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A Captivating Mind | The Nation

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A Captivating Mind

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But mediocrity was not a characteristic merely of party bureaucrats. Faced with arbitrary conditions, artificial norms of production demanded by the Soviet-style command economy, comprehensive low pay, and the negative example of an incompetent party elite openly skimming off the state, ordinary Bulgarians were only too quick to learn the proper lessons. “The corruption of labor was a consequence of the moral corruption fostered by the highest leadership,” Markov concluded. Doing work was generally considered drudgery, a sign of low status, where quality and efficiency had little place. One result was that graft became widespread, as public property was seen as nobody’s property, and nearly everyone—from the highest official to the lowest menial worker—attempted to extract private benefits from their respective stations, often using ideology as a cover. Talk of socialism aside, Bulgaria’s was a profoundly materialistic society, one in which consumption and the cult of the commodity—especially the scarce, Western-produced commodity—took precedence over everything else. “I don’t know of another society with better pronounced petty-bourgeois character than that of the ruling Communist Party,” Markov wrote.

In his radio essays on RFE, Markov also dedicated substantial space to Bulgaria’s cultural life, a topic he knew intimately. Writers were “the officially sanctioned fabricators of the regime,” who dressed totalitarianism in a cloak of respectability. As a result, art was replaced by pseudo-art, work by pseudo-work, as with every other sphere of human endeavor in Bulgaria. It was a world of appearances, where meaningless, ritualized language overlay the most ordinary phenomena—a lie people often recognized as such, but which they accepted nonetheless. The construction of totalitarian reality, in a sense, was the national stagecraft, a willing suspension of disbelief. In an essay about official parades in Sofia, Markov described how, among the banners and portraits of communist leaders, a group of leather workers shouted the ludicrous slogan “More and mo-re skins for the Pa-a-rty!” Like Vaclav Havel’s famous depiction (in “The Power of the Powerless”) of a greengrocer who hangs a sign in his shop window proclaiming “Workers of the World Unite!” for no other reason than to demonstrate his outward loyalty to the system, the Bulgarian leather workers—and everyone else, including writers—took care to affirm their Marxist credentials without investing in the underlying ideology. As Havel observed: “Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did…. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”

Although Markov had always prided himself on being a critic of the regime, and for a time had naïvely believed that he could contribute to its reformation, he recognized that in the end, he had to choose between the artist and his evil double, the propagandist, for he could not be both at the same time. “If you ever had an idea about the person you were, if you thought one thing, while you discovered that slowly and inexorably you were turning into something quite different, there probably comes a time, when you wish to break either the mirror or your own head,” he wrote at the end of In Absentia Reports, describing his reasons for leaving Bulgaria. “I cannot claim that mine was a case of political courage or integrity; it was merely a matter of my own sense of the unbearable.”

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“Why do the members of the Politburo not go to meetings on Thursdays?” ran one Bulgarian joke in the late 1970s. “Because they listen to Georgi Markov on Radio Free Europe.”

Radio Free Europe was the most important US-sponsored broadcaster in Europe during the Cold War, and although it had been initially funded—covertly—by the CIA for the purposes of American propaganda, evidence of the association was made public and the relationship ended in 1972. Through greater transparency in its operations, RFE gradually turned itself into the best alternative source of uncensored news and commentary for those behind the Iron Curtain, broadcasting in several languages, including Bulgarian. Sensing a threat to their monopoly on information, many socialist governments attempted to jam RFE’s frequencies or physically disable radio receivers from operating on short wavelengths, but these efforts proved futile. Millions of people across the Soviet bloc found ingenious ways to tune in to Western broadcasts, and RFE was a particular favorite.

It is hard to overestimate the impact on the Bulgarian community, at home and abroad, of Markov’s In Absentia Reports on RFE. “He created high-quality literature of European dimensions. Georgi was like a comet, which lit up the dark sky,” remembers Dimitar Bochev, one of Markov’s closest friends and the host of the RFE’s Contacts, which featured Markov’s essays. “I was so inspired by his In Absentia Reports that I didn’t even dare to correct the spelling mistakes.” According to one study carried out at the time, it helped boost RFE’s Bulgarian audience by as much as 60 percent.

As early as 1971, the SSS had opened a file on Markov code-named “Wanderer,” but as time passed and his writing became more seditious, the regime in Sofia turned more aggressive. By the mid-1970s, he was working for three Western radio stations: the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Radio Free Europe, all of which the regime considered conduits of “ideological sabotage”—perhaps the worst possible crime in a communist state. A secret SSS report in 1976 labeled him “the ‘heavy artillery’ of the ideological sabotage conducted through radio propaganda.” Because Markov had often insisted that reformation and the eventual change of the Bulgarian regime could only originate with the ruling elite, the SSS was concerned that his broadcasts could lay the critical groundwork for dissidence within the Bulgarian intelligentsia. Critics of the regime gained some protections in 1975 when many Soviet satellites—Bulgaria among them—signed the Helsinki Accords, which besides guaranteeing the territorial integrity of states also included safeguards of basic human rights and freedom of thought. The accords were not a treaty and therefore not binding on the signatories, but their language about human rights and freedom of conscience was embraced by East European dissidents fighting their oppressive governments, which reacted with ever more devious ways of crushing resistance.

The Soviet Union had decided to rid itself of recalcitrant writers like Joseph Brodsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn by expelling them from the country (in 1972 and 1974, respectively). Bulgaria had no such option: Markov was already abroad, out of reach and out of control, and could neither be bought nor imprisoned. For a small state like Bulgaria, he was becoming an enormous political liability.

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