The Fall of Communism in Bulgaria

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Lisa Mullins: Farther north to Bulgaria now where many people yearn for a bygone era. In her new book, Kris Ghodsee tells the stories of ordinary lives upended by Bulgaria's move from communism to capitalism in the late 1980s and '90s. The book is called Lost in Transition. Ghodsee writes about a woman who was devastated as she watched a helicopter remove a large red star from a top the former Communist Party headquarters.

Kristen Ghodsee: The analogy I give in the book is what it would be like for an American to see a big helicopter take the Statue of Liberty away and fly away, you know, the end of the United States, the end of country. And that's what we're dealing with when we think about the end of communism. And we've talked about it politically, we've talked about it economically, but what we haven't done is really go down to the individual level and hear the way that individual men and women experience this massive social upheaval in their lives.

Mullins: And in the big picture we're talking here not only about a lifestyle and a livelihood, but a personal outlook, a personal set of beliefs that then disappeared.

Ghodsee: That's right. Communism had a justifying narrative of itself, which is you know, we're doing everything so that our society will be more equitable. And you know, there were people who believed that. It's really important to remember that in Bulgaria the people who became communists, many of them fought against the Nazis in WWII. They thought they were on the right side of history and then they were preparing themselves for a life where material things weren't as important, where you know, yes, there were certain political freedoms that people didn't have. There was this oppressive state apparatus. There was the same leader in power for the better part of 35 years, but there was this social security and that was a tradeoff they believed was a good one.

Mullins: What about now, 20-something years on?

Ghodsee: Well, now it's really fascinating. I mean what the demographic information shows is that there are young people who were born after '89 that are nostalgic. I don't know if you could call it nostalgia in that case, but who are dreaming of a world that's different, very different than the one they have today.

Mullins: Are they not hearing the stories that their parents and grandparents could tell them?

Ghodsee: They are hearing those stories about how bad it was, about how you know, how you couldn't get jeans, and you couldn't get perfume, and you couldn't get western cigarettes, and how you couldn't travel if you wanted to, but at the same time a lot of people can't travel right now because they don't have the money. And there are a lot of things that people want that they can't afford, so it's a different set of constraints. So, I think that they're going back and they're confused and they're frustrated. The economic crisis has hit many of these countries really hard. And I think that unlike western countries where you know, we never even considered an alternative to our economic system and in fact, the alternative was the ultimate embodiment of evil as far as many people are concerned, the people in these countries are sort of going back and saying well, wait a minute, we used to have heat and we used to have electricity, and we used to have these things, so why couldn't we save some of that? Why couldn't we have political freedoms and elections and some social security? Why did it have to be either or?

Mullins: What are they not remembering about communism itself though?

Ghodsee: There is a selective memory in terms of the lack of choice that people had about where they could live, about whether they could travel, a very repressive state apparatus existed. They tend to idealize that repressive state apparatus ironically because things are so chaotic in terms of crime and corruption. So there is some selective memory, but I would say that a lot of people actually remember the bad parts of communism -- the shortages, the ubiquitous presence of the secret police. But at the same time there was a survey done I think in 2007 in eastern Germany, which you know, the Stasi, the secret police in Germany, was much more oppressive than the state security services in Bulgaria, 73% of East Germans said that socialism was a good idea in principle, it just wasn't implemented very well. And I think those are the kinds of sentiments that you hear in Bulgaria -- yeah, it was a good idea, we just did it badly.

Mullins: Kristen Ghodsee teaches gender and women's studies at Bowdoin College. Her latest book is Lost in Transition, Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism. It's a good read. Thank you, Kristen.

Ghodsee: You're welcome.