The History of Communism in Bulgaria

Understanding the difference between communism and capitalism, with Bulgaria as a lens.  What is communism, and how has it shaped Bulgaria’s past and present?

READ: DO:
A) What is Communism? The Road to Communism
B) Bulgaria in the Bloc Write an Article Critique
C) Is it Love or is it Hate? Communism Infographic Poster
D) Reflections around the World

This lesson was contributed to Openendedsocialstudies.org by Ms. Rita Ulrich.


A) What is Communism?

 

  1. In your own words, what is communism?  What would your classroom look like if it were communist? How would the roles be divided? What items would be controlled by the state? Imagine what it would be like to have all of your possessions owned by the school.
  2. Who were the founders of communism? What was their original goal?  Do you think it could have worked?  Consider the weaknesses of people as humans when answering this last question.
  3. Watch the video below.  What is the main difference between communism and socialism? What problems have come out of attempts to achieve these forms of government?  What are the biggest criticisms against these systems?
  4. Which countries still use communism today?  Do some basic research, and investigate how the countries used to be connected geographically, economically, and politically in the past.

Communism is a system in which there are not supposed to be any economic or social classes, all property is owned by the community, and all people enjoy the same social and economic status.  During the 20th century, communism dominated a significant portion of the world, generating a great of hostility in the capitalist world.

In fact, communism began as a 19th century political movement in response to the injustice of the then-new capitalist system.  As the Industrial Revolution swept the world, so too did capitalism – the system that today governs the United States and much of the rest of the world, characterized by private propertycapital accumulationwage laborvoluntary exchange, a price system and competitive markets.   As a result, the gap between rich and poor became more noticeable.  Early theorists saw some members of society in capitalist nations gain large amounts of wealth (the owners of corporations and factories, or bourgeois) while a great many others toiled under poor conditions and suffered in extreme poverty (the working class, or proletariat).  Communism seeks to overthrow this unequal system for the distribution of wealth through a worker’s revolution, then to redistribute the wealth into the hands of the proletariat.

 

The symbol most often associated with communism has its origins in the Russian Revolution and is called the hammer and sickle. The hammer represents the workers and the sickle, a tool used in the field, represents the field workers.

 

Karl Marx was a German philosopher and economist, considered the father of Communism.  Along with Friedrich Engels, Marx wrote a book called The Communist Manifesto in 1848. Their theories have become known as Marxism.  According to his manifesto, Marx’s hypothetical communist government had the following characteristics:

  • No private property
  • A single central bank
  • High income tax that would rise significantly as you made more
  • All property rights would be removed
  • No inheritance rights
  • The government would own and control all communication and transportation
  • The government would own and control all education
  • The government would own and control factories and agriculture
  • Farming and regional planning would be run by the government
  • The government would tightly control labor

In a communist society, money does not exist, and goods are given out to each person not according to their wealth, but according to need.  Work is something that a person does not because they have to, but because they want to.  

The actual results of communist governments have been nothing like the theories of Marxism. The low class people that were supposed to be helped by Marxism were often treated horribly by the leaders of their governments. For example, it is estimated that Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin had over 40 million people murdered to maintain his own power – all under the cover of “defending the gains of the communist revolution.” Stalin created labor camps called gulags for anyone who disagreed with the government.  He even permitted man-made famines in the Soviet Union in an effort to force the populace to accept collective, government-run farms.

Communist states generally have much less individual freedom than non-communist countries, placing a far greater emphasis on the collective good of the people as a whole, at least in theory.  In the past, and still today to a degree, many countries often prevent or greatly limit the practice of religion, order certain people to work certain jobs, and prevent people from moving around or moving to other nations. People lose all rights to ownership and government officials become incredibly powerful.


B) Bulgaria in the Bloc

  1. What was the Communist or Soviet Bloc? What nations in Eastern Europe were part of the Communist Bloc? When did the Communist Bloc end? 
  2. Why do you think Bulgaria’s transition to communism was so disruptive – full of forced leaving of the nation, bloodshed, and death?  How Bulgarians are estimated to have died in the process? Since these numbers are not precise, what would make it hard to know how many people were pushed out of Bulgaria or killed? Why would the government try to hide the real number?
  3. What rules and restrictions were put in place to force people to follow the communist party’s ways? What happened to those who didn’t agree with their views?
  4. Consider your knowledge of US history, consult your textbook, search the internet, or discuss with your teacher – when has the United States done similar things to people in the country? What were the government’s reasons for taking these actions?  In your opinion, are actions like these ever justified?
  5. There are many remnants of the communist era in Bulgaria today, most visibly in the form of monuments, pins, t-shirts, etc. Do you think Bulgaria is simply remembering the past, or is it honoring it through these items? What is the difference between the two?  Do you think it is important to remember the past, or should Bulgaria simply remove all traces of this controversial and traumatic time period?

The Communist Bloc were a group of nations which, at the end of World War II became joined in alliance by virtue of their communist governments.  While there was occasionally conflict between these nations, they were generally cooperative and united in their stance against the world’s capitalist nations, led by the United States.  Before its collapse in 1991, the Soviet Union (also known as the USSR or sometimes informally just called Russia) dominated the countries in Eastern Europe, forcing them to adopt communist governments after its own model.  For nearly fifty years, then, Bulgaria and its neighbors in Eastern Europe, often under threat of military intervention, followed the Soviet Union and its leadership.

At its largest extent under Stalin (from the late 1940s, when the Eastern Bloc was liberated from Nazi rule and rebuilt in the Soviet, communist image), the world Communist Bloc comprised more than a billion people or one-third of the world’s population. Its reach expanded to the continents of Europe, Asia, America, and Africa. Within Europe, the reach expanded to cover nearly half of the continent.

Like much of Europe during World War II, Bulgaria was dominated by Nazi Germany.  In Bulgaria’s case, its government collaborated and cooperated with the Nazis.  Sensing a change in fortunes in the final year of the war, as the suddenly resurgent Soviet Union pushed the weakened Nazi army back to Berlin, Bulgaria switched its allegiances.   In September 1944, the Soviet Union invaded the country, overthrowing Bulgaria’s opportunistic government and replacing it with one favorable to communist rule – the Bulgarian Communist Party, which counted less than 11,000 members at this point.  

With the continued support of the Soviet Union, the Bulgarian Communist Party began the bloodiest of all Communist takeovers in Eastern Europe.  In less than a year, it passed 2,138 death sentences in its quest to take over power of the country. According to some reports, over 90,000 dissidents were either forced to leave the country or were killed after arrests in a purge that occurred from 1948-49.

 

Todor Zhivkov memorial in Pravets.

Starting in 1946 and lasting until 1990, Bulgaria was officially known as The People’s Republic of Bulgaria.  The tiny Bulgarian Communist Party was beholden to the USSR from the start and relied on Soviet military and economic support during these decades.

 

Todor Zhivkov came to dominate the Bulgarian Communist Party during the 1950s.  His rule marked a period of unprecedented political and economic stability for Bulgaria, marked by complete submission of Bulgaria to Soviet directives.  If a person living in Bulgaria was loyal to the Community Party, then they would receive in return a secure job, food for their family, a good education, and health care. Bulgaria came to be one of the most prosperous Eastern European countries at the time.

A Soviet style parade from Bulgaria during the Communist era.

Those who didn’t follow the strict Soviet policies which ruled Bulgaria were ostracized and denied access to educational, personal, and job opportunities.  As a result, most Bulgarians had little choice but to accept what the Communist Party had to offer, for better or worse.

Many minority groups like the Roma (Gypsy) and Turkish populations were marginalized and persecuted. These groups were denied access to basic services, required to give up their own names for ones that sounded more Bulgarian.  Anyone who refused to do so would be pushed even further out of society, or worse yet, sent to concentration camps.

In order to encourage a sense of unity amidst such harsh tactics, Zhivkov built many monuments to Bulgarian national heroes.  In the process, he created new heroes, building statues in honor of those who “helped to bring the country to its Communist success,” and according to Zhivkov, “those who had not died in vain.” 

Today, evidence of Bulgaria’s communist propaganda efforts can be found in many of the major cities around the country.  Just across from Alexander Nevski Cathedral in Sofia there is an antique market.  Walking by the stalls, one sees numerous items from days long passed in Bulgaria.  One common signifier of loyalty to party and state during the communist era were lapel pins, which have become popular souvenirs for tourists in the 2000s.

image7
The pin on the far right includes the colors of Bulgaria (on the left half), and the symbol for communism placed on top of a red background (the symbolic color of communism). The pin on the bottom depicts Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, set again in the traditional red of communism. The final pin on the far left is from the Soviet Union, to which it was also important to demonstrate loyalty during the era of the Eastern Bloc. It says “April 12, Day of Cosmonautics,” celebrating the day Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to fly in space. This important world first was a point of pride in demonstrating communism’s superiority over capitalist nations, like the United States.
image6
Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet Cosmonaut and the first man to fly in space, was important symbol of communist superiority throughout the Eastern Bloc.  This t-shirt was found in Burgas, Bulgaria in 2016, where Gagarin’s fame still resonates with someone, even thirty years after the fall of communism in the country.


C) Is it love or is it hate?

  1. Watch the video under the photograph of the Buzludzha.  What does the last speaker say about how Bulgarians should view their history? Do you agree with him? Should we learn from our history so that we do not repeat it, or should we remove its symbols so that we are not reminded of it?  How is this similar to the debate surrounding the Civil War statues in America in the twenty-first century?
  2. Consider the graffiti artist who modified a communist-era statue in Sofia, Bulgaria Think about why people might choose to spray paint such an iconic statue. Why would citizens want to destroy it? What does the original monument symbolize? Why would Russia want to “stop the ‘desecration of the memory of Soviet soldiers who fell in the name of freeing Bulgaria and Europe from Nazism?’”
  3. Why do some Bulgarians miss the communist era?  What are some ways that the Bulgaria government could help to address these issues in the modern day? 
  4. Read the following from The Guardian: “A joke encapsulates the ambivalent attitude toward the communist past, as it exemplifies the traditional ironic response of Bulgarians both before and after the fall of communism. A woman sits bolt upright in the middle of the night. She jumps out of bed and rushes to the bathroom to look in the medicine cabinet. Then, she runs into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator. Finally, she dashes to the window and looks out into the street.  Relieved, she returns to the bedroom. Her husband asks, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ‘I had a terrible nightmare’, she says, ‘I dreamed we could still afford to buy medicine, that the refrigerator was absolutely full, and that the streets were safe and clean.’ ‘How is that a nightmare?’ The woman shakes her head, ‘I thought the communists were back in power.’”
    1. Write a brief explanation of the joke. How does this joke show the problems with communism? What are the benefits of communism according to the joke? What is the major downfall to it? How do the people in the joke feel about the time period? Why do you think they would describe it as a “nightmare?”

On January 15, 1990, as the Eastern Bloc crumbled around it, the National Assembly formally abolished the Communist Party’s leading role in the country, removing the party from its place of power after nearly 50 years. The first democratic elections in the country were held in June of that year. They were the first free elections since 1931, and resulted in multiparty democracy.  Later that year, the National Assembly voted to change the country’s name to the Republic of Bulgaria and removed the Communist state emblem from the national flag.

Since that time, Bulgaria has transitioned to a country run by a parliamentary republic that holds regular elections. Just like in the United States, there are three branches of government typified by separation of powers – judicial, executive, and legislative.  Communism has been abolished, and capitalism – with its inherent winners and losers, rich and poor – has become the dominant economic system in the country.

Not everyone is happy with Bulgaria’s transformation, though. Some view the changes positively, and are excited for the future, while others view it negatively, and long for the past. On the one hand, some Bulgarians celebrate the country’s nearly 30 years of democracy, as well as its membership in NATO (a formerly anti-communist alliance created by the USSR’s greatest rival, the United States!) and the European Union (an organization started as a capitalist free trade agreement in Western Europe).  Additionally, after the fall of communism, international travel and emigration became possible; many people were finally able to leave the country for the first time since the country declared allegiance to Germany and the Soviet Union.

Others view the change as a negative move.  In the early 1990s, there was a rush to distance the new, democratic Bulgaria from its communist past – the nation’s flag and anthem were altered, holidays were cancelled, and even streets were renamed to eliminate connections to communist symbols and figures.  Many of these symbols may have been initiated in the name propagandistic nationalism – as a deliberate effort to build allegiance to and pride in the communist version of Bulgaria, but the fact is that they worked

Imagine if The Star-Spangled Banner – either the song or the flag itself – were replaced abruptly in the United States…  These are mere symbols, and it could be argued that the United States would still be the United States, with all of its greatness and flaws intact…  But they are symbols that mean a lot to a lot of people, and not everyone would accept their absence readily.

Buzludzha, one of Bulgaria’s more striking communist-era monuments.

Some buildings and monuments survived the fall of communism, however.  Most have come to  disrepair, like Buzludzha (above), left to crumble under the weight of time and the elements. In other cases, with the push towards more democratic, capitalist system, statues and buildings were destroyed. While in most cases these acts are not condoned by the Bulgarian government, it has not stopped people from acting.  Some Bulgarians view this vandalism as an embarrassment, the sudden decrease in population from the opening of the borders as a dangerous loss, and increasing instability in the suddenly market-vulnerable economy as an unwelcome change.

In Bulgaria, this seemingly epochal transition from communism to capitalism is known simply as ‘the change’ (promianata).  Perhaps this stark name, evocative in its simplicity fits this dramatic upheaval well – just as no one asks “Elvis who?”, no one needs to ask which change you mean in Bulgaria.

superman

This hurry to destroy the physical reminders of the past has slowed in the generation or so since the fall of communism.  Some Bulgarians are now beginning to see the communist era as a time that was better, more prosperous, and more secure.  The Guardian reported in the article Daring to Remember Bulgaria, Pre-1989, “Only a small number of Bulgarians views the pre-1989 system as undeniably criminal.  For the majority, the regime was restrictive of political and economic freedoms, but provided security, and the plummeting living standards in the 1990s contributed to this perception. The blanket criminalization of communist rule in Bulgaria is a failure.” 

This nostalgia for a time that seemed to offer more security, stability, and prosperity is the cause of recent shifts in the attitudes of many Bulgarians for the communist past.  The Bulgaria of today is perceived as somewhat unstable due to factors like the massive brain drain, economic recession as a consequence of ties to the EU, and a government in the thralls of crony capitalism – all problems that have only become more pronounced  over the past few decades, not less. Many Bulgarians are also searching for meaning and dignity in their new lives after the communist time, which emphasized unity and collective action for the majority.  There is a strong sense of fear and trepidation of being remembered as a “loser” nation – after all, communism, Bulgaria’s animating ideology for the better part of a life time has nearly disappeared from the Earth, and the country is struggling to make capitalism work.  Finally, as with most young generations that do not grow up under a specific time period, the youngest members of Bulgaria’s society are beginning to look back with a tentative, but growing curiosity – they never personally suffered the repressive aspects of communism, but know all too well the pain of low wages and economic hardship under the capitalist system.


D) Reflections around the world

  1. Discuss with your classmates:
    1. What type of feeling do you think that Soviet-style government buildings are meant to inspire in the people of a country?  What reason would the country have to make people feel that way? Why do you think there are so many flags decorating these buildings?
    2. How do these buildings compare to the Capitol in Washington DC? What feeling does it intended to create in most Americans upon seeing it?  In what ways is the flag we have waving at the capitol building different or the same as the flags waving in Beijing, China and Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam?
  2. How might the statues that you have seen in this lesson serve to be both inspirational and terrifying?
  3. Research Bulgaria’s past and find an important historical event that Bulgarians can find pride in. Design a new statue that would inspire citizens without terrifying. Make your design beautiful, flowing, and the opposite of imposing communist era statues. Feel free to use other famous statues or monuments as a starting point.g
The map shows communism at its height in the 1980s. Red signifies countries with official communist government; orange is a nation that was “progressing” towards socialism.

Spreading outward from Russia (1917) across vast portions of the world, including dozens of countries on portions of four continents, communism adopted forms and imagery that became consistent and predictable across many nations.  Much like a formula or recipe, Soviet-style communism used the same techniques, encouraged the construction of similar looking buildings, and exported an artistic style known as Soviet realism for use in ostensibly nationalistic monuments such as those built to memorialize soldiers and workers who had sacrificed to advance the cause of communism. Many of Communist leaders – from Russia to China, from Cuba to Nicaragua, were in close or constant communication, often deferring to wishes of Mother Russia, the first nation where a successful communist revolution had been carried out.  Figures like Marx and Lenin became icons across the Communist world, and a certain sameness can still be felt in the twenty-first century, decades after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The two sculptures below are from Vietnam (on the left, still ruled by a single party communist government) and Bulgaria (on the right). Each statue has the same general Soviet realist style and are meant inspire similar feelings in the viewer – in this case, larger-than-life soldiers who still manage to be faceless and generic.  They could be you.  These monuments stand as tall as medium-sized trees, an imposing scale meant to inspire fear, as well as communist party pride.  It is through one’s service – be it as a soldier, as a worker, a farmer, as some part of the collective – that one finds purpose.

Another common symbol tying these nations together is Vladimir Lenin, the communist revolutionary responsible for bringing communism to the country of Russia.  His statue can be found in practically every country that was connected to the Communist Bloc, past or present. The monument on the left is from the Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia, Bulgaria, while the one on the right is from Lenin Park in Havana, Cuba.  Lenin died at a relatively young age, before many of the worst totalitarian impulses of twentieth century communism came to light.  He therefore remained a powerful and potent symbol of the communist ideal, long after the brutality of men like Joseph Stalin had cast the humanitarian nature of communism into doubt.

Below are images of official communist buildings, used for meetings between major leaders and party members. The first image is the Great Hall of the People from Beijing, China, a country that became communist in 1949 and remains so today. The other image is from Sofia, Bulgaria, which became communist in 1940s. 

The buildings are similar in design and purpose. Both have a strong, geometric design and imposing facade which leaves the viewer feeling small and insignificant beneath the looming, massive power of the state.  Here, inspiration and aspiration play less a role than sheer awe – the citizen of either country should simply submit to the might of the communism party, which can only be compared to a mountain – insurmountable and indomitable.  China’s Great Hall of the People is still the home to functioning communist government and is adorned with red – the international color of communism.  In the past, Bulgaria’s government buildings would have been similarly decorated – but since “the change,” red flags and banners have become symbols of nostalgia rather than power. 

Activities

  1. Watch the above video, The Revolutions of 1989.  Create a visual representation of the road that led to the end of communism focused either on Bulgaria or on the overall Communist world at the end of the 1980s.
    1. Find a list of important events, laws, or actions that occurred or led up to your chosen event.
    2. Design a road that has both a beginning and an end. It can be any kind of road – a country road, a main street through town, a highway, etc. Be creative!
    3. Design a “stop” along the road for each event that you find. The stops can be traffic lights, stop signs, exit ramps, bridges, toll booths, road hazards, buildings, etc.
    4. Label each stop with the name and date of the event. The events should be added to the road map in sequential order, starting at the beginning of the road and   ending at your final event.
    5. Under the title of each stop, write two (2) complete sentences that describe the important and interesting information about the stop.
    6. After you’ve designed your road map and your stops, fill in empty space by illustrating details related to each event, such as the problem/issue, the place, and/or the people involved. Your illustrations do not have to be artistic masterpieces, but should be neat, relevant, clearly completed with effort, and colorful.
  2. Read the article “Should We Treat Confederate Monuments the Way Moscow and Budapest have Treated Communist Statues?” Once you have finished reading the article, write a review of your thoughts that includes both a summary of the article as well as a critique of its argument. Follow the format provided below:
    1. In at least one page, summarize the article and the main argument made by the author. Avoid following the author’s wording too closely.  Use direct quotes when necessary and cite the page number (if applicable) where the quote appeared.  Paraphrase and use your own words when summarizing the bulk of the article.  “Remember summarizing is like pruning a tree; once finished all you have left is the trunk and few branches.”
      1. DO NOT use the following:  “In this article . . .” or “The article. . .”.  Instead refer to the title or the author by name:  “According to ____” or “_____ states that. . .”
    2. Once you have finished the summary begin on the critique.  When critiquing (criticizing + or -) keep the following in mind:
      1. Your reaction to the author’s main argument and ideas (did the author cause you to modify or question your ideas or did he confirm them?)
      2. How were the ideas presented—clear and concise, vague and difficult to understand?
      3. Was the article based on fact, opinion, or assumption?  Give examples.  What sources did he use: newspapers, journals, diaries, interviews, research, . . .?
      4. What is the author’s purpose? Is the author taking a neutral, objective view of a topic? Or is the author advocating one specific view of a topic?
    3. Conclude your review by summarizing your overall view of the article. What did you think of his article? What is your opinion?
  3. Create an infographic poster either about Communism as a whole, or about Bulgaria’s past with Communism. Include the following information in your poster:
    1. Important dates and events related to its rise
    2. Achievements, controversies, and protests that occurred during the communist party’s rule
    3. Important leaders
    4. Pros and cons of communism
    5. Below is an example of an infographic poster.  For maximum impact: Stick to only two or three colors for your poster, make the design simple and clean, include images, and make it visually interesting.

      Ms. Rita Ulrich is an Openendedsocialstudies.org contributor, with lessons focused on the 2010s refugee crisis in Bulgaria, as well as many other topics.  She graduated with a bachelors of science from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, majoring in both social science education as well as psychology. Afterwards, she pursued a masters in international education from the University of Sydney, Australia. Ms. Ulrich began as a teacher rather unusually, by deciding to start her career overseas in Seoul, South Korea. After falling in love with the culture, she decided to stay for a total of four years, spending most of her time teaching both middle school and high school students. Then, Ms. Ulrich moved to Qinhuangdao, China, teaching at Northeastern University at Qinhuangdao working with freshmen and junior students. She returned to the United States in 2015 in order to continue teaching at an American school, becoming a recipient of the Fulbright-Hays award to Bulgaria and Greece in 2017. She currently teaches social studies and A.P. psychology at a college preparatory high school in North Carolina.

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