top of page

Bulgaria: a hardline Balkan state

Traveling in Bulgaria in the 1980s was an eerie experience. Never before had I seen so many statues thanking Russians: for the Czar’s soldiers who expelled the Turks in 1878, then Stalin’s soldiers who “liberated” Bulgaria from Nazi Germany in 1944. It was odd since Bulgaria wasn’t actually occupied by the Nazis. One of the pleasures of touring Bulgaria was finding the remarkable monasteries like the ones I photographed in Asenovgrad and Rila. In 1988, I came upon villages where ethnic Turks were being expelled—mostly to cover over the disastrous crop failings—and those remaining were told to “Bulgarize” their names, which led to this joke:

Question: "What is the ultimate Bulgarized name?" Answer: "Notaturk."

Central Sofia. The former royal palace on the left. Workmen prepare May Day commemoration. April, 1989.

Bulgaria: the end of the hardliners

The changes began on 10 November 1989 when the 78-year-old Todor Zhivkov, who had ruled since 1954, was kicked out by Petar Mladenov, the country’s foreign minister. But, like being caught in a revolving door, Mladenov was on the street by the following summer.

I took some of these pictures on 30 August 1990, three days after frustrated and furious Bulgarians broke into Communist Party headquarters, sacked, and burned it.

Georgi Dimitrov was the first Communist ruler of Bulgaria and died in 1949, shortly thereafter. He was embalmed and every Tuesday you could visit him. I did. Once was enough. In 1990, his body was taken away and burned but on the side of his mausoleum someone wrote, “It still stinks!” As you can see in the third picture, his tomb was demolished, too.


A demonstration on the streets of Sofia on 27 August 1989, led to people throwing rocks through the windows of Communist Party headquarters and then firebombs. The flames were put out and thousands of locals came to celebrate its burning, as well as stand around in small groups venting their rage at what Communism had done to their country.

bottom of page