Communism in a Song

16.10.2013 § Leave a comment

I have written a bit about the Socialist period in Bulgaria, and there is no doubt that it is the defining political stage in the history of modern Bulgaria. Twenty-five years after its 45-year span ended, we are still divided into “reds” and others, and we are still struggling to “transition” to a free-market economy. While my opinions on the subject will be nothing new to either side, I would like to take a look at the immediate implications of the onset of Communism in Bulgaria through an unlikely source of data.

Emil Dimitrov, whom I have mentioned in the Music section of this blog, wrote a beautiful song called “A Letter to Mom” (“Писмо до мама”) in 1974. In listening to it a few days ago, I realized that it encapsulated so much of the sweeping changes brought forth by Bulgaria’s Communist decades. This song, while being entirely non-political and written as a sentimental ballad honouring one’s mother, offers glimpses at the themes that were current in Bulgarian society in the 1970’s. Here are the lyrics, each stanza followed by my commentary.

A Letter to Mom

O what a bride you must have been, dear mommy
So clean, so sparkling was your father’s yard
When they led you out onto the threshing floor
To link hands with your groom in bridal dance

The threshing floor and the clean yard elicit a picture of an idyllic folk wedding in one of Bulgaria’s many villages. The dance would have been a horó, a line dance that the entire village would eventually join. In this time, presumably before 1944, Bulgaria would have had approximately 1.5 million subsistence farms, each barely large enough to feed a family for a year, and only a small percentage of Bulgarians would have lived in cities. Girls would weave and put together their hope chest starting at the age of ten in order to be as beautiful as they could on their wedding day.

Oh, was it one maiden who your hair
on her threshold, sighing, coveted,
longing like a sheaf of wheat to drape
Such a golden cascade over her beloved.

Another idyllic moment, this time of the many maidens envious of the singer’s mother’s golden, abundant hair. The theme of family and young love is reinforced, as is the agricultural imagery, comparing her locks to a sheaf of wheat. Not only is wheat a symbol of fertility and abundance, it is also on the People’s Republic of Bulgaria’s coat of arms and is an agricultural staple of Bulgaria.

Your golden locks were blinding in the sun
It’s been years and years since then
And with your hair in hand grew up three sons
I, too, played with them in the cradle.

A single mother, raising three children who love her and her hair. Here we also establish the singer himself as a character in the song’s story.

It was one such day when I, the poor village boy
Asked you for high school tuition
And you hid behind the well in the yard
To weep over our poverty in secret

Before 1944, Bulgarians studied until grade 7 for free, but high schools were rare, found only in larger towns and cities, and often requiring significant tuition. Most farmers and villagers, the impoverished 90% of Bulgarian society, could not afford to send their children to school. The opportunity for education and leaving one’s village was extremely rare. In 1941, my paternal grandfather was lucky enough to have a well-off godmother, who gave him the money to enrol and supported him throughout his studies.

I saw you in the morning, stooped, pitiful and sad,
Your hair was shorn, your eyes were puffy,
I made some money, you hugged me as you said,
Take them, son, go to school, and study.

The climax of the song has the self-sacrificing mother cutting off her golden hair, the central image of her goodness and past happiness, and presumably selling it to a wig maker to send her son to high school. There is an eerie parallel between this moment to modern day Bulgaria, where posters like this one reading “We buy hair! Over 40 cm.” can be seen in every major city. I hope that, 70 years later, we are not returning to a time when such sacrifices are necessary.

hair

Now the times are different, as is the world
I grew up, educated, look at me now
The good people shake my hand with love
And the enemy hates me, fears me so.

This stanza says a lot about the changes brought on by Communism, as alluded to by the different times and the different world. In the 40’s and 50’s, the state nationalized all the arable land and consolidated agriculture into machine-assisted, state-run cooperatives that could be run by fewer farmers while yielding more. This enabled more people to leave their villages and work other jobs besides survival agriculture.

As an aside, to realize and supervise its other construction projects, factories and the dream of universal free health care, the state needed an educated workforce: engineers, doctors, postal workers, teachers. So, they invested heavily in education and abolished tuition fees entirely, opening more high schools and making university entrance based solely on merit. My other grandfather, who is only 6 years younger than my dad’s father, started high school in 1947, when it was already much more affordable.

The state greatly encouraged mass education, which was reflected in the societal values of the time. Notice the kind of person the singer has become in the last two lines thanks to having been educated: well respected and recognized by the good citizens of Communist haven Bulgaria, while also well-known, hated, and feared by the enemy. “The enemy” was a common epithet that applied to any person or entity that threatened the continued survival of the Communist state, and there was a massive straw man campaign to indoctrinate the population into fearing the other side. This is not unique to the USSR and its satellites, of course, as the success of the American propaganda machine against Communism was so complete that talk of socialized health care or any government control over a disastrous, tailspinning economy are immediately dismissed as anti-American and Commie almost 30 years after the end of the Cold War.

It may be hard, but I will make it, mommy
How could I not, the son you bore
When, like an enormous debt before me,
Lie my mother’s sold off golden locks.

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