As a student at the National Academy of Arts in Sofia in the 1950s, Christo was confined to the canons of socialist realism and classical studies of form. There wasn’t a way to say or show anything beyond what had to be said and shown. In the summer, art students were sent away to the countryside on ‘beautifying missions’ along the route of the Orient Express, arranging machinery and bales of hay, doing large-scale industrial-themed drawings on the facades of factories, and erecting neat fences, so tourists could look out onto curated scenes of socialist life. This artifice was his first brush with environmental art and Nouveau réalisme.
In Laurent Binet’s novel The Seventh Function of Language (2015), Julia Kristeva is cast as a spy for Bulgarian intelligence, responsible for the death of Roland Barthes. Last Tuesday, the Bulgarian Dossier Committee, in charge of examining and declassifying communist-era State Security records, announced that Kristeva had been an agent of the First Chief Directorate. On Thursday, Kristeva denied the allegations, describing them as ‘grotesque’ and ‘completely false’. On Friday, the Dossier Commission published her entire dossier – nearly 400 pages – on their website. Yesterday, Kristeva issued another statement, insisting she had ‘never belonged to any secret service’ and had not supported ‘a regime that I fled’. She criticised the ‘credence given to these files, without there being any questioning about who wrote them or why’: This episode would be comical, and might even seem a bit romantic, were it not for the fact that it is all so false and that its uncritical repetition in the media is so frightening.
In one of the oldest playgrounds in Sofia, where I grew up, there are some new toddler attractions among the old rusting ones, but the potholes in the tarmac haven’t been repaired. For the last six years, flowers have been appearing in them, as part of an ongoing project devised by the artist Veronika Tzekova. She calls it WUMAMPAROI (‘When you make a mistake put a rose on it’). We are a long way from the Soviet cult of childhood, in which the playground played a key role, shifting children’s emotional focus away from home and setting them on the road to the Party.
Djaved says he has learned that you can haggle with a policeman for anything in Sofia. At 10.15 on the morning we met it was already over 30ºC, but we went for a walk anyway. I grew up wandering these streets after school. Yuch Bunar, as the area near the Central Market Hall was once called, has traditionally been the home of migrants, Jews, traders, musicians. It is the most culturally and historically dense part of the city, and the buildings haven’t changed much since the late 19th century. They haven’t been intentionally preserved – just left undisturbed. The area has a synagogue, a mosque, one Catholic and two Orthodox churches, all working, all in one square mile, all peeling stucco in different shades of ochre, just minutes away from Parliament Square, where the buildings are in pale grey stone: the council of ministers, the presidential palace, the national bank.