by Jonathan Rickert
Hanging on the living room wall in our summer house in Sweden is a framed pen-and-ink cartoon from our time late in communist-era Bulgaria. As with most memorabilia, there is a story behind it.
One Saturday in September 1987, our family went for a drive in the mountains outside of Sofia, as we often did on weekends. On the way home, we passed through Bankya, a famed mineral springs spa town that now is officially part of the capital city. We noticed a small outdoor craft fair in progress, so we stopped to look around. At one of the stands, we met a gentleman named Iovio Terziev, a cartoonist/caricaturist, who was hawking several of his pen-and-ink drawings.
Some were humorous, some mildly “political.” In the former category, I recall one depicting a physician seated at a desk and peering down at a file. Before him stood a man bandaged from head to toe with only his eyes visible. Without looking up at the patient, the doctor is saying to him “please remove your clothes.” That, I guess, is what passes for Bulgarian humor. However, the drawing that particularly caught my eye was one entitled “Glasnost.”
That drawing showed a large man shouting angrily into the bell end of what I took to be an oversized bugle-like musical instrument. It showed strong, heavy lines emanating from his mouth, while thin, weak lines were emerging from the opposite end of the contraption. I understood immediately what Terziev was conveying, but, feigning ignorance, asked him what the cartoon meant. He responded jovially that where glasnost was concerned, there was much more noise at the source than further away. In other words, he was quite cynical about the concept, apparently believing that it was little more than a slogan or game of words.
Since glasnost and perestroika, as promoted by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, were popular buzzwords just then, and Bulgaria was considered the most slavishly faithful of the USSR’s Warsaw Pact allies, I found Terziev’s mildly heretical rendering to be unusual and asked him how much he wanted for it. He replied that his drawings usually sold for around 100 leva each, a significant sum (at the inflated official exchange rate) in those days. Knowing that I had only 20 leva with me, I opened my wallet and, pretending disappointment, told him that unfortunately I could not buy his work, since that was all the money I had. His immediate response was a vigorous “sold!”
A small version of Terziev’s glasnost cartoon appeared in the Bulgarian Communist Party’s newspaper, Rabotnichesko Delo, on September 27, 1987. Needless to say, it was unusual for that publication to take even a mild swipe at anything emanating from the Soviet Union.
With the benefit of hindsight, we should have seen the cartoon more clearly as one of a number of hints that the foundations of the whole communist edifice in Bulgaria and beyond were beginning to crack. Another was the rise of an environmental movement, which operated largely free from governmental or party control. I can only take solace from the fact that, although many experts on the region foresaw the eventual collapse of “socialism” in Eastern Europe, virtually none anticipated the events of 1989, least of all their timing. The Terziev cartoon, therefore, serves as a small symbol of the waning months of another era in Eastern Europe, one that we were privileged to witness firsthand.
One small footnote. When our then five-year-old granddaughter was visiting us in Sweden in the summer of 2013, she spotted the framed cartoon and asked me what it meant. I tried to explain it to her in terms that she could understand, referring to the “musical instrument” that the large man was holding. Her immediate response was “Morfar, that is not a musical instrument, it’s a megaphone.” Though I had failed to see it that way before, of course she was right. “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings . . . ”
Retired Senior Foreign Service officer Jonathan B. Rickert spent over 35 years of his career in London, Moscow, Vienna, Port of Spain, Sofia, and Bucharest (twice), as well as in Washington. His last two overseas assignments were as Deputy Chief of Mission in Bulgaria and Romania. Mr. Rickert holds a B.A. degree in history from Princeton University and an M.A. in international relations from the George Washington University.