Ah, Bulgaria, where everything is a bit mixed up. In fact, the word "Bulgarian" is said to derive from a Turkic verb meaning "to mix." This reflects it's geographic position as a crossroads between east and west, north and south. Even the three lions on the Coat of Arms represent are prosaic. There have never been lions in Bulgaria, but the currency, the lev, is named after them and there are statues of lions everywhere.
The Bulgarian nation goes back to the 9th century though civilisation here goes back much further, to the paleolithic in fact. The lands were part of the roman empire and during those times the local ethnic groups were considered (or forced to become) barbarians. Then the Ottomans invaded in the fourteenth century and ruled the Bulgarian lands for five centuries. The "National Revival" period describes the reflowering of Bulgarian culture. In 1870 the Bulgarian church regained independence from Greek domination. Russia that finally defeated the Ottomans in 1878, leading to the reestablishment of a Bulgarian state. Hopes for a large Bulgaria were dashed in the Treaty of Berlin (1878), which left large numbers of ethnic Bulgarians in adjacent states. This partitioning of Bulgaria has been the cause of much conflict in the Balkans. Following World War II (1939–1945), a socialist government ruled. The Soviet ruler was ousted in 1989 and democracy has continued to grow since. One of the most powerful signs of this democracy, at least for many of the youth of today, was the opening of Mcdonald's in Sofia, and it is still very popular with locals. You can understand why.
During the 50s and 60s, state socialism brought rapid industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture. People were forced to shift to the towns and cities, where factories and industry were set up. To house them, Soviet-style concrete apartment blocks were built. The socialist-era social safety net included pensions, health care, maternity leave, child care and guaranteed employment. You were assigned a job by the state, you could refuse two times but by the third job you were forced to stay put. Many Bulgarians today continue to look to the government to solve problems and provide services. The economic status of many households has fallen significantly in the postsocialist period because of unemployment and the declining purchasing power of wages and pensions. The justice system and police force are weak and corruption is an issue. The communist decades were good in many ways but still, during that time there was a deep distrust of people who had an international outlook or lived as artists or intellectuals. Many of these bohemian types were sent to labour camps and didn't survive.
This mini-history will explain much when you see the photos in my next couple of posts.