Enough time has passed that this story can now be told. With great events in history, there is a public account, which is in all the textbooks, but there is commonly a back story that chronicles the true events. I want to tell you how the era of communism in Eastern Europe came to an end, or, more specifically, the events that started the collapse of the house of cards.
It was the mid-1980s and my wife and I [we had no children then] wanted a vacation. We went to a travel agent, told them we wanted a week away starting next weekend – what had they got? Various suggestions were proposed, but we were attracted by something just a bit unusual: Bulgaria. So that is where we went …
At that time, I had a number of colleagues who had visited Easter Bloc countries on business and came back with lots of stories. I was never sure whether to believe them all, but keen to see such a country. Looking back, I am very glad we went there when we did.
We arrived at the hotel very late at night. The room seemed OK. I looked out from the balcony. Below us I could see a large dark rectangle, which I concluded must be the pool. Something to investigate in the morning. As I got ready for bed, I noticed a couple of spots on my chest, which I thought was a bit odd.
In the morning, I felt alright, despite another couple of spots appearing. I looked out of the window again. The rectangle I had seen was, indeed, the pool, but it was empty and cracked with weeds growing between the tiles. This proved to be quite typical of the environment – all rather run-down and decayed.
We went out to get breakfast and explore the resort. Our holiday was “full board”, so all our meals were included. Being a communist country, everything was state owned, including all the hotels and restaurants. This meant that we had meal vouchers, which could be exchanged anywhere. This apparent flexibility was not such a bonus, as all the food we found was uniformly mediocre.
As the days went by, I got more and more spots. But we just carried on and we enjoyed the sunshine and explored the area. It was interesting to see the other tourists: mainly a few Brits, some Germans and lots of Russians. They were easy to recognize, as they went around in packs of about 20 in a very regimented fashion, with one individual clearly “in charge”.
As the end of our week approached, I had yet more spots and an ongoing feeling of being hung over, even though I had not really had any alcohol. I resolved to check in with my doctor when I got home.
On our last day, I saw something which has stuck in my mind ever since. There was an elderly lady sitting by the road. She had very brown leathery skin and smiled toothlessly at passers-by. She wanted money and had a pot with some coins in it. But she was not begging. She was offering a service. At her feet were some very old and filthy bathroom scales, which she would allow anyone to use for a small fee. I recall thinking that this woman was all set for the day when communism finally goes away – not knowing that this day was not far off.
When I got home, I went to see my doctor. She confirmed what I had suspected: I had had chicken pox. She explained that I had been very lucky. Only a few months before, she had had another patient of a similar age [I was about 30], who had died as a result of contracting the disease. She also observed that I had been very, very contagious for the last 10 days and had probably passed on the disease to countless people.
I started thinking about all the Russians in their tight-knit groups and how they might pass chicken pox to one another. I may have started an epidemic, which demoralized hundreds or thousands of people. Who knows what the outcome of that might have been, but, not long after, the Soviet Empire began to fall apart.