There is a joke in Bulgaria. What are the two ways out of the current crisis?
Terminal One and Terminal Two.
Those would be, of course, the terminals at the Sofia airport. An enormous number of people have left Bulgaria since 1989. Over the last quarter century or so, the population dropped from approximately 9 million to approximately 7.3 million people. Some of the population reduction is the result of a low birthrate. But the rest just left.
In 2011, Bulgaria earned the dubious distinction of topping the list of the world’s most rapidly shrinking countries.
This outmigration is often referred to as a “brain drain,” though many people who have remained in Bulgaria naturally bristle at this phrase.
Vihar Krastev is one of the many people who left Bulgaria in the 1990s. He’s also part of the more recent and more modest wave of returnees. Not long ago, he retired from his job in Canada and now lives in a lovely house in the hills above the port of Varna, on the Black Sea. The house is filled with the beautiful weavings of his partner, Yassena Yurekchieva.
I met Vihar in 1990 when he was working at an opposition newspaper called Vek 21 (21st Century) which was affiliated with the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), the coalition of opposition groups. At the time he was quite enthusiastic about the changes and was optimistic about how quickly Bulgaria could be turned into a westernized country. He was also about to take his first trip to the United States, to attend a journalism seminar at Tufts.
A couple decades later, he looks back at that period with no small amount of bemusement and honest self-criticism. “If I have to be more honest: some of us including myself — and I don’t know if I said this in my first interview — were in favor of shock therapy. I knew nothing about economy, about shock therapy! I must have been influenced by the Polish experience: what Walesa was talking about, the Polish leading experts. I must have been a parrot who heard something and said, ‘Oh, wow, why not?’ That’s an example of my own stupidity, ignorance, and incompetence. And that’s how the UDF lost their position with society, and that’s how people started disliking the opposition.”
Vihar Krastev has been through a lot. When I met him in 1990, I didn’t know about all the twists and turns his life had taken before he landed at Vek 21. And, of course, I could know nothing about all the subsequent snakes and ladders he would traverse after 1990. It is a powerful story, and I am grateful that he sat down for two hours in Varna to relate it to me. Below this, I’ve also reproduced our discussion from 1990.
Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall fell and what you were thinking?
I remember when I heard the news about the Berlin Wall being stormed and when it fell and when Berlin was no longer divided. I was driving a city transit bus along the streets of Sofia. During its last 2-3 years, the socialist-communist regime banned me from being a teacher or a journalist, jobs which I used to have. I couldn’t do anything except be a menial worker, which I did not mind, because I could talk to people.
It wasn’t a shock because I’d read about the Prague Spring, and in Bulgaria we had the Ecoglasnost movement in my native city of Russe where people were disgruntled with local policy and the thoughtless, irresponsible industrialization of both Bulgaria and Romania. So I knew that things were in the air. And we knew that in Moscow the regime was crumbling. With Reaganomics, it was clear that communism wouldn’t survive. It was clear in my mind back in 1989 that it would not be long before our wall – we didn’t have a real wall, just an imaginary wall — would fall too. It happened a little sooner than I expected. I thought it would be within one year, and it happened within a few weeks.
Did you think about what the impact would be for Bulgaria?
I did. I have to admit that there were a couple of things that I could not envision — because I was not at that time, being 22 years younger, as familiar with human nature as I am now. I knew that liberalism and liberal values were somehow vague and ill-defined, and different people view liberalism differently. And liberalism comes with different adjectives: like “welfare” and “social.” In Canada, they even had a liberal-conservative party, which is an oxymoron, but it existed. So, I was expecting that there would be some confusion in Bulgaria about the values of liberalism, and free society, and less state involvement in our lives. But I had no idea that people would feel so excessively unrestricted as to disregard the law and to disregard decency, and that there would be so much loose behavior. Yes, we have natural rights and liberties and that’s great and the sooner we have it, the better. But we still have our responsibilities at the same time.
My first awakening was the night of August 11, 1990 when the former party headquarters was set on fire. I was there….
I think I saw you there. I was there as well that night. We met again in the crowd.
As a journalist, I was running all over the place that night. Then I realized that the police were not there and that nobody feared the police any more. What I didn’t realize when the Berlin Wall fell — during that beautiful autumn when the Berlin Wall fell and made the fall even more beautiful — was that once the fear disappears, society cuts loose. Crime becomes rampant, and there’s chaos. The inherent qualities of human nature — greed, selfishness — had been more or less subdued during the authoritarian regime. Not even half a year later, there was no fear of God, because religion was exterminated in this country and this part of the world. There was no fear of government, because it was a government-less country. There was no fear of the police and no fear of the law, because there was no concept of the rule of law. There was no mechanism to control the rampant horrible qualities of human nature.
I was much more optimistic about the change. I was part of the effort to educate people about the free market economy and competition and the John Stuart Mills idea that the government should not interfere apart from preventing people from harming other people (with the one possible exception of economic competition where I can hurt you because I am better in fair competition). I thought this would happen quicker with the shock economy. I thought it would be a couple of years. But I had not anticipated, in the very first couple of weeks and months in this exhilarating expectation of faster change, I had not envisaged the tax evasion, the incompetent bureaucracy, the incompetent leadership. The failures of the transition in my view are due to incompetent managerial skills on behalf of every government that has been in power since 1989. I expected things to happen faster and in a better way. I was very quickly disappointed. That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t want to stay here.
Was there a moment when you were in university or before when you thought, “I am out of touch with the dominant politics of this society. I consider myself either a liberal or a dissident.”
There was a long period of such moments, starting in 1968 when I was 14. I was accepted at my mother’s request or insistence — she kind of begged me – into an English-language school in Russe. I knew that she wanted a better future for me. I was her only son. She knew from coworkers about this English-language school. At 14, I loved playing in the streets. I was not an excellent student by any standard. I read a lot, and I had an inquisitive mind. But I didn’t like the way things were taught at school. I wasn’t liked by my teachers, particularly in the “propaganda” subjects in the socialist curriculum like literature, where they teach you about socialist realism and the proletariat and the proletariat poets, which is bullshit, pardon my French. It wasn’t poetry. It was just about praising the workers and the working class. It was a misinterpretation of Marx, because Marx’s philosophy is not communist propaganda if you read it properly and you don’t misinterpret the economics of Marx.
Even then I had my misgivings about the world I was living in. I did not want to go to this English language school. The foreign language schools, English or French or German, were set up in mid to late 1960s throughout Bulgaria. They were elitist schools for the offspring of the communist nomenklatura, the idea being that they should learn languages and then go on to become diplomats and/or KGB spies.
The instruction there was way better, and you had more open horizons. I learned a lot from my British and American teachers. It changed my whole perspective on society. When I went to that school, I felt that the world outside was no longer my world any more. But inside the school, most of my classmates were the offspring of very special people, while my mother was an ordinary office worker in the employ of the national railroads, a working person. I didn’t belong in their society. Ever since I was 14, I felt like a tree without roots. I didn’t belong anywhere. I knew differently — not more — about the world outside of school. But at the same time, that clique of people who were my mates at school was not really and entirely my sort of people.
Come to think of it, that was basically the beginning of the end. What happened in 1989 was basically sowed in the 1960s, because the nomenklatura educated the people who were to subvert their own system. Their own children, by learning from English or foreign teachers and reading in foreign languages and listening to The Beatles and to the British invasion, were the ones who said, “We don’t want to live in this world anymore. We don’t want to represent our nomenklatura parents abroad. We want to change this world.” Most of the active people in the velvet revolutions, or whatever you want to call them in our countries, were the graduates of foreign language schools.
Then, after I graduated from university, I went to teach. I didn’t like teaching. I taught between 1980 and 1982, that’s how much I liked it! You were not required to be a good teacher. You were required to be strict and to be a good brainwasher. The other teachers were accustomed to this or didn’t want to resist, while I did. I introduced certain novelties in the schools where I taught. For instance, I refused to allow the students to call me Comrade Krastev. “If I call you by your first names,” I told them, “you should call me Vihar or Vic. And if you insist on calling me comrade, then I’ll have to call you Miss or Mister.” They couldn’t believe it!
I did two lessons in class and then the third time, I would take them out of the classroom – to a movie in English with subtitles. Or I would take them to a café. I talked to the waiters beforehand and said, “I’ll bring a group of people who don’t know much English if any, but I want you to talk to them only in English.” That really motivated the kids. They were trying to learn. It was a practical application of their limited knowledge of the English language. None of them was going to become an English teacher. They were going to be accountants or chemists. The other teachers didn’t like that. It was revolutionary. “Why are you taking kids out of the school?” they asked. “Who allowed you to do that?”
I was more liberal with grades. I gave them all As one semester. Then, at the beginning of the next semester, there was a teacher’s conference, and other teachers said in a bitter tone, “How could you have given all the girls As?” They were implying that maybe I had more than a teacher-student relationship with them. I said, “Come on, they will never know English as much as a teacher will. I’m not teaching English linguistics. They will never teach English themselves. It’s about the willingness to learn, with or without mistakes. I’m not judging their errors. I’m judging their efforts. I believe all teachers should be like that.”
We had these ideological subjects, like the history of the communist party of Bulgaria. And the way that history was taught in school, it was very nationalistic: Bulgaria versus everyone else. “There was the Russo-Turkish war, and Bulgarians were liberated, then the Turks were animals and we won, and then we won over the Serbs, and then we own Macedonia and the Macedonians, and then we beat the Romanians….” Balkan people still live in the past. They still hate each other. Like most of southern Europe, we still live with what happened in the past. We should forget about that. We should even forget about 1989 and the sooner the better. We should pay attention to what’s in front of us. Going back is not only painful, it’s counterproductive in my view. Here, when people look back, they look back in anger, with more anger than normal.
I couldn’t survive in teaching, so I became a journalist wannabe. I was working for the national TV’s local affiliate in Russe. Whatever you did in those days, even writing the local weather forecast, you had to give it to the censor – the communist party secretary — to read it. And s/he’d say, “You can’t say it’s too bright for tomorrow. It can’t be too gloomy either. It has to be just right.” It was horrible.
In the early 1980s, Solidarity emerged and grew in Poland. I began writing about it. Solidarity was, I felt, the promise of the future.
You were writing about Solidarity for the TV station in Russe in the 1980s?!
Yes, I was trying to. And for certain newspapers as well. I was about 30 years old. That wasn’t accepted very well. You couldn’t talk or write favorably about Solidarity. So I left Russe and went to Sofia. I wouldn’t have lived much longer if I kept praising Solidarity — not just Solidarity, but the winds of change, the need for “socialism with a human face,” as we called it back then. No, I was not allowed to do that. That’s why I wasted two years being the manager of pop singers.
Why do you say that you wasted that time?
It was stifling the way pop culture was used and abused, the way some of the singers and entertainers were forced to sing about socialism. They were given lyrics to make a song. It wasn’t conducive to their personal development as creators and songwriters and lyricists. They were kept on a short leash. That’s why some of the better and smarter entertainers left the country and went to work abroad. But the “creative intelligentsia” as they were called could make lots of money if they stayed and glorified the communist regime or painted pictures that were approved as socialist realism — with a factory worker next to a person from the fields, the sickle and the hammer. If they did that, the regime paid a lot of money and gave them all the goodies they wanted.
That’s why it was a waste of time for me. It wasn’t developing the culture or the aesthetics or the good taste of the young generation through the music we created or performed at concerts. I felt guilty at times. Those teenagers who crowded the concert halls were hungry for music, for entertainment, like all young kids. But we didn’t give them really good music. Most of the “hits” from back then have faded and are forgotten now. We did not produce a smart generation through the Bulgarian music of that time. That’s why Tangra and many other bands left — they couldn’t take it either. On top of that, which was the worst part, the Bulgarian version of Stasi was spying on this sector. That German movie, The Lives of Others, you’ve seen that? That tells you everything. Everyone who was in this field of writing or journalism or music or creativity would think, “I don’t know which person in this room will be telling things tomorrow.”
Who were you working for at that time?
I worked from 1984 to 1986 with twin male singers who were very popular at the time: Bratya Argiroivi (the Argirov Brothers duet). They were from Plovdiv. If you ask anyone from Plovdiv, anyone in their 40s, they’ll know this duo.
After that, I had different jobs here and there, like writing scripts for concerts to glorify the achievements of communism. I was good at it, and they paid me good money. I also worked for those large communist enterprises. They had a house of culture where workers would be entertained in the way that increased their feeling of belonging to the working class. That was an easy job to make money from.
I also worked with a folk dance ensemble that had an exchange with a volunteer folk dance club in Scandinavia. Every summer, the Scandinavians would pay to go to a particular country and specialize in the local folk dance tradition there. They came here in the summer of 1986 for a month to learn from Bulgarian folk dancers and choreographers. I was attached to the Scandinavians as their interpreter and to organize their accommodations. We toured the country.
Right after that, I was accused of being too close to the foreigners. They wanted you to work with the foreigners, but they didn’t want you to commit to them; they wanted you to be their host, but at the same time “keep your distance because they come from Scandinavia, they’re capitalists, some of them must be spies.”
In the autumn of the same year, after the Scandinavians were here, the Bulgarian folk dancers were invited to Scandinavia and I was supposed to go with them. But guess what: I was not given a passport. Freedom of movement didn’t exist back then. Even worse: I was born in Russe and I was supposed to live in Russe. Instead, I was unlawfully residing in Sofia. Nobody could live anywhere without the permission of the Communist regime. Also, travel abroad required a special passport, which I did not get — because I was told that I was suspicious and too fond of being with foreigners. They said, “We can’t risk sending you out because you probably won’t return.” That was probably September 1986 when I realized that I was not particularly liked by the regime. It might also have been the previous sin of writing about Solidarity.
Or it may have been an even earlier incident that took place in our second-to-last year at the English language school in Russe. Back then we were studying shorthand. At the end of the school year, we were sent to the capital city for two weeks to practice shorthand at the National Assembly and the National Radio. We watched shorthand stenographers to see how shorthand is done. On the last day, we were to travel back by train at night, and the day was given to us to enjoy in Sofia, to visit friends, relatives.
Four of us got together and wandered around downtown. The American embassy in those days was in downtown Sofia, next to the Central Bank, in a very old building. You walked along the street and in the window of the embassy you saw lots of pictures. This was June 1972. We stopped outside to look at those pictures of American reality, Apollo rockets and so on. And there was a sign that said in English and Bulgarian that the library of the embassy was open to all citizens. Curious as we were, we walked through the door. The library was in the very first hall behind the entrance doors. You didn’t even have to penetrate the embassy any further than the hallway to enter this small library. We looked at some poetry, some magazines. We spent less than an hour in there. We were kids, 18-year-olds. We talked to the Bulgarian librarian. We approached her because we were wondering whether she spoke English or Bulgarian. We were very proud of our English after four years of study. But it was rudimentary, really. We didn’t know any English at all. But when you’re young, you think you know everything.
We walked out. We were joking about maybe being taped and how do we look on camera, and so on. We walked less than a block. There was a traffic light that was red. As we waited for the light, a gentleman came up behind us and grabbed us from behind. When the light became green, we crossed the street together. It was so unbelievable. He sort of hid us in the corner of the building across the street. So, we were in the street, people passed by, but nobody realized that something was happening to us.
This person started to ask questions: “Why did you go to the embassy? You can’t go to the embassy.”
“It’s the American embassy, you can’t do that.”
“But it says the library is open, it says you can do that.”
“Where did you go? Who did you talk to? Who did you meet? Who told you to go in there?”
“No one,” I told him. “I looked at this magazine, this book, I read about Apollo.”
“Let me see your IDs.”
The other three kids were either too smart or much smarter than I. They didn’t produce IDs. Back then we didn’t have ID cards. We had this funny booklet called an internal passport. I had it on me and showed it to him. The other three said they didn’t have it. I loved those guys dearly, we grew up together from 14 to 18. But all of them had fathers in the nomenklatura, I was the only one who was different. They did not antagonize me. They did not treat me as though I was different. They respected me. At that age, you mix. You’re not really aware of those caste differences, so inherently typical of socialism, that one probably enjoys later. But I felt different. I knew their parents would come in limousines for parents’ meetings. And that proved to be a critical point.
When we went back to our city a week later, we started to be called to the state security, like the Stasi. And we had to repeat the story over and over again. Eventually, the question was asked, “Who gave the idea to walk into the embassy?” And guess what: I was pointed to as the instigator.
Now, I’ve thought about it a lot, and it must have been this 1972 juvenile sin of walking into the American embassy. And then the 1983-4 sympathy for the Solidarity movement, and then this Scandinavian affair…
Was there any punishment associated with that visit to the embassy?
No. There was just a stern warning that we should never do such a thing again. There was no immediate punishment in terms of the legal system. But if you think of the methods of the communist regime, the punishment is that you don’t have any future any more. It’s a long-term punishment. Technically, you are not given a verdict. But you are deprived of a normal future. If I had attempted to study anything other than linguistics, I wouldn’t have been allowed. If I tried to travel abroad, I wouldn’t be allowed. In 1986, the Scandinavians were very pleased with the time they spent here. They insisted that I accompany the Bulgarian group on the trip to Scandinavia. They were so insistent that they wanted to cancel the trip if I couldn’t accompany them. Which made it even worse for the police: “Oh really, so that’s how important you are for them? They insisted that you have to go?” Maybe they drew the conclusion that the Scandinavians wanted me there to keep me there.
There’s an old saying: the snake bites worst when it feels that it’s dying. That was the communist regime in its last years. From the late 1970s to the collapse, those were the worst years of the state security. The events in The Lives of Others movie took place during the same period – 1980s. They were feeling the end coming.
That happened in September 1986. I knew that I was doomed. I didn’t want to even go back and work for this cultural house. At that time, friends of mine who worked for an interpretation bureau called me and said they needed someone for 45 days. There was an American exhibit coming to Bulgaria under an agreement between the State Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with a Bulgarian exhibit also going to Washington. They needed someone available for 45 days to help the American manager of the exhibit as a personal assistant. For me that was wonderful. We came here to Varna in mid-October and stayed until the end of November.
I became very close with Richard Browne, the American exhibit director, who became a very good friend of mine. But I was accused again of being too close to foreigners. It was an American this time, so even worse. There was a break for the New Year, and then the exhibit was supposed to move from Varna to Sofia to reopen in February. But I was called in and told that I was not going to work with the exhibit. Actually, I was told that I couldn’t work on anything else. I was to be put on a bus and sent to Austria. I refused to do that. The other option was to have my family interned in a very small village on the Turkish-Bulgarian border. I checked: there were fewer than a 100 elderly people living in that place, with no school and no jobs. I was in my early 30s. My daughter was about nine years old. My wife was 30.
I said, “What are we going to do there? There’s no school there, there’s nothing. You’re sending me there basically to die.”
They said, “If you don’t like communism, you do whatever you want there.”
I said, “I can’t live there. If you want to kill me, do that, but don’t kill my family. Really, isn’t there something else I can do here?”
That was my first actual punishment — to answer your earlier question. They told me that I couldn’t work as an interpreter, a teacher, an editor, an intellectual, anything. They told me I could do any menial labor that allows people who are not officially residents of Sofia to work in Sofia due to the deficiency of menial laborers. “If you find a job like that,” they said, “we’ll allow you to be in Sofia.”
Militiamen were coming to the house each morning, early, waking up the family. My daughter would be horrified and would be crying. Everyone would be scared. They brought me to the 6th precinct where there was a bad cop and a good cop.
The bad copy would yell at me and say, “You’re in trouble now, really in trouble, you’re a traitor, you betrayed us. You have to sign this document that you’ll never talk to a foreigner again.”
I said, “Come on, you’ll send someone tomorrow to ask me the time in English, and someone else will see this person talking to me and then you’ll accuse me of talking to foreigners. I’m not signing anything.”
As things got desperate, the “good cop” came in and said, “Hey, he’s a good guy. Let me try. Hey son, what have you done, why are they torturing you?”
Eventually, this good cop says, “Go find a job, and let me know when you get one.”
I went out and saw this advertisement for a training course to operate electric trolleybuses in Sofia. It was probably in the middle of the week, and the ad said that there would be a training course starting the following Monday. I went to the HR hiring office. They said, “We never had a university graduate come for training. Wonderful! Come on Monday morning for the training.”
Stupid as I was, when I found this new job driving a trolleybus, I called back the “good cop” and told him that I had found this job starting Monday morning. “Excellent,” he said, “Good luck, go ahead.”
On Monday morning, there were about 15 of us. They led us to a training room. As we are entering the room, a lady pulls me to the side and says, “Unfortunately you can’t start your training today.”
“I didn’t realize that you’re not a resident of Sofia.”
“But I told you this. I gave you my documents.”
“Yes, but I overlooked this. Unless you go back to your native city and get permission from the local committee of the Communist Party, you cannot start the course.”
“How about if I go to Russe today and get the permission and come back tomorrow morning?”
“Well, no, then you’ll have missed the day of training.”
Obviously they received a call. The security police were trying to force me into a corner. Even worse, they sent over to my house a classmate of mine, probably my closest friend. His father was a traffic police officer — police is police, right? – and this person was probably helped by his father to get a job with state security. They sent him to conduct surveillance on me and to talk with me. If I confessed that I had done a crime against the state, that I had been an American spy or collaborator, he told me, then they would be merciful. “We’ve been good friends,” I told him, “but if you come to my door to talk like this, I don’t want to see you any more.”
Did you ever find out what happened to him?
I’ve heard from other classmates that he left the Stasi police after 1990. He was married to a Russian woman. It was an advantage to marry a Russian if you worked for state security: they’d give you large apartment, a better job. He left the secret police and I heard from someone else that he started an import-export business with Scandinavian partners.
So, they didn’t let me drive the trolley bus. That same day, when they turned me away from the course, I was walking home and I was desperate. I didn’t call this “good cop”. I was passing by a streetcar depot. I saw at the entrance of the garage that they were hiring people to work night shifts fixing the brakes on the streetcars. I went in and asked if I could start. They said, “Sure, tonight!” So I started. Several days later, I called the guy at the police station and said that I’d been working for three days. And he said, “Why didn’t you call me?” Because I didn’t want to call you! I worked there about two months every night fixing the brakes of streetcars.
Something you learned on the job!
It’s not difficult. You just replace the disks. It’s a tough job, but it’s not difficult to learn. It’s not brain surgery. Two months later there was a training course for bus drivers. Being in the system of the transit corporation, I just moved to that. And I learned to drive a bus. From the spring of 1987 to late December of 1989, I drove busses.
You mentioned that you were part of a blockade.
In December 1989, I was the leading force organizing a strike. We bus drivers went on strike. We were joined by other city transit workers. The transit in Sofia stopped for about four or five business days.
The specific demand was….?
The specific demand was better salaries, better working conditions, and better social benefits. But it was clearly a political strike, because it happened in December when events were brewing and the Union of Democratic Forces was being formed. I assume that this enhanced the development of all those events. That was in late December, early January 1989. And then days after that I went back to journalism, to Demokratsia and Vek 21.
You spent a good bit of time in the opposition movement in UDF, Demokratsia, Vek 21. Thinking back now, what’s your impression of the opposition? Are there things that the opposition did really well and others that it did poorly?
There was a lot of enthusiasm but a lot of incompetence, a lack of basic knowledge and concepts. Some of the people were quite idealistic, honest people, but they knew nothing about social development, social structures, social change, how to work with crowds when there are crowds, and how to work with civil society. I now can recount numerous cases of flagrant ignorance, stupidity, and incompetence in the official opposition.
Can you give an example?
Here’s an example close to my editorial practice. Every day hundreds of people — some of them normal supporters of UDF, some of them in some position like regional coordinator or city boss — came to the editorial room of Vek 21. We were in one room, two editors and one assistant and one photographer. They would bring stuff that was unreadable, let alone publishable. Even if I put my best effort into polishing it, it wouldn’t work. It didn’t say anything. There was no message. There was just the eagerness to show off. You couldn’t even explain it to them. I told them that I could work with them, help them. “Nooo, who are you to say this to me? I’m the party leader in Yambol! I want this published! Otherwise I’ll complain to your boss!” There was no boss. He couldn’t complain to anyone. These people were hungry for glory, recognition, to be of importance. They had been so insignificant in their past, and now they saw their chance.
I remember during that strike in late December, some of the bus drivers I was on friendly terms with were coming to talk to me. “Tomorrow, will you give me a job?” they asked. I said, “I’m not becoming a political leader. I’m not doing this for myself!” But they saw an opportunity: if they were friendly with me, one day I’d make them deputy minister or something. I know why they did this. They wanted something better for their kids. Or vanity. Or to have their kids respect them more because now they were someone of importance, not just a plain Jane.
There are many more examples. If I have to be more honest: some of us including myself — and I don’t know if I said this in my first interview — were in favor of shock therapy. I knew nothing about economy, about shock therapy! I must have been influenced by the Polish experience: what Walesa was talking about, the Polish leading experts. I must have been a parrot who heard something and said, “Oh, wow, why not?” That’s an example of my own stupidity, ignorance, and incompetence.
That’s how the UDF lost their position with society, and that’s how people started disliking the opposition. Some of them were obnoxious. I’ll tell you a joke about that. There was this Bulgarian dissident, Radoy Ralin. He was a writer, a smart guy, well liked. He played a double game during communism: tolerated by the communists but at the same time writing some critical stuff about them. One day he comes to our office and he was gloomy, which was unlike him, particularly in those years when he was very optimistic about the changes. He wasn’t himself.
We asked him, “What’s wrong?
And he said, “Things are not going very well.”
We asked, “Why are you pessimistic?”
And he said, “To be honest, the former communists belong in jail. That’s clear. But the new ones, they should be institutionalized.”
Back then I did not pay much attention. But Radoy Ralin must have been smarter than I. He must have seen the truth. The communists were criminals, but the new ones are so incompetent and corrupt that they look and behave like crazy people. That struck me a couple years later as something that I should have understood back then.
Here’s another example. We had two spokespeople for the UDF. One of them was a literary person, a writer, a literary critic, exceptionally smart, a true erudite: Mihail Nedelchev. He knew everything. But he was very vain. He thought he was Louis XIV. The other one was a rough person, Georgi Spasov. Nedelchev was the civil one, Spasov the uncivil one. They would take turns every night on national TV. They had 5-10 minutes to present whatever happened with the UDF: declarations, statements, whatever. They had a guaranteed time, but it could be a half an hour if they wanted. There were no rules. It was a chaotic time. It would come on about 8 pm, around the time of this nightly broadcast for young children. Children would be in front of the TV waiting for their program, and then this Spasov guy would appear. Kids would start crying immediately, that’s how frightful he was! He had no charm, no presence. He was like the devil on screen.
I remember the debates on TV during those first couple of elections. You know the infamous example of how Nixon’s looks during his TV debate with Kennedy probably ruined him: this was much worse. UDFers here didn’t know how to dress. They’d come out almost in their pajamas. They had no manners. When they talked in those debates, they would be gesturing and yelling and fighting. It was horrible. How can you trust the government of a nation to someone who doesn’t know how to behave, how to talk? The Socialists, meanwhile, were better trained. They spoke more eloquently, spoke better, quieter: “speak low, speak slow, don’t say much”. And the opposition people were ruffians. So, when people had anecdotes — truthful or not, and some of them might have been exaggerated or the communist propaganda may have dreamed up some sins of the new people — but people believed them, because it was plausible that these savages would be greedy, corrupt, and incompetent. And we were incompetent. I have to admit it.
When I went to the States in 1990 — you met me just before I left — I learned a lot. But I would have been much better if I had learned all that before the changes, before my initial involvement with the opposition. I was ashamed of some of the things I had done prior to going to Tufts. Did I really say that? Did I behave like that? And I didn’t know that I shouldn’t have done that?
On the other hand, you were working in pretty difficult conditions. One of the big concerns when we were talking in 1990 was the lack of print paper. You told me that each issue was read by five or six people because you didn’t have enough paper.
I had to deliver the Vek 21 paper myself every week. I took it from the printing house in a van donated to us by some Bulgarian émigrés in France, and I drove around the city to deliver it to people, to leave it at clubs, drop it in mailboxes.
Given those conditions, you achieved quite a lot.
Yes, But it wasn’t enough to convince a nation that they could entrust the their future to us, to the then-UDFers. I wasn’t involved in the politics of that. Honestly, I was enticed to become a member of the National Assembly, to be elected, to become a politician. I said, “You can’t mix the two. I can be either a journalist or a politician, and I choose to be a journalist.” So, I declined.
I remember the first and the second elections, all the people lining up at the headquarters of the UDF who wanted to be included in the UDF party ticket. Those people were fighting, hitting each other. They stayed there overnight. They wouldn’t dare go to the washroom, because then they would lose their position in line. It was horrible. They would kill each other to jump ahead in line to be higher on the ticket. It’s unbelievable what people would do to be in power. I know: It happens everywhere. I can’t believe that normal people in their right mind would run for elected position. There has to be something wrong in their value system to go through what they have to go through. What I saw here was much worse: so much humiliation to run for office.
I have a couple of favorite movies that I watch over and over again. One of them is Paths of Glory.
With Kirk Douglas.
He’s being court-martialed, and he says, “There are times when I am ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion..” In those days of rampant democracy, those early stages of the opposition, there were many moments when I went home and I would suffer and I wouldn’t want to go back and I felt ashamed to be a member of the human race — for my own mistakes and for the obvious misbehaviors of others.
Back in 1990, someone in the opposition said to me that ethnic Turks in Bulgaria would represent the path by which Islam and fundamentalism would enter Europe. I quoted that to you and you said, “That’s stupid!” To be honest, you were an exception. I was surprised at the level of nationalism and ethnocentrism in the opposition. Did that surprise you too?
It wasn’t surprising to me because I was a teacher at the beginning of my career. I saw the shortcomings of education in Bulgaria. The EU rewrote the curriculum so that countries like France and Germany or Italy and Germany don’t teach the next generation fanatically about the past, about the glorious battles that they won over the neighboring country. That’s how you encourage nationalism. It’s one thing if young boys of one soccer club fight another soccer club without thinking of historic reasons for them to hate each other aside from soccer reasons.
I saw with my own eyes how Bulgarian history and related subjects induced this hatred in “others,” particularly the Turks. My job as a teacher was in a village that was half-Turkish, half-Roma around Russe in northeastern Bulgaria. I know they’re wonderful people. They were not religious. If they are returning to religiousness, it’s happening at the same time and at the same rate that Bulgarians are returning to the Orthodox Church. When I was a teacher in that Turkish-populated area, they didn’t even have mosques. There is no way that these people could be radical, fundamentalist Islamists. There might be one or two or three, not being able to get educated here, they would go to Turkey or Saudi Arabia, just like Bulgarians go to Germany. One or two of them might go to educational institutions that teach more radical ideas. But they wouldn’t even be aware of the differences in Islam. That’s why I don’t buy it.
When I was a journalist, the Macedonian republic declared independence, and there was a lot of anti-Macedonian feeling in Bulgaria (which still exists today). “They’re stealing our history,” people would say. “They’re actually just Bulgarians!” I even wrote a couple articles, saying that we should just leave them alone. If they feel that they’re different, then they are different. The more you try to stop them, argue with them, and say there’s no such thing as the Macedonian language or nationality, or identity, the more counterproductive it is. They’re a young nation, and they want their new identity.
It’s the same with the ethnic Turk minority. They are not a source of danger unless you antagonize them like they’re antagonizing them now with this stupid court case against the imams. We never learn from the past. We antagonized those people in the 1980s by making a huge issue out of nothing. Luckily, things started to subside, and now they live normally and we live normally and there is no tension any more. But now the nationalists are trying to bring back these tensions.
Were you surprised when you came back from Canada that this issue had still not gone away?
I was. I thought that with time, with membership in the EU, these things would have mellowed. I know they can’t disappear overnight or in 10 years or even 20 years. But I thought that at least you wouldn’t see it at the government level, at the level of national media, I thought it would only be at the lowest level of pub talk or gossip. I was very disappointed that people I considered smart are still wasting their time on this.
I’ve been following the news. I hear that there are some attempts to rewrite history books. There is a huge outcry, and even intellectuals say, “You can’t rewrite history. You can’t say that the Turks are not bad!” We talk about the five centuries of Ottoman occupation as something that ruined the Bulgarian nation. Not at all. You know the joke from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”: what have the Romans ever given us? Nothing. Other than the aqueduct and sanitation, and the roads, and irrigation, and medicine, and education, health, public baths, other than government, other than… All nations controlled by the Romans benefited from the Roman experience.
The same here. The Balkans before the Ottomans came here were savage, fighting tribes that could never develop because of how hostile they were toward each other: brother against brother, Slav against Slav. It was like Europe was, divided into small serfdoms. Thanks to the positive Turkish influence in the first three centuries of their presence here, lots of culture came from the East, from the Arab world, through the Ottoman Empire, through trade, through commercial roads. Every time commerce comes to your ports and crosses your country, something falls out of the cart, and that’s what’s left for you. Look at the Bulgarian language: probably some 20 to 30 percent of the contemporary spoken vernacular still consists of loan words that are of Persian or Arabic or Turkish origin and came into the Bulgarian language through the Ottoman Turkish influence.
How come we don’t appreciate the positive influence of the Ottomans? It’s true that the last 50 to 70 years of the Ottoman occupation were the worst, the empire was falling apart and couldn’t support the army, so the army engaged in pillage. But the worst bandits were the Bulgarian bandits. So much so that the traders from western Europe wouldn’t venture to cross Serbia or Bulgaria. You know the word hajduk? Hajduks were the Bulgarian equivalent of the Greek Klefts. The word kleft itself is exactly the same word that is known to the world from the term “kleptomania.” That’s basically a thief, a bandit, even though they have since been glorified in Balkan folk tradition and history books as rebels: they’d rob anyone who crossed the woods.
There was no caravan of carriages that could go through without being looted or people killed. You had to be very lucky to cross the Balkans without losing half your goods or your life. In the 1860s, they built the first railway between Russe and Varna so that the commercial traffic wouldn’t cross the mountains any more, for fear of the hajduks of Serbia and Bulgaria. They would use ships to Russe — the Danube is not navigable as it gets to the Black Sea — then they would use this railway that was guarded very heavily by Turkish garrisons. Then they’d get to Varna, and then by ship to Istanbul. It wasn’t always the Turks, it was more often our own lazy buggers who would hide in the forests all year long and steal from their own people.
In Serbia, at least some of the hajduks were leaders of resistance against the Ottoman and are considered heroes.
Same here. But most of them were not. As leaders of the resistance, they would fight the Turks, but on the side they would be terrorizing their own population in order to survive.
Did it take a long time for you to decide to leave Bulgaria?
No, it was not long. There were two reasons behind it. I heard yesterday someone on the radio say something very simple, and I thought, “Yes, that’s probably why I left too.” Most people didn’t leave the country because they couldn’t find gainful employment. No, they were running from ignorance and the bad taste of contemporary music, arts and entertainment. Has anyone mentioned the word chalga to you? Well, Bulgarians have been running away from ignorance and chalga.
Back in 1996 or 1997, I had returned from Radio Free Europe, from Munich and Prague. I was also stationed in Sofia as the manager of the bureau here. When Radio Free Europe closed, I had two options. I could do journalism here. But at that time, I would not lower myself to work for any of the media that were operating in this country in the mid to late 1990s. It was horrible. Or I could leave the country.
To get that training at Tufts and the Fletcher School, I had to apply and probably compete with other people who had been nominated. Apart from providing your resume and some samples of your work, I went for a brief interview at the embassy. I also had to write an essay on “press under pressure.” You write the essay and they think about whether you are worth being trained there. I didn’t write a long essay. I only wrote about 3-4 sentences. I wrote, “Like any other thing on earth, press under pressure tends to become flat. With a flat press you can use it as wrapping paper, to wrap someone’s ideas. You can’t use it to support liberal democracy. You can’t use it to educate values. It’s only rubbish wrapping paper and you use it only once and then dispose of it.” Media today in this country is not independent media. It’s just wrapping paper for people who want to use the media to amplify their messages.
So, I could not stay here and work as a journalist. Radio Free Europe was not the best radio ever. My model media, the media I would love to work for and what I most often listen to, is BBC, NPR, even CBC which isn’t quite as good, but still good. Radio Free Europe was not the model of great journalism. But we were pretty good. We were aspiring. Dropping from there to yellow journalism? I wouldn’t do that. I was too proud to do it just for sustenance.
My daughter had already gone to the States to study there. And I only have one daughter. So that was another reason to leave.
If Bulgarians maintain today that they’re running away now because of ignorance and chalga, it was much worse then. Back then, in addition to aggressive ignorance and aggressive chalga, there was too much crime. It was not a healthy environment for any person to be in. I couldn’t stay here, or I would have lost my sanity. I wasn’t here when there was the worst adversity, when there wasn’t food, when they had to line up for milk and bread for their kids. I missed that. I missed that humiliating state. It wasn’t much better, and it wasn’t going to get much better any time soon. I could survive with an expectation of a better world. I could stay and try to help ameliorate the environment. But that just wasn’t feasible at all.
Still, when I left, I did follow the news. I knew that governments had changed, I knew about Tsar Simeon. But I was surprised when I returned about the level of nationalism and anti-Turkish and anti-Roma feelings.
And the popularity of your old friend, Volen Siderov, the head of Ataka.
Say hello to him. And say to him, “Vic asks, when did you lose your mind?” He was my best friend. He drank tons of alcohol in my presence, crying on my shoulder, He was a decent guy even if he wasn’t the smartest guy.
You know how he became the editor of Demokratsia? He graduated from a photography high school. He’s a photographer. During the communist years at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences — it’s called that, but it was just a nomenklatura institute — there’s this institute of literature. People who consider themselves literary critics or knowledgeable about writing all worked there as a team. Volen was their staff photographer. When they were going to publish a new book on the works of a Bulgarian writer, they illustrated the book with pictures of the childhood home of the writer, and Volen prepared the artwork. Volen was a friend of theirs. They drank together.
One form of dissidence back then was drinking. We don’t agree with communism, we can’t fight it, so let’s go and drink and talk about it in the pub! Then probably we’ll forget, and tomorrow we’ll drink again. Some of them, that’s how they fought communism: by drinking. Volen was one of those brave drunkards.
He was part of the team — Aleksandar Yordanov, Elka Konstantinova, Iordan Vasiliev, Mihail Nedelchev, Edvin Sugarev — and all of them were at the same time members of the opposition, about 10-15 people. Right after November and January, all of them joined the UDF. Of course, Volen joined too because he was a friend of ours, it didn’t matter that he wasn’t a literary expert. So when Iordan Vasiliev, who was the first editor-in-chief of Demokratsia, quit the editorial position, they had to appoint someone. Iordan suggested that Volen take over. People wondered: he knows nothing about journalism, he just photographs. But back then, I knew at least three people who are now renowned journalists who came up and said, “I’m an elementary school teacher, but I want to be a journalist.” And they were given a chance. Some of them developed; some of them remained at the elementary school level. But that’s how Volen became a journalistic star. How he became such a rabid nationalist, it beats me. I hope he can explain it to you.
So, you arrive in Canada and you make a decision not to pursue journalism…
I thought about becoming a journalist in Canada. But I was told at the National Institute of Broadcasting that I would have to take a training course. It would cost about $10,000. That was a lot of money for me, basically all the money that I’d brought with me. I had to think of my daughter and the cost of her education. But I said, okay, if I take this course, then I will be able to get a job as a journalist here in Canada. And they said, no, there was no such guarantee. They would try to help me. I thought that I just couldn’t take that risk. Same thing with teaching English as a second language in Toronto. One has to spend years to get their credentials acknowledged. Professionals trained outside of Canada, including teachers, have a very hard time to get certified to become even supply [substitute] teachers, to get their foot in the door. And still there is no guarantee you would get a steady job. However, I really needed to get a job. And, of course, the other experience I had in Bulgaria was driving a bus, so…
The very first year, before I joined the Toronto Transit Commission as a bus driver, it was difficult. I didn’t have money. The $10,000 in my pocket melts very quickly. The rent alone is $1200 a month. If you don’t work, you can spend it on rent alone in less than a year. Toronto, it’s not as expensive as New York, but it’s close. I worked two jobs for a year. One of them was as an interpreter for the Immigration and Refugee Board in downtown Toronto, and sometimes I was sent to courts or the airport. Lots of people wanted to immigrate to Canada, and Canada has a somewhat loose immigration policy. They need people, but being Canadian, they do not openly say, “we’ll take anybody because we need young blood to support the pension plan, decent people who will work and pay taxes.” They can’t do that, so instead they have a system of criteria and evaluation.
Some people are eager to get to Canada sooner rather than wait 2-3 years. They also maybe don’t clearly meet the criteria — the point system where you have to have education or language skills or be in one of those occupations that are required. If you don’t meet those criteria, you don’t have a chance. There were lots of people from Bulgaria who wanted to escape ignorance and chalga, from the late 1990s until 2007 when Bulgaria joined the EU. Hundreds of people from former communist countries would arrive and declare themselves political refugees or seek refugee status. Canada in that respect is very generous. You’re given social support, housing, medical support, until your case is heard. It goes to a kind of tribunal.
You know that a lot of these people are lying, and the judge knows that they’re lying and the ministry of immigration knows they’re lying. Many claimed that they were persecuted for being Roma (and organizations were regularly writing reports about the condition of the Bulgarian Roma). Or they said they were gay. Some people were obviously not Roma or gay. They had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to corrupt lawyers and interpreters who wrote them a story and worked with them on how to present the story, and produced counterfeit photographs or facts. I interpreted cases where the judge humiliated them by telling them that s/he didn’t believe them, and then the judge allowed them to remain in Canada anyway because they were needed.
I had a case where two pilots and a stewardess arrived together. They said that they were Roma and had been deprived of education. The judge told them, “There’s no way you’re not educated and you fly a plane!” At the same time, these people would probably find a job, get a good salary, and pay a lot of taxes.
So I spent a year working there. When I wasn’t working there, I was a mover, moving furniture and driving a truck, I learned the province of Ontario. Then I went to the Toronto Transit Commission, a.k.a. TTC, and they hired me first as a driver. You can become the chief general manager one day, but you have to start at the bottom first.
Two years later, I became a route supervisor where my job was to ”keep TTC on track.” In a nutshell, if and when one or more of the thousands of vehicles moving Torontonians around fell behind schedule due to construction, an accident, traffic or the weather, thus resulting in bunching on a line, and/or when delays to service happen during bad weather conditions or because of construction or traffic congestion, a decision is made and instructions are communicated, accordingly, by supervisory staff to make a service adjustment. A typical and easiest example of a service adjustment would be a short turn. That is when a vehicle will not continue to the end of the scheduled route but will be turned to travel in the opposite direction to balance service on the route.
There are dozens of other tricks, a.k.a. service adjustments, that route supervisors have up their sleeves to expediently ensure the provision of consistent service and uninterrupted flow of vehicles along all routes. One could compare the job of a route supervisor to that of air traffic controllers. Additionally, supervisors are middle management and are in charge of supervising the performance of hourly-paid staff (union positions, almost all operators – a total of some 10,000 – and maintenance workers). They are also first responders to all accidents, incidents and occurrences throughout the system, such as collisions – both property damage and personal injuries, all possible kinds of medical emergencies, assaults, fires, vandalism, loitering, sleepers, thefts, robberies, lost and found articles, lost children separated from their parents, lost and disoriented elderly, inebriated persons, mentally disturbed persons, counterfeit fares, various mishaps, all imaginable kinds of technical issues and equipment failures. It would take a multi-volume book to retell all the “usual, normal stuff” and weird things I have seen and dealt with as a supervisor.
My last position at the Toronto Transit Commission, which I held for some 7 years until I retired, was an instructor with their Operations Training Centre, which is a sort of vocational adult training facility where new hires are initially trained and the unionized workforce are regularly retrained in customer service, professional communications, safety at work, vehicle operation, defensive driving, various work skills and qualifications, etc. If I had stayed, I might have possibly become the chief general manager someday in the 22nd century, but I just got too old and tired and decided to return here: back to chalga and ignorance.
Varna, September 29, 2012
Vihar Krastev is an editor of Vek 21 (Century 21), the newspaper of the Radical Democratic party, which is a founding member of the UDF. The paper has a circulation of 40,000 and caters mostly to intellectuals. Krastev was recently chosen to participate in Tuft’s Fletcher School journalism program and will spending six weeks in the U.S. working at a local paper. Although quite busy, he was eager to sit down and tell me what distinguishes the Radical Democrats from other parties.
What does the Radical Democratic party stand for?
The RDP actually was reorganized 42 years after it was demolished by the Communists. The party branched from the Democratic party in 1904 by some famous intellectuals of that era who had decided that the Democrats were too close to the King’s regime. They were for a parliamentarian type of republic. They decided not to go deep into government: you should create the laws and not go into executive power. It happened that most of the people who founded the party at the beginning of the century were intellectuals–poets, playwrights, critics–it was considered to be a party only of intellectuals, too small in membership. When a year ago this party was reorganized by Elka Konstantinova, people again started thinking that this will be a party of intellectuals and it would not be easy for common people to be members of the party. This is not so true. The RDP does insist that members all have their own personal performance in society, to be good enough to stand by themselves without being a member of a large group of people, taking strength from a large party like the Communists do. We stand for radical democracy, for democracy that has no alternative, that makes no compromise.
How large is the party’s membership?
Difficult to answer. Maybe because everyone is too personal in this party, we haven’t made a serious effort to find out our membership. We view the party in horizontal principles. There is no hierarchy. There are branches based on the local principle. Some are even organized on a professional basis. There might be a club of doctors or a club of musicians in the RDP. We don’t want hundreds of thousands of members who are officially coordinated, who have cards, etc. Approximately, to my knowledge, somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 members in the country right now.
The difference between RDP and other parties?
Again, the idea of the role of the personality in the process of democratization. The Social Democrats, for instance, work to make society democratic but they have the socialist idea that society is something organic and you should made the organic body democratic. We think that society will be more democratic when everyone of us is happy.
I need a concrete example of this.
Our party has never wanted to grasp, as I told you, executive power. We would like to make society more democratic through taking part in parliament, by making more democratic and just laws. We don’t want to become ministers.
A perpetual opposition?
Are there any particular pieces of legislation that the RDP is pushing for?
Perhaps because of our tradition and the fact that most of our members are highly intelligent people, people believe that it is the RDP’s job to reorganize all the laws having to do with education, culture, law. More or less, we like this sort of work. We also have ideas about reorganizing the military. For example, our president, Ms. Konstaninova has been chosen to be chairman of the committee dealing with education, culture, and science.
What relations does an ostensibly intellectual group have with a trade union like Podkrepa?
I’ll tell you about something which will come out in the next issue of Vek 21. It is an interview with the president of Podkrepa, Mr. Krenchev. He says, and I totally agree: in times like ours, any kind of social organization, even a trade union, cannot help but be involved politically. If you are politically honest, you can’t be but anti-Communist. And if you are anti-Communist, you should be involved on the political level. Right now, we are all together. But when the Communist idea is gone, we will go our separate ways. A trade union will do trade union work and we will do our job in culture and the Social Democrats will try to organize society in smaller groups.
I ask because, in the region I’m travelling, intellectuals are the first to benefit from the changes in terms of culture and freedom. Austerity packages, meanwhile, hurt workers and farmers disproportionately. And the workers are now saying, heck, reform was great when we were all anti-Communists but now it seems that reform only helped intellectuals and we are the ones who have to pay for it.
This is a difficult question but this process is still in front of us: we have not come to the bottom of the crisis. The workers have not come to see the situation as the sin of the intellectuals.
In the elections, the intellectuals supported the opposition and the rest of the country voted for the BSP. Whether the workers blame the intellectuals or not, they certainly voted that way. Are intellectuals trying to bridge this gap?
Personally, I myself have been a worker as well as an intellectual. I started as a teacher, then I worked in TV. Then I was not allowed to do anything in the field of ideology any more. I was good enough to do ideology because I did not have the right thinking. So I had to do other work. My last work was as a city bus driver. I wouldn’t say that I know completely the psychology of the worker. But I more or less think that the mounting crisis will open the eyes of the worker because what has happened in Poland will be felt here in time, in the next couple of months. They have not come to see who their real enemies are. The Communists have managed to make them the spoiled children of the nation. They were given more care, more attention. Now, they will come to realize what they were being used for. They will now come to realize that the artificially created large industrial cities were needed to reproduce the proletariat.
Everyone in the opposition says that they won’t compromise with the Communists. Then, sotto voce, they say that some form of coalition will be formed although no one will call it a coalition.
I think that the Communists are not fit for negotiating because they have never negotiated in their past. If you talk with a Communist on a matter on which you don’t agree about. He might listen to you and not agree. The next day, he’ll come out with nearly your version of the matter as his own. This is their favorite style.
Let me be cynical, for a moment. What you describe as the Communist style could be called, simply, the style of a politician. It is the style of a politician to be manipulative, dishonest, to steal the opinion of others to make it their own.
I get the point. But, I’ll tell you one thing. Politicians in America and Western Europe are actually politicians and try to make the cosmetic effect on a beautiful or healthy body. They will oppose each other to make the surface look better because the body is strong enough. Here, we have to change something much deeper. We have to make the foundations healthy and strong. It’s not politics here.
At first, it seemed as though the opposition was united on the issue of equal rights for ethnic Turks. Now we have two separate movements. Do you think reconciliation is possible?
I think reconciliation is possible though it won’t be soon. You know, when I was a small child, growing up in a region where many Turks lived, we knew in school that some of our classmates were Turks. They got some additional lessons: they studied Turkish, they had Turkish books, they even had a culture house. They knew they were Turks and we knew they were Turks. We studied history and we knew about the Turkish yoke but we did not say that it was the most tragic period of our history. But sometime in the late 1960s, for the first time, the Communists had to do something after Czechoslovakia. They thought that what had happened in Poland and Hungary might happen here. So they tried to do something to release the tension here. Someone here actually created the problem then, here. It was not difficult to make a nation that has suffered under the yoke to feel angry. It was a small beginning, hardly noticed, but the virus was implanted. 1984 when they forced the name changes–this was the final move, the final recourse. They didn’t know what else to do so they used this card. This makes reconciliation difficult: a virus is a virus.
Why did the Bulgarian opposition fall for it? The Polish opposition learned not to be anti-Semitic after 1968 expulsion of 20,000 Jews by the government.
The opposition here was not so undoubtedly popular within the nation. The opposition was not so certain that it was popular within the nation. It felt unsafe, it felt that it might lose position if it stuck to it. Last year, on New Years Eve, the opposition was actually bound together. But the nation responded and said that the opposition was a traitor to the nation. And some people in the opposition did not feel certain enough that they could persuade the nation. We did not have any one of the opposition leaders so popular that he or she could come out in front of the nation and the nation would forget its hatred of the Turks because of their love of this person.
So you didn’t have a Vaclav Havel.
At that time, there wasn’t this someone who could say, “you shouldn’t believe what’s happening” and you should believe the nationalistic demonstrations.
Someone in the opposition told me that they didn’t want Bulgaria to be the path by which Islamic fundamentalism enters Europe.
That’s nonsense if you ask me. I don’t think Europe will need a road for Islamic fundamentalism: it won’t take it. And the best way, actually, to hold Turkey, if at all Turkish fundamentalism is aggressive, is through NATO. My personal opinion is that this nationalistic and chauvinistic remains in our way of thinking in this part of the world is directly proportional to the level of development of our country. Quarrels come with poverty.
And the Macedonian situation?
When Yugoslavia and Bulgaria become normal, well-developed economic countries, there will be no problems. Macedonia will become just another part of the world.
Economic reform will necessarily affect different parts of society differently. What kind of social guarantees, given your individualistic bent, do you support, if any?
It seems to me that the situation as it is depicted at times–with people dying in the streets and mass unemployment–is a portion of the Big Lie. When I am sick, I don’t want the cure to be slow. I want it to be quick. If it has to come, why can’t it be faster. I think everyone will find his or her best way to cushion the crisis.
I don’t know if this will ever reach the subject of this fascinating interview. I don’t even know if it is the same Vihur I knew in Rousse, Bulgaria, in 1972-3. He played a role in a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest at the English Language School where my wife Prisca and I were teachers. I remember him as affable, supportive and enthusiastic. When he was part way through his military service, he came to our flat (Block Rodina, on the VIIMESS campus) for tea; I was very glad to see him. If it’s not the same Vihur (I’m afraid I don’t recall his surname so can’t be sure), my apologies; if it is the same Vihur, my message is: What a distinguished and adventurous life you have led!
Ah, but this DID reach the subject of John’s interview above. Talking about the global village or the globalis(z)ed world where everybody knows everybody, more or less.
Yes, it is the same juvenile delinquent whom you taught the great values of civility, liberty, liberalism, life, drama, civilization, freethinking, broadmindedness, and what not back in the early 1970s and who has turned into the old donkey whom John met first in the fiery Bulgarian summer of 1990 and then again in the gorgeous Bulgarian autumn of 2012.
THANK YOU so much for your memorable presence in my young life as well as for your invaluable influence on the way my life and personality took shape later.
Yes, I do remember very vividly the ‘Block Rodina’ prefab block of flats (high-rise or apartment building for John) on the VIIMESS campus and your kind hospitality there. (FYI, VIIMESS has now become the University of Ruse: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Ruse.)
I am so glad indeed to hear from you after 40 years now. Thank you!
As regards the way my name is spelt, here is a funny little detail I never shared with John.
The way Nigel spells my name (Vihur) is the way I used to transliterate my Slavic name in the corresponding characters of the English alphabet until 1990 for I thought this was the most appropriate way to represent how my weird name sounds. The second vowel there is similar, I suppose, to the \ə\ vowel in, say, hurtle \ˈhər-təl\ or in burly /ˈbərlē/.
(BTW, the English word ‘whirl’ and the Slavic word ‘vihr’ = ‘вихър’ are definitely cognate as they (a) have the same meaning and (b) they both probably come from Old Norse ‘hvirfla’, which is just one of the countless curious facts about the languages of the world that I learnt during my studies of linguistics. Just take a look at the very conspicuous rotation or interchange of sounds in the phonematic structure which must have occurred in the historic process of word changing and word-building.)
So, until 1990, there was no freedom of movement in Bulgaria as both Nigel and John would know. Travel outside the country required a special international passport which was never issued to questionable, suspicious, and unreliable ‘enemies of the people’ such as myself. Until 1990, full-aged Bulgarians were issued internal passports, i.e. funny identity booklets for use within the country only where the names were spelt in Bulgarian and no transliteration was needed. In international travel passports, however, bearers’ names had to be presented with Roman transliteration as well. It was up to the not necessarily literate communist police clerks to transliterate names how they felt was right and there were no clear rules on the Romanization of Bulgarian names.
When I was about to travel to the USA in the summer of 1990, I got my I-20 visa form before I got my first ever travel passport. Thus the I-20 form had my name spelt as Vihur Crusteff while my newly minted passport featured me as Vihar Krastev. It would take a novelette to describe the memorable 3+ hours of delay and humiliation I suffered at the hands of Immigration and Customs upon arrival at the Boston Airport because of that clerical inanity.
Anyway, THANK YOU, John, for making the small globalis(z)ed world even smaller and the open society even more open.
THANK YOU, Nigel, for everything! And my message to you is: What great and wonderful life teachers you were and what an awesome door into the world and to a brighter future you opened to my schoolmates and to myself back in the hoary past of the 1970s. Truly and deeply appreciated.
I do feel really beholden to you and always will.
Best regards and best wishes,
Please keep in touch if you will. I would love to know everything about you that you would be willing to share. And should you feel like visiting Bulgaria again, some 40 years on, you would be more than welcome and certainly our dearests guests.
What a fascinating life story…
I wish my own parents were as resourceful and actively involved during those critical years of transition in Bulgaria.
I was only a few years old and being piggy-backed to every ‘meeting’, waving a blue ‘CDC’ (or as you call it – ‘UDF’) flag in my small hand.
I remember the huge crowds, the excitement. Obviously none of the politics itself though.
We left Bulgaria in 1999. I was still not old enough to really understand what was going on in the country.
Nowadays, a grown-up adult, I take keen interest in that early period of political change.
I can’t help but feel a little guilty, taking responsibility for my parents’ decision to run away.
Can I do anything to change the situation back in Bulgaria? If yes, what can I do? … If we/I don’t do anything, who will?
Thank you, Mirella, for sharing part of your story too. It’s a very difficult question that you ask about how to help change the situation in Bulgaria. Perhaps Vihar has some suggestions. As an outsider, I can only direct you toward some organizations inside Bulgaria that I think are doing interesting work. I’ll soon be posting an interview with Yanina Taneva of the Ideas Factory. You can find out more about the organization here: http://ideasfactorybg.org/