УРОК ПО ИСТОРИЯ
By Georgi Gotchev
I wrote this to support Prof. Evelina Kelbecheva’s idea that communism should be studied in school. I believe this is a sine qua non for our freedom, existence and awareness as a society today. What I have written is a more a personal story than an objective historical essay. Therefore I am the sole person responsible for the fairness and truth of the judgments and qualifications in this text.
The year was 1990 and I was 9 years old. It was the watermelon season, in the middle of August. My father, who was in his forties, was going to take me and my mother for a vacation in Bankya. When I finally found Bankya on the map, it looked like it belonged in Sofia’s backyard. “Many foreigners go there so you can update your collection of cigarette boxes”, my dad said to make me feel better. “The water there is healing” my mom added.
Healing or not, we had been visualizing our vacation on the beaches of Golden Sands until the first days of August. But no! The vacation in Bankya had already been assigned to the journalist from the “Dimitrovgradska Pravda” newspaper (my father), and the long desired coupon for a vacation in Golden Sands had gone to the head correspondent of “Rabotnichesko Delo”. At that time I was not familiar with the privileges of communism and could not understand how this quite stupid and lazy man, no more than 1.5 meters tall and nicknamed Inch Height, was more privileged than my tall, clever and motivated father. I was also incapable of understanding why my father couldn’t just slap this short man in the face, thereby solving the problem the mature and manly way.
The hotel we ended up staying in was almost empty: Just five members of staff and two or three Bulgarian families but not one foreigner. As for the healing water, it came and went but it was dusty and dirty when it was available. The feeling was one of dilapidation and of someone having taken something away from reality. Our room was dirty and run down: there was hair on the bathroom floor, the sink was missing and the doors of the closet were just about ready to fall off. The mattresses were torn and the wallpaper was peeling so badly it was as if the walls were sticking their tongues out. The front yard, which used to be beautiful, was covered in bushes. The scent of humidity and decomposed meat was everywhere. The stone swimming pool was filled with leaves, under which frogs and lizards were hiding.
The food was not better than the place itself. For breakfast we would have two slices of bread, margarine and a spoonful of jam. Lunch consisted of vegetable stew. For dinner we had a ‘paving slab’ of pasta. Todor Zhivkov was so keen for Bulgaria to be the 16th republic of the Soviet Union, that he had said that people understood their sovereignty as if it were an abundant banquet. This great philosopher must have been right, because while we were sitting in the dining hall eating lunch, we felt depressed, unfree and dependent on our miserable portion of food.
Even worse, the amount of food decreased rapidly until on the third day it just disappeared. We were left without breakfast and lunch, and as an answer to the question, “When are we going to eat?” the staff would just shrug. Nonetheless, around 4pm they called us into the dining hall and formally gave us cold tea and a package containing something heavy wrapped in a napkin. “It was like a memorial service”, my mom said. The napkin turned out to contain a slice of bread and a 20 centimetres long slice of salami. I will never forget that grey-pink slice of salami and the dry piece of bread. It was as if a cynic had cut out the reproductive organs of communism and given them to us so that we would never forget where we came from.
After a quick look at the content of the package my dad got up from the table and took us outside. He looked angrier than he ever had before, smoking cigarette after cigarette and shivering a little. I wanted him to explain to me why we hadn't had lunch and why instead we had had that salami, but he just stood there silently without answering my questions. We walked through the yard of the hotel, through the city park and all the way to the edge of the city. The path we took slowly began to climb and we were surrounded by flowers and trees. Behind a large blackberry bush we saw a large herd of sheep and a white building.
My father walked through the blackberry bush, and my mother and I followed behind him. Suddenly all three of us were standing in front of a green dip, surrounded by pine trees. At the bottom of the dip, around 200 meters in front of us was the white building. It had several wings and looked both like a modern cathedral and an open fridge. It was one of the twenty residences of Todor Zhivkov, where he lived the last years of his government, mourning the death of his daughter six years previously.
My father stood still for several minutes, standing straight in front of the white building, and suddenly started to swear. He swore at all the mothers of the communists, their fathers, their aunts, their children, grandchildren, Inch Height, Pravdata I Deloto, Zhivkov, the National Republic of Bulgaria, the Soviet Union, the Central Committee, Marx and Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Krushchev, Breznev, Andropov and Gorbatchov, the Peristroiki and the April Lines, “Kinteks” and “Corecom”, the Secret Service Agency, Libya, the Libyan dollars and again Zhivkov and his whole family. He started swearing at Peko Takovci, Boyan Bulgaronovci, Milko Balevci, Pencho Kubadinovci, Dobri Dzhurovi, Stoyan Todorovci, Grisha Filipovci, Mircho Spasovci, Dimitrov and Jurgov, Tsola Dragoicheva, Chervenkov, Lilov, Mladenov, Lukanov. He swore without stopping to take a breath – the same way a man vomits after a long, sleepless night of drinking.
That very moment I looked at my father and I felt sorry for him, but I also listened very carefully to what he was saying. Now, 25 years later, I think that he was reacting to the carrots and sticks that the regime had used to control people, but that he also felt guilty because he had supported the regime through his writings. He had been disappointed more than once when he had been exploited by more determined ‘slaves’. Now, 25 years later, I realize that in that moment I saw his safe and silent revolt, his moderate but internally over-rehearsed outrage and, most of all, his guilty conscious.
However, I see something else too. The only natural way my father could have shown his freedom was to stand in front of this disgusting tall white temple of communism and swear at everyone and everything. That way he managed to save for me, his son, a piece of reality where there were no compromises and no lies. A piece of Bulgarian reality where he was a strong, brave and decisive father.
For him to swear at all the communists must have been the only way to teach me a history lesson, to defend our national identity and not to let my sense of a free person to be born without a sense of justice. This was all because he had predicted that over the following years there would be no responsibility for any of the crimes committed by the communists, that the secret service archives would not be opened and that many names from the regime would be forgotten.
While my father was still shouting, an old lady came close to us. I did not know where she had come from, but she just appeared a few meters away. She looked like a newly retired schoolteacher. Maybe she was a professor at one of those labor schools or something like that, because her bearing was upright and domineering. Her hair was tied up, her lips were red, her checks were pink and she was walking slowly. Unless she was deaf she must have heard my dad’s swearing.
I was sure that she would have started a fight with him, or at least said something – women like that always say something. On the contrary, she paid no attention to my dad, who continued to swear but with a little less enthusiasm. The teacher stood next to me, looked me in the eye, smiled with all the disapproval she had, and said:
- Sir, you are not a Bulgarian.
Georgi Gotchev is head assistant in the Mediterranean and Eastern Studies Department at the New Bulgarian University. He works in the area of ancient and contemporary literature, ancient economic and political theory, and contemporary public environment. He translates from ancient Greek. He has been writing for “Dnevnik” since 2013.
Beach resort on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast.