Thursday, 24 May 2012

Bulgaria 1962

The communist party HQ and Government building in Sofia
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In 1962 a group of Young Friends (Quakers) from Cambridge visited Bulgaria – a communist country which in those days was difficult to access.  We wanted to visit this little known place, often presented in hostile terms in our press, and try to create friendly ties with Bulgarians.

The background
In 1959, at the Vienna Youth Festival some Young Friends met representatives of the Dimitrov Young Communists League (of Bulgaria).and discussed exchanges.  In 1961 Jana and Vladimir from Bulgaria met Quakers in Cambridge, and suggested a British tourist visit to Bulgaria. This invitation was taken up in 1962 and two groups of some 9 young Friends (mostly from Cambridge) were organised..

As visits to Bulgaria were unusual several of us visited the British Foreign Office to explain what we were up to - our plans and our intentions. We were asked to return after our trip and say how we had fared.

Our application for visas was granted and we prepared to go.

The money
For some reason, as I was the only mathematician on either trip, I was asked to look after the finances – Why?  Mathematicians are hopeless at adding up – at primary school I was always last remembering my tables – and any thought or possible understanding of double entry book-keeping was way in the future. But I looked after the money!

We were students, and as such not very wealthy.  We managed, with help from some parents, to buy a fairly old dormobile, and one of our members had a small Austin car. To seek funding I made contact with many Quaker groups - the Cadbury’s were particularly helpful.  I still have hand written letters of support from many organisations - some providing funds, some unable. My notes remind me:  The  Edward Cadbury Charitable trust £25, Friends E-W Relations committee (the Mertens Trust) £50, Young Friends Central Committee £30,  Barrow Cadbury Fund Ltd  £80, Charles Cadbury £80

It may not sound a lot now, but then it was real money!!

Then the fun started.
I travelled with the first group of 9. Also in this group was John who toured Greece with me in 1961.  He has provided many of the photos which follow, and as a classicist and then Russian studies scholar has provided a lot of the background information.

We drove across Europe, camping as we went.  We picked up Hui Ying in Munich and then set off across Yugoslavia.  I had viewed Yugoslavia from the train in 1961 (Greece1961), but this was the first time I had driven the roads.

The name Yugoslavia is derived from the ‘Land of the South Slavs’.  It wasn't used as the name of the country until 1918, but there had been Yugoslav movements as early as the 1840s. 

First we crossed the, apparently endless, flat plains of the Sava valley between Zagreb and Belgrade. Here the campsites were  rudimentary.  After several hours of heavy rain I remember one camp helper looking at a muddy bit of field saying (in German – we didn’t do Yugoslav) – “die schöne camp platz” – we were less than convinced.

Thereafter, we followed the much prettier Morava valley upstream from Belgrade to Niš - noting the growing plums soon to be made into slivovitz!

The final part of the road from Niš into Bulgaria was seriously difficult.  There had been bitter rivalry between Bulgaria and Serbia for many years. In Serbia the Yugoslav movement was politically expansionist, and the ruling elite thought it had a mission to unite the Slavic speakers of the Balkans.  They were not amused when another South Slav state, Bulgaria, was set up in 1878.  So communications between the two were not a priority - the result was a road with little tarmac and riddled with deep pot holes.

Eventually we crossed into Bulgaria and made our way to Sofia.  Where we set up camp, relaxed and recovered from the journey:

Lan Ying washing her hair with some Bulgarian friends looking on (and Hui Ying kneeling at her tent beyond).  The sisters Hui Ying and Lan Ying were brought up in China by English missionary parents. They also had more conventional names - Eleanore and Elizabeth - but we preferred the Chinese

Then we began to explore Sofia:
Another view of the communist party HQ
Then on to the Dimitrov mausoleum


Georgi Dimitrov was born in Bulgaria in 1882.  He was a radical and then a communist revolutionary who, having failed to depose Aleksandar Tsankov in 1923 escaped to the USSR.  Later he was one of the communist exiles who made their name when they were charged and then tried for setting fire to the Reichstag in early 1933.  Stalin liked what he saw of Dimitrov on trial, and organised a prisoner exchange with the Nazis;  Dimitrov, now in the USSR, was made Secretary-General of the Comintern, and after that was a ‘natural’ for head of the Bulgarian Communist Party in1945.

On we went: The Sofia Parliament

The Square of the National Assembly (with Alexander Nevski cathedral behind)

Alexander Stamboliiski, Agrarian Party, Prime Minister 1919-June 1923

He was murdered in a military coup in 1923.  He was a self-confessed ‘Yugoslav’.  There were no more left-wing regimes until 1945, and this statue was probably put up after the war as there were not many ‘progressive’ regimes in Bulgaria's past that the communists wanted to commemorate

Then Ruski Boulevad with the poster advertising the ‘Day of the Construction Worker’.

Notice how few cars.  No doubt different today, but then our dormobile was a rare and not terribly elegant sight

Dimitrov Young Communist League (DYCL)
We had brought with us letters of invitation from Young Friends Central Committee for a group of young Bulgarians to visit England in 1963. 

So we started to meet members of the DYCL.  These began by discussing mundane matters such as the cheapest places we could visit in Bulgaria – ranging from 2 to 3 leva per day (in those days there were 3.29 leva per £, now it is 2.35).  But we did get some nice plum brandy and chocolates!

At the second meeting they suggested that we should visit Primorsko on the Black Sea – a place where young communists let their hair down!  This we accepted.

The third meeting made little progress in setting up future exchanges.  They said we would have to wait until December.  They did sound impressed when we said that groups of Russians had visited Quakers in England.

So that left us sightseeing in Sofia - which was great   There were of course many buildings pre-dating the  communist takeover showing, amogst other things, the diversity of religions;

The Alexander Nevski Cathedral
The Sunday service in Alexander Nevski was mostly attended by older people or those (myself included) coming to listen to the superb singing.  It lasted all morning and at any time there must have been 200 people – continually moving in and out.

The Russian Orthodox church:

The mosque:

We met many young Bulgarians, mostly students reading English at the university..  Here is Hui Ying (on the left) with Malvina, Elena and Lena

and I went with Violetta to a concert in Sofia which included Schubert’s Unfinished symphony.
I still have the programme , and I believe the tickets were provided by the DYCL. I thought we also saw a performance of La Traviata, but I suspect that over the years I may be muddling up that opera’s heroine and my companion!
Days out
One day we drove to Rila monastery which is about 30km south of Sofia.  First we had a picnic in the hills behind:with some of our Bulgarian friends

Then we went on to the monastery itself. We were told that this was where Christianity was preserved under the Ottomans.

and inside

and here is Hui Ying in the hills above Rila

The rest of Bulgaria 
After a week in Sofia we started to tour the rest of Bulgaria.  We made our way east towards the Black Sea.  The first objective was Tŭrnovo.

First on the road due east of Sofia we passed near Zlatitsa:

From there we went along the famed Valley of the Roses, and  passed this Orthodox Church:

Sadly I have no notes to tell me where it is

Then we went on to Tŭrnovo where we spent a few days.  This on an amazing loop on the Yantra River and, because of its natural defences, was the medieval capital from the 12th to 14th centuries.

It has complicated steep streets of houses.

We camped outside Turnovo on this site with its splendid view

Whilst in Tŭrnovo we met a group of Czech opera singers. On a hot day here is one of them with Hui Ying and Peter (behind) buying ice cream,.

and here are four of them with David and some children in front of our minibus

They were anxious to talk about serial (twelve note) music which in those days was not approved in the Eastern bloc.  For my part although I knew of Janacek’s music, it was still relatively rarely performed in England.  So we exchanged addresses and promised to exchange records.  When I got back to Cambridge I sent them records of (as I recollect) the Berg Violin Concerto, Schoenberg and Webern.  They in turn sent me several Janacek records – which I still have along with their letters.

Before leaving Turnovo - a picture John took of Hui Ying and a friendly sunflower:

Then on to Nesebur (or Nesebar) on the Black Sea.  The old town is built on an island approached by a (man made) isthmus:

and it has a small port. 

Now a popular tourist attraction, but then a quiet and dreamy place.

Then me moved on to:

Primorsko Young Communists camp on the Black Sea
The central restaurant and reception building

and the sands, the beach, and the sea

Most visitors were East Germans and Poles, with a few Czechs and Hungarians

There was a Neptune Fest on first night, where we were positioned at the front as special guests.  All stood to sing the “Song of International Youth” Splendid evening watching the Poles letting their hair down.

John made friends with a group of East Germans who went on about the dangers of West German militarism, but were surprised to find that National Service had ceased in the UK.  Several had no illusions about their regime – particularly the disasters of collectivisation.  The exodus of East Germans to the West through Berlin to avoid collectivisation was one of the factors which had lead to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

At this point as we were near to Turkey, some of the group, including John, went on in the car to Istanbul.  Although not really part of this blog, here are some pictures he took of Istanbul.

First the Blue Mosque:

then the view across the Bosporus, close to its narrowest point, towards Asia

and one looking north from Rumeli Husar:

The rest of us returned in the dormobile to Sofia

There we had our fourth meeting with DYCL. They were more interested in hearing about our views of Bulgaria than talking about reciprocal arrangements. They made one or two evasive comments about it’s a long way to England etc.

So we left further progress as a task for the second trip.  They in turn didn’t get a commitment but were told, as we were, that decisions would be made later.

Those on the first trip made our way, in our beloved dormobile, back across Yugoslavia, to Germany.  Then we had a wonderful trip across Germany up the Romantische Strasse. To this day I remember the name Tilman Riemenschneider for his marvellous wood carvings in churches at Rothenburg, Würzburg, Creglinen, and no doubt many more.

But back to the blog:

So what were our views of Bulgaria?
I loved the place and the people. They were part of a communist regime on the other side of a curtain.  Most on our side of this Iron Curtain thought those states to be oppressive. I found them friendly, talkative, and colourful.  They were able to see the murky bits of their past (as we did of ours) but still they were loyal.  With all these years of hindsight, glasnost etc   – you might think ‘well of course’ - but then it was a revelation.  I also thought that their Marxism had quite a friendly face. Undoubtedly there were things I didn't see.

So what happened?
Eventually they did agree to further exchanges with Young Friends.  In 1963 a group of Bulgarians came to England and many of us who were in Bulgaria in 1962 escorted them around England, showing them tourist spots - I remember Stratford-on-Avon well, and we talked about our relations with Bulgaria. A third group of English students went to Bulgaria. 

It had been very worthwhile, and I hope that at least some barriers were broken down.  But now, our university lives were drawing to a close, we all had new lives to live and Young Friends are not a tourist agency!

1 comment:

  1. Hello super photos! Do you have more Istanbul photos from 1962 ? I'd like to see !