Ever since the uprising in Egypt began on Jan. 25, I have hardly moved an inch away from the TV screen. I may be in France, but my spirit is in Tahrir Square. I’m throwing stones. I’m breathing in tear gas. I’m lighting up Molotov cocktails. I’m dodging bullets. I’m fighting thick-headed policemen. I’m cursing every symbol of the regime until my voice cracks.
Why? Because I’ve already done all that before, during the winter of 1989 and 1990, when an epidemic of indignation spread through Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and then again in 1991 and 1997, when the Bulgarian Communist Party and its Gorgonian successor finally lost their suffocating grip on power.
The similarities between Egypt today and Bulgaria at the end of the cold war are numerous: Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down on Friday, held power for 30 years; Todor Zhivkov, the leader of the Communist Party, had reigned for 35 years. The people of both countries have been crushed by an oppressive regime and a puppet Parliament, by a dictator’s private judiciary and a deaf state TV, by policemen, secret agents, apparatchiks and paid taletellers.
In Bulgaria, as in Egypt, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly were viewed as criminal activities instigated by foreign elements. In Bulgaria, as in Egypt, the revolution was carried out predominantly by the young. Many Egyptians scornfully call Mr. Mubarak “the Pharaoh.” In Bulgaria, the central figure of the regime, the former Prime Minister Georgi Dimitrov, really was a mummy, his embalmed body displayed in a megalomaniac mausoleum across from the Communist Party headquarters. Many Bulgarians used to joke that they lived in an Egyptian dynasty set up in a parallel universe.
I remember that for months after the uprising began I had no home. The fabric of society as it had existed for 45 years was torn apart. The thought of school, or practicing the piano, or even a family dinner, seemed absurd. People bonded spontaneously, hugging each other and vowing to keep protesting. An adrenaline-dizzy, spoiling-for-a-fight 16-year-old, I slept in the apartments of strangers, or on the street. Then things got really, really bad. Huge strikes paralyzed the country. Gas stations ran out of gas. Hospitals had no supplies, not even anesthetic. Supermarkets sold only bleach. The electricity worked for just a few hours a day.
At one point, after wandering around town with the young protesters for days without sleep or food, I went to see my girlfriend who lived on the 11th floor of a Soviet-style apartment building, and I got stuck in the elevator for hours because the power had gone out again. I remember that even in that desperate moment, with the cold wind blowing furiously through the dark shaft, I thought that it had all been worth it.
For many years, I’ve tried to explain to my American friends what it was like growing up behind the Iron Curtain. But more often than not I hear the same response: “Oh, well, it seems that your coming of age wasn’t at all different from ours; you got drunk, you smoked, went to parties, got into trouble. We did the same things here!” I know then that I have failed to explain things properly.
If only I could recreate the menacing atmosphere of oppression … but how? Should I mention that in the first grade I was asked to keep a diary of my gratitude for the great works the mummy had carried out on my behalf? Or that when I was in the ninth grade I was beaten by a school teacher for playing jazz on the piano? (Jazz was considered a degenerate, imperialist music.) And what about my relative, Iliya Popov, who spent decades in concentration camps where thousands died and their bodies were fed to pigs? Would that be menacing enough?
What prevents many from truly understanding what took place all those years ago in Bulgaria and over the past three decades in Egypt, and across the Arab world, is that dignity, the very idea of it, is incredibly elusive. (A friend pointed that out to me recently, on Facebook, of all places.) Dignity, as Bob Dylan once said, has never been photographed. Most people wouldn’t know they had it until the day they lost it completely.
I would like to commend my Egyptian brothers and sisters for their breathtaking courage and ask them to never give up. After all, Mr. Mubarak may be gone, but real change comes very slowly, and at an enormous price. It took two years after the toppling of our dictator before the first democratic government in Bulgaria came to power, and it lasted barely a year. From 1989 to 2009, Bulgaria had 10 governments. Even now, the invisible structure of power set up by the Communists is still largely intact, with the current ruling elite rife with former national security agents and informers.
Nonetheless, children growing up in Bulgaria today are free to listen to whatever music they want, to say whatever they want, to gather wherever and whenever they want, to freely choose their futures. Girls will never again be inspected by state-appointed doctors to determine if they have lost their virginity. High school boys will never again be forced to strip naked and show their bodies to a committee of military perverts in charge of monitoring future army recruits for signs of homosexuality. And the mummy has been buried.
No matter what happens next in Egypt, it will all have been worth it. After living in oppression for so long, Egyptians have already achieved what matters most: they have regained their dignity.
By Nikolai Grozni, the author of the forthcoming novel Wunderkind