Issue 14 / Kids

September 30, 2021
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Socialist Cyborgs

Victor Petrov

How Bulgaria tried—and failed—to save communism by computerizing the 1980s generation.

In the spring of 1989, a virus began attacking computers in Europe, the United States, and Asia. During every sixteenth run of an infected executable file, the virus overwrote a random sector of a machine’s hard disk and manifested the phrase “Eddie lives… somewhere in time” on the monitor. A signature declared the virus’ origin: “This program was written in the city of Sofia (C) 1988–89 Dark Avenger.” 

Dark Avenger was the most prolific of a number of hackers that emerged in Bulgaria in the late 1980s and 1990s. In December 1990, The New York Times reported that the Eastern Bloc nation had become a major infection vector in the new information economy. The late John McAfee told the newspaper, “I would say that 10 percent of the sixty calls we receive each week are for Bulgarian viruses.” By another estimate, around ninety out of the 300 then extant viruses for IBM machines originated from the country. In 1997, Wired called Bulgaria “the heart of darkness.” 

How could a small socialist country become ground zero for so many digital epidemics? The conventional narrative of Eastern European communism is one of technologically backward states that failed to enter the information age, locked behind an impenetrable Iron Curtain that prevented both people and ideas from circulating. In Bulgaria, however, the electronic industry’s success was considered a key component of achieving the state’s ideological and economic dreams. The Bulgarian Communist Party hoped that the computer would usher in a communist utopia. Automation would streamline planning through a nationwide information network, and man would be free from menial tasks. More pressingly, the party was betting that computers could revive an economy that had once been the second fastest-growing in the world, but was floundering by the 1980s.

This vision was partially fulfilled: by the mid-1980s, socialist Bulgaria was producing up to 47 percent of all computer hardware within the Eastern Bloc, from Berlin to Vladivostok. But the country still suffered from negligible growth rates and low worker productivity, in part due to the party’s inability to implement the technology its factories were producing. State-produced hardware, computers, and numerically-controlled machines often languished unused due to a shortage of necessary software. 

As this problem played out over the course of the 1980s, the party vested its hopes in a mass education effort to transform what turned out to be the last children of socialism into the first electronic generation. These kids would be trained to create the software that would allow the party to automate all it dreamed of automating—from chemical production to managing pension databases. Beginning in 1983, Bulgarian children as young as twelve were enrolled in a state-run program of technical tinkering. High schools and universities were transformed into laboratories of the future and factories for the regime. While learning BASIC, Bulgarian children were to advance themselves as intellectual laborers and truly creative citizens of a newly scientific socialist world, in order to become the future governors of much more complex production and social processes.

In reality, however, the 1980s generation of Bulgarian children found themselves becoming cogs in an economy that continued to suffer shortages, bottlenecks, and scarcity—all of which contributed to the collapse of the communist regime in 1989. When that happened, the technological skills and entrepreneurial desires the state had cultivated in its children were rechanneled into viruses and the first software enterprises of democratic Bulgaria. 

Hackers like Dark Avenger were thus the most notorious product of a failed political and cultural experiment with a long afterlife. The death of the party’s dream pushed much of the 1980s generation into an ideology that was fiercely opposed to socialism, but still wildly utopian. Many of these kids eventually emigrated to Silicon Valley and other hubs in the global information economy, bringing with them a strongly capitalist version of the communist’s dream: liberation of the human spirit through technology.

Tinker and Spy

Karl Marx once quipped that under communism man would be a fisherman in the morning and an artist in the afternoon. By the 1960s, the Bulgarian Communist Party believed that automation had brought Marx’s vision to the cusp of realization. Thousands of engineers were trained in the country’s universities, and cybernetics became a watchword for the party’s economic programs. Computers would streamline information flows, provide objective information on the economy, and allow planners in Sofia to accurately predict the future. The Politburo trumpeted that “science would be a productive force.”

Just a generation before, that idea of Bulgaria’s future had seemed unthinkable. Back in 1944, when the party assumed power as Stalin’s Red Army rolled over the Danube, this small Balkan state was largely an agricultural producer. In the nascent field of international development, Bulgaria was considered an example of the region’s “trap,” which could only be escaped through large-scale investment. That is precisely what the Soviets brought, in the guise of breakneck Stalinist industrialization. Throughout the 1950s, the country assumed the Soviet economic model: central planning, smokestack industries, and a growing industrial proletariat squeezed into the cities. 

By the 1960s, however, Bulgaria’s extensive growth period was tapering off, and the country was suffering a debt crisis. On the advice of Bulgarian engineers trained in western Europe, the party turned to electronics as the good of the future. As the party’s leader, Todor Zhivkov, put it, “We couldn’t industrialize with tomatoes and eggs.” Heavy state investment was combined with Japanese licensing and a prodigious espionage program to create the Bulgarian computer industry. By the 1970s, dozens of Bulgarian factories and institutes were churning out CPUs, mini-computers, and peripherals, such as ES-1020 mainframes and IZOT hard drives. Most of this technology was licensed or reverse-engineered after the Bulgarian intelligence services had procured it in the West; from its inception, the nation’s hardware industry was based on spying and tinkering, rather than true domestic innovation. The golden goose was the hard disk, which Bulgaria almost monopolized in the Eastern Bloc.

The 1980s were marked by continual heavy investment in robotics and personal computing, bringing the automation age into the office and onto the factory floor. Imperfect as it was, Bulgarian automation did take hold to some extent—around 200,000 workers in a country of eight million worked in the electronics sector, the second largest industrial workforce in the country. Its IBM 360/370-copies, Winchester hard drives, and an Apple II clone known as the Pravetz, found their way into socialist enterprises throughout the Global South. Bulgarian computers flew on the Soviet space station Mir, were used for nuclear research in India, and equipped Mozambique’s nascent statistical authority. Though often slowly, and in a piecemeal fashion, automation entered car production processes and cement factories, monitored milk levels in collective farms, and increasingly suffused social and government services. 

Unfortunately, Bulgarian products often fared badly on the global capitalist market due to their sometimes shoddy quality. Rather than looking at its economic principles such as central planning as a potential source of the problem, the party focused on the “subjective factor.” In their view, it was the Bulgarian worker rather than the system that was to blame—shirking responsibilities, pilfering the petty change, and sleeping on the job. Only the computer and robot would solve this problem, by eliminating the human strategies of survival in the shortage economy of socialism, where personal links and the grey market were key to procuring scarce goods. These were the peculiar conditions within which the next, truly computerized generation, would have to grow up.

The Man-Machine-Environment

The organization that prepared most Bulgarian children to be the model communists of the future was the Dimitrov Communist Youth Union (DKMS). In 1984, the DKMS started publishing Computer for You, a monthly magazine for the new generation. The magazine’s first editorial told these kids that “we will aim to offer you knowledge, experience and creativity from the interesting world of ‘her majesty’ ELECTRONISATION.” 

Her majesty was indeed marching through children’s lives. In 1979, the party had directed twenty-seven schools across the country to implement experiments in computer education. But it was the personal computing revolution that opened the Bulgarian school to electronics. In 1983, the Sofia High School of Electronics received its first fully equipped classroom of eighteen Bulgarian PCs, and informatics became part of the school curriculum. 

Within a year, there were over 300 PCs in Bulgarian schools, and the numbers continued growing. Education software was used in language training, mathematics, and science lessons, alongside BASIC classes. Eleventh grade was reconstructed to include units such as “an introduction to cybernetics” and “production automation.” Computer for You contained architects’ plans for new classrooms that treated students like cyborgs—“integration into the school environment is effective only if it ensures optimal functioning of the Man-Machine-Environment system,” a cybernetics engineer told the magazine. 

If the economy was going to be composed of man-machine systems, schools would be, too. New educational methods were developed under the auspices of mathematician Blagovest Sendov, who had participated in the creation of Vitosha, the first Bulgarian computer, in the early 1960s. In an article for the magazine, Sendov called the computer “a fantastical object” and deemed it the new age’s defining metaphor. Bulgarian socialism, he said, would be defined by the “mind to be molded—on the computer model.” The new society was one of informational glut, and kids had to learn to “continue learning” throughout life—to sift through information, synthesize it, and see the connections between different areas of human endeavor. Learning the language of computers—what Sendov called “the second literacy”—was to become the crux of every school’s curriculum.

Children were also enticed into the new dream through a network of computer clubs operated by the DKMS. The first appeared in 1984 in the capital of Sofia; by 1987, there were over 530 of them throughout the country, from the largest cities to many villages. They contained over 4,000 PCs, as well as small, domestically produced robots, which students could program to perform various tasks, such as moving small loads between two tables. Annual nationwide “Informatics Olympiads” were held throughout the country, and Bulgarian computer clubs also popped up in the USSR, Cuba, North Korea, Ethiopia, and Vietnam. The DKMS estimated that over 600,000 students and young workers used the computer clubs every year.

By 1985, the first student-run enterprise in computing was already helping to solve the country’s economic problems. In the course of just a few months, Avantgarde, a collective of high school and university students from Sofia and the city of Plovdiv, had created sixty games and twenty educational programs for classrooms and the computer club network. They also cooperated with state factories, creating specialized data processing packages for the economy: graphic editors for design studios, electronic databases for enterprise personnel record-keeping, troubleshooting programs, and more. The young engineer that oversaw Avantgarde noted that, by 1986, there were software enterprises in many provincial cities, while over fifty economic entities in the state economy were interested in either ordering or co-developing software packages. In the typically staid language of the time, he saw all this as “linking more closely with the ideological preparation… of the young population, in the spirit of the realities that determine the technological transition of socialist Bulgaria into the 21st century.” And as Computer for You more rhapsodically put it, “The intellectual revolution is in the hands of today’s students.”

Viral Load

Ultimately, Marx’s vision of hunting in the morning and debating in the afternoon never arrived for socialist Bulgaria. Eastern Europe was swept up in the grand changes of 1989, and the Bulgarian Communist Party initiated a palace coup the day after the Berlin Wall fell, removing Todor Zhivkov from power and starting down the road to democratic elections. Yet the country’s intellectual revolution had nevertheless occurred: the cyborgification of Bulgarian youth had succeeded, on both a technical and a cultural level.

Two years before the fall of communism, in an effort to stave off the collapse of the economy, the party had begun introducing modest economic reforms. This included limited forms of private enterprise, and Bulgarian youth formed some of the country’s first legal private companies. Many children found it easy to make this transition to market capitalism—as Computer for You pointed out, young programmers in particular were already operating in the conditions of freedom that the state was now proclaiming. Much of the software being used by major firms had come out of those children’s brains. The state’s airline, Balkan Airways, used the Syntez program from Burgas-based software firm Busoft, where a tenth grader awed journalists by pulling up flight schedules and reservation systems in Bulgarian and English. Young developers had automated hotel reservation, office correspondence, and wage databases, and demonstrated their inventions at the Plovdiv international exposition in 1985, which was themed “the creations of young inventors.”

As the Bulgarian economy faltered at the end of the decade, young Bulgarian programmers lost their job prospects along with much of their creative freedom. In this crisis was born the other face of socialist Bulgaria’s computer revolution—the virus. The first mention of “computer viruses” in Computer for You came in April 1988; in effect, the magazine let young programming enthusiasts know what a virus was, and that it could be copied, improved, and spread. Because most Bulgarian computers were shared by dozens of people in classrooms and computer clubs, it was easy to get hold of a virus and infect a machine inadvertently. Viruses also suited the logics of reverse-engineering and copying on which the Bulgarian computer economy was already running. Why not tinker with a digital pathogen and send it out into the world beyond Bulgaria? After all, you knew it would work virtually anywhere, because your Pravetz was compatible with an Apple!

Starting in early 1989, computers as far away as the USA and Thailand were infected with Bulgarian viruses. Some were minor irritants, such as the “Yankee Doodle” virus, which simply played the eponymous melody on your computer. Other viruses were what Bulgaria’s first anti-virus expert, Vesselin Bontchev, called “technopathic,” with one causing over one million dollars in losses to an unidentified East Coast company. 

During socialism, young people with hippie haircuts or punk fashion had often been persecuted by the Bulgarian police. But the regime’s software industry had nevertheless allowed and even encouraged self-expression, and this was reflected in the almost libertine spirit of Bulgaria’s virus culture. To gain access to the Virus eXchange, a dial-in bulletin board system set up by a university student in November 1988, you had to provide one new virus to a growing collection of over 300; the site proclaimed itself “a place for free exchange of viruses and a place where everything is permitted!” This ethos would shape the last socialist generation’s political commitments, too.

The Long Drive West

In his powerful trilogy, The Information Age, Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells argued that the USSR and the socialist world system failed in part because they never fully made the jump to a post-industrial, post-Fordist, and “informational” organization of the economy—based not on the rustbelt industries of manufacturing, but on the shiny offices of the flexible service sector. In Bulgaria, the economy continued to be dominated by smokestack enterprises and the nascent computer sector was expected to subsidize other, failing industries. 

But the failure of the techno-socialist utopia which created Bulgaria’s first generation of coders and founders continues to inform the ideas of Bulgarian tech workers. Those who moved to tech companies in the West left the socialist elements of the party’s political project behind, but retained its techno-utopian ideals. That utopianism found a new ideological home in the libertarian culture of Silicon Valley. Momchil Kyurkchiev, the founder of the Silicon Valley firm Leanplum, which makes a mobile marketing platform, recently told a Bulgarian television station that he sees important similarities between the US today and his childhood in early 1990s Bulgaria: if you don’t struggle, you don’t succeed. It is daring entrepreneurship, he added, that separates the winners from the losers. Indeed, the “drive West” of Bulgarian computer programmers, as the onetime scientific secretary of the Institute of Technical Cybernetics in Sofia called it when I interviewed him, has not produced many critiques of the West. If anything, it seems that Bulgarians’ professional success in Silicon Valley has confirmed many in the belief that they had the right acumen, but were born into the wrong social system.

Today, Bulgaria has among the European Union’s poorest economies, but the country nevertheless boasts a robust software industry. The post-1989 generations continue to flock to the sector as a guarantor of relatively high wages. According to Eurostat, the European Union’s directorate for statistical information, in 2018 Bulgaria was third in the EU in terms of information and communication technology’s share of gross domestic product. There has even been one high-profile, home-grown software success story: in 2014, the Sofia-based firm Telerik, which creates tools for web development, was sold to a US company in a deal worth $262 million. Svetozar Georgiev, one of the company’s four founders, recalled in an interview with ZDNet that he first taught himself to program on a Pravetz-16 that his father brought home in the late 1980s. 

Notably, many of the programmers who stayed in Bulgaria and now work in its software sector vote for center-right parties that promise fewer social services and more competition in all spheres of governance and economic life. According to these parties, the solutions to the country’s major problems—widespread corruption and a bloated bureaucracy that drive Bulgaria to the bottom of every index, from economic growth to media freedom—are technological. Bozhidar Bozhanov, one of the chief candidates for Democratic Bulgaria, a centrist political alliance, is an IT entrepreneur who posits that only forms of electronic governance and digital tools of citizen-state interaction can lessen the bureaucracy, corruption, and opaqueness of Bulgarian politics. Their “six month accelerated program of digitalization” calls for everything from electronic signatures for all citizens and electronic registers of all businesses that have received Covid relief funds, to telemedicine, distance learning, and “electronic justice” which aims to lessen the obstacles to registering complaints and dealing with the opaque judiciary. Anything that stands in the way of this “electronic governance” is to be removed, branded a holdover from the bygone era of yesteryear. In their view, Bulgarian democracy needs transparency, and only electronic tools are able to produce it. This call holds at its heart the party’s aim to downsize the state administration, laying off state employees who much of the public see as corrupt and inefficient. Digitalization’s march can only be achieved through human unemployment.

By the same token, the health of the IT sector is the prism through which parties’ policies are being judged. The country’s effectively regressive flat tax on income and profits, introduced in the late 2000s, is considered one of the pillars of the current IT renaissance. As the journalist Daniel Vasilev put it before the country’s March 2021 elections, any call for progressive taxation would be “deadly,” because it would cause investors, especially those in the computer sector, to flee Bulgaria. State investment in the sector is also discouraged by those on the center-right; the only thing the state should do, in their view, is remove regulations facing entrepreneurs. The labor code must also be reformed, they claim, because it is currently preventing a flexible market, by which they really mean the introduction of zero-hour contracts and precarious gig work. 

Of course, the belief that all the problems of a corrupt Bulgaria can be solved through the perfect tools is not that different to the Bulgarian Communist Party’s old dream that central planning through electronic brains would create communism. In both cases, the state is to be stripped back to a minimum. Perhaps today’s technological and political entrepreneurs, like their socialist predecessors, may find out that a new generation raised in conditions of financial crashes, pandemics, and political deadlock may draw different ideological conclusions to what the new status quo intends.

Victor Petrov is an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the author of the forthcoming Balkan Cyberia: Bulgarian Modernisation, Computers, and the World 1963-1989.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 14, "Kids". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.