Remembering the Calm Life Under Communism

The Germans have a great expression for life in a competitive, dog-eat-dog country. They call it an "elbow society." People in capitalist countries have sharper elbows, and they use them more readily.

In Bulgaria, some people look back on their time during communism, the time before the introduction of the elbow society, as the "calm life." You generally didn't have to work hard. You didn't have to worry about losing your job. Life was simpler. There was only one kind of washing powder. You could count the number of television channels on one hand.

In retrospect, the calm life has a certain appeal. If you're out of work or going crazy because of multitasking or feel the hot breath of a competitor on your neck, the old days begin to feel almost like a holiday: boring perhaps but not so stressful. Of course, as with all nostalgia, these memories are selective. The painful memories tend to be suppressed.

Petya Kabakchieva is a sociologist who has done research on a number of social issues in Bulgaria. One of her first topics was social status associated with work.

"People knew that their salary didn't depend on their effort," she told me over dinner at a very good restaurant in Sofia with an old Art Nouveau interior. "They worked, but they didn't invest a lot of effort. In my research after the change, a lot of people told me, 'Now we will work with pleasure, because we are working for ourselves. We will not depend on the state salary.' At the moment the opposite is happening -- a lot of people are feeling nostalgic about the fixed salary, because there is a lot of unemployment and poverty. This means that something in the so-called 'transition' went wrong."

She has done research on a number of fascinating topics: on the construction of memories, on temporary migrants, on Roma integration. We talked about her sociological investigations as well as her own personal experiences and her evolving understanding of "the People," from her time in Leipzig in 1989 to her view of Bulgarian society today.

The Interview

You mentioned that your students have difficulty imagining what life what was like before 1989. Can you give me examples?

Take the example of the renaming of the ethnic Turks. When we had a meeting at the university, where party functionaries explained to us the "important" meaning of this process, the bravest thing some of the university professors had done was to ask a question: what's happening? Why are you doing this? The students can't imagine this. "Why didn't you protest?" they ask. "Why didn't you go out on the street?" They can't imagine our fear and self-censorship.

They can't understand that people were sent to labor camps because they had listened to Western music and dressed a different way. The situation here was not as bad as in the Soviet Union, but we had such camps, Belene being the most famous. The students can't imagine that someone could be punished for dressing differently. They can't understand the hidden, Aesopic language used in the works of artists and dissidents that was perceived by us, people who had "lived socialism," as a kind of resistance.

There is a very good book by my colleague Pepka Boyadzhieva called Social Engineering -- about higher education in Communist Bulgaria. She studied the papers written by the Fatherland Committees concerning the admission of students to higher education. There were sentences in those reports like: she has a "bourgeois look," he has a "bourgeois gesture." This is unimaginable even to me. How can someone decide if you should be a student or not because of your gestures? This was the late 1940s and early 1950s. After that, it was not so strict.

Do they see any relevance from that period of time to their lives today? Or is it just ancient history happening in a different country?

They cannot imagine this life, but at the same time -- and we conducted research on this -- they believe the family stories. Their perception of communism is mostly from these family stories. A lot of Bulgarians, mostly from villages and small towns, now have a growing nostalgia toward the Communist regime. It's based on the memories of the security of their lives back then.

My son did some research on the memory of the renaming of ethnic Turks. Even some of those who suffered this humiliation remember with some nostalgia the security of life: "we had jobs then," they remember, "We could go to the seaside then. Yes, we did not have lots of opportunities to travel and eat different types of food, but we had a calm life." The following phrase had become a cliché: now there is everything in the shops and lots of opportunities, but we don't have the money to take advantage of them, so we feel worse than in the Communist time.

So, yes, they can't imagine that life. On the other hand, they have this quite simplified notion of communism presented to them by their grandfathers and mostly by their grandmothers, and probably by some of their parents. It's true that Bulgaria went through a very heavy deindustrialization. A lot of people are not living so well right now. The bad things are forgotten. That's normal from a psychological point of view. They're forgetting the lack of freedom, the poor life, the long queues, seven-year wait to get a car. They just remember the security of yesterday compared to the insecurity of today.

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