Someone once told me that he did not object to socialism on ethical grounds. It was simply that it didn’t work. His remark hit home. Perhaps – I’ve since wondered – he’d been to Bulgaria to see the proof.
Those in the West complaining about capitalism (which seems to be the pastime of wealthy North London thespians) should take a salutary trip to Sofia.
A quarter of a century after the collapse of communism, Bulgaria’s economy has still not recovered. Average salaries are around 400 pounds a month. Pensioners get by on 60 pounds. Many Bulgarian pensioners have never travelled abroad. My Bulgarian wife’s Spanish-speaking father was an exception. He and his wife lived in Cuba (that other communist paradise) for two years in the early 1970s as part of a socialist exchange programme, acting as interpreters to Bulgarian construction workers. My father-in-law was also offered certain incentives to spy on his colleagues’ behaviour. Admirably, he declined.
Foreign travel was mostly forbidden under communism. Nowadays, for most, it’s just not feasible because a return air fare costs one month’s salary. My in-laws never attended our wedding abroad. They couldn’t afford it. End of story. If young people travel overseas in search of a better life it’s unlikely their parents will ever be able to visit unless their children pay. They get used to not seeing each other for years on end.
Your typical Bulgarian prefab flat has furniture and consumer goods from decades back. Most salaries do not run to holidays, new clothes or a new car. You may be able to buy things on HP but that means living even more frugally.
Westerners should take care not to condescend. We take for granted a kind of upward progression of property ownership (not excepting the problems of getting on to the London housing market) as a reward for hard graft. Bulgarians stay where they are. So an innocent question like “Do you like Mladost?” – the home area of my parents-in law – sounds strange to Bulgarians. The question implies that they may decide to move. They have no such choice.
One of my wife’s friends, a workaholic doctor in a children’s hospital, earned your “average” aforementioned 400 pounds a month. He was only able to rent a grubby one-room flat with his wife and baby. (He subsequently emigrated to France.) When my wife and I once took a weekend trip to Athens (just 45 minutes by plane from Sofia) my mother-in-law urged us not to tell our doctor friend. It would only have rubbed it in that he couldn’t do the same.
Likewise, our neighbours, both of whom work full-time, never take a holiday. One summer I asked them if they were going to the Bulgarian seaside. I regretted asking. “No money,” they replied with a shrug.
Bulgaria, of all the communist bloc, was the economy most wedded to the Soviet Union. Even Monopoly was not imported lest it encouraged capitalist thinking. If anyone went abroad and brought back good quality (for example) Swiss chocolate it was strictly apportioned and made to last weeks. Supermarket shelves were bare. Now, as many ruefully comment, the shops are full of goods but few Bulgarians can afford them.
Today’s infrastructure in Sofia still reflects a bankrupt state. Leave your typical prefab block on a rainy day and you will find an obstacle course. There are no proper pavements as such, just cobblestones among swamps that necessitate you jumping to and fro like in hopscotch. Take a wrong step and you will be shin-deep in mud. Roads quickly flood in bad weather because of uneven surfaces and potholes. Walk too near the road and you’ll be hit by a torrent of water from passing cars.
It’s better in the centre, of course, especially near big stores and embassies. In the ghettos, however, young men have to protect their gorgeous girlfriends during a storm. In the summer, at the time of the annual prom ball celebrations, girls get a piggyback ride between cars and clubs. The boys need a strong back.
But then again much of Bulgaria is still a test of strength…