Big Promises

Efforts of the United States to foster democracy have been seen in the wider world as anything from heroically successful (for example, Japan’s postwar constitution) to arrogant and misguided (just about anything since then). In 1989 and the early 1990s Americans felt pretty smug about the collapse of the former Soviet Union. We celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, sharing in the exuberance felt all over Western Europe. We cheered the Chinese demonstrators in Tienanmen Square. We overwhelmed Kuwait to keep it from Sadaam Hussein, and got in the middle of the Serbs and Bosnians.

With so much going on all around the world in that tumultuous period, it didn’t take long for us to get up our Democracy-Missionary spirit. We rushed into the chaos in Central and Eastern Europe, to tutor the disenfranchised and disoriented citizenry about democracy and free-market capitalism. The United States Peace Corps sent over a mix of starry-eyed young people, retirees off their rockers, and a few mid-career Enron and financial-crash refugees. What did the host countries need? Sure, we’ll deliver; we’re America. Teach you how to run businesses and community services in a decentralized economy? Check! Teach you English, to do business in the West? You bet! And for good measure, we’ll throw in all you need to know about environmental protection, to clean up the mess made by those dirty old Soviet-affiliated factories. Sure, got ya covered!

Democracy and freedom in Bulgaria had some unexpected twists in their early and unaccustomed form. For pupils in schools, it meant not having to follow the old disciplines and military-style decorum. For teachers, it meant that routine decisions would be made by voting in meetings; the Principal would call for a vote and everybody said “Da” to approve whatever it was. “There’s already a policy,” I asked once, “so shouldn’t the principal just decide that case?” A shrug. “That’s Democracy.” The Principal would not be a dictator. Meanwhile, in elections from the national down to the local level, most people I knew — neighbors, students, shopkeepers (like the shoe store man), and my friend Dimitar the Economist — assumed that politicians were crooked, elections were rigged, and achieving economic success was impossible except for those with shady connections.

It was 2002 and 2003 when I was there. Thirteen years had passed since the fall of the old regime, and the people had been struggling to figure out how to make it work. The Peace Corps had been in on it for eleven of those years. “Facing toward the West” and joining the European Union was going to make it all better.

What got me to thinking about all this was a photo essay I found recently called Broken Dreams: The Aftermath of 25 Years of Democracy in Bulgaria. The photos are sad, compelling, and recent. The article speaks of disillusionment with the promised changes and the persistence — even growth — of corruption. The photographer, Yana Paskova, was quoted as saying “it pained me to note a weariness, hopelessness and ennui, so standard in the Bulgarian passerby that it becomes routine… almost every single person I talked to communicated to me a lack of hope in political leadership and democracy.”

Another article on the mood of the country, Who put the monument in Pravets – the revival of the cult of Zhivkov  (published in, in Bulgarian) describes the golden glow of old memories, with a “cult” growing back up around the deposed dictator Todor Zhivkov.

Monument. I took this photo while visiting fellow volunteer Janet B. in Pravets. I was surprised to find it in the e-vestnik article on Zhivkov.

Like in Ukraine, but without coming to violence over it, Bulgarians are divided on how much they loved or hated the Soviet-connected old days. There is a “powerful nostalgia for the times when life was certain, and electricity and heating were cheap.” The writer goes on to say that “people have forgotten how they used to derisively joke about the 20-year wait for housing and 15 for a car, they couldn’t travel abroad, there were abuses in all spheres of public life, and political persecution was rampant.”

As that nostalgia grows, and the ideals of democracy and freedom stutter and flail, the failure of our cherished ideals to flourish is troubling. Of course it took our own country a long time to develop these products of the American Revolution, and they’re still under continuous and very contentious development.

I wrote about a parent-teacher meeting in Breeze, where resignation and disillusionment prompted some dark musings on the state of the country.

People always said the pessimistic, passive outlook that was so pervasive was because of the 500 years “under the Turkish yoke” or the 50 years under Communism, or the struggles and failures in the transition to a free market economy, krisiata, “The Crisis.” Under Communism everybody worked. Then came krisiata and the sweeping changes after the fall of the former Soviet system. State-run factories closed, people lost their jobs, and the whole structure of how-everything-works was set adrift… But to believe the promises of the future? Better be careful. Don’t be hasty. We’ve heard big promises before… 

Nobody said it would be easy, did they?


6 thoughts on “Big Promises

  1. Bruce…what a writer you have become. It only makes me wonder…what is to be done? How do we tell a country to wait for the sweet milk of democracy… and under democratic rule do those in need get their equal share of the benefits? Progress is slow and painful and I sometimes do not see how things will work out. I guess, the struggle continues for us all.

    • Thanks, Anon. It occurs to me that the photo essay documenting hard conditions “after 25 years of Democracy in Bulgaria” would be just as just as touching and as easy to write, with pictures of the poor and homeless “after 239 years of Democracy in America.”

  2. Your post reminds me of the time, just before COS, when I was walking home from school with one of my fellow teachers. A student approached us and asked the teacher when he (the teacher) would have his (the student’s) paper finished. After the student left, I asked what the conversation was about. The teacher was writing the student’s final paper for him, in exchange for money. My mouth dropped in horror, at which the teacher explained with one word: “Capitalism”. After all, he said, the student is happy, because he will pass his class; the parents are happy, because the kid will pass the class, the teacher who assigned the paper is happy, because she won’t have to go through the paperwork of holding the kid back; and my colleague is happy because he will earn some extra money. A win-win! (SMH)

    • That’s a pretty strong example of what can go wrong with an idea, isn’t it? Thanks for reading, and as for fogging up my rose-colored glasses, I guess I needed that. I hadn’t run into such a blatant example, but I thought much the same about the practice among (some) teachers of selling extra instruction for a fee on a regular basis. Tutoring, they called it, perfectly normal, “Sometimes students need extra help. Capitalism, right?” A teacher offering to help students after hours for free was seen as foolish at best, and a nuisance to the natural order of things. I remember such dedication and sincerity among so many of my colleagues, that things like that are even more troubling to recall. They were there, though, in the shadows all the time. SMH too.

  3. Another great piece of writing. I do look forward to your insights, you have a way of describing things so the reader easily gets a visual image and a deeper understanding of the subject. Keep up the good work.

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