Portraits of Eastern Europe's Ruin and Potential: Photo Essay of Bulgaria

The post-Cold War story in Bulgaria is a strange brew of too much pain and disappointment, emigration en masse, cautious optimism, and some progress.

Entire regions of the country are fully depopulated and there are villages with just 3 or 4 elderly people left in them. Kyustendil, a city I have relatives in not too far from the Macedonian border, has shrunk 50% in terms of population in the last 20 years. Northwest Bulgaria is the hardest hit demographically in all of Europe. Overall, the population of Bulgaria decreases by about 40,000 people a year and the only countries in the world worse off in terms of de-population are Moldova and Ukraine. Basically, demographically the country is where it was in the early 1940s. The total population has gone from 9 million in 1989 to 7.2 million today, and is continuing to decrease. 

The capital, Sofia, has cleaned up nicely from its messy 90s state, and now it's home to probably 1.5 - 1.7 million people – it is the only city in the country where you might still find work. The economy is hovering around stagnation and FDI has literally ground to a halt. 

Roads have improved a lot, though, and a new stretch of the Trakiya highway is going to be opened between Stara Zagora and Burgas in a month or two. Investment in infrastructure is coming through the European structural funds and the effects are good on the overall. It creates hope that the economy will pick up steam in 2013-14 and that the demographic trend will be reversed within 10-15 years.

People are the biggest challenge. This may be the most cynical country in the world – middle income by world standards, but about as happy as Niger and Afghanistan – and the socio-economic comparison is impossible. 

Millennials are mostly seeking to get out. A friend of mine finished a degree in physics, and another is graduating in computer programming and both want to get out in Europe. Germany is so far the only working economy on the continent. But the pessimism is pervasive. I fully agree that people have every reason to be cynical given the last two decades, but a grain of optimism must always be present. Things are slowly becoming more organized, and it might take another generation to get them somewhat to western levels, but there is tangible progress, and it must be noted.

The photos below are of my travels in the country over two weeks. I was mostly in Sofia, but managed to go to Kyustendil, a town in the west famous for its cherries, and Yambol in the east, where in the surrounding bases Bulgarians and Americans have cooperated militarily for over a decade. The pictures are largely of a historical nature, highlighting places, people and events, but they are only a scratch on the surface of what Bulgaria has to offer.

May 6 is St. George’s Day in the Gregorian Calendar and also the day the Bulgarian army celebrates its Day of Valour with a military parade. Traditionally, helicopters carrying the national flag open the proceedings.

The national guard unit, the first military unit created after the restoration of independence in 1878, has kept its one-time uniforms, and while they are logged as an active combat unit, their functions are largely ceremonial.

... Including fulfilling the duties of the orchestra. Right across, the country’s entire political and military leadership is assembled. Overall, the parade was not as extensive as previous years, which have seen air and land forces assets presented as well – on the one hand, because of a MiG-29 crash earlier this year and the costs associated with putting on a larger parade in a time of crisis.

Wreaths and flowers are also put on the grave of the Unknown Soldier. It reads, “Bulgaria, for you they died, / one was worthy of you because of them / and for you, mother, they were worthy.” The monument is dedicated not just to the liberation wars of the late 19 century, but to all 1,331 years in which Bulgarians have fought wars and died. 

The National Theatre, “Ivan Vazov” – restored in recent years and enjoying resurgent interest in its productions, it is one of the most vibrant places in the downtown area of Sofia. Its facade is ornamented with gold and there is an alley of fountains in its courtyard, which are currently under renovation. It is named after Ivan Vazov (1850-1921), considered to be the patriarch of Bulgarian literature. His grave is nearby. 

The National Palace of Culture is a monumental building constructed in 1981 to commemorate 1,300 years of the establishment of the state. It is a frequent venue for concerts and events and surrounded by a park, which is a popular meeting spot. In the spring and summer, fountains along the center aisle of the park make it a particularly pleasant place to spend time. Cafes can be found near and around the palace itself.

The Council of Ministers is on the left, the president’s building on the right and the offices of the members of parliament is at the center. The whole area is popularly known as the Largo. Behind the fences, the metro is under construction and with it, an archaeological investigation into a street of ancient Serdika (the old name of Sofia). The project, slated to be completed in the late summer this year, will include a metro station in combination with a museum, which will be visible via a transparent covering from street level.

The Central Sofia bathhouse. Also under renovation, it is expected to continue its original function at some point – it sits on top of mineral springs that also have health benefits. Many like it dot the entire territory of Bulgaria.

Bulgarian countryside, west of Sofia.

The town of Kyustendil, not far from the Macedonian border and less than 100 km from Sofia. The winding road makes the trip about 2 hours long, however.

Countryside near the border with Macedonia. Skopje’s isolationist policies, the collapse of industry in the region at the end of the 1980s and depopulation have restored this country to its natural beauty, but the prospects for the locals are not very good.

Spring.

A village in northern Bulgaria. Rural communities have suffered the most in the last 20 years. Bulgaria became predominantly urban in the early 1970s, but after 1989, depopulation has turned dozens of these villages all over the country into ghost towns.

The Church of Holy Sunday is not far from the Largo and features a large square. The willow to the right is something I remember vividly as a kid from growing up in Sofia. Historically, this church was the site of the worst terrorist attack in modern Bulgarian history --  in 1925, the Communist Party, a then illegal organization, exploded a bomb in the church that killed over 150 people.

St. George’s Basilica, a 6th century rotunda, today located inside the courtyard of the presidential building. It continues to function today as such and it features contemporary frescoes inside.

Palace of the Bulgarian monarchs between 1879-1944. Today it is the National Art Gallery. It is located next to the National Assembly. The monarchy’s archive today is in Russia, many of the artefacts are displayed in museums, and yet many others remain in storage. Particularly interesting are the circumstances under which Czar Boris III died in late August, 1943, not long after a meeting with Hitler. He was the last monarch, and the debate continues today.

The Russian Church in Sofia.

The historical connection between Bulgaria and Russia goes back over 1000 years. This is a monument to czar Alexander II, who initiated the liberation war against the Ottoman Empire in 1877-78 that resulted in the establishment of Bulgarian autonomy 482 years after the country last existed on Europe’s political map. Tens of thousands of Russians died for the cause, alongside other volunteers from countries like Hungary and Finland.  

The National Assembly consists of 240 representatives, elected every four years by a mix of proportional representation and first-past-the-post system. The balance of power nearly always means the coalition governments must be formed between the various parties. The motto on the frieze reads, “Strength through Unity”.

Built a century ago, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is the largest Eastern Orthodox monument on the Balkans. The domes are plated in gold.

Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. St. Kliment of Ohrid is a disciple of the brothers St. Cyril and St, Methodius, with a key role in the development of language and education in medieval Bulgaria. The Cyrillic script that gave rise to other Slavic languages is named for St. Cyril, who today is buried in Rome. The location of his brother’s grave is unknown.

A monument to Vassil Levski (1837-1873) – perhaps the most influential revolutionary of the 19th century who did not live to see the liberation of Bulgaria. He has left an extensive written record and preferred an egalitarian republic as a form of government after liberation. He was hung on February 19th, 1873 on this spot, and the anniversary is marked every year. History has called him the Apostle, mostly for his selflessness for the national cause – “If I win, I win for the whole nation – if I lose, I lose only myself”.

Paisii Hilendarski – the man the Bulgarian revival began with after he published his history of the country in 1762.

The Church of St. Sofia was built in the 4th century. At the time within the domain of the Eastern Roman Empire, it is among the oldest functioning Christian shrines in the world. The catacombs in its basement hold the remains of known and unknown nobles through the millennia.

Capitalism is alive and well in the country – a mall of boutiques in downtown Sofia.

The Kadi Seyfullah Efendi Camii mosque, designed by Mimar Sinan and built in 1567. It is a part of the heritage left by the Ottoman Empire.

Full view of the Sofia bathhouse. It is behind the mosque and a garden with fountains separates the two.

The weather was not with me last week, but nonetheless made for beautiful photography.

A Roman basilica in the city of Yambol – another community with roots in the depths of ancient history.

A view of the pedestrian square leading away from the basilica.

Catching an early bus is an opportunity for a ghostly photo to the entrance of the Yambol city park that spans the Tundzha River.

Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv, from the distance. It is among the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, in the ranks of Jericho, Damascus, Aleppo, Byblos and Sinan. It began as a Thracian settlement, and was later incorporated in the empires of Alexander of Macedon, the Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans. Its old quarter is typical of Bulgarian Revival architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The grave of Ivan Vazov in Sofia. The headstone, known as a “moraine”, was brought down from the Vitosha mountain – right next to Sofia – and placed on his grave as his dying wish.

The Largo by day

A Russian stereo system produced in the early 1980s that is still very functional...

...and a Julian Lennon record manufactured in the USSR to go with it. For those who don’t know, he is the son of John Lennon.

A monument to the Soviet army. It is among the most divisive in the country, because some want to keep it, others want to remove it. Bulgaria was on the side of the Axis until 1944, but Sofia never declared war on the USSR, instead choosing to maintain military neutrality. Only in 44-45 did the Bulgarian army launch operations against Germany in Macedonia, Yugoslavia and Hungary. Historical choices aside, this monument recognizes the primary role of the Red Army in defeating Nazism, regardless of its connotations in our history. 

Bulgaria is at the crossroads of history - it has been that way for centuries, and will be so in the coming centuries.