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Tuesday, 09 December 2014 00:00

Children of the Revolution: Growing up with Bulgaria

Written by Milen Iliev
Buzludzha Monument Auditorium
Photo: Stanislav Traykov (Wikimedia Commons); Licence: CC BY 3.0
 

The communist Buzludzha momunent, completed in 1981, has gone to rack and ruin since the revolution

 

In the next part of our series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in many parts of Central and Southeastern Europe, we turn our attention to Bulgaria. Milen Iliev was only a young child when revolution came to his country, but vividly remembers the changes that took place in the 1990s.

The fall of communism came about in Bulgaria on 10 November 1989 with the resignation of long-serving leader Todor Zhivkov. I was just about to turn three at the time.  I was at that point of growing up, when I was getting ready to leave the confines of my home and join society for the first time in my life by going to nursery. Bulgaria was in a similar position – it was a newborn state, which was about to enter the world of democracy and capitalism and join a larger community of nations through the beginnings of globalisation.

Both Bulgaria and I had a lot of growing up to do. Perhaps the single most common leitmotif when you read about the process of growing up is the idea of the loss of innocence. In a nutshell, the argument is that once you start to realise what suffering and injustice are and how you can help or hinder their development in the world around you, you are not innocent anymore.

This is what Bulgarian society went through in the early 1990s. Until then, most people had been living in a cosy, albeit inefficient and poor society. In a way, the state took care of you – it gave you free education, healthcare, a job guarantee. The media never reported on any problems, and since people did not know about the problems in the world around them, they had no moral imperative to solve them. The fact that they were not allowed to amass capital and subsequently act with it, insulated them from the harsh realities of the capitalist world, where amassing wealth is often intimately connected with acts of evil.

Hypodermics and hyperinflation

The first needles at playgrounds and in the staircases of apartment blocks started appearing in '92. Drugs were virtually unknown in communist Bulgaria – the most potent thing a young person could get in the 80s was a homegrown joint with dubious psychoactive qualities. This all changed rather quickly after the revolution. Suddenly, one had access to the whole plethora of drugs that the West had to offer – marijuana, ecstasy, amphetamines, coke, and the king of them all, heroin. In 1992 the number of heroin addicts jumped by 30%, the following year the jump was 55%, in 1994 it was 51%*. A whole generation of young people simply had no experience with drugs and fell victim to unscrupulous dealers. At the time, of course, I didn’t realise that, I was only six years old. But I do remember the empty syringes on the playgrounds, lying there like a silent grave of the soon-to-be-dead young heroin users.

My family had a small house, tucked away in the Balkan mountains, where I spent most of my childhood summers. Ultimately, maintaining the house proved too hard for us – storms knocked off tiles from the roof each winter, and re-tiling the roof every year just wasn't something we could afford, so in the end my mother decided to sell the house. She got a nice price for it and put the money in a savings account. Then came 1997, and the Bulgarian lev plummeted right down into the abyss. My mother decided to spend the money, since it was becoming essentially worthless through hyperinflation. At that point, the money from the house was enough to buy a carpet, by the time she got to the shop, however, the prices had risen even higher and I ended up with a brand new jacket, as that was all the money could buy. For months afterwards, my mum had to get up early in the morning and stand in line for an hour or so to buy milk and essential products, because the supply had diminished considerably.

At the same time, financial pyramid schemes blossomed. For the first time in their lives, Bulgarians could invest their money and get returns, yet they had no experience in doing this. They were easy prey for con men, who took their money promising incredible returns and then hightailed it to places like Aruba or the Seychelles, where they would subsequently get shot by the next newcomer in the business.

The loss of innocence was pervasive, but I guess it was part of growing up.

 

My family were not the only ones that encountered major distress and a reduced quality of life. Pretty much everyone we knew suffered in one way or another. Some people, however, did well – much better than the average. I had just learned to read around '94, so I devoured the newspapers that were sitting on the kitchen table. I remember reading stories of successful men with shady incomes, who moved around Sofia like they owned the place. And own the place they did. There was a famous gangster, who wanted to drink his morning coffee in peace, so he had two big black cars block the entrances of a Sofia boulevard, making sure that no traffic would disturb him. The police, already in his pocket, were nowhere to be seen. Scenes like these showed us youngsters that there really seemed no point in studying, or living an honest life to amass wealth – if you wanted to move forward in the world, violence and crime were the answers.

I could go on telling stories, but I think this is enough to form a first impression. For me, the 90s were my childhood and despite all of the social problems, the rose-tinted spectacles of youth still make it a time I nostalgically miss. The older generations were not so lucky – they watched as their world fell apart around them. They saw the nice kid next door succumb to drug use, they saw their ne'er-do-well friend suddenly start driving a fancy western car and wearing a thick gold chain around his neck. The loss of innocence was pervasive, but I guess it was part of growing up. It is now up to Bulgarians themselves to put the lessons from these hard times into practice and build a more just and open society.


*cf. Šentov, Ognjan, Pazarăt na narkotici v Bălgarija (Sofia: 2003)

Last modified on Sunday, 25 January 2015 20:12

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