16th April 2014 Sofia, Bulgaria

Bulgaria in the 80s: Sad and Suppressed

by David Holt

This week’s #100UKBG stories are of spouses Denise and David Holt, who had separate encounters with Bulgaria – Denise in “the dark days of the 60s” and David – in “the sad 80s”.

First we will present David’s story; Denise’s one will follow later in the week.

David Holt was a diplomat with the FCO, serving in India, Brazil, Ireland and Trinidad and Tobago. From 1988 to 1990 he was Head of Parliamentary Relations Unit, which is how he came to accompany the Inter-Parliamentry Union delegation to Sofia. David retired from the service in 1996.

Sofia in the 80s © Нашето детство
Sofia in the 80s © Нашето детство (www.detstvoto.net)

I went to Sofia with an International Parliamentary Union delegation in 1988; the very dog days of communism. Although we didn’t know it then, within a year the Berlin wall would be done and with it the Iron Curtain which kept East and Western Europe from knowing each other for the best part of 50 years. Gorbachev was already making his mark, but in Bulgaria Todor Zhivkov was still very much in power. We stayed at the Sheraton Hotel in a largely run down and dried-out downtown Sofia.

The streets of Sofia were still relatively quiet in the 1988, so the Zhivkov motorcade when it powered by, was unmistakable. The Delegation was invited to a reception at his house, and he appeared through over-sized double doors, with a totally false welcome and smile. One amusing memory of the day was that the Bulgarian driver who took us to Zhivkov’s house told us that the only motorway in Bulgaria ran from party headquarters to the Zhivkov residence!

I recall that out of the blue lorry drivers would pitch up in the streets with goods for sale, to be surrounded by desperate buyers, apparently as eager to purchase Charles Dickens’ works as the huge volumes of tomatoes fresh in from the country.These were at least more appealing than the sausages died a deep blue which I discovered on one of my wanderings round the city.

Our Bulgarian escort, a pretty but sad girl, who I tried to cheer up by pointing out that the regime would change soon, became increasingly anxious and kept nervously looking over her shoulders for minders. Perhaps as retaliation she took us all to see the embalmed body of a previous dictator, known to us as “Dead Fred”.

There was certainly no mistaking the continuing presence of the secret police. They were everywhere. Even on our visit to the Alexander Nevski cathedral we gingerly picked our way through crowds of secret policemen.  But they couldn’t spoil the magnificence of the Bulgarian countryside. I remember the classically beautiful and fertile stretch between Sofia and Plovdiv, and a visit to an orthodox monastery in the hills where the young abbot addressed us skeptically about women priests. He said: “women are for looking pretty and … other things”; pressed a bell, and little old ladies dressed in black came in bearing trays of sweet liqueurs. My overall memories were of a sad and suppressed country, with only the large numbers of Turkish migrants en route to/from Germany showing any sign of real animation and hope.