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National Exhibit
National Exhibit
Bulgaria Under Communism: 1944 – 1989

The pragmatic urge to collaborate with the West was tampered by the fear that any such collaboration might provide openings for unwelcome influences. If and when cultural discussions acquired the overtones of political dissent, the perpetrators were swiftly punished. The repressive infrastructure of the regime remained intact and was ruthlessly used. The leaders of human rights groups were expelled from the countries and anti-communist émigrés (like Georgi Markov, assassinated in London in 1978). Until the very end, Zhivkov remained implacably hostile to the notion of political liberalization and refused to tolerate unauthorized activities of any kind.

Bulgaria’s communist leaders grounded the legitimacy of their regime in the claim that under the BCP’s “energetic and visionary” leadership Bulgaria was transformed from a backward peasant country into a modern industrialized state. It is true that during the Zhivkov era there was full employment, free education and universal medical care. The rapid industrialization facilitated the upward social mobility of peasants and the urban poor. But it is also true that the effort to transform Bulgaria into an economically vibrant country where the population enjoys a decent living ultimately failed.

Todor Zhivkov fancied himself an economic reformer and regularly announced ambitious plans to revitalize Bulgarian industry and agriculture. These reforms, however, were both chaotic and cosmetic: all of them fizzled out without producing lasting positive results, and none of them deviated from the ideological tenets of socialist planning (i.e. complete elimination of markets and profit-seeking; rigid administrative monitoring of all economic activities, and a centralized mode of decision-making, with ultimate authority resting with BCP’s Politburo).

Between the early 1960s and the late 1970s the Bulgarian economy registered economic growth and standards of living improved. But the growth was due almost entirely to Soviet economic help: the Soviet Union sold to its compliant satellite cheap oil (which was promptly resold at world market prices) and purchased Bulgarian agricultural and industrial products for which there were no other buyers. And despite some improvement of their material condition, average Bulgarians still had to spend long hours standing in queues in front of food stores, to get by without items like toilet paper and sanitary napkins, and to wait for 10 years to buy a low-quality Soviet car, 12 years to obtain a telephone line, and 20 years to purchase a tiny, badly-built apartment from the government. Overall, during the communist era the distance separating Bulgaria from the developed world grew. By the 1980s it lagged behind other socialist countries like Yugoslavia and Hungary and was incomparably poorer than other states with which it had shared common socio-economic characteristics in the 1930s, like Greece and Portugal.

The Zhivkov era came to an end amidst looming economic crisis and brewing political turmoil. As the rest of the world was entering the digital age, Bulgaria’s communist leaders had to ration electricity and import food in order to forestall economic collapse. The country’s foreign debt exploded (reaching $10 billion in early 1989). In response, the regime tightened political control and unleashed a wave of repressions. In a bizarre and cruel move, the sizable Turkish minority in Bulgaria (10 % of the population) was charged with disloyalty to the “socialist motherland,” and ethnic Turks were forced to adopt Bulgarian names and renounce their cultural and religious traditions. Facing the resistance of local communities, the BCP government ordered the occupation of the ethnically mixed regions. Several dozen protestors were killed and thousands were arrested; eventually 300,000 Bulgarian citizens immigrated to Turkey.

In the meantime, under the impact of Soviet perestroika, dissident activism in Bulgaria finally gained momentum. Human rights organizations were formed in response to the plight of Bulgarian Turks; unofficial clubs in support of glasnost were set up; independent trade unions emerged; grassroots environmental groups sprouted around the country. The regime’s reaction was predictable: anti-regime activists were fired from their jobs and were subjected to constant police surveillance and harassment.

But the tide of civic mobilization did not subside, and by late 1989 BCP’s leaders understood that they would have to either intensify repression or attempt to liberalize the system. An anti-Zhivkov faction favoring the latter option began to coalesce within the party, and in the ensuing internecine struggle it was this faction – which had sought and obtained the blessing of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – that ultimately prevailed.

On November 10, 1989, Todor Zhivkov was forced to resign. The dictator’s successors, led by Foreign Minister Petar Mladenov, who was elected General Secretary, apparently harbored the hope that changes would be kept to the necessary minimum and the socialist system would be salvaged. But their plans collapsed when, after decades of docility and conformist compliance, Bulgarians took to the streets and demanded free elections and genuine democracy. Facing daily rallies animated by the radiant energy of politically awakened citizens, the ruling clique relented and in early January 1990 began negotiations with newly formed opposition parties. The road was open to Bulgaria’s democratic future.



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Location:  Eastern Europe
Capital:  Sofia
Communist Rule:  1944-1990
Status:  First free elections (June 1990)
Victims of Communism:
222 000