Every day life in Communist Bulgaria

21/08/2007 by Christopher Buxton

In 1977 I arrived on a British Council contract in Communist Bulgaria to work in an elite English Language school. Previously I had worked in the right wing dictatorship of 1971 Portugal, where I was followed everywhere by Secret and uniformed police, and in the bracing outdoor s Socialist paradise of Norway. I was curious about how life would be in a Communist country. I was to stay in Bulgaria for three years – marrying a Bulgarian in Spring 1978 and welcoming the birth of my daughter.

My mother-in-law had a frequent refrain. Bulgaria is so calm and peaceful. It was her fervent hope that, once married to her daughter, I would declare my desire to remain in Bulgaria, close to my new family and turn my back on the restless dangerous capitalist world.

My initial response was that for a country supposed to be so calm and peaceful, it was interesting how constantly nervous, suspicious and irritable its inhabitants seemed to be. This psychological condition was due partly to an explosive Mediterranean temperament – but mostly to the daily challenges and inevitable frustrations of every day life.

As a Bulgarian, you lay awake at night with a number of fears on your mind. These might include
• the claims of your brother/sister circling the family home, waiting for the death of your Mother, who you alone have cared for through the latter days; once your mother is dead, inheritance squabbles will probably mean the splitting of your home and ending of all communication between you and your sibling;
• the fate of your daughter, married to a bastard and sleeping the other side of a thin wall which means that you hear every row and every reconciliation;
• the shamefully poor marks your son is getting at school – he is a heavy metal fan and you just can’t communicate – a late addition to your nuclear family, conceived following failure of the withdrawal method;
• the leaking pipes in the bathroom and the near impossibility of finding a plumber;
• the random but frequent electricity cuts that always occur during your favourite TV programme.
• the vague threat of an inspection at work, where you feel particularly vulnerable because you must have done something to upset somebody to be passed over so often and have so many work shy and incompetent workers in your team;
• the need to retain the favour of important connections – particularly your former schoolmate, V, who has achieved a position of some influence and might help with the allocation of a flat for your daughter;
• the possibility of making some extra money by turning your bathroom into a mushroom farm;
• your undiagnosed medical condition for which you have taken a long list of chemical and folk remedies.
• The water regime, that means you have to fill cumbersome containers in order to flush the toilet and wash the dishes.

As a temporary resident, I could be a lot calmer than my mother-in-law. I had my own flat, so we would never have to squeeze into their two rooms. I would get up in the morning, perform necessary functions with a copy of The Worker’s Task torn into strips so that my anus could be imprinted with the continuing good news from the Soviet Union, breakfast on bread, rosehip marmalade, yoghurt and Maxwell House coffee (bought at the hard currency shop) then make my way down the broken pavements of Karl Marx Boulevard towards the school where I worked.

During the long break I would nip into the town centre to check what new goods had arrived in the shops. Like every good Bulgarian I had in my pocket a net bag, “as big as a woman’s heart.” I recognized my patriotic duty to let all and sundry know if I had bought something – so that total strangers, seeing the contents of my bag, could rush up to me and ask where I had found whatever goods that up till now had been in short supply.

As befitted a country with full employment, shops had so many assistants that a special system had to be invented to ensure that they all had something useful to do. Thus the first person might show you the article, a second might write a cash note to be taken to a third who sat by the till who would take your money, a fourth would give you a receipt to take back to the first person, a fifth would wrap the article and a sixth would keep a close eye to make sure everything was done as it should be.

A curiosity of Bulgarian shops was that in spite of the large number of assistants, the arrival of new goods would result in the temporary closure of the shop. It said much for Bulgarians’ respect for literature that when a bookshop was receiving new books, a queue would instantly form in the street. Up to an hour later, people might discover what they were queuing for.

You might wonder at this stage how so many people found time in working hours to queue for books. Mostly they were on an unofficial break and were hardly missed. You pretend to work and they pretend to pay you was an often heard excuse. I had an English friend who having married a Bulgarian worked for a year in the oil refinery. His brigade spent most of their days playing cards – only working with any purpose when five year plan targets had to be met.

After scanning the shops – particularly for toilet paper and washing powder, I would check what was on in the cinema. In 1978, Bulgarian Cinema was something I wrote home about. The President’s daughter, Liudmilla Zhivkova, had returned from a brief sojourn at Oxford University, apparently determined to open up the country to new cultural influences. The result was that every week in the town’s five cinemas, there were at least three films well worth watching. French, Italian and American competed with Eastern European, Indian and Vietnamese films.

I kept a diary, reflecting on the Bulgarian films I saw at this time. Each film in its particular way cast a surprisingly sharp light on contemporary social problems. The screen was peopled by superb character actors, whose weight went beyond socialist realism. It is interesting that in present day Bulgaria there is a tremendous nostalgia for the best of these films and rival newspapers vie for readership by giving away DVDs.

I would return to school, past the towering monument to the Russian soldier/liberator. Of all the Warsaw pact countries, Bulgaria was Russia’s most loyal partner. At the entrance to Burgas a giant poster showed Bulgarian President, Todor Zhivkov, rushing towards the embrace of a smiling Leonid Brezhnev. The slogan read: Eternal Comradeship from Century to Century.

Todor Zhivkov was the George Bush of the Communist world. Promoted in 1956, following Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalinism, he survived forty four years with cautious peasant wit. As Communism’s mostly jovial human face, it would be he who raised a glass of cheer before TV cameras to celebrate with his many drunken subjects on New Year’s Eve. He embodied the unwritten social contract – suspension of all critical faculties in return for unlimited alcohol, cigarettes and an acceptable life style. From his house arrest, following the downfall of communism, he was reported to have asked plaintively: was there no song; was there no laughter?

I met few dissidents. Intelligent people chose their words with care. Bulgaria was a sufficiently small country to allow for the culturally gifted to be squared – bought off with petty privileges. Those who still felt sufficiently agitated could be easily isolated as psychologically disturbed. It was interesting too that no-one I met had any past. It was only after 1990 that I found out about the experiences of my wife’s family following 1944 – how one member was hanged as an enemy of the people, another was sent to the concentration camp island of Belene, how my wife’s grandfather was regularly beaten and tortured by the people’s police in the late Forties and early Fifties; why it was that most of my mother-in-law’s family had such difficulty in obtaining work.

I knew little of this. People had no past, some limited future and the pressing problems of the present to deal with. They had a president who looked like everyone’s village uncle, whispering accept me for fear of something worse. Pictures of the grim politburo reinforced this message.

There was no obvious resistance but there were the jokes. Most involved the discomfiture of the Bulgarian President on the world stage. My favourite had President Carter trying to impress his international colleagues with cups of coffee served with golden spoons. Only Brezhnev notices Zhivkov surreptitiously pocketing one. He clears his throat. President Carter! He announces. Perhaps you didn’t know this but as a child I learnt conjuring tricks. Look I put a golden spoon in my top pocket. I do three passes, cry Hocus Pocus and hop! You see the spoon has jumped from my pocket to Comrade Zhivkov’s.

As an Englishman I was largely excused the compulsory educational meetings and preparations for demonstrations most Bulgarians had to endure. As I worked on Saturdays I was unable to join in a voluntary clear up of the neighbourhood as a Leninsky Subotnik (Literally translated as a voluntary Saturday worker). However among my treasured memories is my participation in a nuclear war practice where I and my neighbours were marshaled down into the cellars below the block and forced to stand in the dark for the twenty minutes necessary for the nuclear fall out to clear. I remember too my lesson being interrupted on two separate occasions for an extraordinary meeting of the Komsomol – the Communist youth organization to which all pupils belonged – once to be told that Todor Zhivkov was coming to visit Burgas; the second time to celebrate the successful launch of a brotherly Russian rocket containing Bulgaria’s first astronaut. I remember the vote to send a congratulatory telegram across space was unanimous and failed to take account of any difficulties the Bulgarian post office might face in accomplishing this.

I got used to the rhythms of life in Bulgaria fairly quickly. I learnt how to wash clothes by hand with cold water and a bar of soap. I learnt of the mysterious but inevitable link between the toilet and the hole in the bathroom floor where the shower water was supposed to drain out. I learnt everything about cockroaches and boiler installation.

It was a shock to realize that once autumn was over there would be no fresh vegetables or fruit till Spring. I would eat spaghetti with tomato puree and bottled peas with the occasional sausage or ham thrown into the mix. It took me two years to successfully shop for meat. In restaurants I would eat yoghurt and cucumber salad, pork stew and dance to every band’s version of Hotel California. I drank too much wine and rakia. I even tried Vietnamese whisky – but only once.

I had a TV which had no sound. But I discovered I could capture the sound on my radio and so I could watch everything with a split second delay. I particularly enjoyed the folk singers who would jump out in full folk costume from behind combine harvesters on unsuspecting workers. Good night Children was a five minute favourite of mine – always appearing just before the serious eight o’clock news. It featured the very best of Eastern European animation. The state TV station was managed by Todor Zhivkov’s son-in-law – a handsome bon-vivant married to the ugliest Bulgarian woman in the world. I suppose he had to have some compensation. In the future he would progress to illegal Arms Dealing and Olympic Committeee corruption.

I did learn a great deal about the tendency towards corruption. Top of everyone’s priorities was placating the important people who could make things happen. And the lesson was reinforced when it came to wanting to marry a Bulgarian citizen. But that is the subject for a whole future article.