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The Borsa: The Black Market for Rock Music in Late Socialist Bulgaria

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017


This paper offers an empirical description and analytical interpretation of the borsa—the largest black market for rock music in Bulgaria in the 1980s. The text illuminates the distinct characteristics of the urban locale that became the focal point of rock fans’ desires and ambitions, examines how the interactions between the entrepreneurs who supplied the music and their adoles-cent clients were embedded in enduring networks of trust, and explores the peculiarities of the borsa as a site where western works of art were mechanically reproduced. It also demonstrates that the place where admirers of rock music met was enlivened by political energies and deliberately demarcated as a space in which ideological differences could manifest themselves, thus contesting Alexei Yurchak's argument that in late socialism it was possible to be loyal to and love “both Lenin and Led Zeppelin.“

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 2014 

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1. The source base which I use in this article consists of twenty-four interviews conducted in Sofia in 2008 and 2009. The method I used was snowball sampling (also known as chain referral sampling), which means that the study sample is formed through “referrals made among people who possess some characteristics that are of research interest.“ Patrick Biernacki and Dan Waldorf, “Snowball Sampling: Problems and Techniques of Chain Referral Sampling,” Sociological Methods and Research10, no. 2 (November 1981): 141. While this method is not designed to generate propositions generalizable across populations, it is of central importance for the study of groups engaged in illicit behavior, such as buying and selling in violation of legal restrictions. See Lindesmith, Alfred R., Addiction and Opiates(Chicago, 111., 1968)Google Scholar.

2. See Artemy, Troitsky, Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia(London, 1987)Google Scholar; Ryback, Timothy W., Rock around the Bloc: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union(Oxford, 1990)Google Scholar; Sabrina Petra, Ramet, ed., Rocking the State: Rock Music and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia(Boulder, Colo., 1994)Google Scholar; Thomas, Cushman, Notes from the Underground: Rock Music and Counterculture in Russia(Albany, 1995)Google Scholar; Poiger, Uta G., Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany(Berkeley, 2000)Google Scholar; Szemere, Anna, Up from the Underground: The Culture of Rock Music in Postsocialist Hungary(University Park, 2001)Google Scholar; Alexei, Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation(Princeton, 2006)Google Scholar; Zhuk, Sergei, Rock and Roll in the Rocket City: The West, Identity, and Ideology in Soviet Dnepropetrovsk(Washington, D.C., 2010)Google Scholar; William, Risch, The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv(Cambridge, Mass., 2011)Google Scholar; and Madigan, Fichter, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nation: Counterculture and Dissent in Romania, 1965-1975,” Nationalities Papers 39, no. 4 (July 2011): 567-85Google Scholar. On Bulgaria in particular, see Ryback, , Rock around the Block, 193-98Google Scholar; Stephen, Ashley, “The Bulgarian Rock Scene under Communism, 1962-1990,”in Ramet, ed., Rocking the State, 141-65Google Scholar; and Karin, Taylor, Let's Twist Again: Youth and Leisure in Socialist Bulgaria(Vienna, 2006)Google Scholar. Taylor's research focuses mostly on the 1960s and 1970s, not the 1980s, which is probably why she does not mention the borsa.

3. While it is true that this site was in proximity to two urban landmarks, by all accounts they had virtually nothing to do with the borsa's attractiveness. One was the aforementioned Liudmila Zhivkova People's Palace of Culture, after which the trolleybus stop was named. (Liudmila Zhivkova was communist dictator Todor Zhivkov's daughter, whose meteoric political career ended when she died in 1981. See the most recent biography, by Krum, Blagov, Zagadkata Liudmila Zhivkova[Sofia, 2012].Google Scholar) Separated from the borsa by a large park and situated more than a kilometer away, the Palace was not connected to the black market in any meaningful way (see figure 1). Vitoshka Street was also nearby, but the kinds of things one could purchase in the shops that lined this commercial thoroughfare— household appliances, medicines, linen and other fabrics, furniture—could hardly spark adolescent imaginations. Thus, there is no evidence to suggest that the trolleybus stop on Patriarch Evtimii Boulevard was somehow intrinsically more special than any other nook in the chaotic conglomeration of urban sites (see figure 2).

4. No one has analyzed this social divide better than Ivan, Hadzhiiski, Bit i dushevnost na nashiia narod, 3vols. (Sofia, 1940-2002)Google Scholar. Subsequent analyses have added very little to Hadzhiiski's fundamental insights.

5. The following is a sample of typical statements from my interviews. Assen Djingov: “Tony was this guy from Pernik who was a true entrepreneur: he only had a mono cassette player at the beginning, and after two years became the biggest supplier of rock music in his city.” Khristo Namev: “Krassi was from Kiustendil; he knew a lot about Deep Purple.“ Miroliub Petrinski: “One of the greatest collections of records I've seen was owned by a borsa regular from Vladaia; this guy really understood rock music and knew more about it than I did at the time.” Pernik and Kiustendil are cities in southwestern Bulgaria; Vladaia is a village near Sofia.

6. Claire, Levy, “The Influence of British Rock in Bulgaria,” Popular Music 11, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 209-12.Google Scholar

7. On progressive rock, see Edward, Macan, Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture(Oxford, 1997).Google Scholar

8. Djingov, Petrinski, and Sava Beninski, interviews.

9. Sabrina Petra Ramet, “Rock: The Music of Revolution (and of Political Conformity),“ in Ramet, ed., Rocking the State, 4.

10. By far the most popular black market was the bitak(flea market), where all kinds of commodities were bought and sold. If Sofians needed to “rent” a truck (in other words, to pay a bribe to a driver who would bring the state-owned vehicle out of the state-owned garage where it was supposed to be parked unless used for official business), they would go to Macedonia Square, where they could also buy cement and radiators; or, if they needed hard currency, they would go to the Magura Cafe, on Vitosha Boulevard, where jeans and Kent cigarettes were also available.

11. Aleksandar Ganchev, interview.

12. Petrinski, interview.

13. Georgi Pipkov, interview.

14. Drugs were culturally irrelevant in Bulgaria—it was alcohol that was used by those who wished to turn on, tune in, and drop out.

15. Troitsky, Back in the USSR, 14; Poiger, Jazz, Rock, and Rebels, 4. In contrast, women were embraced as members of the kompaniithat began to form during the thaw and energized the pursuit of alternative cultural and aesthetic values. See Ludmilla, Alexeyevaand Paul, Goldberg, The Thaw Generation: Coming of Age in the Post-Stalin Era(Pittsburgh, 1990).Google Scholar

16. Djingov, interview; Pipkov, interview; and Doichin Stanchev, interview, Koprivshtitsa, 19 luly 2009.

17. Antoaneta Dimitrova, Ralitsa Peeva, and Boriana Kiutchukova, interviews.

18. Emil Georgiev and Djingov, interviews.

19. Velizar Shirov, interview.

20. Beninski, interview.

21. Michael, Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy(Oxford, 1972), 1.Google Scholar

22. On the concept of institutions, see Jepperson, Ronald L., “Institutions, Institutional Effects, and Institutionalism,”in Powell, Walter W.and DiMaggio, Paul J., eds., The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis(Chicago, 1991), 143-63Google Scholar. On the notion of standardized interaction sequences, see ibid., 145.

23. Jonathan, Bolton, Worlds of Dissent: Charter 77, The Plastic People of the Universe, and Czech Culture under Communism(Cambridge, Mass., 2012), 122-23.Google Scholar

24. See Joseph Schumpeter, “Economic Theory and Entrepreneurial History,” in Clemence, Richard V., ed., Essays on Entrepreneurs, Innovations, Business Cycles, and the Evolution of Capitalism(New Brunswick, N.J., 1989), 259.Google Scholar

25. The average monthly salary at the time was 180-200 leva, so what the entrepreneurs asked for was affordable. Notably, during the same decade, the communist authorities increased the fixed prices of consumer good on several occasions, so that the price hike for recordings was actually lower than general inflation.

26. Three hypotheses regarding supply were discussed by my respondents: (1) Tony and Vesso relied on truck drivers traveling beyond the Iron Curtain; (2) the records reached Sofia through the port cities of Varna and Burgas; and (3) the records were purchased from the teenage sons of high-ranking officials and intelligence officers stationed abroad.

27. Petrinski, Djingov, Stanchev, Pipkov, and Marius Velichkov, interviews.

28. Pipkov, interview.

29. Namev, interview.

30. Boiko Batov, interview.

31. Djingov, interview.

32. Georgiev, interview.

33. Djingov, Petrinski, and Georgiev, interviews.

34. See Emile, Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society(New York, 1984), 154-65Google Scholar. It should be noted that according to Durkheim, “non-contractual relationships” are an recattribute of society. My argument is that they emerged in the borsa as an attribute of a discrete, anti-establishment subculture.

35. Walter, Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,”in Illuminations, ed. Hannah, Arendt, trans. Harry, Zohn(New York, 1968), 217-51Google Scholar. My interpretation of Benjamin has been influenced by Dagmar, Barnow, Weimar Intellectuals and the Threat of Modernity(Bloomington, 1988)Google Scholar, and lennifer, Todd, “Production, Reception, Criticism: Walter Benjamin and the Problem of Meaning in Art,” Philosophical Forum 15, nos. 1-2, (Fall-Winter 1983-84): 105-27.Google Scholar

36. Benjamin, “The Work of Art,” 221.

37. “The [samizdat] book might just be a copy of some original, but it also had the aura of a unique existence with its own individual history.” Bolton, Worlds of Dissent, 105

38. Benjamin mainly discusses “picture magazines and newsreels” in the essay. Benjamin, “The Work of Art,” 223. He does not offer a systematic analysis of the cultural significance of the mechanical reproduction of music.

39. Keith, Richards, Life(New York, 2010), 80.Google Scholar

40. Erik, Davis, Led Zeppelin's “Led Zeppelin IV”(New York, 2005), 13 Google Scholar. Emphasis in the original.

41. Namev, Ganchev, Djingov, and Stefan Kiutchukov, interviews.

42. Benjamin, “The Work of Art,” 223.

43. Peter, Manuel, Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India(Chicago, 1993), xiv, 2Google Scholar.

44. Nick, Hornby, High Fidelity(London, 1995), 52.Google Scholar

45. Djingov, interview.

46. Benjamin, “The Work of Art,” 223.

47. Richie Unterberger, “Interview with Milan Hlavsa,” at www.richieunterberger. com/hlavsa.html (last accessed 22 January 2014). Emphasis added.

48. Ashley, “The Bulgarian Rock Scene,” 141.

49. For a pertinent critique of Benjamin and the Frankfurt School, see Leszek, Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism: Its Origins, Growth and Dissolution, vol. 3, The Breakdown(Oxford, 1978), 341-420Google Scholar.

50. See Ramet, “Rock,” 2; Richard, Taruskin, The Danger of Music and Other Anti- Utopian Essays(Berkeley, 2010), 72 Google Scholar; and Szemere, Up from the Underground. Benda states, “In some areas like literature and… popular music, the parallel culture overshadows the lifeless, official culture.” Vaclav Benda, “The Parallel ‘Polis,'” in Skilling, H. Gordonand Paul, Wilson, eds., Civic Freedom in Central Europe: Voices from Czechoslovakia(New York, 1991), 37 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Kosio Atanasov expressed the following opinion: “The communists made it so that the most democratic music was declared to be counterrevolutionary and dangerous. Thus all rock fans automatically counted themselves to the right of the political spectrum and became anti-communists without even thinking about it.” Quoted in Rumen, Ianev, Vkusut na vremeto: Shturtsite, Bulgarskata rok legenda(Sofia, 2007), 21 Google Scholar. And Konrad notes, “The antipoliticians … want to free biology and religion, rock music and animal husbandry from the pathological bloat of the political state An antipolitician is someone who wants to put the state on a strict diet and doesn't mind being called antistate because of it.” Gyorgy, Konrad, Antipolitics: An Essay(New York, 1984), 229.Google Scholar

51. Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, 15

52. Ibid., 219.

53. Yurchak describes an incident in which a group of rock-loving young activists ruthlessly purged from the communist youth organization a young Christian who refused to renounce his religion. Ibid., 112-13.

54. Vladimir Sorokin, “On Hearing ‘Whole Lotta Love’ for the First Time in Moscow,“ New York Times, 10 March 2010, .html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (last accessed 10 April 2014).

55. On the John Lennon Peace Committee incident, see Soviet Nationality Survey1, no. 6 (June 1984): 3. On popular music in Dnepropetrovsk, see Sergei I. Zhuk, “Religion, 'Westernization,’ and Youth in the ‘Closed City’ of Soviet Ukraine, 1964-1984,” Russian Review67, no. 4 (October 2008), 679. Emphasis in the original.

56. Pipkov, interview.

57. Velichkov, interview.

58. Petrinski, interview.

59. James C., Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts(New Haven, 1990), 23 Google Scholar.

60. For excellent discussions of the analytical and empirical aspects of the notion of dissent, see Falk, Barbara J., “Resistance and Dissent in Central and Eastern Europe,“ East European Politics and Societies 25, no. 2(May 2011), 318-60CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Ann, Komaromi, “Samizdat and Soviet Dissident Politics,” Slavic Review 71, no. 1(Spring 2012): 7090 Google Scholar.

61. See Yurchak, “Late Socialism: An Eternal State,” in Everything Was Forever, 1-35.

62. See Max, Weber, Methodology of the Social Sciences, trans, and ed. Shils, Edward A.and Finch, Henry A.(New York, 1949)Google Scholar.

63. Konrád, Antipolitics, 203.

64. Djingov, Velichkov, and Petrinski, interviews.

65. Dimitrova, Peeva, and Kiutchukova, interviews.

66. Gaston, Bachelard, The Poetics of Space(Boston, Mass., 1994), xxxv-xxxvi.Google Scholar

67. Ganchev, interview.

68. Batov, interview.

69. Djingov, interview.

70. Petrinski, interview.

71. On oppositional linguistic codes, see Scott, “Making Social Space for a Dissident Subculture,” in Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 108-36.

72. Namev, Petrinski, and Djingov, interviews.

73. After 1989 the term kukarapidly fell into disuse, and it is probably unfamiliar to the newer generations of Bulgarians.

74. Carol, Silverman, “Bulgarian Wedding Music between Folk and Chalga:Politics, Markets, and Current Productions,” Musicology 7(2007): 75.Google Scholar

75. Why the police chose not to do so is a question that goes beyond the scope of this paper. However, my respondents mentioned two hypotheses: (1) some police officers received a cut of Tony's and Vesso's profits; and (2) many of the teenagers frequenting the borsa were in fact the sons of high-ranking officials, which motivated the police to exercise some restraint. I would add two additional hypotheses: (3) since the site was visible and activities predictable, officials preferred to monitor it rather than drive the entire black market for hard rock underground; and (4) throughout the 1980s the communists' repressive apparatuses had to deal with crises compared to which the borsa was a minor problem (e.g., carrying out the party's assimilationist policies vis-a-vis the Turkish minority and nipping rapidly emerging dissident movements in the bud).

76. Thorstein, Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class(New York, 1979), 28.Google Scholar

77. On the officially sanctioned notion of leisure, see Stephen, Lovell, “Leisure in Russia: 'Free’ Time and Its Uses,” Forum for Anthropology and Culture, no. 3(2006): 123-54Google Scholar; and Gleb, Tsipursky, “Having Fun in the Thaw: Youth Initiative Clubs in the Post-Stalin Years,” The Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies, no. 2201 (2012): 168 Google Scholar. On consumption-oriented leisure in Czechoslovakia, see Paulina Bren, “Weekend Get instituaways: The Chata, the Tramp and the Politics of Private Life in Post-1968 Czechoslovakia,“ in David, Crowleyand Reid, Susan E., eds., Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc(Oxford, 2002), 123-40.Google Scholar

78. Pierre, Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment ofTaste(Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 7 Google Scholar.

79. Robert, Edelman, Spartak Moscow: A History of the People's Team in the Workers' State(Ithaca, 2009), 2 Google Scholar.

80. Taylor, Let's Twist Again, 210.

81. Beninski, interview.

82. Gulnaz, Sharafutdinovaand Neringa, Klumbyte, “Introduction: What Was Late Socialism?,“in Neringa, Klumbyteand Gulnaz, Sharafutdinova, eds., Soviet Society in the Era of Late Socialism, 1964-1985(Lanham, Md., 2013), 3, 6.Google Scholar

83. Edelman, Spartak Moscow, 2.

84. Donna, Buchanan, Performing Democracy: Bulgarian Music and Musicians in Transition(Chicago, 2006), 6 Google Scholar.

85. Dimitrina, Kaufman, “Suvremennite svatbarski orkestri kato ‘disidentski’ formatsii,“ Bulgarskifolklor 21, no. 6 (1995): 4957.Google Scholar

86. Vladimir, Gadzhev, Teodosii Spassov: Presledvashtiiat zvutsi(Sofia, 2012)Google Scholar. Among the many virtues of this book is its extensive coverage of developments that transpired outside Sofia, particularly in Plovdiv, Sopot, and Ruse.

87. Padraic, Kenney, A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989(Princeton, 2002), 5 Google Scholar.

88. Timothy, Rice, Music in Bulgaria: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture(Oxford, 2004), 73 Google Scholar.

89. Mark, Slobin, introduction to Mark, Slobin, ed., Retuning Culture: Musical Changes in Central and Eastern Europe(Durham, 1996), 2.Google Scholar

90. On the indigenous human rights movement, see Ivan, Gadzhev, Neprimirimiiat: Ilia Minev orpurvo litse i drugite za nego(Sofia, 2003)Google Scholar. On dissident activism in Bulgaria in the 1980s more generally, see Natal ‘ia, Khristova, Spetsifika na bŭlgarskoto disidentstvo: Vlast i inteligentsiia, 1956-1989(Plovdiv, 2005)Google Scholar. On the secret police's growing concerns about the regime's ability to quell ideological dissent, see Dimitar, Ivanov, Shesti otdel(Sofia, 2004)Google Scholar.

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92. Miglena, Nikolchina, “The Seminar: Mode d'emploi;Impure Spaces in the Light of Late Totalitarianism,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13, no. 1(Spring 2002): 9899.Google Scholar

93. Milan, Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, trans. Michael Henry, Heim(New York, 1981), 7 Google Scholar.

94. Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, 294-95.

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