As the colourful 70s merged with the cheesy 80s, they changed their hairstyle from a lush Farah Fawcett windswept fringe to an impressive Cyndi Lauper bleached perm. But life was not so mamma miabehind the Iron Curtain. Sure, fashions made their way into the communist East, but it was hard work to try and find trendy clothes (people would get creative in altering, shortening, fixing, dyeing and finally swapping with each other to get the perfect ‘in’ look). And, in most countries of the Eastern block, it was even harder to get one’s hands on Western films or records. As the West was whistling pop tunes and boldly trying on neons, the East was trying to teach itself to say as little as possible, and to blend in with the ubiquitous grey – fearing to stand out, as that meant only trouble. The few splashes of colour that were allowed were heavily rationed, restricted, and controlled.
Yet, when I was in Bulgaria last summer, many young people I met there were telling me how their parents grew up on ABBA, how they themselves knew all the lyrics, and how they still threw nostalgia parties to the tunes by the Swedish stars. And we are talking eighteen-year-olds. I thought that Bulgarians must have had access to these records back in the day, and probably not just on the black market. Otherwise, how would it have been possible for ABBA to be sobig and absolutely cross-generational in a country where the communist regime was known to be oppressive and systematic in the way it enforced its own cultural standards? The Party was very successful in its work to eradicate religious sentiments and traditions of the Bulgarian nation, and, like any authoritarian entity, it did not tolerate cult followings of any sort, other than the Party-approved ones. They especially detested idols if they came from the immoral and distrusted West.
I eventually discovered the story behind ABBA’s popularity in Bulgaria and found that the answers to these questions are actually quite simple and vegetable-related. But let me begin by painting a brief picture of Bulgaria, as this will come relevant in a moment. It is not a large country, but it is situated in an outstandingly beautiful area of South-Eastern Europe. There are high mountains, gentle hills, forests, lakes, rivers, fertile agricultural land and, last but not least, a stunning coastline. This, in a sunny Mediterranean-like setting, means one thing in particular – tonnes upon tonnes of delicious fresh produce, such as olives, plums, grapes, watermelons, rose-based products, and (drumroll)… tomatoes. Having tasty, home-grown food in such abundance contributed to Bulgaria being considered one of the ‘richest’ countries in the Eastern block by its neighbours. That was at a time when an orange was considered an almost decadent luxury and extreme rarity in other countries east of the Iron Curtain. It really was a blessing, as it also meant that Bulgaria had valuable produce, and plenty of it, to export and trade for other goods. Such as pop records.
No, really. There came a time in the history of the Bulgarian Communist Party when they realised that the people needed to be given something that kept them happy. That is the strategy of many regimes when they hope to extend their reign a little. Of course, freedom of speech or religion was out of the question. It needed to be something big enough to spread positive vibes across the nation, but at the same time it had to be politically insignificant. People had to be kept from getting too many liberal ideas into their heads. It needed to be something like songs or movies, that offered people a glimpse of the outside world, without revealing too much about it. The balance had to be right. Of course, even within the mainstream, not all music or film is politically harmless, so one had to be vigilant. In Poland at the time, the Party gave the people American cowboy films about the Wild West (the good guys fight the bad guys, no harm to the system, no problematic ideology, no subversive politics). In Bulgaria, the regime decided to offer people the music that was all the rage, but relatively low risk. They settled on love songs and upbeat tunes of none other than ABBA.
And how does a not-so-well-to-do country from behind the Iron Curtain buy copyrights to publish and distribute the records of Swedish pop giants? The answer is: with the best thing they can offer, and of which they have lots. It was tomatoes. So as kids in Bulgaria were going crazy about this newly approved pop happiness, kids across Sweden were enjoying the sweet and juicy tomatoes imported all the way from some Southern communist country by the Black Sea. Now, I imagine the Bulgarian regime could well have gone for flat-packed furniture or meatball recipes to appease its people, but let’s face it – nothing raises the spirits quite like bouncing around to Does Your Mother Know, singing to a hairbrush.