Socialist art as a connection to the past
Trouw, 10 september 2011

Vezhdi Rashidov is a busy man. Drawing a huge cigar the short Bulgarian minister of culture runs through the garden of the Museum for Socialist Art in Sofia. Next week the museum will open its doors to the public, but the grass refuses to grow and the driveway is incomplete. Everyday Mr. Rashidov drops by to give directions. "Everything around here I have to do myself", he lamented while studying a statue of Lenin. Pointing at the museum staff: "There you have the professors. All they do is talk. But work? Forget about it!"

The minister may complain, but indeed a lot of talking needs to be done these days, said curator Bisera Josifova. Bulgaria is the last of the former Eastern Bloc countries to open a museum like this. 22 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall it is about time. "An entire generation in this country doesn't know anything about the past. But remember: this is not a history museum. We want to show Bulgarian art that was influenced by socialist ideas and that is still worth looking at. Through this art we can give a glimpse of how life was in socialist times."

It is exactly this approach that is met with criticism. The museum would glorify the totalitarian communist past. Mrs. Josifova: "We don't want to create a nostalgic image. But we don't want to politicize or demonize either."

While outside in the statue filled garden communists leaders and ideologists prevail, they are remarkably absent inside. Instead the small exposition hall is filled with paintings showing daily life; by convinced communists like Alexander Zhendov, but also by 'bourgeois' artists like bon vivant Nikola Tanev. "Both of them were sent to the gulag as so called enemies of the state", Mrs. Josifova said. "Those are the stories we can tell."

And they are stories that remain sensitive in Bulgaria, a country in which the prime minister openly admires the last communist dictator Todor Zhivkov (see box), and where the president was an informer of the Darzhavna Sigarnost (DS), the feared state security services. The archives of the DS have only recently been opened, and only after pressure from the European Union.

In Bulgaria, communists have never given up on power, explained Vasil Kadrinov, a political scientist and a former political prisoner. As late as 1985 he was arrested by the DS for reading 'One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich', by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He served 18 months in the notorious political prison in Stara Zagora. "In 1989, the communists themselves arranged the take over of power. In the background they remained in control. They could do this thanks to the terror. There was no resistance in Bulgaria, there were no intellectuals. Everybody was imprisoned or killed. The little opposition there was, was infiltrated."

He sketched a grim image of a society still being dominated by ex-secret agents, by former party bigwigs and their children. With the money they had siphoned from the state treasury during the transition of power they bought land and companies. And economic power is political power, in particular in Bulgaria. In such a climate there is no place for truth finding, Mr. Kadrinov concluded. "But I know people in the West find this story very hard to believe."

There is a place in the centre of Sofia where his words were being heard. Hidden in a park lies the monument for the victims of the communist repression. In black marble the names are engraved of some 10,000 Bulgarians who were killed or who disappeared between 1944 and 1989. They are just a small part of the total number of victims. A few hundred people, mainly elderly, gathered there last night for a memorial service. It was exactly 67 years after the Soviet invasion of Bulgaria, that violently brought the communists to power.

"The communist system has disappeared and hopefully it will never return", the toothless priest who administers the nearby chapel said. "But the communists, they are still in charge. Go with God, boy, and tell them this truth in your country."

Monument and celebrations for 'last' dictator

On Wednesday, it was a hundred years ago that Bulgaria's last dictator Todor Zhivkov was born. In his hometown of Pravets, a monument was unveiled in his honour. In his house of birth the recently restored museum reopened for the public. Angered civil rights organisations sent a letter of complaint to the European Parliament and to German chancellor Angela Merkel, who is feared by the Bulgarian government. Zhivkov ruled Bulgaria for 35 years with an iron hand. According to historians, in 1944, as a communist militia leader he was involved in the killing of some 200 citizens of Sofia. During his regime thousands of Bulgarians died in concentration camps and prisons. Under pressure of the letter, the government abandoned at the very last moment the intention to send the military orchestra to the Pravets festivities, which attracted hundreds of people. As the mayor of Pravets summarized the events: "Only two things about Todor Zhivkov are undisputed: he was born in Pravets and he was a head of state for over thirty years."