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Socialist Paradise? Bulgarian Textbooks Accused Of Whitewashing Communist Era

Todor Zhivkov (center) in September 1989 -- "a moderate style of governing without severe repression."
Todor Zhivkov (center) in September 1989 -- "a moderate style of governing without severe repression."

SOFIA -- Newly proposed history books for high-school students in Bulgaria have triggered controversy by presenting the country's last communist-era totalitarian ruler, Todor Zhivkov, as a hero and whitewashing over the repressive nature of his regime.

Zhivkov headed one of the most staunchly hard-line communist regimes in Eastern Europe for 35 years until his ouster in Bulgaria's so-called "palace revolution" on November 10, 1989 -- a coup within the Bulgarian Communist Party itself that took place just one day after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But the realities of life during Bulgaria's totalitarian era have rarely been discussed in the history textbooks used by high-school students there over the last 30 years.

The newly proposed textbooks have been submitted by five publishers in response to curriculum changes approved in 2018 by the Education Ministry.

That curriculum requires young Bulgarians to learn more about what happened in their country under communist rule from 1944 to 1989.

'Normal' Zhivkov

Political scientists, teachers, and human rights activists in Bulgaria who have reviewed the proposed textbooks are outraged by some of the statements they contain.

They also are angered by what they see as glaring omissions about the fear, oppression, and desperation that defined the daily existence of many Bulgarians under Zhivkov's rule.

What is at stake, they argue, is generations of Bulgarians growing up without a clear understanding of the essence of communism and with distorted ideas about what constituted "normal life" during 45 years of totalitarianism.

A claim in one textbook that is being challenged is that "Todor Zhivkov had a moderate style of governing without severe repression."

Another is that "Zhivkov's policies aimed to improve the welfare of the population."

And another is that the public's dissatisfaction with the lack of civil rights in Bulgaria under Zhivkov was placated by rising living standards.

In fact, Zhivkov until the late 1980s prevented unrest within Bulgaria's intelligentsia and harshly punished dissent -- using his secret police as a vicious tool of control that was deeply feared within Bulgaria and that forced overt political opposition underground. Thousands of people were imprisoned for political reasons.

An assimilation program Zhivkov introduced in 1984 for Bulgaria's ethnic Turkish population was a program of massive repression in which ethnic Turks were forced to accept Slavic names.

Zhivkov's crackdown against those who resisted, followed by his decision in 1989 to open the border with Turkey and allow ethnic Turks to leave the country, led to what was, at the time, the largest human migration in Europe since World War II. More than 300,000 ethnic Turks left for Turkey.

'Candid Propaganda'

Evelina Kelbcheva, a history professor at American University in the southwestern Bulgarian town of Blagoevgrad, has published an open letter with investigative journalist Hristo Hristov in an attempt to highlight the shortcomings of the textbooks before they are published and used to teach Bulgarian teenagers.

Kelbcheva and Hristov say the textbooks' depictions of the communist era are full of "candid propaganda cliches." They are calling for all five of the textbooks to be fundamentally altered or cancelled.

"The most important features of the totalitarian communist regime -- political terror, the repressive system, the total subjugation of the country, and the Kremlin's dictate over absolutely all spheres of life -- not only over foreign policy, obviously are deliberately not highlighted," Kelbcheva and Hristov write.

Kelbcheva tells RFE/RL that in most of the proposed textbooks, information has been omitted about the estimated 30,000 Bulgarians who were summarily executed during the initial months after the Soviet Red Army crossed into Bulgaria and a Soviet-backed communist government was set up in September 1944.

"There is no mention of the ubiquitous executions aimed at creating a climate of fear," she says. "There are also no facts about the persecution of people from religious denominations -- including Christians and Muslims."

A proposed textbook by Domino Publishing House notes that Zhivkov in 1962 shut down Bulgaria's forced-labor camps for political prisoners, bringing "an end to an inhumane practice that ruined the destinies of thousands of people."

But it neglects to mention that Zhivkov in 1985 reopened an infamous labor camp on Belene Island in the Danube River -- a facility that is also referred to as the Belene concentration camp.

In their joint letter, Kelbcheva and Hristov also note that the textbook projects do not contain any information about the activities of the Bulgarian Communist Party's repressive secret police -- with the exception of some "very dry" definitions in glossaries.

"The textbooks talk about the suppression of human rights during the communist era," Kelbcheva tells RFE/RL. "But how can something that did not even exist be trampled?"

Preserving A 'Nonbiased Distance'

The textbooks by two of the publishers, Prosveta and Riva, reflect the findings of contemporary historians, she says, while the others formally meet the requirements set out in the curriculum but do not give a realistic picture of the historical era.

"This period cannot be well presented if the state of the economy is omitted," she says. "It was a nonfunctional economy."

In fact, Bulgarian historians have only recently been writing a comprehensive history of their country under communist rule.

Seven Bulgarian co-authors of Bulgaria Under Communism, a book printed in 2019 by the New York-based publisher Routledge, says Bulgarian historians now face the crucial challenge of preserving a "nonbiased distance" while also defining "the border between subjective and objective moments in the transition from living memory toward historical narrative."

To do so, they argue, historical research must "shake off memory and orient itself toward understanding and interpretation."

In an interview with RFE/RL, Bulgarian Deputy Education Minister Petar Nikolov stresses that while the five proposed textbooks have passed several levels of assessments, none of them have received final approval by his ministry.

Nikolov says his ministry has received "several signals from different directions" and admits that his ministry has heard criticism from some evaluators at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and universities with accredited history programs.

He says ministry officials largely agree with those critiques and that he expects the controversial texts to be amended and receive final approval before the next school year begins in September.

"For us, objectivity will be achieved when we strike a balance between the more radical opinions," Nikolov says.

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague with reporting by Elitza Simeonova in Sofia