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Everyday Life behind the Iron Curtain

After the Second World War, Bulgaria declared itself the People’s Repulbic of Bulgaria and life behind the Iron Curtain under Soviet dictate began. For the next 45 years a whole generation was to grow up knowing only Communism. Whilst we in the West enjoyed increasing prosperity under capitalism we were led to believe that life in the Eastern bloc was hard and fraught with infringements on personal freedom, however, that are not the way Bulgarians see their life under Communist rule...

Western media focused on the painful stories of the politically oppressed who survived a hard life in one of the country’s internment camps, yet these stories were used as a type of Western propaganda to reaffirm preexisting stereotypes about the corrupt nature of the communist regime. The reality for the majority of people living under Communism was that it was a normal and acceptable way of life and those that were interviewed for this article had many fond memories of this time.

Education

Everyone went to school during this period and secondary education was obligatory. The Communist Party did influence the learning programme and during reading lessons and dictation, children were reading Communist ideology like, “The Party knows best, it cares for the common good.” However, the Bulgarians I talked to about this laughed and one said, “We were not so stupid as to know this was shit.” Physical exercise every morning was also compulsory as was a smart appearance; if your hair was too long you were told to cut it and school officials would think nothing of measuring its length to make sure you complied. Children were also enrolled into compulsory youth groups, which involved the wearing of a simple but smart uniform – for men black trousers and a white shirt, for girls a black skirt and white shirt and according to your age a coloured cravats with the youngest children wearing red. These “uniforms” were worn on public holidays and school celebrations and as one person pointed out, “We only wore them for special occasions, your school kids wear a uniform all the time.” At the age of 18 military service was mandatory as it used to be in the UK at that time.

Music and Entertainment

A common misconception is that those living in this period were not allowed to listen to Western music, yet this is not true. Nightclubs could play 60% Western pop, but by law they also had to play 40% approved Bulgarian or Russian music. The strange thing about this time is that people were actually employed to visit the nightclubs and make sure that they were adhering to the prescribed quota and there were penalties for those that didn’t. One Bulgarian, Georgi, told me that he had a thriving business during the ‘80’s copying Western music onto CD’s. It was against the law to do this as just as it is in the West (due to breaches in copyright), however in laid back Bulgaria, nobody took any notice, just as today illegal downloading is rife here. Another thing that all Bulgarians stress about this period is that entertainment was cheap and even though their salaries were low, entertainment was still much more affordable than it is today, and for a nation that loves to party this is important.

Politics

It was a crime to condemn the Communist Party and its ideology, but not to the extent where the average man with no strong political affiliations could not complain to his neighbour that the government was a waste of time. One man Boris, who was raising a young family during this era, told me, “Everyone would complain just as they do now. When Gorbachov started talking to the Russians about Glasnost and Perestroika we all laughed and said, “That means prices will go up.”” It was those people who were “noticeable” in their activism against the government who were put into prison.

Shopping

This was one area where Communism could never rival the Western world and all Bulgarians agree with me, however, they point out that they were a poor nation and having lots of retail choice would have made no difference as they simply didn’t have the money to spend. Most families relied on growing and rearing their own produce and whilst for those in the cities consumer choices were much more limited, they knew no better. Some people managed to buy clothes at the tourist department store Corricon, which was located in all of the major cities. Corricon sold the best of western goods at extremely high prices, but the Bulgarians liked the quality and whilst everyone was according to Communist doctrine “equal” wearing goods from Corricom made some “more equal than others.” Shops at the time were hideously overstaffed to ensure that the country could boast full employment; Thus one person would show you the article you were interested in buying, a second would write a ticket out which you took to a third person who would take your money and operate the cash register, whilst a fourth person would give you a receipt to take back to the first person and a fifth would wrap your purchase. Often there was a sixth person who would supervise the whole charade.

The Good and the Bad

Food shortages were sometimes acute; once winter came there would be no fresh fruit or vegetables until spring and most people were left to eat plates full of spaghetti with tomato puree and bottled peas. Luxury food items consisted of bananas and oranges, but if you had never tasted one it was not something you missed. Living accommodation was small and often several generations lived under one roof, which lead to little personal privacy. Power cuts were frequent and consumer goods were badly made, so much so that some TV’s were unable to produce sound! However, one thing all Bulgarians talked about with me was that there was no litter and no stray dogs during the Communist times. On Saturdays, people joined voluntary litter cleaning projects and cleaned up the streets. Booze and cigs were cheap and parties were plenty and for this reason everyone I talked to had very fond memories of this era. In fact Bulgaria’s Communist President, Todor Zhivkov, who ruled for forty years said when he was placed under house arrest after the fall of Communism, “was there no song; was there no laughter?”