Louisa Slavkova, Sofia Platform: On the Right Side of History

Louisa Slavkova of Sofia Platform

We partnered with Bulgarian lifestyle magazine EVA to present female leaders from the Bulgarian nonprofit and public sectors. The result was EVA’s Optimistic Issue: 15 Stories of Success. This is one of the featured stories, republished with permission.


Text: Lilia Ilieva
Photos: Kostadin Krastev-Koko

Louisa is a co-founder of the Sofa Platform Foundation, which promotes the study of Bulgaria’s communist past to foster a more aware democratic society today. One of the foundation’s key projects is the website Belene.Camp, dedicated to the most infamous communist-era labor camp. The website allows visitors to book tours of the camp and, thanks to AI, listen to survivors’ stories.

Louisa is a dynamic and articulate individual known for her knowledge, wisdom, responsibility, and honesty. Born in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, she grew up in Karnobat and graduated from the University of Cologne. Louisa is a global citizen who serves on the advisory board of Networking European Civil Education (NECE) and was a visiting fellow at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. She also served as the programs manager at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Additionally, Louisa has authored and edited numerous books and publications on international policy, democratic development, and civic education.

Louisa, when was the first time you visited the former Belene camp? And what did you find most striking?

It was in 2014, when I was part of the delegation of Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev for the national campaign “25 Years of Free Bulgaria,” but I had already been to Belene many times in my thoughts. I had read the book about the communist labor camps published by the 1990s opposition weekly Democratsia; I had seen the documentaries by Atanas Kiryakov and Lilia Topouzova; I had heard the stories of survivors such as Gogo Saraivanov and Petko Ogoyski, may they rest in peace. I’d invited them to give talks to schoolchildren all across Bulgaria. I had also met the mayor of Belene, Milen Doulev, the local catholic priest Paolo Cortesi, as well as the director of the Belene Island foundation, Mihail Marinov.

Both the town and its surroundings have incredible potential. Nature around the Danube is divine: there are hundreds of bird species, breathtaking sunsets, lush greenery. The locals say that the sand of the Belene islands resembles the sand of the Maldives. At the same time, this was the site of the largest communist labor camp. Its buildings are now in ruins. Additionally, Belene is still home to a prison and is located in one of Europe’s poorest regions. There is a lot of shame in the town related to the history of the camp, and disappointment with the many unfulfilled promises, such as the failed Belene nuclear plant project. It was expected to bring new job opportunities and prosperity.

Talking about the past here is taboo. However, all of this can be turned around. The town can become a destination for historical and green tourism just like the town of Bautzen in the eastern part of Germany, where there were both a Nazi and a communist concentration camp. Now tens of thousands of students, teachers, and tourists visit Bautzen every year.

Which of the stories from the former camp has touched you the most?

All of them. We are talking about thousands of different lives: the lives of farmers who refused to give up their land to collectivization, the stories of communists critical of the regime, doctors, teachers, lawyers, artists, and writers: the nation’s elite as well as ordinary people. They had understood that you can’t build communism through dictatorships.

However, I relate to the story of Tsvetana Dzhermanova the most, perhaps because she is a woman. She ended up in the camp as a girl because she was an anarchist. She spent a few years in the camps of Bosna and Belene. After her release, she changed 30 jobs. Every time her employers found out she had been in a camp, she was fired. She and her family were forcefully displaced. She was not allowed to go to university. After the fall of communism, she did not join the protests, because she had always done what she thought was right, and she never betrayed her convictions. She told me that, in moments of hardship, she would think of what Bulgarian revolutionary Botev would do, and that helped her to keep going. To me, she and Botev are national heroes of the same rank.

Now 95, Tsvetana is still wondering which the best form of social organization is. She reads books, meets with young people and tells them her story, takes part in oral history projects. She has a wonderful sense of humor and a very sharp memory. [Tsvetana Dzhermanova died in February 2024, two months after this interview came out, transl.]

She says that, after the fall of the regime, she was able to face communists without any shame, as a free person who was on the right side of history.

What was your main motivation to establish Sofia Platform?

For me, its mission was key. There were two subjects that we, as a society, partially ignored in our transition to democracy — the legacy of communism and what it means to be a healthy society — or, in other words, democratic culture. You cannot become a democrat overnight. You might demolish the Berlin Wall, but only as a physical object, not the wall in your mind. People are creatures of habit. After 45 years of unfree life, we couldn’t learn to be free in the space of a month or a year. This is supposed to be the work of generations, both in politics and in society. Unfortunately, politicians did not make our health as a society a priority. This is why we are always at the bottom of various European rankings: we are the nation most susceptible to fake news and conspiracies; we are open to having a leader who would restrict our rights and freedoms; and so on. This runs parallel to our inability to deal with the legacy of communism. The communist regime imposed itself through a lot of repression and propaganda. So many people were murdered and tortured in the camps, many more were internally displaced, and yet the victims of the socialist period are still the most invisible group in society. The propaganda has managed to convince most Bulgarians that communism was synonymous with equality and justice, while, in reality, the party members lived in opulence. These myths still find fertile ground in society today. We lack a broad consensus that this was a criminal, undemocratic, and totalitarian regime. This view is held by a very limited group of people, mostly experts and academicians.

Where do you find inspiration for your work? What makes you proud?

I am inspired by the stories of people who have managed to preserve their humanity in the face of extreme adversity. I often wonder how one builds the resilience to survive labor camps, to share one’s meager food with others, to risk one’s life helping someone else and, once they regain their freedom, to find a way to keep going without succumbing to trauma and despondency.

I am proud of everything we have achieved over the 10 years of our existence as an organization, but I am proudest of the trust of our partners. We do not exist in a vacuum but in a civil society, and cooperation is key if we want to achieve greater goals. In our work, we stand on the shoulder of giants — Professor Momchil Metodiev, Professor Daniela Koleva, and Borislav Skotchev, to name just a few.

I am proud of the fact that if 10 years ago the recent past and civic education were only discussed in small expert circles, now they have become democratized, and young people have become engaged in them. They produce educational Instagram accounts, installations, exhibitions, films, virtual reality experiences; they are not waiting for permission to be curious and active, to care. And I am not talking only about young people in the capital. I cannot be sure how much our organization has contributed, but I would like to believe that all of us in the civic sector have pitched in with our work.

What makes you proud in your personal life?

I identify strongly with my work, and the price that I pay is that I do not devote the time that I should to my partner and our relationship, to my mother, brother, and niece, or to my friends. I think this probably makes life with me hard on my loved ones. And I am not proud of it.

What is your definition of success?

I’ve used various definitions at various points in time, but generally I would say success is to make the most of the opportunities for change, not to waste them.

What is your greatest challenge now?

The problems that need solving are greater than the capacity my organization and I have. I wish we could do more than we can. Slowly and painfully, I came to realize that I don’t have the energy I used to have a few years back. However, I think that’s a good opportunity to reflect on how we can add more value to the work we do.

How did your partnership with the America for Bulgaria Foundation begin, and how does it help you bring your ideas to life?

They took quite a chance on us. We were a young organization with a newly minted team and an ambitious plan to organize more than 120 events in seven months all over Bulgaria, for the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 2014. The partnership with ABF gave us a great boost, and in the following years we established ourselves as a leading organization in the field of civic education, memory work, and education about the communist period in Bulgaria. Since 2014, ABF has been our foundation’s leading partner and has supported the development of key projects. You can see our last one at https://belene.camp. Its goal is to preserve for posterity the stories of several Belene camp survivors. The history of the recent past is an important if polarizing topic. One must have a deep understanding of its significance in order to choose to support our work.

Being sensitive to the context, to the potential, to the vision and the resolve to take a risk are all great American traits. Thanks to them, the America for Bulgaria Foundation has lent us their trust. Our work would be impossible without their support. And I do not mean it only in financial terms: ABF helps us build capacity in areas that are important for every organization while applying the highest standards of accountability and transparency. Without those, trust can’t exist, and trust is the greatest asset in a civil society.

What are your interests outside work?

I am very interested in art, in interior design, and in traveling, especially in visiting new, lesser-known destinations. Nothing compares to the experience of seeing something for the first time. Landing at a new airport at 3 am, not knowing how you’ll communicate with the taxi driver, seeing Girl with a Pearl Earring 10 minutes before closing time and being the only one in the gallery, relishing the painting’s silent presence… I am interested in everything that piques my curiosity.

What would you like to have the power to change — in society and in your own life?

I dream of making Bulgarian society more democratic. During the considerable demonstrations against domestic violence in Bulgaria in the summer of 2023, I got very angry reading the critical comments against mothers who had gone to protest with their babies in strollers before the court building in my hometown of Karnobat. But I do realize that social attitudes take a long time to change, and I need to have patience.

In my personal life, I hope for strength to face the future, which is getting ever harder to predict.

What makes you optimistic about your work?

Everything — from the people that we are lucky to work with, the great team that my colleague and deputy Borislav Dimitrov and I have built, to the fact that there is now an emerging understanding that our generation plays a key role in preserving the memory of our unfree past, so that it never happens again. I am optimistic about young people because they are freer than us. But we, unlike them, know the price of freedom. Now all we need is patience and the space to learn from one another.

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