Go West (Life is peaceful there)
Go West (In the open air)
Go West (Baby, you and me)
Go West (This is our destiny)
Despite their divergent histories Eastern European countries were finally united under the Eastern Block that truly separated them from “Europe”. Socialism has the distinction of being both the most cynicism inducing political system and the most tranquil one. At its core socialism is a utopian ideology that can never hope to fulfil its lofty goals (“wonderful theory, wrong species”). In fact the tenets of socialism and their utter disregard of human nature were so profoundly absurd that many people actually believed in them. In the early days of the Eastern Bloc communism still held massive appeal to intellectuals and young people across Europe.
Both Hungary (1956 Revolution) and Czechoslovakia (1968 Prague Spring) tried to reform socialism and distance themselves from the Warsaw Pact. But Moscow used tanks, troops and other rhetorical devices to persuade them otherwise. The moral and economic failures of the socialist system became apparent even to the most blind believers. And we all know from George Carlin that a cynic is just a disappointed idealist. The deep chasm between hot-air rhetoric of government officials and reality could only be filled by cynicism and quiet surrender.
Seeing old photographs many Westerners still think that life inside the Eastern Bloc was just black and white. And they are absolutely right. For some socialism was nothing but stagnation, brutality and censorship in one lethal package; but for others especially in the countryside it was quiet bliss devoid of cynicism. Everybody got a job (or else), could afford basic necessities and a decent annual vacation. This quaint lifestyle is probably best described in the maxim: “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”. Travel was heavily restricted even within the same country and so people could not peek through the Dickensian shop of wonders that was the West.
The best thing of all was that news dissemination was completely controlled by the state. Instead of the current front-page carnage and alarming statistics the news was bland and boring. Very bad things still happened at an industrial scale (and at industrial facilities) but they just were not reported. Even the show trials that preceded executions were painfully rehearsed which took the fun and immediacy of the whole enterprise. The chronic shortages of lavatory paper ensured that the scarce printed news was not even read.
Ignorance is bliss, my friends. For example, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was announced to the general USSR population two days after it occurred in a tweet-long message on the radio. What you don't know won't kill you! Or it might but at least you won’t have to deal with the anxiety that often accompanies nuclear fallout.
Why Try Harder?
One of the most glorious attributes of capitalism is the concept of “F**k You Money” or the ability to acquire enough cash for total independence. Socialism had an equally ingenious mirror-image system that guaranteed dependence: the membership economy. People even in high-up positions were not paid huge salaries and so could not save much. Instead they were given lots of perks: better vacationing spots, ability to purchase foreign goods, etc. However, these perks were tied to their present position and if they were in some way to demonstrate bourgeois, cosmopolitan or imperialist tendencies then everything would be stripped away. They could be fired and then thrown in jail for not working or “parasitism”. Their children and close relatives could also be ostracised or demoted.
That’s how socialist states can have its pirozhki and eat it: ensure obedience and some incentive but narrow the income gap. The immediate positive benefits of such flattened distribution of income was that visible differences between households were not as pronounced. Yes, some were more equal than others but at least none of the nomenklatura comrades was buying British football clubs. The lack of cash and ban on private enterprise ensured that people had to exchange favours and services in grey market transactions. This set the stage for the shameful corruption practices that proudly continue to this day.
Even if we have to remove the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia (because they’re splattered with blood) we must admit that for many people the socialist period was a good and peaceful time. But the Party had to come to an end. By the fall of the Berlin Wall many Eastern Bloc economies were spectral apparitions of their former ghostly selves. That didn’t matter because the sweet anticipation of revolutionary change tramped every negative feeling. Just before his fall in 1989 the Romanian leader (and professional madman) Nicolae Ceauşescu received a letter from his colleagues stating that ‘Romania is and remains a European country… (despite your reckless actions) you cannot move Romania to Africa’. The Eastern Bloc countries could finally take their rightful place in “Europe” as symbolised by western democracies.
The problem was that differences between Southeast and Western Europe were wide even before the fall of the Berlin Wall. What came after made the most leathery cynic look like a hopeless idealist. The ex-nomenklatura seized public assets at criminally low prices, inflation, unemployment and crime were rampant, corruption went into the stratosphere, quality of life and life expectancy plummeted, brain drain was uncontrollable. And these are the most positive developments I can list. An additional side-effect of the subsequent chaos was that it made people even more distrustful and well… cynical towards each other and especially the government. “Not to get swindled” became the leitmotif of their existence.
The opened borders allowed Eastern Europeans to see how far behind “Europe” their countries were. Kind of like how the introduction of US TV content to some Fijian islands led to increased rates of eating disorder because girls started wanting Coke rather than Fanta-shaped bodies. Eastern Europeans preferred the hard liquor bottle as their countries still represent the region with highest alcohol consumption in the world. In the end, everyone was disappointed and unhappy – the forward-thinking optimists and those who wanted socialism to return.
Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars
We can see how that through various historical contingencies Eastern Europe and particularly the Southeast could not achieve comparable levels of development. At the same time Eastern European states have long thought themselves as belonging to the same (rich) club. Low travel restrictions make the contrast in quality of life all the more evident. In the 20th century both socialism and capitalism overpromised and under-delivered. In the transition period the quality of life dropped suddenly and people were comparing their current plight not only to the affluent West but also to their stable past. The fall of the Berlin Wall also opened a great gulf between generations: the young that aspired to be “Europeans” and older generations that longed for the good old days. It’s enough to give one a bad temper.
Eastern Europe was on the wrong side of the Wall; Bulgaria was on the wrong side of history. In the first Balkan War (1912) we banded with other Balkan states to fight the Ottoman Empire and eventually won some territory. Promptly we lost everything in the second Balkan War (1913) when we fought both our previous allies and the Ottoman Empire. A bit later Bulgaria joined Germany in the First World War and they lost. Much later we joined the Germans again for the Second World War and (fortunately) the Axis lost.
After WWII Bulgaria was made a satellite state of the USSR and in 45 years the Soviet Union crumbled. Then in 2007 Bulgaria (along with Romania) joined the European Union and the Financial Crisis struck. Worse of all, our northern neighbours the Romanians, which were lagging throughout the whole socialist period, are now ever so slightly ahead in terms HDI and GDP per capita.
That makes Bulgaria the poorest member of the admittedly affluent European Union. We are also last in the EU on a slew of other indicators that are too numerous and too depressing to list. Only by a sliver in many cases but the ranking is what matter not absolute numbers. The gap between last and second last place is measured in light years in the minds of people. As one of my Indian friends put it in his best tongue-in-cheek: the low quality of life in India is completely irrelevant as long as Pakistan is behind us in the ranking.
As Good as It Gets
I looked at history because no economic metric could explain the depressing facts about Bulgaria’s depressing attitude. Inequality, perceived corruption, and public debt are not out of line given Bulgaria’s economic standing. What I am trying to hint at is that no one (including this humble author) can give an objective reason for such persistent pessimism. For me it’s a cavalcade of various factors including glorious past, five centuries of Ottoman rule, socialism, particularly rough transition to capitalism period, the close proximity to the unreachable ideal of Western countries, being often last in the EU and outperformed by neighbouring countries.
In the end, I do not think cynicism is necessarily a bad thing: in the 20th century more wars have been started by idealists than cynics. I also do not believe in bad advertisement. So I dearly advise you to visit this most wonderful country. Bulgaria offers a millennium old monastery, majestic glacial lakes, well-preserved remains of ancient civilizations, a Rose Valley rather than Silicon Valley, a city that has been continuously inhabited for 6,000 years, and much more.
Unfortunately, foreigners tend to come for the cheap sea resorts, the cheap booze and the cheap hookers. In other words, it is a country for those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.