Comrade, You Just Got Volunteered by the Party

The quickest route from northeastern to southern Bulgaria is through the Balkan mountain range. It is called Hainboaz, today better known as the Passage of the Republic. The 36-miles-long passage was built in two years—by volunteers. Or that’s what the propaganda called them.

The Passage of the Republic was one of the megaprojects launched by the new socialist government in the 1940s. The socialists came to power with an ambitious program—to transform Bulgaria from an agrarian into a modern, industrialized country with new roads, factories, and cities, and all this within a few years. In order to achieve this ambitious goal and overcome the labor shortage, the government created the so-called youth work brigades. Young people worked without payment “voluntarily,” according to the regime propaganda. In fact, you could get out of brigade duty only for a legitimate reason such as illness or permanent disability. It was practically impossible to find a job or pursue higher education without presenting a certificate or other proof of having worked in a youth brigade, writes historian Vera Mutafchieva in her memoir Tales from Real Life.

Compulsory labor for young people was not an invention of the socialist regime. The Labor Act of 1920 obligated young people to help in the building of railways, roads, bridges, etc., and in 1941–1943, youth labor camps were set up to carry out agricultural or construction work. However, mandatory youth labor did not become a cornerstone of state policy until after 1944, writes Bilyana Raeva, who explores the phenomenon in her book about the building of Dimitrovgrad, an ideal socialist city.

The archives of the Institute for Studies of the Recent Past contain a 2008 interview with Mikhail H., who participated in the construction of Hainboaz in 1946–1947, when he was 24 years old. The interview, conducted by Daniela Koleva, associate professor of cultural studies at Sofia University, captures the inconsistency between young people’s poor work and living conditions in the brigades and their involvement’s portrayal as voluntary and enthusiastic.

Mikhail, a tailor from Velingrad, describes the “great enthusiasm” of the builders of Hainboaz. At the same time, he talks about the scarcity and poor quality of the food, the grueling physical experience of digging through rocks by hand, with picks and shovels, the harsh weather conditions, the food theft, the excessively long shifts, and the insufficient rest. Mikhail lost 35 pounds in three months.

M.H.: Well, we were very… enthusiastic, there was great enthusiasm… We had dinner at 8 in the evening. We would have a little rest, and at midnight we would get up and go back to the site… It was raining. Late September. Freezing! But—great enthusiasm.

D.K.: What did you have to do there?

M.H.: We dug… It was a dirt road and there were only paths, sometimes big enough for a carriage to pass. We would dig through the hills, we had to extend the paths by 2–3 meters (around 10 feet) at both sides. We worked with diggers.

D.K.: You probably weren’t paid?

M.H.: No payment.

D.K.: How did people just leave everything behind and go work for free?

M.H.: Well… we were very enthusiastic.

D.K.: What happened when you went back home?

M.H.: When we came back home, we were a bag of bones. We needed a month to recover. (Excerpt)

“Mikhail speaks in two voices. The words ‘youthful enthusiasm’ would not have been a part of a tailor’s vocabulary; they were part of the propaganda jargon. There is a contradiction between what he says and what he describes,” says Professor Koleva. “Although there probably was some genuine enthusiasm among young workers in the 1940s, it was not ideological. For these first ‘volunteers,’ the regime became an ally in the eternal conflict between the generations and a means of escaping patriarchal control in their native town or village.” No exact data is available, but it is believed that many parents were opposed to their children’s participation in the brigades in the 1940s, hence the propaganda message: “Dear fathers and mothers, do not stop your children: they’re building their future.” Mikhail mentions a 63-year-old father in his brigade who had answered the party’s call instead of his daughter.

Either way, there was no sign of enthusiasm in the second phase of the brigade movement in the 1970s and 1980s, neither among the youth nor among the managers of agricultural cooperatives and factories that used youth labor. According to a confidential study by the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party in the 1980s, cited in the historical collection What Happened Before ’89?, not only was there no interest in the students’ work, but attempts were also made to opt out of the youth-hosting program. The study revealed that students’ work in agriculture in 1981 earned 27 million Bulgarian levs (16 million US dollars), but the laborers’ upkeep had cost the state 64 million levs (38 million dollars). Economic inefficiency was a characteristic of the youth brigades throughout their existence.

Professor Koleva, who worked in brigades herself as a student in the 1980s, concludes, “There was no sense we contributed to anything at all.”

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