Lonely Bulgaria © Boryana Katsarova, 2010.

Boryana Katsarova: Lonely Bulgaria

Boryana Katsarova (Bulgaria): Lonely Bulgaria

Gallery offline – updating soon

Lonely Bulgaria is the first part of the long-term documentary photography project “Balkan Peninsula.” It is about Bulgaria, a small Balkan country which is also my native land.

This project is inspired by the sadness of – and my unwillingness to accept – the heavy social reality in my country. It is my personal fight against the poverty, the loneliness, and the depopulation of Bulgaria. Mainly, it is a project about the social situation in the urban areas in the country. It is a project about the people.

Bulgaria, situated in the eastern Balkans, has been undergoing a slow and painful transition to a market economy since the end of Communist rule, 10 November, 1989. Founded in 681, Bulgaria is one of the oldest states in Europe. The country became a Member State of the European Union on 1 January, 2007.

At the end of 1990, the Central Statistical Bureau recorded 8,989,172 people living in Bulgaria. Today, the population of the country is 7,600,000, nearly 2,500,000 of whom are retired persons. Approximately 1,100,000 of these retirees are subsisting on the minimum pension payment of 137 leva и 80 stotinki per month; about 70 euros and 66 cents. More than half of the nation lives on the edge of poverty.

According to a projection by the Population Reference Bureau, a nongovernmental organization in Washington, Bulgaria’s population will decline by 34 percent from 2005 to 2050, from 7.7 million to 5 million. The Bureau projects that the only country likely to lose more of its people during that span is Swaziland, where 38 percent of the population has HIV. For now, the population of this small Balkan country, my homeland, is still decreasing and growing older.

Officially, there are 5,047 populated villages and 255 cities in Bulgaria today. Of these, according to the Bulgarian National Statistical Institute, the number of the ghost villages in the country increased to 148 totally deserted villages in 2009, with an additional 1,388 villages of fewer than 100 inhabitants in 2010.

In a country where there were no wars, epidemics, earthquakes, or other disasters, Bulgaria’s social reality is sad and unacceptable. Most of the elder citizens I have met during my painful wanderings in the countryside shared from the bottoms of their hearts that they would rather prefer to die than to live in loneliness and poverty.

Before 1989, Bulgaria was arguably a land of economic equality. Almost no private initiative was allowed, due to the policy-line of the Communist regime, but the vast majority of the population was employed in the state owned collective farms, factories, mines, etc., all dutifully tended under Socialism. Large government funds were allocated toward free health care, free higher education, maternity and disability benefits, and pensions. Traditionally, even the poorest Bulgarians, the ethnic Roma, held jobs, received social security payments, and enjoyed a decent standard of living, particularly in rural areas. Bulgarian collective farms once exported vegetables and fruit to most of the Eastern bloc, but when the Soviet Union collapsed the market for Bulgaria’s produce went with it.

In a nation once famous for its agriculture, the sense of abandonment is strongest in the countryside. I love my native land, the mountains, the trees, the rivers, the people…

Once, Bulgaria was a place of plenty, with walnut trees, apples, and plums all cultivated in the state owned collective farms. Today, the trees are uprooted and the agriculture has faded away. During the last 20 years, most young people ran away from the Bulgarian rural areas, leaving behind everything and everybody. They went to the few big Bulgarian cities, or even abroad, with the sole purpose and hope – to integrate themselves into the new global economy; to find job and new life.

In the early ’90s, two-thirds of the Bulgarian population was urban. Today, decayed buildings and the elderly are the only remaining inhabitants of Bulgaria’s rural villages. They are the ghosts of the transition from socialism to democracy. In most of the cases those people are forgotten by everyone – relatives, friends, and even politics. Some of them believe that even God has forgotten them, but they continue to keep in their hearts the last thing that they have left – their hope.

After 1990 and before January 2007, when Bulgaria joined the EU, was a hard period during which different governments ruled the country. This period became the turning point toward the unending social problems and poverty in today’s Bulgaria. These governments, which failed in both their fight against the organized crime and the corruption and also to put well-known criminals and corrupt high-ranking officials behind bars, cost the EU newcomer several hundred million euros in lost aid.

According to the latest official news, Bulgaria is the poorest country in the Euro Zone. In 2008, the EU Observer wrote: “Bulgaria has the lowest purchasing power in the EU, but also in the region. The purchasing power of Bulgarian citizens is lower than the Macedonian, Serbian and Albanian. The cheapest labor force in the European Union is in Bulgaria.” The social situation today remains exactly as it was described in 2008. More than half of the Bulgarian population cannot be integrated into the living standard of the European Zone Countries.

In spite of it all, every Bulgarian lives with the belief that, with the support of the European Union, the Bulgarian government must determine to improve its social policies, and help the Bulgarians out of their poverty.

6 thoughts on “Boryana Katsarova: Lonely Bulgaria”

  1. Dear Boryana,
    These images are just heartbreaking!
    I, myself, am also Bulgarian, but I have never seen such poverty around there. Maybe the reason is that I am originally from Sofia, which is also pretty poor especially compared to Western European standards, but not anyhow to such an extent. I also haven’t spent too long there – when I was 13, me and my mom immigrated to Israel because of the harsh economic situation and our connection to the land; and when I was 20 I went to study in Switzerland – the richest country in Europe – since my father had made his move here already in the late 80ies.
    I would really like to do something for the country and its people, and I hope I will find a way to do so… However, I think that the only thing, which could possibly prevent this beautiful country from extinction (!), is a drastical political change; one which would awaken the feeling of being proud to be a Bulgarian. People need somebody to remind them of their history, to help them find some real values in life besides trying to live the American dream, and nonetheless of their hopes. Once there is such a leader, I strongly believe that Bulgaria will soon be able to attract many foreign investors and its economy will start blooming and prospering.
    Thank you once again for your work! Looking forward to some more… :)

  2. Miss Katsarova, this is amazing art you’re making, and I absolutely adore you for trying to help these people. Thank you for sharing this information with the world, and I hope change arrives for the inhabitants of Sofia very soon. I selected one of your pieces for a research project, I can only say it has been a pleasure learning about you.
    More luck to you.

  3. Thank you Boryana for sharing this work,
    extremely moving and touching…..
    Let’s hope the best is coming in the future for all the Bulgarians…and my thought to all the elders lonely and abandoned wherever they are. Thank you.

  4. This is a very well written essay on the plight of the rural Bulgarians. So heart breaking that these people spend there final days in such isolation and poverty. I can only hope that the plight of the Bulgarians improve over time. I do plan to visit this country in the near future.

  5. Wonderful yet sad images. I went through them half a dozen times and I kept seeing more each time.
    Thank you for publishing them….

  6. is terrible to see all that, everything is so poor, so sad, so blue and I only have a cuestion ¿where are the young people there?.

    Congratulations to Boryana Katsarova for your work and pictures

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