Bulgaria: Remembrance versus ignorance

Communism and its long shadows

Bulgaria embarked on the path to transition towards democracy on 10 November 1989 when the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party relieved Todor Zhivkov of his duties as a Secretary General of the Party and as a Head of State. After almost half a century of authoritarianism, the political and economic system in the country changed rapidly and drastically, at least at first glance. However, behind the democratic exterior of the newly established Republic of Bulgaria (as opposed to People’s Republic of Bulgaria), the residues from the Communist past were so obvious and easy to perceive that a new term was conceived to describe this peculiar state of affairs, namely ‘façade democracy’. Behind this idea lie a number of characteristics of the Bulgarian transition, many of which are, at least to a certain extent valid even today, 26 years after the fall of Communism. However, one of the most worrying trends when it comes to the future development of Bulgaria, especially in the context of dysfunctional or semi-functional state institutions, is the striking ignorance among young people in particular about the Communist period and its implications on the political life in Bulgaria today. Let us explore the issue in more details.

The data

According to a sociological study, conducted by Alpha Research as part of Sofia Platform’s project “25 Years Free Bulgaria”, the young people in Bulgaria are remarkably uninformed when it comes to the period before 1989. Out of the people of age between 16 and 30, 79% claim that they are almost not familiar with the development in Bulgaria in the interval 1944 – 1989 while only 6% say that they have knowledge of this period. 69% of the people in the same age group do not associate the 1980s with any important events while only 15% associate the decade with the fall of the Berlin wall and 11% with the resignation of Todor Zhivkov. Their knowledge of the Communist rule in Bulgaria is based predominantly on personal impressions and conversations and not on books, movies or school/university lessons.

There are glaring knowledge gaps among the young Bulgarians when it comes to the historic figures and key events which brought about the transition towards democracy. More concretely, 68% do not know who Margaret Thatcher is, 73% are unfamiliar with Ronald Reagan and 89% have not heard of Helmut Kohl while 51% are even uninformed about Todor Zhivkov. What is more, 40% of the young Bulgarians cannot answer whether the end of Communism was marked by the fall of the Berlin wall, the Chinese wall, the Sofia wall or the Moscow wall and 92% of them cannot point out the borders of the Eastern Bloc.

There is clearly a gap in the education of the younger generation and an overall remembrance problem in the Bulgarian society as a whole when it comes to the Communist era. The educational system in Bulgaria has not been able to convey the necessary information to the young people and to create a solid knowledge base regarding this important and extremely relevant period of the Bulgarian and European history.

Who is to blame?

According to the study, citied above, only 10% of the people aged between 16 and 30 obtained their knowledge about the Communist era at school or at the university. The educational system in Bulgaria is therefore clearly at fault. There are several important factors which contribute to the ignorance of the Bulgarian students.

Firstly, the Communist period in Bulgaria is primarily taught to students in their history classes in the 11th grade. Even though the amount of lessons in the different state approved history textbooks varies and there are minor differences in the presented information, the emphasis is almost always placed on the political, and occasionally, on the economic aspects of the regime. Although these perspectives are certainly important, the implemented approach leaves students with no knowledge about the everyday life of people under this regime and the way the state interfered or influenced even the most mundane activities of its citizens. In addition, there are almost no accounts or personal stories of the victims of this regime or of the Bulgarian dissidents. It is unclear how the Communist party interfered with all aspects of the cultural and professional life of Bulgarians. These gaps prevent the textbooks from being understandable and relatable and leave the lessons about Communism on a relatively abstract level for the students where they learn about key dates and historical figures without being able to comprehend the significance and relevance of the studied historic events and processes.

Secondly, even the limited and imperfect amount of information on Communism, included in the Bulgarian textbook is often swept under the carpet by the history teachers. The lessons on Communism are crammed up at the end of the curriculum for the 11th grade and more often than not at the end of the school year time is not sufficient to go into the topic in detail. In addition, the material on Communism is not included in the History State Exam or in the entry exams for universities. For these reasons, teachers often undertake a practical approach by ignoring the Communist period and focusing on the topics that are relevant for the aforementioned examinations.

Finally, the topic of Communism is still sensitive and even polarizing for the Bulgarian society. Teachers today have witnessed at least part of the Communist period personally and the information they present to the students might be a mixture of the objective facts and their subjective perceptions. Most of them are unprepared and untrained in separating the two. In fact, very few materials are available to aid history teachers in presenting the topic of Communism to their students and the state guidelines on the subject are vague at best.

The interplay between these factors might help us explain the results of the sociological study, presented above. However, it is important to think about the next steps towards addressing the overwhelming ignorance about the Communist period in Bulgaria.

The next steps

A number of educational activities should be undertaken in order to address the gaps in the Bulgarian educational system on the topic of Communism. These might include open lessons in the Bulgarian schools and universities, training seminars for teachers, various cultural events for students, including exhibitions, movie screening, literary readings and discussions. In addition, the Communist era should be included in all internal and external examinations, in order to ensure that the students are paying sufficient attention to the study material.

George Santayana once said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We need to ensure that the Bulgarian youth is aware of their history in order to be certain that the mistakes from the Communist past are never repeated.

by Louisa Slavkova and Iva Kopraleva