Low chairs around a table, dark wood wall units
Bulgaria,  Dark tourism,  History

Welcome to the 1980s in Bulgaria

In one corner of the room a small TV broadcasts news and propaganda. Photo albums on the table are full of reminders of happy family gatherings. Some medals are proudly displayed on a shelf, while the drinks cabinet holds treasured bottles of imported brands.

This is the home of a small Bulgarian family, the Petrovis. The husband Plamen has a good job working for the state and is away most of the time. Because he works abroad, in countries friendly towards the East European bloc, he earns more money than most Bulgarians. So he’s able to afford a few extras and decorate his home nicely, but it is still small by Western standards. There is a pleasant dining and sitting room, a small bedroom and tiny kitchen and bathroom. The flat has been in the family for several generations and the Petrovis are lucky to have inherited it. Most people wait many years before a flat becomes available for them to buy.

Dark wood wall units
Wall units display prized books and possessions

Sofia’s Red Flat is a faithful depiction/restoration of a typical 1980s family home in Sofia. Although the family is fictional, the details of their lives are all based on fact, and all the furniture and possessions here are authentic and of the period.

Visiting the flat

We start our visit as most visitors would, in the main living room. This is spacious but very full of furniture, including a single bed. Plamen’s wife Elena sleeps here, and we must assume he joins her on his rare visits home. The bedroom next door is used by their teenage son, Boyan. We will explore every corner of the flat on our tour.

Sofa bed made up with striped cover, wall units and arm chairs
The bed in the main living room

The audio guide introduces you to every detail of their lives: jobs, schooling, how they spend their spare time, the holidays they take, the food they eat and so on. As we wander around the flat we are free to pick anything up, open cupboards and drawers. We can flick through the photo albums on the dining table, or through the newspapers piled in one corner.

In doing so we see the signs of a relatively privileged lifestyle. The drinks in the cabinet include imported brands such as Johnnie Walker, which they can buy in a special shop accepting only US dollars. Most people therefore are precluded from shopping there, but Plamen can bring dollars home from his travels.

And in Boyan’s bedroom we spot albums by Western bands such as Led Zeppelin. Again, his father can get hold of some of these for him. We learn that he gets others on the black market, meeting illicitly with other collectors to swap and buy.

Boyan’s bedroom

Running a home

The kitchen has all the major appliances necessary to running a ‘modern’ home. They are the latest models, although looked older to my Western eyes.

Line of old-fashioned kitchen appliances, cupboards etc
The kitchen
Table with old TV, chairs, and a 1981 calendar on the wall
The kitchen

The calendar is dated 1981. That added extra interest to the visit for us, as that was the year we bought our first flat in London and set up home together. It was fascinating to compare our flat with this one. In addition to the appliances, the TV, radios and record player looked old-fashioned. Other things though were familiar. I smiled when the commentary on the audio tour explained in detail how a landline phone with a dial worked, and why a telephone directory was an essential item.

We also learned a lot about the general way of life at that period and I found myself spotting several similarities with present-day North Korea. The one-sided news reporting, for example, and the restrictions on what most people could say and do. But also the security of knowing you had a ‘job for life’, that schooling was free and health care too. Although the state placed some restrictions on their lives, the Petrovi family had few day-to-day worries.

Other things though were different from the DPRK. There is no home ownership in the latter, for instance. And while the Petrovis could enjoy holidays in other Eastern European countries, very few North Koreans will ever get to cross their own borders.

The end of an era

The part of the audio tour describe how euphoria at the demise of the Communist regime was short-lived. Plamen lost his state sponsored job and their income struggled to keep up with inflation. He made some bad investment decisions and lost his savings. But luckily there was a happy ending as Plamen was able to set up his own construction company and Elena found good work in real estate. Boyan left school and went to university, studying the new field of IT. He got a good job and was able to support his parents as they got older.

I last visited Sofia in September 2022 which is when I explored the Red Flat


  • Gift N. T.

    Another combination of thought-provoking writings and photos from you, Sarah. It seems like a very interesting museum and your reflection at the end reminds me of one of the class discussions I had a while back. I have thought about how Communism in theory seems to promise security and stability, but the ideology ends up being exploited by authoritarian leaders and in the end, people don’t really have security and stability in life. Democracy isn’t without problems and has been exploited as well, but I still want to have freedom.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you for this thoughtful response. I agree, democracy isn’t without its problems (in the UK we are having more than our fair share of those at the moment!) but it’s preferable to the alternatives.

  • Prior...

    so interesting to see the photos and the kitchen image was my fav – with the coffee pots – three older appliances and radio
    but so interesting to see these and I am sue they had little worries day-today- but still not necessarily the ideal way to live

  • wetanddustyroads

    The bed in the living room is a surprise – even more so to hear that the mother of the house is sleeping there (and not the child). And with two TV’s I suppose they were definitely from the ‘higher class’ (we never had two TV’s in our home … well, we don’t even have a single one now ☺️). A very interesting post, thanks Sarah.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ha yes, we’re never had two TVs either (though we have always had one!) I guess the living room was the mother’s domain so it was nice for the son to have a small room in the flat to call his own.

  • leightontravels

    Really interesting and obviously so carefully crafted. It reminds me of some similar exhibits I’ve seen, one in the DDR Museum in Berlin, the other in the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. There are lovely little details galore in your photos, from the typewriter and Toblerone to the toys and Led Zep album. Keeping up with the Petrovis eh? Or not at all keeping up I would imagine for so many.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I felt it was very well done and the details were great, as was the audio tour commentary that explained them. These people obviously take a lot of care over their work to show Sofia, both past and present, to visitors. It’s the same group that run the excellent free city walking tours. And you’re right, relatively few people would have been able to keep up with the Petrovis – a good example of the Animal Farm quote: ‘animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’ 😀

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I thought that, but I guess it makes sense – he could be sent off to bed while mum (and occasionally dad) relaxed in the sitting room before retiring themselves. Glad you enjoyed the post Marie 🙂

    • rosalieann37

      I found this very interesting – but some of the comments triggered my antipathy to those people who go to look at a house and want to rip everything out and ‘update it”. When we were first married (1959) we didn’t have a TV (we had a hi-fi) or a washing machine and the duplex we rented in Florida did not have A/C or heat and the only phone I could get was a party line. All my furniture was second hand or inherited from family – I had a Victorian sofa, a bed without a headboard and my mother gave us the sleep sofa that they bought when they were newlyweds where people who came to visit could sleep. We did have a typewriter (older that that one as it was the one my mother had in college in the 30s). In 1981, we were living in our current house and we were in the process of remodeling it while keeping the original features. Originally the kitchen did not have any kitchen cabinets at all, so Bob got unfinished cabinets and painted and installed them. We had a big console TV and we still had dial phones and I was using a dial-up modem for the internet. I did have a washer and dryer by this time and a freezer and a dishwasher but we still didn’t have A/C. Some of decor might not be my taste – I would paint that bookcase, but I’ve lived in a lot of places that weren’t my taste. Sometimes we painted the rooms before we moved in, but I would put my oriental rugs on the terrazzo floors and we would make do.

      • Sarah Wilkie

        I think a lot of us could tell a similar story Rosalie – starting off simply, acquiring second-hand furniture from family etc., making do or smartening up on a budget. We got our first dishwasher in the mid 1990s when my mother retired and made us a gift out of part of her lump-sum payment 🙂 We still don’t bother with a dryer today and A/C is almost unheard of here (and not really needed until recent summers). But I think our taste has always veered towards the lighter woods and more minimalist, so like you we’d be getting out the paintbrushes here!

        • rosalieann37

          A/C is needed more here, but we didn’t get it until I got a window unit c 2006. And when we got geothermal heating we added A/C with it. No, what set me off was people who just have to have things ‘updated’. I still don’t have any new furniture. We furnished our city house in the 90s (still living down here and coming down on weekends) from yard sales and some stuff from my moms. Bob builds things sometimes, like bookcases, desks and a bedstead. I did buy a new recliner to replace the ones we got second hand at a yard sale which broke. I do have to replace appliances sometimes, but we just get plain white ones. I’m the opposite of minimalist – I like Victorian with dark woods and lots of detail and color to make things cozy

  • Anne Sandler

    Sarah, what an education! It’s difficult for us in the modern western world to comprehend what life is like for others. You’ve brought us closer to understanding. Well photographed also.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Anne, but I guess it’s truly the team behind the Red Flat project that have helped with that understanding, I’m just sharing what they have created here! Either way, I’m glad you got so much out of this post 🙂

  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    I truly loved this post, Sarah! The Red Flat is one of the most interesting “modern times” museums I’ve heard of. Seeing your photos brought back some memories for me too, as we bought our first home in 1982. Oh my, I’ve just realized that I am now vintage!

  • restlessjo

    Not dissimilar from the homes of some of my Polish family and many of these items linger on. Modern isn’t necessarily better. I remember being impressed with the comfort of my cousin’s huge settee. An ageing leather, it easily accommodated his large family. These days the TV dominates the space and they are fully gadgeted for IT. Much more so than me, with my dis-integrated kitchen. Laughing, Sarah!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I’m sure that’s true. The TVs were one of the most obvious signs of the period/place, and I thought the general amount of stuff (furniture, knick-knacks etc.) was too – no minimalism back then for a family able to show off their slightly privileged access to goods!

  • Nemorino

    This sounds like a fascinating visit. Reminds me of my visits to the German Democratic Republic in 1989 and the 1990s.

  • Yvonne Dumsday

    I am so glad there was a happy ending for this family. I was surprised that there was not a lot that told you this was a Bulgarian home rather than elsewhere. Many thanks for sharng.

  • margaret21

    Fascinating. My two older children were small in the 1980s, so that’s the period I’m looking at. Small TV? Tick. Kitchen appliances not concealed by integrated covers? Tick. Drinks cabinet? No. Our budget just ran to the occasional bottle of wine. And so on. So maybe not so very different. Though we were both changing jobs every few years – involving a change of town – to seek promotion and build our careers. Jobs for life were unknown by then, I think.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Margaret, glad you found this interesting 🙂 Our kitchen appliances still aren’t concealed by integrated covers (apart from the fridge) but they look a lot more modern than these and from my memory so did the ones we had in 1981! Our TV was bigger than these too, although not like present-day ones of course. On the other hand we DID think we had jobs for life – me in local government (and I could have had but chose to move on) and Chris at the BBC (where he did indeed stay throughout his career) 😀

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