Now this is a billboard at the entrance of the Nessebar/Sunny Beach resort at the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. The caption says, "100 years since the birth of comrade Todor Zhivkov, long-time leader of Mother Bulgaria!" Someone with some cash and a lot of spare time on their hands must have felt compelled to express their longing for the deceased Dear Leader and all the nice things with which we used to associate his glorious reign. Those of us who've lived a bit during those times though, might be feeling as if they're peering into a parallel universe where everything had indeed been pinky-rosy.
But who's to blame for this wishful thinking that permeates the newer generations? Where does this idealization of the not-so-distant past, or rather, lack of understanding thereof, emerge from?
As with many other things, it all starts at school. A brief look at today's history school-books reveals a weird picture. They're full of stories of Medieval heroes and their heroics, while studying the more recent past, particularly the communist period, is boiled down to a couple of lessons. An international research on the studies of the communist past in East Europe (funded by the Konrad Adenauer foundation) recently found that there's still not a single museum or exposition in Bulgaria dedicated to the atrocities of the communist regime. As if a whole chapter in our history has been deliberately swept under the rug, and for a purpose. Naturally, then, the lack of a lasting memory about the communist dictatorship results in rampant ignorance, and a real danger of re-playing that chapter and repeating the "darker" part of our most recent history once again. Because history should be remembered, even if it's shameful and dark, lest we want to keep doing the same shit over and over again. But we'll never learn, I guess.
It's a fact that many of our youngsters have tremendous gaps in their historical knowledge, and not just regarding that period. But the 1944-1989 period is indeed like deep space for them. For example, a recent poll in schools indicates that 60% of the youth believe such terms like the "Iron Curtain" and "GULag" are "nothing particularly bad". 17.5% say they'd love to live at the time of Todor Zhivkov when life was so calm and safe, and people had jobs. And 14% are calling that period "mostly democratic".
The reason for this inadequate knowledge of our recent past stems from the school-books. The traditional manner of studying history at school tends to separate our past into two categories: "glorious" and "shameful". No middle ground. The more distant from the present a certain event is, the more glorious and heoric it looks. Funneling one-sided historical assertions about distant events and almost legendary names, often mythologized and turned into icons, has substituted sharing hard truths about the more "infamous" part of our history. No doubt the 45 years of communist dictatorship are part of the latter, which is why many believe that period should be approached by the good old principle, "about the dead, either speak good or don't speak at all". And that puts us in danger of resurrecting some habits from the presumably dead communism.
In fact, selectively remembering only parts of history, and re-writing the parts that don't suit our narrative or agenda, has become like a pastime for most Balkan peoples. Just look at the Macedonians who in their desperate attempts to craft a new identity for themselves, are systematically "stealing history" from almost all adjacent countries, only to polish it a bit, pump it up to tremendous proportions and eventually call it their own. No big deal, you'd say. It's just history, you know. Those Erapeans and their obsession with the past. Maybe so. But like I said, doing the same shit over and over in roughly the same manner, tends to bring us back along the same old paths. As the local saying goes, "Where water has flown before, it shall flow again". And it's some pretty poisonous water that I'm talking about right here.
But back to our history school-books. Let's take one example. The 10th grade history classes, which are probably the one time during the entire school program that totalitarianism is given at least some attention, contain a total of 18 hours of studying totalitarianism. But most of them are dedicated to Italian fascism and German Nazism, while Soviet Bolshevism is deigned a meager 3 hours, and Chinese Maoism and our own Bulgarian communism get one hour each. WTF!?
The closing exams after the 11th grade only include one (!) question vaguely related to communism. That's why the students don't have any motivation to dig any deeper into the topic beyond the usual memorizing and regurgitating of facts and dates. What's more, the only lessons somewhat touching the subject are squeezed towards the end of the last school-year, which is when students tend to have other priorities (it's prom season, and all that). I've personally talked with a number of teachers, and at least one has said they usually tend to scrap those last hours of history classes, due to crappy schedule (they simply run out of time at the end of the school year so they abandon those lessons altogether). Of course, the topic gets dropped out of the exit exams as well.
There's a problem with the lessons on communism themselves, too. Most of them are written as if they're some sort of Wiki article: they only include some chronology, and an extensive list of the alternating party elites and changing Dear Leaders (we were kindof blessed with having a single Dear Leader for more than 3 decades, but just look at the USSR!) That's of course some dry, tedious shit right there. Not a single piece of personal anecdata is sprinkled in, nor any first-hand recollection about the time of the regime that's being so popularly impersonated by Todor Zhivkov himself in the naive minds of the youth. And the so called Revival Process, the shameful persecution of our Turkish minority coupled with a forceful assimilation effort that resulted in driving 300K+ ethnic Bulgarian Turks away from their country, is given just one paragraph. Absolute and total shame, dear comrades!
And it doesn't get any better when we look for comparisons with our neighbors who share a similar past with us, if not even worse. Take the Romanian experience for example. Both pupils and students would often go to their teachers and professors and ask them the question, "And what did you do against the evil dictatorship that you speak of? What was your personal stance about the regime and its representatives?" That puts the teachers in a very uncomfortable situation because they know they had done nothing of course. After all, casting some light on the communist past is also a test of everyone's conscience.
The Bucharest Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes has prepared a special school-book on Romanian communism. It's nearly 200 pages, and has a DVD documentary attached to it, entitled "A day at the Romanian television during Ceausescu's time". It contains original footage and news bulletins from the last months of the regime, just before things went violent there. And each chapter of the book and each segment of the disc has comprehensive study tasks and tests attached at the end. Everything is pretty interactive, and the students get to learn things in a profound way, and participate in the discussions, and really understand what happened and why. And we got what? Memorizing some dates and names, vomiting them at the exam, then forgetting them forever. Bullshit. Total bullshit.
True, nostalgia for the commie past does persist north of the Danube, too. Many among the older generations genuinely want those times of old back. Maybe because that's how old people's minds work, or because there were indeed lots of nice, or fascinating, or outright funny things back then - depends who you ask. But the thing is, no one is ever thinking of raising Ceausescu-praising billboards on the Romanian streets. That's just absurd.
Still, there are good news on our front. Next month, the former Secret Service HQ in the center of Sofia (which the older Sofianers call "The house of horrors"), will host the first permanent exposition dedicated to the atrocities of our domestic brand of communism, commemorating those who perished or suffered from it. Including some ancient-looking torture devices that remain in the bowels of that building to this very day. That's some refreshing change from the now existing pattern of sweeping that episode of our past under the rug and turning the other way, demolishing (or desecrating) old communist monuments as if that'd somehow make those years magically disappear from memory (whereas most other former commie countries have designated special parks where they dump all those pieces of history, for everyone to see and reminisce). That new project may be coming with a huge delay compared to our East European counterparts, sure, but better late than never.
It was from the balconies of this building that in 1947 one Mara Racheva, the secretary of pre-communist-time prime-ministers G.M.Dimitrov and Nikola Petkov, was cast to the pavement. With fingernails dragged out and breasts torn apart. And it's where a year later, the social-democratic activist Lyudmila Slavova was boiled alive in hot water. Anyone who bothers to pay a visit to the museums dedicated to the atrocities of communism across Eastern Europe, would see the gallows and the torture rooms, and feel an echo of the horrors those victims had to endure. But here, there's not a single place dedicated to that dark period of our history. We're like ostriches burying our heads in the sand. And then wondering how come our notion of the past is so warped.
Currently, the only place in my country where some minor part of the inventory of the sadistic jailors at the Belene labor camp could be seen (that was where political dissidents were being sent by the regime), is actually not situated on the somber island amidst the river Danube, but in the home of 84-year old Petko Ogoyski, who, just like a Balkan version of Mandela, had spent decades as a political prisoner in the communist camps. His unforgivable transgression? Speaking truths, i.e. "anti-state propaganda against the People's Republic and the brotherly Soviet nation". Fortunately, those things will never have to happen again, because we must have learned our lessons well. Right? RIGHT!?