Dimitrovgrad, Bulgaria. Photograph by damnom

From Harper’s:

After the Fall, progress toward free markets and multiparty politics was slow. Todor Zhivkov, the longest-serving general secretary in the Eastern Bloc, may have been deposed the day after the Berlin Wall came down, but it wasn’t necessarily the chief cause. The Politburo replaced the unpopular Zhivkov with another Communist, Petar Mladenov, and it would be another seven years before the first stable anti-Communist government came to power. Meanwhile, state assets were sold off through networks of cronyism and corruption. “I understood soon after that it was all a farce,” said Tsirkov, who before 1989 had been a member of Bulgaria’s only independent trade union, and afterwards one of the founding members of the country’s first anti-Communist political party. “The Communists chose the opposition and half of them were agents of the State Security service. The state was robbed, the enterprises, the banks. The comrades took everything. And it was clear that it was all directed by the services.”

Former State Security agents went into private business and hired professional wrestlers—who found themselves in need of work after being pampered under the Communist system—as their muscle. These mutras (goons), as they came to be known, often wore flashy jogging suits and gold chains, and they developed a reputation for heavy-handed persuasion. The 1990s saw an outbreak of violent extortion by legally registered insurance firms. (The joke at the time was: Bulgaria is the only country in the world that imported 10,000 baseball bats and only two baseballs.) It wasn’t long before the mutras traded in their athletic clothes for business suits and laundered the profits of their crimes in real estate, tourism, and other legitimate businesses. “I’m happy to tell you about how I made my millions,” the saying goes. “Just don’t ask me how I got the first one.”

Today, twenty-five years after the Fall, the town is most famous for being the home of Payner Records, Bulgaria’s biggest producer of chalga music, a saccharine blend of Turkish rhythms, traditional Balkan folk, and synthetic Europop. Replete with mutras and gangster capitalists, promiscuous and submissive women, and all manner of status symbols (“White Mercedes” and “Moneybundles” are both titles of chalga classics), its songs glamorize a lifestyle and a set of values completely at odds with the ascetic, communitarian volunteers who built Dimitrovgrad.

“Bloc Party”, Matthew Brunwasser, Harper’s