly repeated 'local' solution: You want change? Just take away your grandparents' voter-ID cards.


P.S. For those reaching for the dictionary...:

  • Capitalism is where the means of production (raw materials, land, machinery, tools, etc.) are held privately (rather than by the government) for profit.

  • Socialism is where the means of production, distribution and exchange are held by the state or collectively. There are socialised aspects of most European countries (publicly run health systems, educational systems, and utilities are the most common), but they are NOT socialist despite what American schools would have you believe.

  • Communism is where all property is publicly/collectively owned, including the means of production, distribution and exchange, and there may not be a state at all. Instead, government is unnecessary and withers away. Under Marx, the rough economic pattern is: Feudalism, capitalism, socialism and eventually communism. Bulgaria was never communist, and the Communist Party shifted the date it would switch to Communism from 1980 to 2000 when they realised 1980 was just around the corner and they were nowhere near ready to wither away.

If you are planning a visit to Sofia, we strongly recommend doing the following:

[ From Top Left: a) Brilliant tour guide for Sofia Free Tour - Communism Tour; b & c) the Red Flat, an apartment kept exactly as it would have been in the 1980s, and is fully interactive with fascinating recordings about daily life and society; d) the original Sofia hotel, built by the Communists to show that everyone was equal: all rooms were identical ]


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