The Lost World of Bulgarian Communism

Kristen R. Ghodsee

In studies of the Soviet bloc and its afterlives, Bulgaria has attracted little attention. But the country’s history, from wartime partisan resistance to state socialism to postcommunist collapse, is essential to understanding the history of the 20th century.

Bulgarians, like other Eastern Europeans, have in recent years gravitated toward cultural artifacts from their country's socialist past, like the Buzludzha monument in central Bulgaria. (Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

Bulgaria didn’t attract the same attention as other countries in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. It was never likely to be the cause of a hot war between the superpowers, and its leader, Todor Zhivkov, didn’t possess the same notoriety as figures like Enver Hoxha in Albania or the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Yet Bulgaria has a fascinating history of its own, which sheds light on the experience of twentieth-century state socialism.

Kristen Ghodsee is professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s the author of several works about communism in Eastern Europe and Bulgaria in particular, including The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe and, with Mitchell Orenstein, Taking Stock of Shock: Social Consequences of the 1989 Revolutions.

This is an edited transcript from an episode of Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.


DF

During the Cold War, Bulgaria arguably attracted less attention in the West than any other communist state in Eastern Europe — perhaps because it created fewer problems for the Soviet Union than any other state. Why do you think that was?

KRG

You have to go back deep into history to understand the relationship between Bulgaria and Russia, even before the existence of the Soviet Union. Bulgaria was under the imperial domination of the Ottoman Empire for the better part of five centuries. In the mid- to late nineteenth century, there were various national independence movements in Bulgaria. The Russians were allies of those movements, based on pan-Slavism and anti-Ottoman sentiment, as well as imperial Russian designs on the Balkans and the Black Sea. In 1878, during the Russian-Turkish War, the Russians were the ones who helped Bulgaria gain its independence.

That was very important. There was a deep historical tie between the Bulgarians and the Russians that was maintained after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Bulgaria was a very close ally of the Soviet Union. In other countries, it was felt that the kind of communism that was imposed upon them after 1945 was a form of Soviet imperialism — as it was in places like Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Certainly Poland, which had been partitioned in the eighteenth century, was not at all happy about having what they saw as a foreign political system imposed upon them.

Whereas in the Balkans, and particularly in Bulgaria, there was a more natural, homegrown affinity for socialism and communism. There were active communist-led partisan detachments in Bulgaria during the Second World War. I think that Bulgaria came into its communism much earlier and much stronger than a lot of the other East European countries that fell into the Eastern Bloc after 1945.

I’ve just finished reading a wonderful book by the historian Maria Todorova called The Lost World of Socialists at Europe’s Margins. It’s a deep dive into the history of Bulgarian communist idealism. It’s clear that Bulgaria had a very strong leftist movement from early on. That was partly to do with its postcolonial status and partly to do with the circulation of intellectuals.

From the Western perspective, during the Cold War, it was easy to look at a place like Hungary after the 1956 uprising, or Czechoslovakia after 1968, or Poland with the Solidarity movement, and see that there were possibilities to get these countries to turn against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. I don’t think anybody in the West seriously considered that Bulgaria was a potential weak spot in the Eastern Bloc. Bulgaria was always fairly loyal to the Soviet Union, and there wasn’t a large domestic dissident movement against communism. To the extent that there was a movement, it was minor, late, and narrowly focused on environmental issues.

DF

Going back to the early twentieth century, as you said, Bulgaria had an important socialist movement with figures like Dimitar Blagoev. It went on to develop one of the largest communist parties in the Balkans during the interwar period. How did that movement take shape, and under what social and political conditions?

KRG

That’s a huge question: you could almost teach a class on that, so I’ll try to give the bare bones. Dimitar Blagoev is a very important figure. He studied in tsarist Russia, in St Petersburg, and came back to Bulgaria in the 1880s. Eventually he was kicked out of the country, and he began to form the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party.

As Maria Todorova describes so beautifully in her book, during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the leftist factionalism in the Balkans was extreme. In Bulgaria, you had the “Broads” and the “Narrows,” in a similar way that you had the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks in Russia, with all sorts of different ideas about whether the Social Democrats should be a movement or a party and how they should organize themselves. What were their objectives? Parliamentary participation? Revolution?

These are all questions that should be familiar to anybody who knows the wider history of the Left. But what was really interesting in the case of Bulgaria was that it had to deal with three horrendous wars in a short space of time: the First Balkan war, the Second Balkan war, and then the First World War. They did quite well in a coalition during the First Balkan War, but then they were unhappy with the division of Macedonia. That led to the Second Balkan War, which resulted in considerable territorial losses for Bulgaria.

Bulgaria was already smarting from the terms of its independence from the Ottoman Empire. The country was initially supposed to be much bigger than it became. The Treaty of San Stefano was going to give Bulgaria a massive territory that spanned from the Black Sea to the Aegean. But the great powers were worried about Russian expansionism in the Balkans, so there was a second treaty, the Treaty of Berlin, which shrank the size of Bulgaria considerably, much to the chagrin of the Bulgarians.

As a result, Bulgaria felt betrayed by Britain and France. The Bulgarians were given a German king they didn’t really want. There were always underlying political issues in Bulgaria that later came to the fore, because the country was very unhappy about the outcomes of the Second Balkan War and World War I.

During the interwar period, there were strong communist and social democratic movements in Bulgaria, but also a very strong agrarian movement, led by Alexander Stamboliyski. Stamboliyski became Bulgaria’s leader after World War I. However, he was assassinated in a military coup.

In 1923, there was a communist-led uprising against the military regime that was responsible for Stamboliyski’s assassination. The Bulgarians liked to call it the first anti-fascist uprising in the world; they were very proud of it. But it was very ill-advised: it failed miserably, and it led to the utter decimation of the left-wing forces. Many people were arrested or sent into exile.

For the rest of the interwar period, Bulgarian communism was an underground movement, but there was still a lot of activity going on. Many of the people who received prison sentences were in the Soviet Union in the 1930s receiving military training. The Bulgarian Communist Party, having been suppressed, then came back with a vengeance during World War II, through the partisan struggle against what they called the “monarcho-fascist” Nazi-allied government.

DF

How did the experience of Bulgaria during the Second World War contrast with that of neighbors such as Yugoslavia or Greece, and how successful was the communist-led partisan movement that you mentioned?

KRG

Bulgaria signed a pact that allied them with Nazi Germany as well as Hungary, Romania, and Italy. After the signing of the pact, those states invaded Yugoslavia and Greece. The big difference between the partisan struggles in Yugoslavia and Greece on the one hand and the partisan struggle in Bulgaria on the other was that Greece and Yugoslavia were occupied. The population in those countries was utterly opposed to the occupation, so they were very willing to help the partisans in the mountains.

The partisans in Yugoslavia were primarily communists. In Greece, they were a mixed bag, with communists and nationalists, and that becomes very important when we think about the Greek Civil War at a later stage. In Bulgaria, almost all of the partisans were communists. A significant percentage were Jewish, because of the deportations of the Macedonian Jews after the invasion of the Balkans.

In the cases of Yugoslavia and Greece, the partisan movement was very important because they had the participation and support of the population. In Bulgaria, it was more mixed. The population did not live under occupation, and they were reluctant to help the partisans. The government also put very punitive measures in place for anybody who was caught helping them. They did so at great risk to themselves.

For the most part, the partisans in Bulgaria were an annoying thorn in the side of the government and of the Wehrmacht. They blew up supply lines, carried out targeted assassinations, and wreaked little bits of havoc here and there whenever they could. But they were an important part of what ultimately happened as the Red Army was moving westward. When Soviet troops got to the northeast corner of Bulgaria, there was an uprising on September 9, 1944. The partisans came down from the mountains at this point and took the first steps in establishing what would become the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.

DF

In your book The Left Side of History, you write about the story of Frank Thompson, whose brother was the famous historian Edward Thompson. Could you tell us a little bit about his life and death in Bulgaria during the war?

KRG

Frank Thompson was the son of an intellectual family in England. He was the older brother of Edward Palmer Thompson, the great labor historian. He was a student with the physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, who only passed recently, and who was somebody I knew personally. That’s how I got interested in the story of Frank Thompson.

Thompson went to Oxford and met the future novelist Iris Murdoch. He was rather attracted to her, and his way of flirting with her in the political club was to complain about the politics of the British Labour Party. At some point, Iris Murdoch just turned to him and said, “Well, why don’t you join the Communist Party?”

Thompson left us with some wonderful insights into his thinking from his journals and letters. He ran home and said, “I’ve just met a stunner of a girl, and I’m going to join the Communist Party for her.” He also said that he decided it would be good to sober up before he joined. But the next day, he read Vladimir Lenin’s The State and Revolution and marched on down and signed up.

He volunteered to fight in World War II, two days before the official British declaration of war and a year before he was due to be conscripted. He had quite an illustrious military career. He ended up in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and he was parachuted into Bulgaria in January 1944 to help coordinate supply runs to the partisans.

Those partisans, as I said, were overwhelmingly communists. Many of them were poor. Some of them were intellectuals — the children of middle-class lawyers and teachers. They were having a hard time of it because the Bulgarian government was very repressive.

The British government was trying to drop supplies to them and sending officers in order to increase resistance in the Balkans. Frank Thompson’s mission was a disaster. They went into Bulgaria against the advice of the Yugoslav partisans with whom they had coordinated on the border. There were all sorts of problems with weather and supply drops and radios not working.

E. P. Thompson himself suggested that Winston Churchill may have been purging the ranks of communists, and that was one of the reasons why Thompson wasn’t properly supplied. There’s a lot of speculation, but at the end of the day, they were ambushed, and Thompson was taken prisoner. He was tortured and interrogated, and even though he should have been protected as a uniformed British officer under the Geneva Conventions, he was summarily executed. This was just months before Bulgaria switched sides in the war.

Thompson was an avid letter writer and diarist. His younger brother, who had also fought in the war, came across an incredible cache of documents from his brother: letters that he wrote to Iris Murdoch, letters that he wrote to his parents, letters that he wrote to E. P., plus all of his diaries, which were eventually returned to the family. E. P. Thompson and his mother put together a little collection of writings in 1947 called There Is a Spirit in Europe.

It’s long out of print, but it’s a fascinating book, because it gives you a day-to-day account of what it was like to be a soldier in World War II and what it was like to work with the partisans in Bulgaria during this late part of the war. I think it had a really profound influence on E. P. Thompson. He spent the rest of his life grappling with the question of why his brother was shot when he should have been kept as a prisoner of war.

The story of the partisan resistance is something that a lot of people don’t really know enough about. I didn’t know about it myself. When I lived in Sofia for many years while doing research, the stop where I got off the metro every day was called Major Thompson. I didn’t know who that was until a rather serendipitous meeting with Freeman Dyson at the Institute for Advanced Study in 2006, when I learned this story. It’s a rich and fascinating history. There have been many good books not only about the partisan struggles but also about the British involvement in those struggles with the SOE.

DF

How was the communist system established in Bulgaria following the war? And what was the significance of two events, both of which took place in 1949: the death of Georgi Dimitrov and the trial of Traicho Kostov?

KRG

Georgi Dimitrov was a very important figure. He was the head of the Communist International (Comintern). He was famously blamed by the Nazis for the Reichstag fire because he was in Germany at the time. Dimitrov defended himself in court and was acquitted. He became a hero of the international left in the 1930s. There was a famous quote at the time: “There’s only one brave man in Germany, and he’s a Bulgarian.”

After the war, the Bulgarian monarchy was essentially told to put everything that they wanted on a train and leave the country — they were exiled rather than being killed — and the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was established with Dimitrov as its first leader. He was a popular figure, well-respected internationally, but also very close to Josip Broz Tito, as were many partisans in Bulgaria, who were close to the Yugoslav partisans during this period. Then Joseph Stalin expelled Tito’s Yugoslavia from the Communist bloc for the crime of “national deviationism.”

That was a very loaded term. There was a dream of a Balkan federation that would have included Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and possibly Greece. The Greek Civil War was also going on in the background at this time. There were a lot of political questions about what was happening in the Balkans as Stalin, Churchill, and, at a later stage, Harry Truman were carving up their bits and pieces of Europe.

Dimitrov died in mysterious circumstances after a trip to Moscow. Some people believe that he was poisoned by Stalin because of a fear that he was going to follow the path of Tito and try to have a communist country that was independent of Moscow and independent of Stalin.

In this moment of struggle, there were a series of show trials of people who were in any way associated with the Yugoslav partisans, including some prominent partisan heroes: every single one of them were communists, but they were not necessarily willing to lay down at the feet of Moscow. Remember, these were countries that had been under Ottoman imperial domination for the better part of five hundred years, so they weren’t keen to join yet another imperial formation. But this ended up with the arrest and persecution of many of these partisans.

DF

And this is what led to the trial and execution of Traicho Kostov?

KRG

Yes, Kostov was the victim of this purge. A Stalinist puppet called Valko Chervenkov came to power, and you had a four-year reign of Stalinism until Stalin’s death. Eventually Chervenkov was replaced by Todor Zhivkov, who served as the leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party and Bulgaria itself for the next thirty-five years, until the collapse of communism in 1989.

DF

Following on from that: First of all, how was Bulgaria affected by the process of de-Stalinization that was inaugurated from the Soviet Union by Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s after the death of Stalin? And second, how would you characterize the leadership of Todor Zhivkov? How did his leadership style differ from, for example, Romania’s leader Nicolae Ceaușescu?

KRG

Under Zhivkov, there was an attempt to liberalize policies. Zhivkov himself had been a partisan, and he knew many of the men who were persecuted. He took real issue, I think, with the persecution of these men, whose only crime was having associated with the Yugoslav partisans during the Second World War.

He did try to create something like civil society. Given the one-party nature of the regime and the centrally planned economy, obviously, this was still a very rigid political system. But compared to other places like Romania or East Germany, Bulgaria was a softer regime. That’s not saying that it was perfect; obviously, there were still a lot of problems. Zhivkov was in power for a long time, and as he got older, I think he did become more paranoid.

Changes of leadership in Moscow obviously affected political circumstances in Bulgaria as well. When glasnost and perestroika happened under Mikhail Gorbachev, there was always a question as to what extent Bulgaria was going to liberalize, or whether they thought this was just another trend in the Soviet Union that would pass with the hard-liners coming back in. It was not a homogenous period of rule. It changed over the course of thirty-five years.

If you look at something like life expectancy, when the war ended in Bulgaria, the average life expectancy was fifty-two years, whereas by 1989, it was almost seventy. There was education, industrialization, modernization, and all sorts of infrastructure being built in Bulgaria during that time.

It’s a very tragic period of history because of the way communism was established during those Stalinist struggles in the 1940s and early ’50s. But once it was established, the leadership style of Zhivkov was quite different from that of Ceaușescu, for instance, who was a megalomaniac.

Zhivkov played the role of a goofy peasant leader. There was a kind of familiarity to him. Many people in Bulgaria are quite nostalgic for the communist period, partially because it was not as repressive as other places. That’s not to say that it wasn’t repressive, because it was. But compared to other Eastern Bloc leaders at the time, Zhivkov was not among the worst.

DF

When the system eventually did fall in the late 1980s, would you say it was primarily driven by events in the rest of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, or was there a strong domestic impulse behind it as well, whether from inside or outside the system?

KRG

A lot of Bulgarians like to fantasize that there was a domestic impulse, but there really wasn’t. There was a movement called Ecoglasnost, which was about the pollution of the Danube. There was a debate between the Bulgarians and the Romanians, because the Romanians were polluting the river. Some prominent people in the Bulgarian Communist Party joined this Ecoglasnost movement. They were very upset by the environmental degradation of Bulgaria.

But overall, there wasn’t the kind of protest movement that you had in places like Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Poland. You also have to understand that Yugoslavia was next door with a very different kind of socialism, called “self-managing socialism.” It was very open to the West — Yugoslavs could travel — and so Bulgarians often compared themselves to Yugoslavia.

Todor Zhivkov and Georgi Dimitrov during a congress in 1946. (Wikimedia Commons)

Because of that, Bulgarians felt that they lived in a much more repressive system. Bulgarians could not travel very easily, and there were more shortages. They did not have access to Western goods, and the political culture was much more controlled by the government, while the Yugoslavs could get all sorts of Western goods, Western media, and Western music.

In Bulgaria, all of that was underground. The way that people expressed their dissent in Bulgaria was by illegally trading records or cassette tapes of Pink Floyd or heavy metal music. It did not have the same character as the dissident movements in other countries.

After Todor Zhivkov’s resignation, it soon became apparent that he didn’t actually have any private property after having been in charge of this country for thirty-five years, unlike some of the other leaders. He had access and privileges as the head of state, but so far as we know, he didn’t have any big hidden accounts or things that he had transferred into his own name.

The Bulgarian Communist Party immediately changed its name to the Bulgarian Socialist Party. It was a putsch from the inside: the people that forced Zhivkov out were members of his own party. It was from within the ranks of the party that you had what was called a “democratic revolution,” although I hesitate to use that term in the Bulgarian case. In the first free, multiparty elections, the Bulgarian Socialist Party won, which meant that the people of Bulgaria were not as fed up with the rule of the Communists as they were in other places.

They pushed Zhivkov out, but the people that came into power were essentially already in power below Zhivkov prior to 1989. Not a whole lot really changed in Bulgaria. I think that’s reflective of the fact that the Zhivkov regime, despite its repressive components, was not as bad as other places.

Bulgaria was never invaded by the Soviet Union. There were never Russian tanks putting down a domestic uprising, the way there was in Hungary or Czechoslovakia, or the threat of such intervention, as in Poland. It was a very different set of local political circumstances.

DF

Over the last two or three decades, how has Bulgaria addressed the communist period? What relationship does the latter-day Bulgarian Socialist Party have with the communist heritage?

KRG

Very little. I think there are some stalwarts in the party, but for the most part, as with so many European socialist parties, it has become a kind of centrist party. It has been in and out of power. It has imposed on Bulgaria the same neoliberal policies that all parties in Eastern Europe have been forced to impose on their countries in the last thirty years.

I’ve written many books and articles about what I call “red nostalgia” for the communist period in places like Bulgaria. It’s common throughout the former socialist world: you have “Yugo-nostalgia” in Yugoslavia, or “ostalgie” in the former East Germany.

Obviously, there were many good things that came after the end of communism in Bulgaria. People could travel; they could buy jeans and cigarettes and five hundred different kinds of shampoo — the consumer bonanza that capitalism brings, and that they really wanted. It’s important to highlight that it sucks to live in an economy of constant shortage. Many people were very angry about that.

But the problem is that the various governments that have ruled Bulgaria for the last thirty years have all been corrupt to a greater or lesser degree. All of the state-owned enterprises — the properties that were supposedly the collective wealth of the Bulgarian people — were privatized in a horrendously unfair and corrupt way during the 1990s and early 2000s. This process created the mafia and a few extremely rich oligarchs.

Some people fled the country with resources that should have been collectively distributed to the citizenry but weren’t. I can give you multiple examples of this. My first book, The Red Riviera, talks about this process of privatization and the tourism industry. My second book, Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe, talks about the process in the zinc-mining complex in a town called Madan.

But the biggest negative, which is continuing to this day, is the demographic catastrophe that has struck Bulgaria. It is the fastest-shrinking country in the world. Projections for 2050 are that it will lose an additional 20 to 30 percent of its population. It has suffered from massive amounts of out-migration and a total collapse in fertility rates.

For a country that has existed for the better part of 1,300 years (if you go with Bulgarian historiography) it is tragic to me seeing how difficult life has become in Bulgaria for many people. It is not at all surprising that they leave and that they refuse to have children — or if they do have children, they have them abroad. Demographers call what’s happening in Bulgaria today, thirty years after the collapse of communism, a “demographic death spiral.”

It is very difficult to reverse a situation like the one that Bulgaria finds itself in today. Ivan Krastev, a wonderful Bulgarian intellectual, wrote a book called The Light that Failed with his colleague Stephen Holmes. He was really talking about the failed promises of democracy in Eastern Europe. Krastev admits that the demographic collapse is one of the biggest failures of the transition from socialism to capitalism in the last thirty years.

I was in Bulgaria very early on in this process. I was in Eastern Europe the summer after the Berlin Wall fell. I remember the euphoria — the feeling that communism was over, and people were going to have freedom. There was the possibility of a peace dividend, living in a more just world, without the Cold War and the constant threat of nuclear war that we all lived under during the 1980s. It’s sad to see that all of the goodwill and the spirit of those early years has been squandered.

My colleague Mitchell Orenstein and I have published a book called Taking Stock of Shock: Social Consequences of the 1989 Revolutions that looks at economic, demographic, public opinion, and ethnographic data for twenty-seven countries over the last thirty years. We tried to take a bird’s-eye view and see whether or not this transition process had been a success or a failure. We found, not only in Bulgaria but throughout the region, that the transition has been wildly successful for some people — probably about a third of the population. For the other two-thirds, it’s actually been a huge catastrophe.

There are many people living in the region today who do not have the standard of living that they enjoyed when communism ended in 1989 or 1991. That’s after thirty years of freedom, democracy, capitalism, free markets, and all the promises that those things were supposed to bring. I don’t think a lot of people realize that.

DF

In recent years, the Buzludzha monument has developed a kind of cult status as an alternative tourist attraction. How would you say that fits into these wider debates about historical memory and Bulgarian communism?

KRG

This monument is supposed to commemorate the founding of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party in 1891. Architecturally, it’s a stunning monument. It looks like a spaceship.

I think many people are fascinated by the futurism of communist architecture. There are new books coming out looking at different monuments all over Yugoslavia and elsewhere. There’s a particular kind of brutalist, modernist, or avant-garde futurist style associated with these monuments. The Buzludzha monument has been allowed to fall into disrepair, and people are trying to save it.

I think it’s become an interesting symbol for trying to save some of the better parts of socialism. You’re seeing for the first time, after thirty years, the emergence of new democratic socialist parties in places like Slovenia and Croatia that were unthinkable as recently as five or ten years ago. There’s a recognition that thirty years of capitalism and democracy have not delivered on their promises. There’s a dream of going back and recapturing some of the good things that occurred under these regimes: social stability, safety nets, women’s rights, and workers’ rights.

It’s important to dream, and to understand. Those experiments with twentieth-century state communism or state socialism, whatever you want to call it — some people call it “state capitalism” — ultimately failed because their economies crumbled, and their political systems couldn’t handle the stress. They were too repressive and censorious: people bristled against all the various incursions into their private lives by the state. But on the other hand, there were dreams and ideals and a real critique of capitalism.

By the 1980s, in many of these countries — and especially in Bulgaria, I would say — the generation of people that had fought for socialism as partisans were still in power. The children or even the grandchildren of those people were frustrated. They wanted skateboards and jeans, and they wanted to travel. They wanted to go to Paris and do all the things that young people do.

They didn’t understand that that was going to come with a trade-off. They were going to have to give up some of the benefits that they had from socialism, like housing, good public transportation, education, health care, or subsidized food.

What I feel is emerging today — certainly when I talk to people in this part of the world — is a sense of wanting to go back and reclaim some of this energy and optimism that existed in places like Bulgaria in the late nineteenth century — the idea that these countries could be independent and forge their way into the future on their own path, without the interference of the great powers, and that there was a scientific socialist ideology that would help you find the way.

It’s not just this monument: it’s many different monuments, symbols, movies, and all sorts of cultural artifacts of this era that recapture a sense of optimism and a futuristic, utopian outlook that gets us out of the morass of what people call late-stage capitalism. There is a reason why people are gravitating to symbols of the socialist past. It’s not just kitsch or irony. It’s about trying to go back and capture some of the utopian spirit of these earlier generations, because we need it really badly right now.

We have to mine the past for all the political and ideological tools we can in order to repurpose and reuse them for the present day. It’s important to keep them in their historical context. But it’s also important to remember that history is something that orients us toward the future.

We should be looking to stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. These cultural artifacts create a chain of connection back, but also forward. I think that’s part of why there’s been a reemergence of interest in this place, almost as a pilgrimage site for people.