“A Cool Look on Communism”, Petar Kostadinov on Sofia Echo

The online English language media The Sofia Echo published a review by Petar Kostadinov on Momchil Metodiev’s book “The Legitimacy Machine: The Role of State Security in the Communist State“.

The ghost of communist-era secret services has haunted Bulgarians for the past 20 years, similar to any other nation shaking off totalitarianism and embracing democracy. The debate in Bulgarian society, just like that of other countries, has been dominated by emotions surrounding 45 years of communism.

The desire to find culprits has left little room for an objective examination of the communist State Security apparatus. Instead, attention has been focused on State Security archives and its revelations about undercover agents and informers during communism. In the midst of all this tittle-tattle, a new book by graduate historian and researcher Momchil Metodiev is a welcome addition. Entitled “The Legitimacy Machine: The Role of State Security in the Communist Atate”, the book addresses the true nature of State Security, its explicit functions, its control and leadership.

Two days before the book was launched on April 17, The Sofia Echo interviewed Metodiev. “The book’s goal is a scientific analysis of State Security. I don’t want it to be interpreted the same way as people commonly refer to State Security, as just another aspect of communism,” Metodiev says.

As a researcher, he wants to make clear that his interest in the subject is strictly scientific. This has made his book one of the rare exceptions to the debate about the role of State Security in Bulgaria.

The research took Metodiev about three years. The book is based on his studies of the archives of the former Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) and the country’s rulers between 1947 and 1989. “These archives are open for research, unlike those currently maintained by the Interior Ministry and the other successors to State Security, such as the Defence Ministry and National Intelligence Service. I was able to go through most of State Security’s internal regulations and the bulk of daily reports written by its officers and internal regulations. It’s all there in the communist party archives,” he says.

Sifting through the archives of a political party in order to study the past of a secret service may look strange in contemporary democratic Bulgaria. Given the political realities 20 years ago, however, Metodiev’s approach makes sense.

“I went to the BCP archive for one simple reason. The day-to-day operational decisions might have been taken by State Security officers, but the major ones defining the purpose of State Security were taken by the communist party and its leadership. Furthermore, it was the communist party that exerted total control over State Security. So it was perfectly natural for me to examine the party’s archives. These archives had records of Politburo meetings during which State Security issues were discussed.”

Within the party there was a special division entrusted with supervising State Security. “This division answered to one of the BCP central committee’s secretaries. Since the mid 1960s this secretary was none other than Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s communist leader and ruler,” Metodiev says.

One of the debates currently raging in Bulgarian society about State Security is whether it was merely a repressive machine or whether it actually served Bulgaria’s national interests. Kircho Kirov, head of the National Intelligence Service, a former employee of State Security, claims that State Security’s First Head Directorate – International Intelligence Work, had nothing to do with what State Security had done in Bulgaria because it only operated in the nation’s best interests.

“I have a different opinion,” Metodiev says. “From my investigations, I can say that each of State Security’s branches had political functions. By political I mean repressive functions. For example, Third Directorate, which was the military counter-intelligence, had clear political functions related to the Bulgarian army. It had to secure the army’s loyalty to the party on every level. The counter-intelligence (Second Head Directorate) was entrusted with overseeing embassies and foreigners in Bulgaria. International intelligence had the same political functions as the other directorates because it worked on Bulgarian immigration abroad. Intelligence officers had to oversee Bulgarian diplomats abroad and check on their morale.”

However, Metodiev does not view State Security as purely a repressive machine. “Repression was just part of its function. I believe that State Security was a machine designed to grant legitimacy to the communist regime. International intelligence was a major factor in its remit. It had to manipulate international organisations for the benefit of the communist regime in Bulgaria.”

Interestingly, State Security was not just collecting information but disseminating it, too. “It had two tasks: the first was to spread the party’s message to the people. The second was to gauge people’s reactions to the propaganda. So it was the party’s legitimacy machine.”

One of the best-kept secrets was the number of people who worked for State Security. So far there has just been speculation. “I didn’t find any documents revealing the number of State Security personnel for the entire period but, for example, I know that in 1962 it had 6200 officers. Based on other documents, I can guess that by 1989 this number had grown to 15 000 officers.”

As for the number of agents, snitches and collaborators, one can only make assumptions because some documents said that each officer had about 10 agents on his list.

Metodiev found it illuminating sifting through the archives of the Fifth Directorate – Security and Protection.”It was all about privileges. “What amazed me the most was that the notion of privileges for the communist elite arose right at the outset – in 1944. Depending on your status in the party hierarchy you could shop in stores of various quality. There was a clear view about privileges from the beginning to the very end. Zhivkov had full control over the directorate. This was obviously one of his ways to control the party – by handing out privileges.”

As for the end itself, Metodiev saw that nothing in the documents dating from 1989 suggested any change in State Security mentality “except that you can see the word ‘perestroika’ here and there”. This notwithstanding, the system was trying to work in the same way as it had done 30 years before. There was one change, however. “In the late 1980s, State Security’s structure grew substantially. As a result of ‘perestroika’, Bulgaria’s leadership began relying less on the USSR and more on State Security.”

Metodiev agrees that there is still a lot to be said about State Security. “The book has no personal stories because the archives are not fully opened yet. Some people might not find it that interesting but this was not my point,” he says. For him the current debate on the issue lacks objectivity. “People talk about the snitches and collaborators but no one talks about the officers who gave orders. So in a way State Security officers still enjoy the high status they had before 1989. Only when we have we opened all the archives and processed them can we debate about who is to blame and for what.”

Petar Kostadionov, The Sofia Echo, 26 April, 2008