Escape from Bulgaria

September 16, 2012

I come across a lot of people in my foriegn travels. On one such trip I was sitting in the cramped economy section of a Lufthansa flight over the Atlantic. That’s where I met Victor, my Bulgarian buddy, seated next to me. But I shouldn’t complain about the uncomfortable seats as he was suffering from gout.

Victor lived the first 30 years of his life behind the old Soviet iron curtain. Last night Victor and his wife came to our house for a dinner party. For the first time he told me the story of his escape to freedom and the West. For readers younger than 40 it may be hard to imagine a time when billions of people lived under red communism with the hammer and sickle symbol and 100% government control. For those of us who do remember, it is painful to hear some American politicians use the old terms of “shared sacrifice,” “redistributing wealth,” and other terms that remind us of the lie of the collectivist utopia. No other governmental system in the world has resulted in more death and destruction than what was brought about by this atheist-inspired humanist ideology. Unfortunately, some people will always be swayed by politicians promising a utopia by taking or taxing from those who produce (the 1%) and giving to the unfortunate who have been taken advantage of (99%). The end of this system has always been the same; all 99% lose their freedom and are confined to uniform poverty. The new 1% turns out to be an unproductive ruling crony elite instead of a productive innovative 1%. There has always been a 1%, there will always be a 1%. Victor is a dear flaming anti-communist and my comrade.

Victor had a pretty good job by communist standards. He worked on the maintenance staff at an international hotel (now a Sheraton) in Sophia called Hotel Balkan. In this position he met Nikita Khrushchev leader of the Soviet Union, Sukarno leader of Indonesia, and Ho Chi Minh leader of North Vietnam. Victor told me about how sick Ho Chi Minh was when he visited and that some type of jello was all he was eating. A minute later he told about how the hotel staff pilfered booze every time one of these famous dignitaries visited. He said they hid the booze in a old boxes of light bulbs and buried in it a sand bed beneath the hotel’s huge fuse box.

It’s hard to really grasp how oppressive a government can become, but Victor did a good job of describing the mind control in the Eastern Bloc. He mentioned a time when he was in a theater and a short propaganda film was played before the main film. The film showed Khrushchev, a short man, in a wheat field up to his chest in wheat. Victor’s friend made a public joke about how Khrushchev must be crawling. The film was stopped. The lights turned on. And everyone in the theater including Victor and his friend feigning ignorance turned around to see who made the comment.

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The penalty for a critical comment was often a one-way trip to a work camp.

Victor’s escape to freedom started a little by happenstance. Victor received only 2 weeks of vacation per year in the Karl Marx workers’ paradise. He could accrue up to 4 weeks total. Victor liked to save up 4 weeks of vacation and take a month off every other year. Then came the rule change. The Bulgarian communist government decided that vacation must be taken each year – no more accrual. This meant that Victor was already over his vacation allotment. It was late fall or early winter, not exactly the time to head out on a vacation.

As Victor thought over his options he decided to take the time off by visiting his girlfriend in Poland. He applied for a visa but was rejected. As is so often the case in heavily controlled societies, the way to get things done is by having the right connections. Victor describes a woman friend who knew the boss of the passport official. She got the proper papers with the right signatures and soon his passport was in hand. He would use this woman again later in the escape.

With passport in hand Victor began to consider an idea. He began to think about a new adventure and escape across the Iron Curtain through Tito’s Yugoslavia. The train he would take to Poland went through Yugoslavia. Successful escapes take time, money, and planning – so Victor was not hasty. Victor described how he placed money in hidden locations under stairs in Yugoslavian cities to aid him on his eventual escape. One of his close friends found out about his careful planning and demanded to escape with him. This added to the complexity of the escape as now two sets of papers had to be acquired. But Victor had no choice but to accept the man’s proposal.

The next summer the two would be escapees set off to visit Poland. This time Victor said goodbye to many of his friends and family knowing that in most cases this was the final goodbye. It was unclear to me if the escape attempt occurred on the way to Poland or coming back from Poland. Either way, the date of escape was careful selected.

We know the date very well. It was June 8, 1968. Europeans love soccer. Yugoslavia was playing Italy for the European Championship. Youtube videos of the match are on the web. Victor figured correctly (perhaps too correctly as we will see later) that the guards would not be paying attention to the heavily guarded border while the match was being broadcast on the radio and TV. he crossing location was selected at Sezana which is only 2 miles from the Italian boarder very near Trieste, Italy. The land around Sezana is ideal for escapees. There are plenty of trees to block the view but not so thickly forested to prevent fast movement.

The escape went smoothly. The first Italian to meet Victor was a boy. The boy headed off to get someone in authority. When the police officer arrived, Victor told him with limited English that he wanted political asylum. The officer took Victor and his fellow escapee down to a local bar and told them to have a cola and wait because the game was on and the score was tied 1-1. Victor waited for 90 minutes. Figuring the match had to be over, Victor headed out to find the officer, which he did. The officer was apologetic because he had forgot about Victor in all the excitement. The officer contacted a carabinieri or “Italian military police officer” who then took control of the two escapees and once again dropped them off, this time at a coffee shop for 2 hours. Victor said he was trying to figure out what kind of political mind game the Italians using on him. Was this abandonment some sort of set up where they could criminally charge him? Was this kindness an effort to soften him up before the interrogation?

The carabinieri eventually showed up and Victor and his fellow escapee were sent to a camp for asylum seekers. At the camp, Victor speaks with genuine admiration for the camp counselor who assisted those granted asylum. The counselor apparently got to know Victor because he said “Somebody like you doesn’t want to go to Germany, too strict. You need to go to America”. And so, Victor came to America and settled in San Francisco.

Some other time, I’ll have to write about the other Bulgarian I encountered on a flight – still a communist and still bitter about the end of communism in Eastern Europe. I tried to kindly help him but to no avail. He was quite friendly and ripping on America for not giving the Soviet Union basically all the credit for destroying the Nazi regime. When I pointed out that Operation Torch and Stalingrad occurred nearly at the same time and both were great victories, he didn’t like that much. This fellow was buying used medical equipment and exporting it to Africa under government contract.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain in late 1989, Bulgaria began the march toward freedom. Ironically, even though the communists had been such oppressors they still won the first open and free election. It often takes awhile for people to embrace change, even change they have yearned for. Change is scary. Today, Bulgaria has a free economy and a center-right government with an economy that has done quite well since 2001.

A few years ago, I really enjoyed sitting at a Pizza shop outside in sunny Sophia. I marveled at being there as I never dreamed I would ever be allowed to travel behind the Iron Curtain. Sophia is now an old style European city in the process of cleaning itself up after decades of communist neglect and what a beautiful city it is becoming.

Next: Setting up shop in an old Soviet missile factory in the Ukraine.

John McDonald


One Response to Escape from Bulgaria

  1. on September 16, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    Great story.
    I love America my land
    Need I to fear little about mhvillages though
    hidden behind the keyaboard; I have freedom still
    The land of the free I trust to protect my free speech
    form the ruthless thugs of mhvillages that trash my house
    Stopped me from my free speetch;
    Mhreporter gave me a space to tell the truth.

    Can We have this great people who value the value of freedom to run for our MHCSD board.

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