A book on the Bulgarian gulag contained some stark revelations. I was prepared to be immersed in sadism but even so … The author said in his introduction that Solzhenitsyn’s account of Soviet labour camps in The Gulag Archipelago was tame compared to what he had endured in post-war Bulgaria at Belene camp. And he promptly proved his point. Suspects forced to stand for days on end, deprived of sleep, lamps shone in their faces, punishment beatings so severe at the hands of state security that an inmate’s spine is broken and he becomes – as it were – a reptile crawling on the ground.
WHAT BRITAIN KNEW
A confidential UK Foreign Office memorandum from 1954 proves that the British authorities knew of the inhuman conditions in what it describes as “Bulgarian concentration camps”.http://www.vagabond.bg/politics/item/1390-the-bulgarian-gulag.html
Several key points emerged from the book. One was the absence of any trial or process for those so condemned. Just failing to weep conspicuously enough at Georgi Dimitrov’s funeral in 1950 was sufficient for a trip to Belene for ‘rehabilitation’. Hence the population of the camps swelled immediately after his death. The author also recalls that most dissident intellectuals refused to believe that Soviet/Communist domination of Eastern Europe would last more than five years at most. Significantly, the author cites appeasement by the West – and in particular by the British Labour Party – as one factor upholding the Communist regime. And it’s true, when you look back, it was only with Thatcher’s ascent that the British establishment really denounced Eastern European socialism.
The other, more practical point, was that all regimes, no matter how barbaric, tend to dig in unless they are challenged within a couple of years. The people pine for stability and so put up with scant rewards. Moral of story? Strike while the torturer’s iron is still hot if you will forgive the pun.
The writer states that the head of the camp once ‘consoled’ inmates with the thought that, ultimately, the regime intended all Bulgarians to spend time at Belene to undergo ‘rehabilitation’. So, in reality, there was a tacit admission that all those who passed through were not, in fact, wrongdoers but rather like children attending school to be ‘educated’ and also – and this is a key point – an endless source of unpaid slave labour for the regime. A click of the fingers and strong men are sent to do heavy work. No need to worry about payment.
The author’s take on his captors’ psychology was also illuminating. Unlike the Nazis, the writer posits, who perhaps deep down realised that persecuting or gassing people for a mere accident of birth had no moral justification, the Communists believed that they were somehow doing ‘good’. When you look at the durability of regimes in Cuba and North Korea you get my drift.
The author was only released when a bad case of scabies had the authorities fretting that he would infect the animals at Belene. Animals, you see, were more valued than humans. He wrote his story in 1984 when the regime was still very much intact. He had no idea when his words would reach readers. Thankfully, he lived to see the fall of Communism. But it will probably be another 50 years before Bulgaria’s standard of living is remotely on a par with the rest of Europe.
His final words were poignant. Presumably writing of the torture camps, he says. “It is over, isn’t it?” Depends where you look.
(Gabriel Hershman is writing a biography of Albert Finney to be published by The History Press in January 2017.)