You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
Revisiting Bulgaria's Most Infamous Gulag

Revisiting Bulgaria's Most Infamous Gulag

A pop-up at the Victims of Communism Museum reveals the harrowing history of Bulgaria's longest-running gulag.

Carolyn Stewart, Louisa Slavkova

Bulgaria, once a staunch ally of the Soviet Union, was a hub of enforced communist ideology. Today, the country grapples with acknowledging its past and the lasting impact of the Soviet-era Bulgarian gulags, which detained an estimated 60,000 people over four decades. 

Between June 12-14, visitors to Washington, D.C. can explore the harrowing history of Belene Camp, Bulgaria's most infamous communist gulag, through a pop-up exhibition at the Victims of Communism Museum. In anticipation of the exhibition's opening, Carolyn Stewart interviewed Louisa Slavkova, the executive director of Sofia Platform, the organization responsible for bringing this poignant exhibition to the United States, with the support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation

Carolyn Stewart: The exhibition focuses on Nikola Daskalov, a young man who was imprisoned in Bulgaria's most notorious gulag at the age when most Americans are just getting their driver's license. Can you tell us why his story is crucial to share?

Louisa Slavkova: Before the Soviet occupation of Bulgaria—what some still refer to as “liberation”—Nikola’s father was the governor of Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second-largest city. After the communists took over, his father was murdered in the so-called People's Court. This court employed a sham judicial process set up by the communist party to eliminate political opponents, intellectuals, military personnel, journalists, writers, and lawyers. Among those prosecuted was Dimitar Peshev, who played a key role in rescuing the Bulgarian Jewish community during World War II. Thousands of Bulgarians were tried and executed. Many surviving families, including Nikola and his mother, were forcibly resettled.

State security monitored Nikola after his father’s death. Eventually, they fabricated charges to send him to Belene, the largest and longest-operating Bulgarian gulag. Nikola’s story, like those of other prisoners, highlights the arbitrary lawlessness of the communist regime, with no legal process, and where constant surveilance, hunger, and violence were tools of repression. Nikola’s experience underscores the importance of democracy and a rules-based order. Unlike in the communist regimes, where rules were nonexistent and consequences were arbitrary, a democracy ensures that actions are governed by laws and there is accountability. Nikola's story serves as a powerful reminder of what can happen when a society abandons the rule of law and allows a single party to wield unchecked power.

CS: How does Bulgaria's experience offer added insight into our understanding of Soviet ideology and our current moment? 

LS: Soviet ideology was pervasive and forceful. No country in the former Eastern Bloc, from Berlin to Moscow, established communist rule through free and fair elections. This ideology suppressed any expression of free will. Bulgaria’s story, including its resistance movements and the scale of repression there, is less known internationally. Compared to the well-documented events like the Prague Spring of 1968, the East German protests of 1949, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and the Solidarity movement in Poland, the Bulgarian gulags and the omnipresence of state security are less recognized. But they are equally significant. Often characterized as a faithful Soviet ally, Bulgaria even applied to become the 16th Soviet republic. 

The existence of gulags in Bulgaria is a testament to resistance against the communist regime. The Soviet Union's infiltration of Bulgaria caused damage that extended beyond the forty-five years of direct control: Cultural shifts happen slowly, and educating people about democracy requires concerted efforts. In a democracy, individuals are expected to make decisions that impact their personal lives and communities all the time. In contrast, totalitarian regimes only allow individuals to decide whether they support the regime or not, with severe consequences for dissent.

CS: As the years pass, there are fewer survivors to share their experiences, all the while Kremlin-led disinformation campaigns seek to obscure Soviet communism's violent legacy. How is the exhibition leveraging technology and AI to keep these memories alive?

LS: Personal stories are powerful conveyors of historical truth, especially in Bulgaria, where 40 percent of the State Security archives were destroyed at the end of the communist regime. These stories become crucial records in the absence of complete archival materials. Bulgaria has not fully confronted its communist past, and its understanding of Russia’s role of is still influenced by propaganda from that era, that portrays Russia as a savior. This lack of reflection on the past leaves Bulgaria vulnerable to current Russian malign influences.

By using oral histories and AI technology, we can preserve and disseminate the testimonies of gulag survivors like Nikola Daskalov. AI allows these stories to be accessible worldwide, enabling interactive virtual conversations. These are especially appealing to younger generations. Interaction is key to experiencing another person’s story, and for younger generations, the opportunity to have a virtual conversation is intuitive and engaging. This approach helps counter disinformation by providing direct, personal accounts of history and making them widely available.

CS: What three actions would you like to inspire visitors to take after experiencing the exhibition?

LS: Firstly, visit the platform to explore virtually the remains of the Belene gulag and continue your conversation with survivor Nikola Daskalov. Soon, other survivors’ testimonies will be available with English subtitles. Secondly, plan a trip to Bulgaria to visit the camp remains in the Danube town of Belene. Lastly, raising awareness through these actions will help us advocate for turning the camp remains into a site of memory and learning. Confronting our difficult past is essential for strengthening democracy, in Bulgaria, Europe, and globally.

CS: For over a decade, you have led Sofia Platform, an organization focused on civic education for young Bulgarians. During your tenure, have you observed any changes in how citizens engage with civic issues in Bulgaria? 

LS: Bulgaria has faced significant political instability in recent years. Despite being a NATO and EU member-state, the country's dependencies on Russia and its own communist legacy hinder its progress toward deeper democracy, accountable entrepreneurship, and respect for human rights. Moving beyond the traumas of communism requires confronting and discussing these difficult histories.

Educating about democracy is not a quick fix; it's a long-term effort to build critical thinking. The younger generations today are more creative and democratic in their approach. They are more open to new ideas and more willing to engage in civic issues. It is in memory of those who valued freedom above all and for the future generations that we continue to educate about democracy as the foundation of a dignified life. The most important lesson from our past is that freedom is the ultimate value for any human, and Belene is a testament to that aspiration for freedom.  

Educating about democracy is not a pain-killer but more like taking vitamins: it prepares us for the long run. Critical thinking is not built overnight, but dealing with the recent past is one powerful source to develop it.

Louisa Slavkova is the executive director of Sofia Platform.

Carolyn Stewart is the former managing editor of American Purpose. 

Image: A promotional graphic for the Belene Camp exhibition. (Credit: Sofia Platform)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyEastern EuropeEuropePolitical PhilosophyInterview