New East Digital Archive

Photo of the week: a Bulgarian photographer’s tribute to her beloved grandmother

Photo of the week: a Bulgarian photographer's tribute to her beloved grandmother

24 February 2017

Our photo of the week taken by Bulgarian photographer Krasimira Butseva is dedicated to her grandmother, who lived through communism with a little known life-saving secret.

Butseva had never experienced communism for herself: everything she’d learned of the four decades when the country was governed by the Bulgarian Communist party was passed onto her from her family. These memories were mostly coloured by nostalgia.

Though Bulgaria was often referred to as the 16th Soviet Republic, it was relatively prosperous compared to other Eastern Bloc countries, partly for being the biggest exporter of cigarettes in the world. Her grandmother had worked in a cigarette factory and two years ago she revealed not only the hardships she experienced living behind the Iron Curtain, but also how these cigarettes had saved her life.

“My grandmother was born and raised in communist Bulgaria. Her life was going well until my grandfather was sent to work abroad and left his family behind. Yet, she found a way to survive and take care of her kids. Every morning she would go to the bakery opposite the cigarette factory where she worked with a basket in hand to get breakfast for everyone, but really it was to leave packs of cigarettes at the bakery,” Butseva told The Calvert Journal.

To smuggle the cigarettes she would hide the packs in her tights around her belly, wearing them like a belt. “She used to put some more in her bra and in every pocket of her dress. There were quite a few in the basket too,” the photographer adds. This way she managed to afford food, to finish building her house, and send her kids to a good school.

According to Butseva, her grandmother had never let anyone in on her secret. “Passing the hospital everyday on her way back, she would imagine what would happen if she had passed out one day on the street. When the doctors would take her in and try to help her, they would find the secret,” she says.

The photographer is currently completing her MA at the University of Portsmouth, UK, as part of which she’s researching the crimes and atrocities committed by the communist regime. By contrast, this photograph is about the everyday people who courageously turned to crime as a means of survival.

“Through this work I am exploring the gap between the human and communist ideology. The people that had to put themselves in danger for a higher cause, who went against the law for the need to fight for life. The fact is that in this robotic system, that erases individually, people didn’t manage to become absolute followers of the socialist rule, nor did they quash their most human qualities,” she concludes.