How communist Bulgaria became a leader of tech and sci-fi…

Nice piece by Victor Petrev, a postdoctoral student at the European University Institute.

The Cold War stories did tell us how Soviets looked forward to being better than US at sci-fi and hi-tech. We have a similar story from Communist Bulgaria as well:

Bulgaria was not such a strange place for these ideas to spawn lively debate. The Balkan state was, by the 1980s, the Eastern Bloc’s ‘Silicon Valley’, home to cutting-edge factories producing processors, hard discs, floppy drives and industrial robots. It was called ‘the Japan of the Balkans’, producing nearly half of all computing devices and peripherals in the Eastern Bloc. Kesarovski himself was a trained mathematician, who spent time working in the electronic industry. He was one of more than 200,000 people who produced electronics in a country of just over 8 million people, the second biggest group of industrial workers. The party trumpeted its achievements worldwide, proud of transforming a small agricultural and backward state to a vanguard of the information society in the space of a generation.

Back in 1944, as the Red Army rolled over the Danube, and the Bulgarian communists took power in Sofia, the country was mainly an agricultural producer, its tobacco calming German troops throughout occupied Europe. As the cigarettes switched to the pockets of Soviet troops and citizens, so did society switch from the land to the city, with millions streaming into newly built workers’ dormitories and factories. By the 1960s, Bulgaria had been thoroughly transformed by breakneck industrialisation. The shortcomings such as poor housing or insufficient city infrastructure were not glaring enough to take the gloss off the massive achievement that was socialist modernisation. A sense of optimism pervaded many in a society that was now producing machines, cars, ships. As the Party sought extra cash, it focused on electronics as the specialised good of the future, and a niche that was yet to be filled by any one communist country. Computers and electronics were being produced throughout the Eastern Bloc, but not a single country was truly mass-producing them, and the region lagged behind its capitalist competitors.

The Bulgarians surged ahead of their socialist allies through close contacts with Japanese firms and a massive industrial espionage effort. While Bulgarian engineers signed contracts with Fujitsu, state security agents criss-crossed the United States and Europe in search of the latest embargo electronics to buy, copy or steal. In 1977, a whole IBM factory for magnetic discs based in Portugal was bought by a cover firm and shipped off to Bulgaria; elsewhere, secrets were passed on to Bulgarians by their foreign colleagues through the simple exchange of catalogues and information at conferences and fairs. Scientists back in Bulgaria reverse-engineered, improved, tinkered; soon towns that once processed tobacco were supplying hundreds of millions of customers with computers.

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