Culture and community development in Bulgaria

NOTE: This post introduces the new episode of the podcast, “A Culture of Possibility’, available on 21 October 2022. You can find it and all episodes at StitcheriTunes, and wherever you get your podcasts, along with’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts. 

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Arlene Goldbard introduces ‘A Culture of Possibility’, episode 22

Yuriy and François are old friends, having worked together over the years. (Here’s some really interesting documentation of their engagement in the Living Heritage Project 20 years ago.) Speaking on a late September day, we couldn’t help be aware of the weight of history affecting community-based cultural work, not only history past, but the events unfolding in Ukraine and our hope, however sometimes slim, of learning from collective experience. 

Speaking from Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, Yuriy said that “since we heard in the news that Russia started its mobilization—Bulgaria is a neighbor of Russia, at least by the Black Sea—we are preparing in a scary way for things that could affect us very, very directly.” We asked him to provide listeners with some current context for understanding Bulgaria. 

There are three particular things that I think it’s quite important to know before talking about the community arts and cultural democracy in Bulgaria,” Yuriy told us. “First The Bulgarian population has a really big problem with poverty. According to the definition of the European Commission, people at risk of poverty and social exclusion are 32% of the population. This is much higher than the average for the EU, 21.7%. It doesn’t mean that these people are under the poverty line, but they’re at risk of poverty. When you look on a regional level, one region in Bulgaria, the North West, is the poorest region in Europe. This is an important thing. It is connected with inequality. 

“When you look the Gini index (the World Bank’s poverty and inequality platform), you will see that inequality is becoming bigger and bigger in Bulgaria. And this is one of the biggest failures of the European Union cohesion policy for Bulgaria. The idea was that all of the regions will become stronger and less poor. But what happened after billions in European money was invested in Bulgaria is that the capital and certain cities are richer than before, and some regions are poorer. 

“The third thing, which is very important, is demographic crisis, a problem for all of the European Union countries: more aging, fewer children. But in Eastern Europe, and especially in Bulgaria, it’s really impressive. I am absolutely pro-European Union. But one of the things that we discover is that once you’re part of this bigger community, where salaries are much higher in other parts, it is really devastating for rural areas. A lot of people just went to work in Germany and in Spain, before that in Greece, in the UK, etc. So the combination of demographic crisis, poverty, and inequality creates a lot of tensions in the society. Some of them are hidden. But all of them affect the topics that we’ll discuss.”

François recalled first working in the region 20 years ago. “This was the end of the first decade after the fall of Communism. So these were societies that were still undergoing enormous change. Two things that that struck me come back to my mind in terms of what you’ve just said. I saw for the first time that in the same continent, in my home in Europe, there were people who were living at a different time. I’m thinking particularly in Transylvania and Moldova in Romania, I was visiting and working with people who were living by subsistence farming. They had one cow that they would graze on common ground. They were almost living without money. When I was invited into their home, the only thing that spoke of the 20th century would be a television. I had this sense of how possible it is for people to be living at the same time, but in a different time.” 

“I also saw the exodus. In Romania, I saw very nice houses built with the money from migrant work. So the money was coming back and people would come back in in the summer and work on their houses. There’d be a three story house made of brick with balconies in a village where the rest of the houses were wood. At night I vividly remember seeing the only light was one old lady sitting in one room watching the television, because all of the rest of the family was working away.”

This episode will give you a glimpse of the challenge of cultural development in the midst of such contradictions, from someone who’s occupied many critically important roles. Yuriy got involved in cultural activism in college, worked for a civic initiatives foundation that supported small community organizations, as in independent consultant and expert in cultural policy and cultural research. as a university professor in Sofia, for a Swedish foundation called Reach for Change incubating social entrepreneurs, as deputy minister of culture for Bulgaria—at which point the government collapsed, leaving him to consider his next move. 

For both François and Yuriy, the Living Heritage project was formative. “I think one of the most important things was learning to listen carefully,” said Yuriy. He told a great story about working in the small village of Ivanovo in northeast Bulgaria, home to medieval churches hewn from solid rock which have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site

Ivanovo group in the Chitalishte with mural and map of the old village (2003)

“We asked the people of Ivanovo what is important for them, what is their heritage. They first mentioned the churches, of course, because that is prestigious. But then they returned to something much closer to them—historically, but also emotionally and personally. That’s the story of moving the whole village next to the railway several decades earlier. But they still had very vivid memories. One of the things which was very impressive for me was that the people who used to live next to each other in the old village now have a special relationships even if they’re living in the different parts of the village in the new place. So the whole project was about the old village. Living heritage is about how people value their caring.” In the episode, Yuriy and François explain the fascinating details behind the Ivanovo story, well worth hearing.

One of the most interesting Bulgarian cultural developments are the Chitalishte, a uniquely Bulgarian form of community cultural center. With a population of only six million, the country is home to 3,700 Chitalishte receiving substantial state funding! 

Yuriy explained that “in almost all of the post-Soviet or post-Communist countries, there are so-called Houses of Culture. You can see them in Romania, you can see them in Moldova, or in Macedonia, or even something similar in Mongolia. These Houses of Culture were created by the Soviet authorities and the Communist authorities in different countries in order to decentralize culture. It was intentional cultural policy to reach every single village and place. Bulgaria was the only country that had these before Communism—before even the Bulgarian state existed, when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire.” In other countries, centers are created by government; in Bulgaria, they are independent civil society organizations. 

Tune in to hear Yuriy’s nuanced account of the challenges and opportunities the Chitalishte present; what they might say about participation in general; and Yuriy’s own ideas of how to understand and work with this network. There’s also a provocative discussion of funding, the impact of small grants as well as large, focusing on a problem many listeners don’t have: what to do if funding is generous but policy misguided? We hope you enjoy it!  

Members of a Chitalishte in outer Sofia (2004)

Roberto Fonseca & New Bulgarian Voices – Live at Jazz in Marciac 2021

One comment

  1. Thank you Francois, My partner and I have a small property in a village called Hotnitsa in North East Bulgaria and if you have any cultural connections in Veliko Tarnovo or thereabouts and could pass them on that would be very helpful and useful to us as we are trying to find locals interested in community development. Your piece was really interesting, thank you for it, and yes we have a Chistalitse in our village which we aim to use somehow going forward. Very best wishes, Richard ________________________________

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