Looking out of the window of the number eighty five bus from Letishte Sofia-Vrazhdebna to Sofia’s historic centre it would be easy to think you had stepped back through time. Tall, rakish towers of crumbling concrete stand guard over wide roads lined with squat cafes and bars. Dead ground littered with abandoned construction projects and tall grass is a common sight and the bus has to share the road with rusting trams and pass parks in which the square physique of Soviet era statues can be glimpsed. After forty minutes the bus terminates next to a Starbucks coffee shop. Apart from the modern shopping malls glimpsed from the main road it is the first indication on the journey from the airport to the centre of Bulgaria’s capital city that one is not traveling through the Eastern Bloc of the 1970s.
For much of the post-communist period (this month marks the twenty third anniversary of the first free elections since the collapses of the USSR) Bulgarians have been worse off than they were under rule by proxy from Russia. The transition from a planned to open economy saw industry and agriculture suffer throughout 1990s and living standards for most of Sofia’s residents remained unchanged for nearly a decade. Having joined the EU in 2007, later than other ex-Soviet nations and just before the start of the global financial crisis, it has also failed to see the monetary benefits that the Union has brought to much of the rest of Europe. For a first time traveller from western Europe Sofia is perhaps the best example of the disparity that still exist between west and east. Yet without the barrier (both mental and physical) of the Iron Curtain the myth that post-Soviet Europe is an equal playing field has flourished.
Sofia has witnessed not only to the most recent of European empires but also the first. At the western end of Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard stands the Orwellian edifice of ‘Party House’, once the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party. It is an imposing example of Socialist Classicism, the faux-classical architecture of Stalin. Before it is a wide road, one can almost imagine the slow grind of tanks down it on May Day or the anniversary of the October Revolution, split in the middle by an almost equally wide pavement. Here, looking down, one can see the recently excavated remains of the city the Romans called Serdica. The proximity of these two imperial relics is a reminder of Sofia’s long years under the heel of empire. That the Soviet’s build their roadway directly over the trail of their imperial predecessors is an equally powerful, and ironic, representation of this long history.
It would be hyperbolic to say that the influence of the Cold War still hangs over Sofia more than any other ex-Soviet city. Especially in the city centre capitalism has flourished. American fast food joints and designed clothing outlets line the street like in any other European capital. Ancient trams and battered ZIL-130 trucks share the road with modern Toyotas and Renaults. Unlike much of the Asian arm of the USSR the fall of the Iron Curtain brought about no war or civil strife – with one exception, the Party House was set alight during protests in 1990. Much of the city’s cultural heritage has also survived. The Turkish mosque, an ornate 19th century Synagogue, the aforementioned Roman ruins and the gold domed Alexander Nevski cathedral have all outlasted communism as well as fascist occupation. A short walk from the cathedral, market stalls sell communist medals and Nazi bayonets alongside religious icons and early pressings of Beatles records (sleeves printed in Cyrillic). Yet under the golden domes the cathedral is, like the high rises on the city’s edge, crumbling and out of repair. The murals are pitted and cracked and the interior has a morose, gloomy quality. Named after the Rus’ hero and (later) Orthodox Saint who defeated the Teutonic Crusades the building is a memorial to all those who died liberating Bulgaria from another ruler, the Ottomans.
Sofia then is an image of East Berlin of the 1990s, a place freed from the yolk of the USSR yet still in its shadow. When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 President Geroge Parvanov called it a “heavenly moment” and a day that would “undoubtedly find its place among the most important dates in our national history”. Two years previously Bulgaria’s average GDP per capita was around 7,000 euros compared to nearly 25,000 euros for the twenty five states that then made up the EU. Today it has risen but is still significantly lower and Bulgaria is suffering for choosing not to adopt the Euro, with the Lev remaining weak. Had Europe remained economically stable joining the EU would not have been an overnight fix for Bulgaria’s economic problems. Now that the Union is mostly concerned with halting the death slide of economies in Greece, Spain, Cyprus and Italy it is arguable whether the average Bulgarian will feel the benefits of being a member of the European family for some time. It was vast investment (in both money and effort) from its capitalist other half that enabled East Germany to recover so rapidly from its Soviet years. Until a similar process occurs further east states like Bulgaria will remain relics of the Eastern bloc. Very slowly they may be able to pull themselves out of the shadow of the USSR but without help it will be a long, perilous process. For anyone fortunate enough to have been born and raised west of what was once the Iron Curtain a trip across that iconic frontier reveals the magnitude of the challenge such countries face. While we are busy tackling our own economic and societal demons it is worth remembering that a three hour flight away there is a place where daily life is still mixed with the flavour of the Cold War.