Support independent journalism in Central & Eastern Europe.
Donate to TOL!
The attractions of Russia are luring young Bulgarians who remember the hardship of transition but not much before that.by Boyko Vassilev 1 May 2014
What really toppled communism? That question will dominate the public discourse this year, which marks the first quarter-century since 1989. But I will venture an answer.
First, let me tell a story. My sixth-grade history teacher was a decent man, a chess enthusiast and an expert at what he did. So we forgave him the short temper and the close adherence to communist ideology, which was, after all, the official line.
Until one day when he lost all authority in our eyes.
During a lesson someone mentioned American cinema and the teacher erupted in anger: “Remember! The worst Soviet movie is better than the best American. U.S. films tolerate violence and arrogance. There are only a few good American movies.”
I don’t remember the films at issue; I vaguely recall that Kramer vs. Kramer was mentioned. I clearly remember, though, my classmates’ laughter and shock at the teacher’s outburst. They had seen Rocky and Star Wars, yet they had also had to swallow all the gray Soviet productions spewed night and day by the official TV and cinema distribution houses. So they chose to believe their eyes rather than their beloved teacher.
We cannot forget the long lines and the crowded cinemas when American films were shown. The feeling was intense and in a way liberating. Viewers discussed among themselves topics not allowed to be aired in public. The ideologues of the regime also got the message: the Soviet Union cannot make such films. We cannot compete with the West.
Joseph Nye called it “soft power.” Wikipedia’s definition describes it as “an ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force, or give money as a means of persuasion.” Those born in the East in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were enchanted by the soft power of the West. Part of the attraction were phenomena that no one in the West would put together: the Beatles, rock ‘n‘ roll, fancy cars, Madonna, horror movies, freedom of speech, Freud and Nietzsche, bananas, human rights, skyscrapers, chewing gum, democracy, jeans and trainer shoes, thrillers, hamburgers, and sodas.
Hamburgers? In the first days after the fall of Berlin Wall, West Germans waited for their Eastern brothers near the former border – for a hug and a walk through the long-awaited West. A friend of mine, a half-German Bulgarian émigré, was there. She saw a young, smart-looking Eastern couple and rushed to their aid: “Let me take you to a restaurant!” The youngsters accepted eagerly: “Yes! Take us to McDonald’s!” My friend tried to argue: “That’s not a restaurant. There are some better and more expensive places to go.” Yet the couple insisted. They had dreamed for so long about McDonald’s and now they could not resist. The hamburgers they ate that day were the best of their life.
I understand completely. I remember the first KFC and McDonald’s in Sofia and in Plovdiv. People queued to get in, dressed in their evening clothes as if in a fancy restaurant. Some of them even liked the food. Western soft power could do magic.
Not anymore, though.
It is waning in the East – and we can chart its decline, from 9/11 to the 2003 Iraqi war to today’s confrontation with Russia. The new challengers to the West are not thrilled with its values, culture, and products. Quite the opposite, these are exactly what they despise.
Those who wonder why so many Bulgarians and other Eastern Europeans support Vladimir Putin’s aggressive approach in Ukraine should take note. The hardships of transition have meant relative deprivation: you might be better off than you were 25 years ago, but your neighbor is much wealthier. So who is to blame? “The democrats,” the Americans (our new masters) and their culture. Free speech is not as attractive as employment and security. The EU is about bans, the United States is about wars. Fancy cars are expensive. Madonna is a hollow PR product; much deeper is Lyube, one of Putin’s favorite bands. And yes, those hamburgers and sodas make you fat or stupid, or both.
A completely different generation is on the rise. Those born in the 1980s and 1990s remember not communism but transition. For them it is easy to believe in the former’s benefits, because they know the latter’s problems. Unlike us, who had seen all the Russian films and only the good American ones, they have seen all of the Hollywood productions, but only the masterpieces from Moscow. As youngsters, they are natural revolutionaries, rising against the world’s sole superpower. First, they were anti-globalists, then nationalists. Now they cheer for Putin.
He also has a soft power, of a sort. A strongman, hunting tigers, defeating enemies, conquering lands, challenging Yankees, professing patriotism, faith, and mysticism: what else can you wish for a young man’s dreams? In a way, Putin resembles a Game of Thrones character. Even technology, supposedly Russia’s weak point, is a lure. I have heard younger people enthusiastically praise Russian social networks, Russian GPS navigators, and Russian smartphones.
Even some Westerners are seduced by Putin’s hard-soft power.
Bulgarian pro-Westerners note, though, that those same young people head West when they leave the country in droves. But not every émigré is successful, and the disgruntled ones who return nurse a grudge against the West. Additionally, their parents back in Bulgaria hate the West, because it steals their children.
Some Bulgarians could be more Russophile than Russians themselves. Recently I met the prominent Russian writer and opposition intellectual Victor Erofeyev. After a grim talk about the Crimea takeover, Putin’s aggression, and Russia’s patriarchal spirit, he wanted to end on an optimistic note. “The anti-European wind is in the upper stratum of the Russian atmosphere, among Putin and his cronies,” Erofeyev said. “But in the middle layer the wind is blowing the other way; young people, business, Moscow’s enlightened class – they are like Europeans. And they will win in the future.”
If he is right, then Bulgaria’s pro-Russian youth is getting the wrong signal. Their Russian coevals may out-West them. Or maybe the truth is much simpler: soft power is the lure of whatever you don’t have.
In the globalized world no one is content – and everyone wants to be somewhere else.