Growing up in the ’80’s during the Cold War, the Red Scare, remnants of McCarthyism… and of course, the movie Red Dawn with Patrick Swayze, had anyone and everyone in the US terrified of Communism and the USSR. It was synonymous with cold-blooded totalitarianism, brainwashing, freezing to death after starvation, that sort of thing. No one would really want to be a Communist, right? We all had the daylights scared out of us at the thought of the USSR and nuclear arms… and Gorbachev’s birthmark.
But then, turns out, they were just as scared of us and this idea of Capitalism, which, to them was clearly built on stealing and greed.
Since I’ve been living in Sofia, Bulgaria this month (and it now feels necessary to learn the truth about Communism), I’ve learned what Stalin looks like, how Communism started, and why Bulgaria was Communist from 1944-1989, though not officially part of the USSR. I spent yesterday morning at the Museum of Socialist Art after watching 2 BBC documentaries on Stalin, completing a local Communist Tour here in Sofia, and having waded through dozens of wikipedia articles on the topic.
Turns out, Communism didn’t sound like such a terrible idea at the start. And although the ’40’s propaganda videos are creepy, so are most videos from the ’40’s… But if you remove the creepiness, the people in the video all look like they enjoy working together. People working in tandem to develop a strong society? It actually doesn’t sound that bad.
The word ‘commune’ comes from Communism. Picturing hippies passing around love and flowers is a slightly different visual than beige uniforms and frozen smiles, factories and breadlines, but a lot of the same principals are there. Everyone is equal and everyone deserves an equal amount. Unfortunately, we’ve found there is not much advancement in a society when personal incentives are removed (the harder you work, your pay stays the same), and typically, however well-intentioned they are at the start, the leaders always turn into brutal dictators. But for really poor families, communism was a gift. Free school when school was never an option? Food on the table when it wasn’t before? Trabants (communist-built and extremely simple cars) for all? There were people who had life improve with Communism here in Bulgaria.
During my Communist Tour of Sofia, I got to ride in a Trabant, one of the few Communist cars that had been in production (and still exists, thanks to a few lucky people who have preserved them). Their cost was the equivalent of $1,200 USD (in today’s dollars). Pretty darn cheap for a new car. It’s made of recycled cotton and wool mix (we were told you can put your fist right through the side door). It sounds like an eco-friendly car, but the recycled outside is where the friendliness ends. You can smell the burning gas from one of these tiny cars from two blocks away. Checking the gas level is easy, though: just lift the hood and stick a dipstick in the gas tank. Cold? Just open the vent attached to the engine. Need a seatbelt? Use the same belt as the driver. Want to smoke a cigarette? There are ashtrays everywhere. It’s a standard, with the ‘stick’ where the turning signal typically is, though the movement to change gears is complicated… kind of like spelling a word with the lever. The good news? Anyone can fix the car with a wrench. Typically, after two years of work, a person could afford to buy one. Then, they’d just have to wait two years for one to be available.
An equal society with Flintstones cars? It may not sound so bad… But, of course, it was. The Communists seized power in Bulgaria and formed a government based on fear. People couldn’t leave the country. People couldn’t come into the country. September 9, 1944, was said to have been the day of the ‘People’s Uprising’, or the ‘Socialist Revolution’, as if the population had demanded Communism from the start. After communism fell in ’89, the truth came out that the Fatherland Front had created a forced takeover with the help of the Ukranian Red Army. For 45 years, people had been living a lie. Fear had overshadowed the ability to question, to have freedom of religion (to have any religion), and history was erased. Neighbors, family members… anyone could turn people in if you weren’t behind the movement, and everyone was watching. If you didn’t believe in the good of the nation, in the quick-paced, multi-5-year plans to build factories, cooperative farms, and cement cities to catch up with the west, then you were a traitor.
Because the Communist Tour didn’t satiate my hunger for learning about communism and why it was so bad, I decided to hit up the repository for the era’s remaining art and paraphernalia. The Museum of Socialist Art was opened in 2011 in Sofia. It was initially intended to be called the Museum of Totalitarian Art and there was an argument around whether it should be in existence in the first place.
The museum has a front yard filled with busts and statues of communist leaders along with other forms of art from the 40’s-80’s. They have a propaganda video running on a 15 minute loop next to the ticket counter, and one floor of sketches, portraits, and posters of Communist propaganda from all over the world (including North Korea).
Below are the busts from the Socialist Museum (if the head is missing, click on the picture to enlarge), and a large statue of Lenin that used to reside over The Lago (or Communist Square) in Sofia. No bust of Stalin was found, but they did have several paintings of him. The museum and tour answered a lot of questions, but there are plenty left unanswered.
Bulgaria suffered through 4 decades of Communist rule. The lies the public was told, the hardships that they went through, the people that disappeared or strangely fell ill… it’s hard for a lot of people to admit that it ever occurred. As journalist Georgi Lozanov noted: “Bulgaria must have a museum of communism that will tell new generations the story of a period that should never again become reality.” But my favorite quote is by the Finance Minister, Simeon Djankov, who stated: “We are closing one page of the Bulgarian history and communism is going where it belongs – in the museum.” Wikipedia