The history of socialist Bulgaria

Ellis Garvey writes on the revolutionary history of Bulgaria alongside the eventual reformism which led to its collapse

Ellis Garvey, is a member of the YCL’s Manchester branch

The Bulgarian Peoples Republic was once seen as the stable stronghold of socialism in Europe. However, following the reform process in the USSR, even this haven was not safe. The ‘moderate’ leadership of Todor Zhivkov, General Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BKP), saw the government collapse within a couple of days in 1989 to the reformist Peter Mladenov.

Context: 

Georgi Dimitrov, First Secretary

Following the Second World War, the Bulgarian Communist Party led by famed Georgi Dimitrov quickly gained popularity for its struggle against fascism and the former monarchist regime. Following a referendum that abolished the monarchy, the BKP won a massive victory, gaining 88.1% of the vote. As a result of their win, agriculture was collectivised and a massive industrialisation campaign took place which saw the formally agriculturally-reliant country turn into an industrial power. After the death of Dimitrov in 1949, Valko Chervenkov gained power. However, in 1954 following the Khrushchev-backed ousting of Chervenkov, the reformist Zhivkov became General Secretary. Zhivkov ended up remaining the leader of Bulgaria for a total of thirty-three years. 

Zhivkov was a firm supporter and ally of Khrushchev and implanted large scale relaxation of its struggle against the Church, the West, whilst also transforming the nation into a centrally planned economy. After his attempts to open up the nation, a series of debts resulted in Bulgaria owing $97 million to western banks. The situation was however resolved after the Soviets agreed to import gold and silver as a means of removing these crushing foreign debts. Absolutely dissatisfied with the process of liberalisation and failures to decentralise agriculture, the BKP resorted back to industrialisation, increasing national production levels whilst boosting employment. In 1965, as a result of reforms and the strong alignment with Khrushchev, hardline anti-revisionist members of the BKP attempted to oust Zhivkov from his position. However, this attempt was foiled and Bulgaria ended up remaining politically stable under Zhivkov’s leadership. Khozraschyot (marketisation of state industry) was continued, and individual enterprises retained high amounts of autonomy as a result of the plan.

Throughout the 70s, Bulgaria’s economy improved. Vast infrastructure projects were implemented in the countryside, greatly increasing the opportunities for many Bulgarians. Electronic production increased and as a result, Bulgaria became the Eastern Bloc’s electronics powerhouse. Bulgaria ended up contributing up to 70% of the electronics exported to the wider socialist camp.

In terms of the how the electronics boom affected people in Bulgaria, between 1965 and 1988 the following statistics are shown per 100 households:

First prototype of IMCO-1 (ИМКО-1) computer
  • Number of televisions from 8 to 100
  • Radios from 59 to 95
  • Refrigerators from 5 to 96
  • Washing machines from 23 to 96
  • Automobiles from 2 to 40

These achievements where seen as a great victory for the state in its provision of high-quality consumer goods to the common person.

Coming into the period of Gorbachev (1985), Todor Zhivkov quickly adopted a perestroika plan which reintroduced market mechanisms and private ownership on a more limited scale. The restriction of hiring labour by private citizens was removed (effectively allowing private wage labour), establishing economic management in the nation. Ironically, despite this, Gorbachev still lumped Zhivkov in with the rest of the leaders of the Socialist and Peoples Democracies of Central and Eastern Europe who were more conservative in their approach (possibly owing to Zhivkov’s criticisms of elements of glasnost). Gorbachev plotted against him by supporting the semi-suppressed social democratic faction of the BKP. Because these policies where largely in line with Gorbachev internally, the social democratic faction, who had received much support covertly from the CIA, could act much more freely and began to plot the removal of Zhivkov. Following a controversial event over the Bulgarisation Revival Process (an attempt to revitalise Bulgarian culture against a backdrop of a perceived Turkish threat after the Turkish annexation of Northern Cyprus, which damaged its reputation with the Turkish minority), many turned to terrorism against the government which the government responded by ‘encouraging’ Turkish people to leave for Turkey. Another incident involving a pro-glasnost organisation became the last the social democrats could handle. The social democrats would employ their faction in the military to stage a coup thereby giving the old leader Zhivkov an ultimatum to either resign or face execution.

Todor Zhivkov 

Mladenov, a reformer, eventually came to power and was quickly pressured introduce radical reforms to the party by removing the dictatorship of the proletariat from the Peoples Republic’s Constitution – an act which split the party. He was also forced to concede to the allowing of the organisation of several anti-communist and far right organisations who subsequently ousted his government in the so called ‘free liberal elections’. Zhivkov was eventually arrested on several fabricated charges such as “Giving high-risk loans and development aid to developing countries” and “Overstepping authority in funding “leftist workers’ organisations”.

Now that a new right wing ‘democratic order’ was in power, how has Bulgaria improved?

There has been a complete drop in the HDI of the country and Bulgaria alike Romania has been turned into one of the US and the EU’s most trusted neocolonies. The living standards and economic growth did not improve at all remaining far lower than during the days of the socialism. Bulgaria routinely ranks as one of the most indebt states in all of Eastern Europe. In introducing shock therapy and attempting to embezzle assets of the state the economy of Bulgaria became dire; it is officially classified as a low-income European state.

Bulgarian agriculture has also completely collapsed, and unemployment runs rampant. Over 20% of the population has emigrated since the collapsed of socialism leading to an underqualified workforce. The birth-rate has also considerably dropped exacerbating these problems much more.

One author commented:  “Capitalism’s failure to lift living standards, impose the rule of law and tame flourishing corruption and nepotism has given way to fond memories of the times when the jobless rate was zero, food was cheap and social safety was high”. (Anna Mudeva, “Special Report: In Eastern Europe, people pine for socialism”).

This is especially true as one recent Gallup poll saw that 74% agreed that the country was ruined following Zhivkov’s resignation. The idea of becoming ‘European’ has been used repeatedly as a dogma to prevent a resurgent Communist Party. Demonstrators and mass distrust in a corrupt government is answered only by apathy and attempting to vilify the past, naturally with the EU encouraging this behaviour Bulgaria remains their neocolony and a bulwark against socialism. 

Interview:

I spoke to Peter Yanev (pseudonym) a Bulgarian communist who grew up following the fall of the socialist system in the country and who’s family experienced much hardship following this calamity.

Ellis: How did the communists gain power and what are the lessons of their methods for today? 

Interviewee: The Bulgarian communists, who went by different party names during different time periods, have a long history in the political struggle in Bulgaria following Unification (1885). During this whole period, they based their political course on historical materialism, by recognizing the class struggle inherent in any society divided between economic classes. According to this historical outlook, the proletarian class (or the class wage-labourers) represents the only consistently revolutionary force in society, being, therefore, the only force capable of leading society into communism. In the initial periods, more specifically the period wherein the Bulgarian Workers’ Social Democratic Party split and the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (‘Narrow Socialists’) was formed. The party, mistakenly, focused its attention almost solely on the urban proletariat. Due to the small size of the proletariat during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Bulgaria, their support base was also smaller than the parties who based themselves on the non-proletarian strata in society. Due to the lack of attention towards the peasantry in the early “tesnyak” period, the party was also incapable of gathering enough support from the poor and middle peasantry, who were later seen as potential allies of the proletariat. During the later developments in the Bulgarian communist movement, a lot of chances were missed; a lot of initiative was wasted. The September Uprising of 1923 was a turning point in the development of the party, as it signified the main starting point in the “bolshevisation” of the party; transforming it into a party of a ‘new type’. Following this, many incorrect lines were taken and later criticized and replaced, for example the earlier “tesnyak” line, that didn’t give the correct recognition of the struggles of the peasantry, was corrected. It should also be noted that certain members of the party undertook terrorist actions, which heavily damaged the reputation of the party, for example there was the St. Nedelya bombing, which became the biggest terrorist attack in Bulgarian history. But all of those mistakes, and their later correction allowed the party to develop its’ resolute anti-fascist line during the monarchist-fascist period in general and the period following the entry of Bulgaria into the Tripartite Pact in particular. Working within the “Fatherland Front”, the communists took many leading positions in the anti-fascist legal and illegal movement, and cemented their position as the main anti-fascist fighting force. Due to the relative strength of the Bulgarian anti-fascist movement, the resistance concluded in a political transformation on the 9th of September, 1944, which allowed Bulgaria to be spared of the worst results of the post-war negotiations and treaties. 

Dimitrov Mausoleum

Following the creation of the Fatherland Front government in Bulgaria, communists were able to get to the most important levers of power. Despite this, they continued their early policy of working fully within the people’s democratic system established in collaboration with various other political forces, like the BZNS and Zveno organizations. The tasks the early government set itself were of a revolutionary-democratic character, leading to land reform, enactment of women’s suffrage, the establishment of anti-fascist tribunals and the toleration of various industrialists and capitalists who were seen as “patriotic” and who were opposed to the earlier monarchist-fascist rule. The communists did not fully control the government from the very start and initially shared power, this is shown by government setting itself tasks of a “broader” national-character. The party was divided over whether the people’s democratic government represented a dictatorship of the proletariat or not. That question was answered following the breaking away of friendly relations and the anti-communist offensive began by western governments. This manifested itself concretely in Bulgarian society in internal policy as well as foreign. This began the   creation of a legal and illegal opposition against the establishment of a socialist system and against the socialization of the means of production and collectivization of agriculture. This opposition was, both implicitly and explicitly, supported diplomatically by foreign capitalist governments, most notably the UK and USA. Due to this change and due to the removal of any possibility of ensuring international post-war cooperation, the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) took a firm position in opposition against capitalism and began the process of socialist transformation of the Bulgarian economy. This transition to power happened during the 1947-8 period, where the Dimitrov Constitution and the First Five Year Plan were put in action. 

The lessons we can gain from that period is that consistency is key towards the establishment of a truly mass party. Studying the various congress decisions and debates within the party can also serve as a way to avoid future mistakes from the standpoint of applying them into practice.

Ellis: What do you think of the socialist period? 

Socialist Republic of Bulgaria flag

Interviewee: I believe that what is commonly conceived of as the “socialist period”, namely the period going from 1944 to 1989, should not be seen as an unchanging and undifferentiated whole. There were many changes to the system, both in how it functioned internally and how it related to the rest of the world externally. Despite this, there are some common trends that can be established to describe this period. The first, and in my opinion most important trend, is the industrialization drive. The process of grand industrialization which started from 1948 in Bulgaria has no precedent in our history. It allowed for many new products to be made, for agriculture to be developed on the basis of mechanized and large-scale farming and also allowed for the creation of more technical cadres. During the whole period, a planned economy more or less remained the norm, with some very notable differences between the pre- and post-1956 period in regard to how the planned economy was organized, as later reforms (post-1956) transformed the plan in such a way that made the economic system in many ways similar to western-style capitalism, while maintaining its specificity and originality, which differentiated it and, in my opinion, gave a certain edge over it. The period is generally regarded as a period of constant growth and development, and many Bulgarians feel deep nostalgia for the period. Despite this, I believe that it is important to learn from history and to look at the bad side of the “socialist period” too. One aspect of this “bad side” is, for example, the many privileges which party members and enterprise directors had, that allowed them to gain personal benefit from the hard work of others, this trend is most common to the “late-socialist” period, with many careerists from that period still retaining important political and economic posts in contemporary Bulgaria.

Ellis: In your opinion, who is to blame for the collapse? Is there any group of people or influences that you would say had a profound impact on the removal of the People’s Republic? 

Interviewee: The main contributing factor, in my view, is the general crisis which the whole eastern bloc entered in the 80s and the utter failure of any attempt to reform the system in a popular manner. This is partially due to the inconsistency of the leaders of the party-state and also partially due to interference of western NGOs in the political life of Bulgaria. No particular person or group of people can be blamed, as the crisis was caused by objective economic and societal factors. Blame is often placed on Todor Zhivkov or on Petar Mladenov, but I would advise against such a placement of blame, as it reinforces wrong conceptions about historical development.

Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship (1978)

Ellis: How is the collapse generally considered by the Bulgarian people? Do people, as suggested by the recent polls, consider the era of Zhivkov better than what came after?

Interviewee: The collapse of the People’s Republic is seen by most people, who lived during the period, as a negative factor. Among the newer generation, there is a general apathy towards those changes, with small contingents seeing it as either a positive or a negative factor. In terms of general opinion, it is slightly slanted towards a negative interpretation of the collapse and heavily slanted towards a nostalgic view of the past, so I would say that those polls are more or less correct in their assessments.

Ellis: What was the situation like following it?

Interviewee: The situation can be best described as a national disaster. Massive depopulation (around 2 million people left the country), a complete destruction of the productive capacity of the country following the “privatization plan”, developed with heavy foreign influence, a destruction of the collective farming institutions and an even worse depopulation of the villages, periods of heightened crime and mafia organizations (often working legally!). Many fortunes were made and lost in the course of just a few years. This period of massive change still has a deep effect on Bulgarian society, and it is unknown whether the wounds would heal themselves in the near-future. 

Ellis: What are the major problems facing Bulgaria today due to the reintroduction of capitalism? 

Interviewee: A massive shortage of jobs is currently experienced here, and even if you do manage to get a job, there are high chances that you wouldn’t have much possibility to use the law to your favour, or any institution for that matter. Unpaid salaries are still common, and the two main trade unions are politically controlled. The political scene is a constant cycle of corruption and intrigue. I honestly cannot say anything good about this period.

Ellis: Is there any resistance to this? Is there going to be a resurgent communist movement in the country, what do you think?

Interviewee: For now, most people are apathetic to the system, and silently tolerate it, more than half of the country did not even cast its votes during the last elections (11 July). There are still only small groups organized on a firmly anti-capitalist foundation, but I would say that there is great potential for a resurgence of the communist movement.

Ellis Garvey

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