The hours after midnight tread by unheeded in this journey through another era, another dimension in which the language of the universe is the tortured terminology of communism; across the years, the sycophantic laughter sounds; Politburo heads nod again in acquiescence; the interpreters and stenographers play their roles in this world of secrets never meant for eyes such as mine or yours.
This week, Bulgaria’s State Archives posted online the minutes and decisions of the Politburo of the Bulgarian Communist Party from 1944 to 1989. The pages run into the many thousands, sorted by the years, and the pages of the website are accompanied by a helpful timeline of world events and some biographical notes on key players. There is a gallery of 396 images, putting faces to some of the names.
Such was public interest that almost immediately after the material went online, the site became inaccessible, the weight of many fingers on keyboards returning the Politburo – temporarily and unintentionally – to a secret space.
For the historian and the journalist, or for those who have various reasons to read what was so hermetically hidden from public view, the posting online of these documents is not the first opportunity to gain insights into that era. However, it adds multiples of volume to the opportunity.
Much significant material already has seen the light of day. There is the Cold War History Project, by the Wilson Center.
I have spent many hours on that site, focusing specifically on Bulgaria. Some of the documents have been translated into English, others remain solely in their original Bulgarian, scanned as pdfs.
All documents are from Bulgarian archives (the Archive of the Ministry of the Interior, Sofia; Central State Archive, Sofia; Ministry of National Defence, Intelligence Department, Bulgaria; Archive of the Bulgarian Communist Party; Archive of the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Central Military Archive, Veliko Turnovo) and most of them discuss Bulgarian foreign policy.
There are the conversations between Bulgaria’s long-standing communist dictator Todor Zhivkov and Brezhnev; with Gaddafi; with Nixon. There are reports on work by and against foreign intelligence agencies. Zhivkov sits down with Fidel Castro and is given an exhaustively detailed account of the fighting in Angola. From Robert Mugabe, Zhivkov hears, in 1979, the tyrant-to-be’s narrative of the struggle in Zimbabwe. I made it all the way through the vulgar, meandering and frequently bizarre (and certainly lengthy) speech made by Kruschev at the Euxinograd Palace near Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Varna in 1962. (Again, cue sycophantic laughter.) Zhivkov sits down with a previous Papandreou; inevitably, the subject of a previous Yugoslav Macedonia comes up.
There are letters about “acquired materials” from various embassies, including those of the United States and Italy. There are requests for co-operation from the Stasi and from the KGB about operations to be conducted on the territory of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.
To the Cold War History Project’s sterling work may be added what has been achieved so far by Bulgaria’s own Dossier Commission, empowered by Parliament in 2006 to research and disclose the identities of people in various fields of contemporary public life who previously were agents or collaborators with communist-era State Security or military intelligence. My colleagues and I have reported such disclosures many times (even though they seldom have any real impact on the careers of those thus identified; just last Sunday, Agent Dimitar returned to television screens on a Bulgarian channel with a weekly talk show).
Unfortunately, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, there will always be the “unknown unknowns”. Just recently, I again watched footage of the burning of the Party House in Sofia in August 1990. (The Institute for the Study of the Recent Past has material on this.)
A documentary on public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television has explored the theory that the burning may have been less the work of public resentment than the exploitation of the moment by people who wanted records destroyed. There are glimpses of men with jerry cans and an apparent sense of purpose on the scene. Up in flames went some unknown unknowns.
And so to the Politburo records. I clicked at random, on a document from December 1979, and found myself reading a decision on donating 146 180 leva to Zapu, 240 902 to Swapo and 108 900 to the African National Congress. Material support for Swapo and the ANC, courtesy of Bulgaria’s arms manufacturer Kintex, was to be delivered by sea to the Angolan port of Luanda. Just so recently, about a fortnight ago, Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Sergei Stanishev was in Cape Town for a Socialist International Event; his host, South African president Jacob Zuma of the ruling ANC, thanked him for the solidarity shown by the BSP’s predecessor in the ANC’s struggle. Stanishev, of course, had no part in that 1979 grant; at the time, he was 13. The same year, Zuma, then 37, was in exile in Mozambique.
Back to Bulgaria. The Zhivkov regime approves a billion dollar loan for Saddam Hussein; Libya’s Gaddafi gets 1.6 billion. The latter is fascinating, especially given the various conversations involving Zhivkov over the years in which there is a strong ambivalence about the policies of the Brother Leader, including in relation to Zhivkov’s pal, the previous Assad who then was in charge of Syria.
The Bulgarian-language media, on the day that the Politburo archives went public, focused – understandably – on a key theme from what was to be the endgame of the Zhivkov era. In relation to Decree 56, Zhivkov makes it clear that he wants the leadership of newly-established companies to be in the hands of “our own responsible comrades”.
State Archives head Martin Ivanov pointed out that this decree was a prelude to the period after 1989 which saw the rise of Multigroup and First Private Bank. (For more on the rise of dubious businesses in Bulgaria in the immediate post-communist era, see the relevant sections in Misha Glenny’s book McMafia.)
In other words, such documents are a pointer to the era of the “red briefcases”, as some Bulgarians speak of the time, of money funnelled out of state coffers and into private hands. A pointer to the time of alleged links between State Security and some of those who made it big in the chaotic times after Zhivkov’s fall, the days of the credit millionaires – a connection, as The Sofia Globe so recently reported, that is currently being worked on by the same Dossier Commission. Parliament is yet to complete approval of the legislative amendments that will enable the Commission to name names publicly.
I am sure that many were like me, that in opening the archives site, first clicked on the drop-down menu of секретни документи. There is the mundane; a December 1983 decision agreeing to a visit to Bulgaria by the foreign minister of Cuba and member of the Politburo of the communist party of Cuba, Ramiro Menendez. Bulgarian media highlighted that the Politburo devoted some time to a detailed discussion of the price of women’s stockings – in itself, evidence of a controlling state. Further back, in 1948, there is Decision Number Two, on the granting of five million leva “for more decent household furnishings for Politburo members”. Are you all sitting comfortably? The vanguard of the proletariat was.
Meandering through history in this way will always be fascinating and frustrating. The picture will always be incomplete. Let alone documents which have been destroyed, time and again in reading some of the records of conversations, I could not help but wonder to what extent they had been redacted at the time. Before being stowed away, had any been revised, some loose talk edited out? We cannot know whether any Ministry of Truth work had been going on. Were we able to access the equivalent memoranda from the regimes from which Zhivkov’s interlocutors came – Cuba, Gaddafi’s Libya, most of all the Soviet Union – the picture would be fuller.
In reading hitherto secret documents, not all animals are equal. There is a difference between material released under various countries’ freedom of information legislation (sometimes lavishly paved with thick black marker ink), in reading material released by people with no brief for the previous owners (records from the Nazis, for instance) and which therefore tends to be free from Bowdlerism, and cables posted via Wikileaks – and even the latter have not released, deciding by their own lights, everything they have laid their hands on.
It was in this year 2012 that Bulgaria’s President Rossen Plevneliev – who, unlike his predecessor, has no State Security dossier – proposed during a conversation with his German counterpart Joachim Gauck that a Museum of State Security be set up.
The project, according to the State Archives’ Ivanov, would cost about 1.75 million leva. Is the game worth the candle? Probably, yes – especially if you believe that the history of Bulgaria is incomplete if all that is highlighted are Thracian tombs, venerable monasteries and those much-spoken-of 500 years of Ottoman rule.
That luxury black German car that just sped past you on the new highway, that seaside hotel, that business empire with its shiny buildings, may have the antecedents of its funding somewhere in a Politburo or State Security document – if recorded in writing, if it escaped fire or theft. To paraphrase Michael Caine, many people would want to know that.