The Marketplace Is the Shame or Pride of the Socialist State? The Central Public Market of Sofia against the Anthropology of Socialism

In the anthropological literature on Eastern Europe, marketplaces and street trade have been seen as emblematic for the post-socialist era. At the same time marketplaces are depicted as being in conflict with the socialist regimes’ ideology and only grudgingly tolerated because they filled gaps in a failing state distribution system. However, Bulgarians reminisce about the socialist period as the heyday of market shopping, a time of abundance. How can we reconcile these contradictory views? Is the city marketplace also a site of a war on memory: everyday nostalgics against academic anticommunists?
Taking as a case study the central and largest marketplace of Sofia, “Georgi Kirkov”, and by drawing on oral history, the contemporary press, and a visual photographic archive I have been gathering, I demonstrate that the institute of the “cooperative marketplace” was a very well integrated part of the socialist state, both on an ideological level and in its practical governance. My findings suggest that overcoming ideological contradictions was unproblematic because socialist governance itself was more dynamic and contradictory than is often given credit for.
I discuss how it is the contemporary anthropological discourse, instead, which is susceptible to petrified tropes about the nature of actually-existing state socialism (and its markets), and I suggest that this is intertwined with the subordination of knowledge production about the Easts to a dominant capitalist-based Western perspective which facilitates an ongoing undercurrent of orientalist exoticisation towards Eastern Europe, both socialist and postsocialist.