O n November 9 of last year, more than 300,000 people gathered in the streets of the German capital to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s demolition. “The fall of the Wall has shown us that dreams can come true,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a commemorative ceremony in Bernauer Strasse, where a euphoric crowd had gathered at a memorial to the 138 people who were killed trying to escape East Berlin between 1961 and 1989. Other world leaders shared her sense of triumph. “In Europe and beyond,” Barack Obama said in a statement, “we will be guided by the lessons of Berlin. Walls and oppressive regimes may endure for a time, but in the end they cannot withstand the desire for liberty and human dignity that burns in every human heart.”
In Dimitrovgrad, an economically depressed industrial town in south-central Bulgaria, there was markedly less enthusiasm. Teeming daytime street life (a result of high unemployment) gives the town a lazy, friendly atmosphere. Its architecture, a mélange of jarring incongruities, strikes a sadder note: Wide, severely geometrical boulevards are lined with crumbling apartment buildings, and a pompous arcade along the main pedestrian street houses an array of down-at-heel liquor and grocery stores. “What is there for me to celebrate?” Stefan Tsirkov, an actor, songwriter, and former anti-Communist activist, asked me in October, at a café outside Dimitrovgrad’s Hotel Slavyani. Tsirkov wore a brown leather jacket and T-shirt, and he spoke about his country with dramatic facial expressions befitting a career on the stage. “I’m an A-list actor,” Tsirkov continued with a scowl, “and I’ve been wearing these same shoes for three years!”
Like many former Soviet bloc nations, Bulgaria has not enjoyed the prosperity that economists predicted free-markets and multiparty political systems would bring. Many Bulgarians consider their country’s post-Soviet era a catastrophe. In a national opinion survey, commissioned in October by the initiative 25 Years Free Bulgaria, only 10 percent of respondents considered the last twenty-five years “more or less successful for Bulgaria”; 44 percent of those respondents thought the same about the years of Communist rule from 1944 to 1989. Just 5.6 percent associated Communism with limits on individual freedoms. The greatest beneficiaries of the past quarter-century, according to respondents, were politicians, gangsters, and the “ruthless” (in that order), and 48 percent of those surveyed thought the most powerful factor shaping events since 1989 was corruption.
1Dimitrovgrad had depended on state-controlled industrial behemoths—its concrete and artificial-fertilizer factories—for nearly half a century, so the collapse of the command economy was especially hard on the town. The factories had run on essentially free energy from the state, and had employed as many workers as possible; efficiency had never been given much thought. After post-Communist privatization, incomes declined, unemployment rose, and hyperinflation crippled the economy.
After the Fall, progress toward free markets and multiparty politics was slow. Todor Zhivkov, the longest-serving general secretary in the Eastern Bloc, may have been deposed the day after the Berlin Wall came down, but it wasn’t necessarily the chief cause. The Politburo replaced the unpopular Zhivkov with another Communist, Petar Mladenov, and it would be another seven years before the first stable anti-Communist government came to power. Meanwhile, state assets were sold off through networks of cronyism and corruption. “I understood soon after that it was all a farce,” said Tsirkov, who before 1989 had been a member of Bulgaria’s only independent trade union, and afterwards one of the founding members of the country’s first anti-Communist political party. “The Communists chose the opposition and half of them were agents of the State Security service. The state was robbed, the enterprises, the banks. The comrades took everything. And it was clear that it was all directed by the services.”1
Former State Security agents went into private business and hired professional wrestlers—who found themselves in need of work after being pampered under the Communist system—as their muscle. These mutras (goons), as they came to be known, often wore flashy jogging suits and gold chains, and they developed a reputation for heavy-handed persuasion. The 1990s saw an outbreak of violent extortion by legally registered insurance firms. (The joke at the time was: Bulgaria is the only country in the world that imported 10,000 baseball bats and only two baseballs.) It wasn’t long before the mutras traded in their athletic clothes for business suits and laundered the profits of their crimes in real estate, tourism, and other legitimate businesses. “I’m happy to tell you about how I made my millions,” the saying goes. “Just don’t ask me how I got the first one.”
Today, twenty-five years after the Fall, the town is most famous for being the home of Payner Records, Bulgaria’s biggest producer of chalga music, a saccharine blend of Turkish rhythms, traditional Balkan folk, and synthetic Europop. Replete with mutras and gangster capitalists, promiscuous and submissive women, and all manner of status symbols (“White Mercedes” and “Moneybundles” are both titles of chalga classics), its songs glamorize a lifestyle and a set of values completely at odds with the ascetic, communitarian volunteers who built Dimitrovgrad.
Chalga is a polarizing force in Bulgaria; the widely varying responses it elicits is emblematic of public opinion in a society that both longs for the Communist past and looks forward to a future of free-market prosperity—though many are beginning to doubt that future will ever arrive.
Nostalgia for Communism is strong in Dimitrovgrad, itself a product of Soviet idealism. The town was built between 1947 and 1950, when 50,000 youth-brigade volunteers, mainly poor villagers from all over the country, raised a model socialist city from the emptiness of the Thracian Plain. Dimitrovgrad became a factory town, producing artificial fertilizers and cement. Its founders envisioned it to be a concrete-and-steel showcase for what can be achieved when individuals work together for the collective instead of for their own selfish ends. “I dream not of glory and easy ways / But a quilted jacket for winter days,” Penyo Penev, a poet and youth-brigade volunteer, wrote in his 1955 poem “One of the People Am I.” Of course, the lofty visions never became a reality. Public officials amassed power and enriched themselves at the people’s expense, the planned economy languished, and personal liberties were curtailed. Penev killed himself in 1959, at the age of twenty-eight, though not before inveighing against the country’s elite, those “rats” dwelling “in the cellar of life,” as he called them in his 1957 poem “The Age.”
If the Dimitrovgrad of Penev’s verses embodied the fantasies of socialism, then chalga embodies the capitalist fantasies of a new age. The luxury cars, brand-name clothes, enormous houses, and surgically enhanced women featured in its lyrics and videos provide glimpses of a nouveau-riche lifestyle that for the majority of Bulgarians remains unobtainable. Valcho Vaclhev, a retired coal miner whom I met on a bench in one of Dimitrovgrad’s lush parks, gave a simpler explanation: golotii, a pejorative term that roughly translates to “nudity.”
The town’s urban educated elite, who tend to hold Western democratic values, regard chalga as a cultural bane, a distillation of all that has hobbled their country in recent years—backwardness, corruption, rapacious materialism. There are semi-serious calls to ban the music by law. “People died so we could have democracy,” one journalist told me, “and now we have this.” Others, like Valchev, object to it on moral grounds. By and large, the stars of chalga are svelte girls from the village, all cheekbones, clavicles, and silicone, most of them referred to only by their first names—Gloria, Kati, Preslava, Rayna. Detractors don’t see this female predominance as a sign of liberation or empowerment; they associate chalga with slobodia (licentiousness) more than svoboda (freedom).
Whatever its effects on Bulgarian culture, chalga has certainly done the struggling Bulgarian economy no harm. Payner Records, founded in 1990, is now one of the most successful businesses in Dimitrovgrad. The name dates back to the 1980s, when Dimitar “Mitko” Dimitrov, a mechanical engineer at the local polyester factory, challenged his engineer friends to build a stereo that could make better sounding recordings than the Pioneer cassette player he’d bought at the Corecom hard-currency store.
They couldn’t do it, and Dimitrov has been known as Mitko the Pioneer, or “Payner” (rhymes with “diner”) ever since. Despite Bulgarians’ deeply ingrained suspicions of successful figures, Dimitrov has a reputation for modesty, professionalism, and farsightedness. Unlike the crooked characters of the chalga canon, he is widely viewed as a man who rose to the top on his own merits, without the help of politicians or former State Security personnel. “He’s one of the few people in Bulgaria who should be respected, despite the fact that he makes chalga,” said Plamen “Papo” Stoichev, who has produced songs and videos for some of the top chalga stars despite a visceral distaste for the genre. “Because he succeeded on his own — without a political party and without riding on someone else’s back.”
Back at the Slavyani café, Tsirkov, the actor and former activist, told me he used to be married to one of Payner’s first big stars, a singer known as Petra.
He wrote the lyrics for most of her songs, including the 1998 hit “Predatory Hyena,” which became her nickname and was about the appetites of a parliamentary office-seeker. He told me that during chalga’s golden age, the mid-Nineties to the mid-Aughts, the music was more politically engaged. He began singing another one of his ex-wife’s hits, “Moneybundles.” The song is narrated by an ambitious young woman who parties on the Black Sea Coast. “There I found a lover, a cool deputy,” Tsirkov sang. “From the left or on the right, whatever you say, dude. He is filthy rich, he will even privatize the seagulls.”
“My songs had social themes and made fun of politicians satirically, while many other songs were literally about being an idiot,” he said. Bulgarians tend to be insecure about their not-so-distant village origins—something that chalga often brings to the fore. Tsirkov cites the titles of some classic songs: “The Village Bath—Big Fun,” “Radka the Firecracker,” “Who Shook These Red Tomatoes?” There are plenty of other vintage hits he could have mentioned: “Uncle Mitko Drank Everything,” “You’re Only in the Eighth Grade,” “The Bin Laden Belly Dance.”
Like Tsirkov, many veterans of the industry are critical of chalga’s movement away from Middle-Eastern rhythms toward an increasingly homogenized European-style pop. Stoichev regards the shift as bad business strategy. “It’s the personification of the state,” he told me. “You can lie that this is music. You take a piece of shit, wrap it in cellophane, and add perfume. You can say that it’s lovely, but it’s still shit.”
Twenty-five years ago, Tsirkov said he had looked forward to the end of Communism. But when I asked him about the November 9 anniversary and what it means here, his mood soured. “In Bulgaria, nothing can be changed,” he said. “Bulgaria is dying.”
Indeed, Bulgaria is the only country in the world whose population has declined since 1950, and is set to decline even further, thanks to low birthrates, high death rates, and emigration. There are few indications that the country will improve its position as the poorest in the European Union any time soon. Voter distrust brought a weak minority government to power last year and political stability is increasingly elusive. Corruption, nepotism, and organized crime continue to erode the legitimacy of the state and stall badly needed reform of the judicial system. Chalga, for its part, continues to evolve, but it’s unclear if it will ever revisit the social themes it once addressed. Hopes for the future of the country are in short supply.
“There is no will,” Tsirkov told me, as Europop played from the café’s speakers. “There are no politicians with the will to do anything to save Bulgaria. And nothing can be done.”
Matthew Brunwasser is a journalist currently based in the Balkans and a former Investigative Reporting Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism.