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Northwest Passage

A new generation of northwestern Bulgarians is searching for answers about 1989. From Kapital.

by Diana Ivanova 11 December 2009

[Editor’s note: A native of Bulgaria’s Montana province, journalist and poet Diana Ivanova is working on projects that explore personal and collective memories of the socialist period. This article is drawn from one such project with students in the region.


See more special coverage of the anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain at our 20 Years After website.]

VRATSA, Bulgaria | “Teacher, you disappointed me when you said you were with the Communists!”

The dialogue occurs in Vratsa, a town in northwestern Bulgaria. It’s a 10th-grader’s reaction to his teacher’s recollection about her father: a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1989, he thought the protesters in the streets of Sofia wanted to plunge the country into chaos.

The exchange is part of 1989: Mapping the Northwest, [a project of the New Culture Foundation, a network of writers, artists, and new media designers in the region. The student’s comment is tongue-in-cheek, but it stays with me – maybe because I have a similar story.

I was in my fourth year at university in Sofia, studying journalism. After the protests of 14 December 1989, when I was still savoring the first lasting sensations of collective happiness, my mother called me from Michailovgrad in the northwestern Montana province.

“Please, don’t go out in the streets,” she said. “It’s nasty out there!” She had watched the news, on which we were called an “extremist crowd.” I yelled back that she didn’t know what it was all about. This was the start of many long years of disagreement and misunderstanding. The antagonism between me and my parents, between Sofia and Montana, remains a trauma that I still cannot understand or accept. 1989 for me began with happiness and cynicism, with wonders and traumas, with love and separation.

Last year something else happened. I was at Tiulenovo, on the coast, with friends, one of whom had lived in France since 1989. We talked about the austere landscape and its bizarre beauty, then we started talking about 1989. The friend who lived in France back then did not think of it as a special year. Someone lost power, someone else got in, she said. The rest of the evening became a fierce battle of opinions – who was where in 1989, what did we fight for. 1989 returned to us, with all its raw emotions, divisions, judgments, and communication breakdowns.

This episode shook me deeply. I saw that the 20-year-old girl who attacked her parents for their provincial mentality and lack of understanding is still alive, is still the same – as if all that has happened since, all the wisdom I’d supposedly gained, had come to naught. It remained an important lesson that history is a string of experiences that are never wiped out, even for the sake of reason or tolerance.

So when the 10th-grader in Vratsa criticized his teacher, I was moved. How do you stand before a class today and talk about a past the students never witnessed, but you did? What can you use as a point of departure, apart from your own experience? What if that experience is, like mine, traumatic, unresolved, hard to articulate? How many teachers had the time to think this over? What would I do if I had stayed there, in the small, provincial town of Vratsa, working as a teacher?

“Sometimes I try to avoid conversations on thorny issues like this, because some students already have political preferences, have their own opinion on things, and classes become endless political debates,” a history teacher here told me. “When we talk about 1989, what do we in fact want?” asked another. “Is a reconciliation of so many hostile points of view possible?”


Here is the first paradox: Bulgarian society has not reached a consensus on the communist period, so 1989 remains traumatic – a common memory, but carrying opposing emotional resonances. As of 2009, reconciliation seems impossible. For those born in the early 1990s, what happened in 1989 is consigned to history. The Berlin Wall fell, communism fell. But what does that mean in Vratsa? What happened in Vratsa? No one knows.

Here is the second paradox: we know what happened thousands of kilometers from us, but not in our own town. History happened somewhere else. “Nothing happened here,” a student says. It is the answer she constantly hears – from parents, teachers, friends, in coffee shops, everywhere. How can one move beyond that “nothing”?

Here is the third paradox: history is still not seen as experience. Experiences give rise to certain interpretations. Happiness causes one interpretation, fear another. Understanding history means understanding the emotions that made some people rejoice, made others sit quietly in the kitchen, made still others pack their suitcases to leave. “The fall of communism” doesn’t mean anything in Vratsa if it cannot be translated into people's impressions.

The fourth paradox is common: we lack a context in which to easily explain the silence of the northwest in 1989. Students, teachers, parents, all of us still live in a prolonged here-and-now, wherein the northwest’s past seems unclear, shrouded in mystical heroics, without distinct dates, periods, and events.

“Some also call this place a Bermuda Triangle,” the author and northwesterner Iordan Radichkov wrote. “Literally everything can vanish here, inexplicably to the human mind, without leaving any trace whatsoever.” But this explanation is not enough today.

Two of the few books published in recent years on northwest Bulgaria – Domesticating Revolution, by American anthropologist Gerald Creed and Reploughed Boundaries: Collectivization and Social Change in the Bulgarian Northwest, by Sofia University historian Michail Gruev – help by shedding light on some relevant circumstances.

● The northwest was the staging ground for the most ravaging social conflict inside Bulgaria after the liberation from Turkish domination in 1878, the September Uprising of 1923.

● This is a region where communism was built not on a working-class foundation, but among a conservative peasantry still living in traditional fashion.

● Forced collectivization of land met with obstinate and unwavering resistance, including 1950s peasant riots led by women.

● Traditional culture endured; the fight against collectivization was articulated in archaic speech forms such as “the curse.”

● Socialism began with a wide gap between town and village, and there were only three large settlements in the region, Vidin, Lom, and Vratsa.

● The northwest was the source of various anti-regime incidents, including the 1965 coup attempt by Ivan Todorov-Gorunya (from a Stalinist ideological position) and the strange “assassination attempt” on Todor Zhivkov on his annual visit to Vratsa in 1980. [During Zhivkov’s appearance a man rushed out of the cheering crowd, bearing a letter of complaint about the cancellation of his father’s disability pension. He was arrested by Zhivkov’s guards and jailed. The incident was never made public, but word circulated that an attempt had been made on the ruler’s life.]


1989 exists here in the context of this still-hazy regional history. The challenge consists in finding points of departure in the chaos. In our project we tried the simplest approach: the town map. Who lives where and how do they feel about it? What does their street look like now, and how did it look before? Which places have changed the most? We walked around these streets; students took photographs and chatted with residents. Later, they spoke with their parents.

We kept the focus on 1989, and on the street. [The students] wrote simple stories and descriptions, not essays. By the end of the process they were full of emotions and wanted to express them. The town began to interest them. [They wrote things like] “People, stop waiting for the past to come back. We are free, why not enjoy it? I want to wave the European flag, because I am happy that Bulgaria is in the EU; I want Vratsa to be a European city. I want an end to clientilism. I want to know more about recent history, and to learn to differentiate between epochs. I want to be me, not part of the crowd.”

And while in Sofia no one went in the streets to celebrate on 10 November [the date in 1989 on which Zhivkov was ousted], students in Vratsa were making their first activist placards, with markers on cardboard, and were preparing for their first demonstration. However, the flu epidemic prevented the planned parade. “But ma'am, no one is going to see us now!” they said to their teacher. “But do you still want to do it?” “Yes.” “Well, then do it for yourselves.”

So on 12 November a group of students in Vratsa joined friends from the towns of Vidin and Montana. They marched through the center of Vratsa, up to the memorial to 19th-century revolutionary Hristo Botev, with two Bulgarian flags, a loudspeaker, and handwritten placards.

In 1989 an old lady saw a protesters’ tent in the center of Montana and said, “These aren't locals, they probably came over here to spread the riot.” Twenty years later, the children of the northwest are awakening and asking questions, and they are numerous.

Diana Ivanova is a journalist, formerly with Radio Free Europe’s Bulgarian service, and the author of two books of poetry. This is a translated and edited version of an article that appeared in the 20 November edition of Bulgarian weekly Kapital.
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