“My Grandfather always used to say that Communist Sofia was awful – we had no freedom – things are much better now and my other Grandfather would tell me that life was much better when we had communism in Sofia, everyone had a job”
Martin gathered us around at the start of the tour and said that he would let us make our own minds up about communism.
I stood there in the freezing cold, huddled into my coat wondering just what the hell it was that I had signed up for.
I know very little about Communism. I’m too young to remember the cold war and the UK was never affected in the way Germany, Russia and eastern Europe were.
But Bulgaria, well Bulgaria was considered a communist country right up to 1989 (although some people I spoke to saw it more of a ‘socialist dictatorship’ ally. Which means that people much younger than me remember what it’s like to have to stand in line for hours to be able to buy bread.
It seems even 30 years after the collapse of communism, it still effects everything from the fabric of the buildings to the make-up of society.
One of the best ways of understanding a little more about how communism affected eastern Europe is to combine a morning at the Socialist Art museum with an afternoon walking tour around the centre of Sofia. The statues, paintings and propaganda films of the period add something to the buildings and places pointed out during 3 hours walking around the city.
The first thing I had to get my head around, when I got to the art museum was the sheer size of the socialist experiment. Huge numbers of people were used to build dams, highways, railways and concrete apartment blocks, literally turning the people of Bulgaria, in one generation, from farmers to industrial and urban workers.
I can understand why people have really mixed feeling about Communism. Employment is just one example, at one point in Bulgaria it was a crime to be unemployed. Think about that for a second – no worries about losing your job, how to make sure you are still relevant in the job market, whether you can pay your bills. Just a notification from the state of what job you will be doing and where it is.
But for others this was a huge problem, as it took away an individuals ability to be able to control their own life. They had no say in where they lived or what work they did. At anytime families could be split apart and uprooted from one side of the country to another.
The Socialist Art museum combines an outdoor park, with huge statues of leaders like Lenin, Stalin and Dimitrov with an indoor selection of paintings and films. They show how the state controlled both artistic expression and worship of the ‘leader’ as the core of the communist ideal. 5 year plans, achieving and exceeding quotas of work, being a good member of society were all explored in some incredible paintings.
We then headed back into the centre of Sofia for the 365 Communist walking tour. Martin kept us entertained for near four hours, picking out the best of the communist era buildings and telling us the horror stories of what happened to the people who refused to accept the communist ideal.
A plain door at the bottom of some steps, not far from our hotel, turned out to be the entrance of the secret police headquarters through which many dissenters were dragged, never to return.
Across the road from this was the outline of Dimitrov’s mausoleum, destroyed in the late 1990s once democracy arrived and the cult of the leader was dismissed along with the other relics of the failed regime.
I found the whole day extremely moving – the fact after all those years, all that hard work and all those casualties that the regime failed and true communism was never achieved, perhaps never could be achieved, says much about the human societies we build and live in.