Category Archives: history

Pinterest or Communism? Glass windows behind an Iron Curtain

The perception of Communism–particularly coming from the US, the global capital of red-baiting–is one of deprivation. Life under Marxist-Leninist command economy is miserable, repressive, defined by scarcity, and above all, drab. Those who could escape forced collectivizations had to deal with the more quotidian, grinding horror of state-enforced tedium.

That’s the message echoed in a title like “The Bleak Banality of Shopping in Communist Europe.” A piece that was recently shared with me by a fellow Amerikanka, the article highlights a new photobook, Window-Shopping through the Iron Curtain, detailing the lives of consumers within the Soviet bloc.

However, looking at the actual photos, it looks less like the hellish drudgery one might expect from Communism’s reputation. Instead of bleak banality, the photos look beautiful, in a very contemporary way. Shopping in Communism looks more like something out of one of Wes Anderson’s wet dreams. Continue reading


Bulgaria: Paint it Wacky

Bulgaria doesn’t make international news very often. For a country of 7.3 million people to show up on the BBC or BuzzFeed, something really remarkable or ridiculous has to happen. In the case of the teal tabby of Varna, it’s the latter.

This green cat has been a big hit on the internet this week. There was speculation that the cat had been painted that color as a cruel prank, but according to locals, it’s more likely that the cat slept in green paint and washed itself green. The guy in the video below says this happened to a cat last year. While we discussed the teal cat with a friend of ours, she told us that 3 dogs in her neighborhood dye themselves blue every year. Evidently things getting painted weird colors is more common than one would think.

This is also true of the last time Bulgaria made the rounds on social media. Last summer, Russia asked Bulgaria to stop vandals from painting over the Monument of the Soviet Army here in Sofia. The monument, which depicts the Red Army surging triumphantly forward, has in recent years been painted to make political and artistic statements. It’s been painted to look like American corporate mascots and comic book heroes, painted the Ukrainian colors after the annexation of Crimea, and painted pink as an apology for Bulgaria’s participation in crushing the Prague spring.

"In step with the times." Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“In Step With The Times.” Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

During the Cold War, Bulgaria was Moscow’s closest satellite. Since The Changes, Bulgaria has forged bonds with the EU and NATO to escape Russia’s orbit. Consequently, their relationship with Russia is contentious–3 days ago, Vladimir Putin told Turkish PM Tayyip Erdoğan that he was “fed up with the Bulgarians.” The Monument has become a site where anonymous Bulgarians can communicate their feelings about this as long as they have paint.

Most of the time, Bulgaria flies under the international media’s radar. However, all it takes is for something to get painted a weird color and you’ll probably hear about it.



Flag Politics & The Balkan Flag-Based Sports Catastrophe

slavic flags

Flags with pan-Slavic-inspired patterns. Top Row: Russia, pan-Slavic flag Middle Row: Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia Bottom Row: Serbia, Czech Republic, Croatia

I love flags. Flags are endlessly fascinating—each one is not only a piece of design work, but carries with it centuries of history. For instance, here in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, many of the flags are similar tricolors of white, blue, and red. Sometimes, they’re exactly like the flag of Russia with different seals on them. These flags all share the same genealogy, laying claim to a shared historical heritage. You can see the same history at work in the flags of many Arab states.

bosnia kosovo flags

Flags of Bosnia & Herzegovina (l) and Kosovo (r)

In the same way that these flags indicate a national kinship, some attest to a willful separation. The flags of Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo share similar design elements, none of which look remotely like the Pan-Slavic colors of the former Yugoslavia. Here, the blue and gold represent an EU future rather than a Balkan past, reflecting the acrimony tied up in their nationhood. If the design elements seem designed by consensus—anodyne white stars, shapes indicating national boundaries—it’s because they essentially were, indicating the external actors like the UN and NATO which led to the original Balkanization.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot of history that goes into making a flag, and around here, a lot of it is painful—and continually contested. Vexillology doesn’t often make the news, but a Balkan sporting event is just the sort of thing to turn a flag into an international incident.

That’s what happened last week, during a football* match in Belgrade. Serbia and Albania were playing a qualifying match for the 2016 European cup when a consumer drone flew over the field carrying an Albanian nationalist banner. A Serbian player grabbed the flag and tried remove it from the field, and all hell broke loose. Continue reading

Bulgaria’s Museum of Socialist Art

IMG_1081Like any post-Soviet country, Bulgaria has a wealth of socialist-realist art left over. Socialist realism is a style of art that’s one of the things most indelibly associated with Communism. Marxism-Leninism would create a proletarian paradise, a world of plenty in which individuals didn’t suffer the alienation that capitalist exploitation. In a world like this, what would be the point of representing something that didn’t exist?

Socialist realism, reacting against the avant-garde trends of styles like Expressionism, sought to glorify this world that workers had created. The fact that the style avoided abstract forms was also an ideological rejection of the “decadent” values of other art. This was art that would speak to all of society, not solely the bourgeois leisure classes, whose domination of the means of production afforded them the time to ruminate about what that cluster of cubes and cones represents. Art that invites one sole interpretation (Like “Youth Meeting at Kilifarevo Village to Send Worker-Peasant Delegation to the USSR”) is also a useful tool to impose uniformity of thought, at least on paper.

Factory worker snaps cameraphone picture

Factory worker snaps cameraphone picture

Since socialist realism was the official state style of the Eastern block, art was the site of a heated Cold War battle. During the Red Scare, American reactionaries decried, hunted, and blacklisted countless artists who possessed even the most tenuous connections to socialism. Concurrently, the CIA was covertly funding modern art through countless government-backed funds and foundations. CIA money brought abstract expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Koonig to the world through a fruitful relationship between the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and America’s clandestine services. Music journalist Adam Krause explains:

Why did abstract expressionism fit the CIA’s needs so well? The CIA’s goal in the Cultural Cold War was not just the denigration of Soviet Communism, but the promotion of the free market as well. Jackson Pollock and the other abstract expressionists were useful for each of these goals. The collectivism glorified by (the often rigid and never abstract) Soviet Socialist Realism could be set in stark opposition to the rugged individualism and “freedom” of these distinctly American abstract expressionists.

A Communist St. George (Bulgaria's patron saint) vanquishes the many-headed chimera of fascist imperialism

A Communist St. George (Bulgaria’s patron saint) vanquishes the many-headed chimera of fascist imperialism

Just as indelibly as rock and roll is associated with America (and later, Britain), the visual signs of socialist realism will be instantly recognizable to those who visit the Museum of Socialist Art. As mandated by the Bulgarian Communist Party, art featured workers manning gargantuan machines in factories and farmers reaping wheat in the fields. The museum’s exhibits are devoted to the September uprising of 1923 (“then defined as the first anti-fascist uprising”), the Second World War, “portraits of the great leaders,” and “various topics, some related to socialist construction – co-operating on the land, the brigadier movement, industrialization.” A legacy of “great leaders,” engineering achievments, and defeating Nazis. Say what you will about the shortcomings of Marxism-Leninism: things were built to last, and they really hated fascists. Continue reading

Never, Again

Do you recognize this badge?


Does it carry any symbolism for you? Does looking at this photo evoke any emotions for you? Do you know where it came from and what it means? Do you have an idea of who wore this inverted brown triangle on their chest, and why?

The brown triangle was the badge worn by Roma prisoners in concentration camps across Europe during World War II. Some Roma wore green or black triangles, identifying them as criminals or social outcasts, instead of brown. Thousands of Roma were slaughtered in Serbia before making it to camps. Others were expelled from Romania and starved to death in a Romanian-controlled section of Ukraine. By the end of the war, virtually the entire Roma population of Croatia was dead.

Of the estimated 23,000 Roma who were expelled to Auschwitz, almost 20,000 died. The infamous doctor Joseph Mengele was particularly fond of Roma children for his experiments. Other concentration camps in Europe held only Roma prisoners, including the Lety camp in what is now the Czech Republic. At the site of the former Lety concentration camp, there is now a pig farm.

No one knows exactly how many Roma were killed in Europe in World War II. Most estimates are in the hundreds of thousands, with some historians claiming over a million were killed.

After the war, a court in Germany ruled that the Nazi persecution of the Roma was not racially motivated, effectively barring Roma Holocaust survivors from receiving reparations. German authorities did not acknowledge the Roma genocide until 1982. To say that discrimination against Roma continues across Europe to this day is to put their current situation in the mildest possible terms. In the US dominant culture, the Roma are alternately ignored or kitsch-ified into obscurity.


a Roma girl who was cataloged for the Nazi’s “Racial Hygiene Research Unit,” photo from National Geographic

I don’t intend for this post to be a comprehensive or authoritative summary of the Porajmos, as the Roma Holocaust is often called. I am by no means an expert on this event, and most of this information I pieced together from sources on the Internet. Rather, I’m reaching out to my small audience, to make a simple acknowledgement that the Porajmos happened.

It wasn’t just one religion or community who was decimated in the Holocaust, it was many. For some groups, particularly the Roma, persecution and denial of existence have remained the status quo.

Patches of many shapes and colors have been sewn onto the breasts of the damned.

Today is the 70th Anniversary commemoration of the Roma Genocide. For more information about how to participate, take a look at this site

Can Azerbaijan Buy Its Way Into Europe?

european orientWhat do you get the leader that has everything? Ilham Aliyev, the President-for-life of Azerbaijan, was lucky enough to inherit his post from his father, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003. The country sits on enormous Caspian Sea oil and natural gas reserves, and in an ostentatious display of autocratic petrostate pride, the world’s tallest flagpole was built in the capital, Baku, in 2010 (It was subsequently edged out by a 10’-taller pole in Dushanbe, Turkmenistan).

However, there’s one thing that could confer legitimacy and a certain je ne sais quoi that Azerbaijan doesn’t yet have—European respectability.

“East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” –Rudyard Kipling

In 2011, Azerbaijan unveiled its new slogan: “European Charm of the Orient.” Replacing the less inviting motto “Land of Flames,” the slogan is part of a PR campaign to project a certain image. One typical tourism video opens with attractive people sitting poolside. A laughing couple races along a coastal highway in their Porsche, on their way to sheep-covered hills which give way to endless forests. The parts with the smiling, telegenic people bring to mind the French Riviera, and the verdant landscape looks like Ireland or Burgundy. The country is emphasizing its European charm, rather than situating itself in that space called the Orient. Besides a brief shot of a Mosque in a panoramic long shot of Baku (and an Azerbaijani rug on TV in a blonde woman’s hotel room), markers of Azerbaijan as “non-European” are conspicuously absent. The video signals to prospective visitors that Azerbaijan is European, like Amalfi or Barcelona; not “Oriental,” like Istanbul or Dubai.

Dividing Europe and Asia are the Caucasus mountains: home to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. All three had been part of the Soviet Union, gaining their independence in the 1990s. Azerbaijan is a republic of 9.5 million people that borders Turkey, Russia, and Iran in addition to its Caucasian neighbors. Azerbaijan is physically located in a boundary space, and it’s trying to decisively mark itself as a member of Europe. The country has been “culturally” non-European; for centuries it’s been represented and described it as an Other.

What it has going for it, in addition to the European charm from the ads, is oil and gas. On Azerbaijan’s official tourism webpage, one of the tabs highlighted by the republic’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism is a page for the Naftalan medical resort. Alongside “national cuisine” and “top 10 reasons to visit Azerbaijan,” the Ministry sells the spa as one of the most compelling reasons to visit the country. The page exhorts you to book a trip to the spa for Naftalan oil treatments, and boasts of the countless health benefits from taking dip in the unique hydrocarbon.  The Caspian is estimated to hold as much as $5 trillion of oil reserves: Azerbaijan has so much oil that one of their main attractions is bathing tourists in it.

In 1998, Dick Cheney, then-CEO of Halliburton, said “I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.” Three years later, Azerbaijan had joined the Council of Europe. Their resources can pay the price of admission, but Azerbaijan is cementing its European aspirations with a grand, multi-billion dollar public relations project. The case of Azerbaijan says a lot about cultural borders, nationhood, and how far money can really take you.

“Europe is a cultural continent, not a geographical one. It is its culture that gives it a common identity. The roots that have formed it…are those of Christianity.” –Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

19th century German map of Europe in 1250 CE

19th century German map of Europe in 1250 CE

Most Americans associate European culture with white people who enjoy day-drinking, fütbol, and techno music. However, for most of its history and today, “Europe” has been used synonymously with “Christendom.” As with all identity, what Europe isn’t is as important as what it is. “Europe and Islam have been considered to be two terms with contrasting historical connotation,” says Dr. Ioannis Grigoriadis, “European and Islamic cultures were juxtaposed, with the borders of Europe contiguous with those of Christianity.” Europe hasn’t just staked its identity on Christianity. Equally important is that it be considered an entity contradistinct from the Muslim world. Continue reading

Alphabet Day: In Praise of Bulgaria’s Letters

A billboard in honor of Alphabet Day.

A billboard in honor of Alphabet Day.

On May 24th, Bulgaria celebrates one of its most impressive and enduring contributions to the world: the Cyrillic alphabet. The enthusiasm is contagious: after only a few weeks here, I was referring to it as the Bulgarian alphabet with the latent pride of the locals. For a plucky country of 9 million worldwide, it’s an impressive accomplishment to have created the script used by 250+ million people. Some big-shot countries in this neighborhood make a big deal  out of adopting alphabets that they didn’t even invent–looking at you, Turkey!

Cyrillic was created by the two handsome guys pictured on the billboard above: Saints Cyril and Methodius. In the 9th century, the two evangelists spread Christianity throughout the Balkans and the Middle East before Cyril created the Glagolithic script. A student of Methodius’s adapted Cyrillic from Glagolithic and Greek, and it caught on because Glagolithic is a beast of an alphabet. Seriously, scholars don’t even know how many characters there are, but they know there are at least 41, and most of them look like secret Hobo glyphs or crop circle patterns.

They managed to narrow the new alphabet down from this less manageable form.

They managed to narrow the new alphabet down from this less manageable form.

Continue reading