Reflections on Time Spent in Eastern Europe

Prior to departing for Bulgaria in 2005 as a Peace Corps volunteer a Turkish friend advised me not to go. She said that I wouldn’t be able to get on well there because Bulgarians dislike Turks. I found out after arriving to Bulgaria that Turks make up a decent portion of the population there. For several hundred years the Ottoman Turks had ruled the land making up the Bulgaria of today, and thus the presence of Turks remains in this territory. I also learned that during Bulgaria’s communist era (1946-1990) the government explicitly strived to solidify and expand on the view that Bulgarians were all but slaves under the Turks. The communists also forced Turks to change their names into something more Slavic, and speaking Turkish in public was prohibited. Although the Turkish language ban has been lifted since the end of communism, tensions linger in regards to embracing Turkish identity. I found that out while taking a tour of the school where I was about to start work as an English teacher. I started speaking Turkish with a physics teacher who had a Turkish background. After I made a comment or two, he looked at me and whispered that I should keep speaking Turkish around Bulgarians to a minimum.

The communists strived to get all citizens to affiliate with being Bulgarian and communist. The men communists tried to mold, within their very limited understanding of man, were attempted archetypes. The mixture of conformity and resistance toward the archetype, and the diversity of men that blossomed despite such rigid control, is testament to man’s wonderful uniqueness, despite the grotesque imposition of the communist system.

Communism in Bulgaria ended around the year 1990. I was there fifteen years later as a young man with leftist views, wondering what kind of society communism had created in Bulgaria. I understood why social scientists call a former communist country like Bulgaria “post-communist”, because it’s clear that as a society making a transition to something different, there is clearly a communist heritage that has been shaping the makeup of its’ transformation.

Communism offers people ways to advance and build a sense of self. The political scientist Alfred Stepan poignantly explains this in his seminal work on the transitions countries make toward democracy: “many people were upwardly mobile by conformity with the regime; got fellowships for higher education, medals for sports achievements, funds for their cultural activities, and careers in the nomenklatura; became successful plant managers, and what not. These people, whatever their feelings about the ultimate desirability of the regime, their hostility to its Soviet dependence when they were nationalist, and their displeasure about the many small, bureaucratic chicaneries, cannot deny that they had a moderately good life and that the changes that are happening in their societies endanger those achievements”.

I had the chance to meet Bulgarians of varying ages who to some degree or another had a chance to create their sense of self and advance in society within the communist framework of success. On the other hand, my students were born around 1989: I called them the children of the revolution. They didn’t experience life under communism, but heard many stories of those days, told by elders filled with nostalgia for the past, and with ambivalence or condemnation about the present and future conditions in Bulgaria.

No matter what the children of the revolution have been inculcated to believe, they live in a considerably different society than their elders did. One of the first stark impressions I had of Bulgaria was seeing a teenager at a disco, sucking down a beer in one hand and having a cigarette in the other, dancing his heart out to techno and rap. He told me there is no better place to grow up as a teenager than in Bulgaria, because he could run wild and get away with so much. The older generation says that communist society was a lot safer, and a healthier place to grow up for the youth. When a young person went out back then, parents were more certain as to what their kids could be doing. Now, no matter how involved parents may be, they can never be too sure what their kids are getting into. 

Communism certainly provided for a kind of stability and security that has missing in the post-communist era, but a Bulgarian I met in 2006 claimed that communism is a system bound for implosion from the start. He said that life in communist Bulgaria represented an artificial society. Even if the system slugged along for longer than when it collapsed in 1990, sooner or later the government wouldn’t be able to run up high debts and offer subsidies to dying industries just to keep the system going. The post-communist days, according to him, are the ‘pay back days’ for Bulgaria, paying back for a fantasy life under communism. 

The communist era can be described as if communist society was like one ship sailing in the sea, with a huge flag depicting its power.  The captain’s crew directs the orders to the others on board, but the people can never leave this ship, can’t create their own flag and vessel to set sail on their own. A great aspect about the USA I’ve come to appreciate is that there are chances for people to set sail on their own vessels of power, erecting a flag under the national one, which represents their cultural product or private enterprise.  I told this to a Bulgarian clerk at a small grocery store, after she complained that no one has money in Bulgaria.  I told her to look around the shop.  Most of the goods were from abroad.  Citizens from many countries around the world created companies independent of the state, and had a sense of power, a path to prosperity with this. Under communism, Bulgarians weren’t used to working for money, because no matter how much or little you worked, you were secured pay just by showing up to work.

The attitude of just showing up to work for a guaranteed paycheck holds considerable sway among Bulgarians in today’s Bulgaria. Take for example the life of a middle-aged man I befriended in the small town of Krumovgrad, where I did the Peace Corps. I’ll call this man Ivan, for the sake of keeping him anonymous.

Ivan was a music teacher at the school where I worked. He was nonchalant about the fact that students didn’t take his music class seriously, and often just let them do as they pleased. He didn’t care whether or not they attended class. I was never sure if Ivan ever had any moment where he’d think over whether or not he got any fulfillment out of his job, but it didn’t seem like he mulled over this at all.

His life seemed mainly pre-occupied by going out with friends, and even at work he searched for moments to enjoy spontaneous bouts of merry-making with colleagues. After work, which ended in the early afternoon, the rest of day and the upcoming night were open for going out to drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and play cards. On given occasions he would enjoy playing music with fellow musicians, or guiding some of the youth in music-oriented events in town.

Ivan was no recluse: he had a sense of collective responsibility and community that was probably molded by a communist sort of ethic. But he did seem to have an air about him that as post-communist Bulgaria goes to hell the best way to pass the time is to spend it having fun with music and friends. Behind the veneer of a man embracing fun full throttle was a deeper anxiety lurking within, over his present and future financial situation. Of course it’s understandable that in such a state of doubt and worry one could easily want to delve into states of forgetfulness and distraction. The dark side of Ivan’s hard drive to enjoy his life away was probably the grim realization of his financial poverty, and the difficulty reaching a typical milestone of life, such as starting a family.

On many occasions Ivan would remind me jokingly that it was to be our mission to build communism in America: “My friend, the whole world loves communism, it’s just your strange country that resists it”. At the time of our acquaintance he must have been in his thirties, so even though he didn’t live much through the communist era, the times of the past probably enamored him through the stories he’d hear from elders. Ivan probably heard that during communism people had a grand old time: he strived to keep the good times rolling.

There are older men in Bulgaria, ones who experienced communism at full throttle, who did live lives more fulfilled, stable, and financially secure than Ivan. Is it a wonder that they look back with nostalgia to times that were easier, when life seemed less complicated? These older men probably worry about the fate of the younger generation, occupied by the likes of the Ivans out there, and the elders’ children and grandchildren.

This was the case with another Bulgarian I met by the name of Stanko, who lived most of his life during communism. Stanko once proclaimed to me that he was a Stalinist, but not necessarily a communist. What did he mean by this? Well, judging from what I got to know about him, Stanko was a guy who probably worked hard during communism, perhaps doing well to rise in his political and financial status at that time. But he probably wasn’t an ardent adherent of communist ideology. However, witnessing as he has the post-communist disarray of contemporary Bulgaria, he finds in powerful leaders the best way to ensure a country’s stability and prosperity. Perhaps he meant to say that ideologies like communism are mere theories, while tough leaders like Stalin get things done, and men who can protect their homelands. Stanko told me that Saddam Hussein in Iraq was too weak of a leader: if he was more like Stalin, Stanko said, the US would have never been able to invade Iraq as it did in 2003.

Bulgaria entered the European Union in 2007, the year I finished my Peace Corps service. Shortly after, the Peace Corps discontinued its’ presence in Bulgaria since the country joined a union that would aid in its’ path forward. Bulgaria contains many people who resemble Ivan and Stanko in one way or another: nostalgic for the past, condemning the present, anxious about the future.

This social fact has helped the ultra-nationalist political party called Ataka become ascendant on the political scene. They say they will get rid of the gypsies. They seek to re-establish the divisive politics between Bulgarians and Turks that reigned during communism.

Nationalism has been on the rise in Europe over the last few years, but its’ rise is particularly alarming for countries like Bulgaria located in southeastern Europe. At one time the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia represented two international communist blocs uniting people of multiple nationalities; they broke up in large part because of the rise nationalist movements for independence. In the 1990s ethnic cleansing and war ensued in Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.  

Flags and symbols are still hotly contested in this region. Take Kosovo for example. China, Spain, Russia, and Serbia claim that Kosovo is not an independent state. The United States and the United Kingdom think otherwise, and they helped enshrine Kosovo with its’ contested independent status as a country in 2008.

One point of agreement between nationalist Serbians and Albanians is that the image displayed on Kosovo’s flag should be changed. For nationalist Serbians, Kosovo is Serbia and Kosovo’s flag must be the emblem and colors of the Serbian flag. For nationalist Albanians, the current Kosovo flag is bogus, because the Albanian emblem, as seen in the flag of Albania, should be there. In the Balkans, what’s seen on official flags and what’s envisioned on ideal flags are often at odds. There is an Albanian flag for the country of Albania, recognized and seen worldwide; but nationalist Albanians living elsewhere in the Balkans (like in Kosovo) envision “Shqiperia e Madhe”, which is to say, a vision that in the future, the Albanian nation will make gains toward a greater lot of Albanian territory, a nation makes no regard for the contemporary territorial confinements holding their great nation back. I’ve heard words easily slide off people’s tongues in the Balkans that in Western Europe today are words that have declined in use, because Western Europeans want to put their days of outright conquering and dividing behind them. They are words East Europeans use to show their intent to sweetly slaughter their neighboring enemies, and to accomplish the feat of territorial expansion for their own nation.