In Cuba, Echoes of the Past Resound for a Photographer From the Former Soviet Bloc

Cuba: Propaganda on a Havana street in April of 2015. A sign for the Young Communist League reads ‘’Everything for the Revolution’’ accompanied by the likes of Cuban revolutionaries Julio Antonio Mella, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos. While membership to the organization is voluntary (and selective—based on a clean record of pro-government views,) belonging to it is highly encouraged for social and professional success. Bulgaria: In the corner is a photo of my father reading a government-controlled newspaper titled ‘’National Youth,’’ which, like all newspapers in pre-1989 Bulgaria, mixed news reporting with Communist propaganda. Image by Yana Paskova.

Bulgaria: This is my father’s Army uniform (complete with a five-pointed star, a symbol of Communist rule), worn during a mandatory two-year service in the Bulgarian military in the 1970s. Cuba: Cuban children wear the uniform of communist youth as they salute and say “Votû!” (“She or he voted!”) to citizens casting ballots for delegates to the country’s unicameral parliament in April 2015. Voting isn’t mandatory in Cuba, but not doing so is frowned upon. Image by Yana Paskova.

Bulgaria: For years, my grandfather refused to join the Communist Party, resulting in a five-year punishment in Bulgaria’s forced labor camps. He became politically outspoken for democracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent dissolution of the Communist government in Bulgaria. Cuba: A participant in a march organized by the wives and female relatives of imprisoned political dissidents rests by a tree in front of Santa Rita Church in Havana, Cuba, in 2015. This opposition group, Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White,) complains of regular beatings and detainment. In Catholic countries, Saint Rita is known as the patroness of impossible causes or of heartbroken women. Image by Yana Paskova.

Bulgaria: This is the view from my parents’ college apartment in Sofia (with a sketch on the window), looking out toward the ubiquitous and poorly maintained Soviet-style blocks. Cuba: Soviet-influenced architecture is seen in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana, Cuba, in April 2015. Statistics label seven out of every ten Cuban houses as in need of major repairs. Image by Yana Paskova.

Bulgaria: Bulgarians’ longing to see lands beyond the closed borders of their country festered during the Communist years. In the corner are a few American dollars on a desk at my parents’ college apartment. A Sofia store called Korekom that offered a rare glimpse of Western goods—cosmetics, technology, toys, candy, alcohol, cigarettes, and magazines otherwise absent from Bulgaria’s isolated economy—motivated a strong black market demand for the U.S. dollar. Cuba: A woman takes orders in a late-night pizza joint with an atmosphere of U.S. nostalgia, playing mostly American music from the 1980s and ‘90s, in the port city of Mariel, Cuba, in April 2015. Image by Yana Paskova.

Bulgaria: My grandfather (center,) walks with Romanian and Bulgarian colleagues in the 1970s. The banner in the background reads “Glory to the USSR.” Cuba: Participants in the First of May Labor Day parade hold posters of Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin and German Communist revolutionary Karl Marx. This day, known as Día del Trabajo, is a call for people of all nations to show support for socialism and the Cuban Revolution. While attendance isn’t mandatory, absences from these marches are usually noted and discouraged—and often followed with social and professional reprimand. Image by Yana Paskova.

As my fingers flitted across the frayed edges of paper, I studied my past. Generations of my family have been preserved in picture form—but theirs was a story now threatened by oblivion, through time’s attrition and my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s.

Every time I visited Bulgaria, which had been my home until the age of 12, I sought out relatives—and I delved into their former lifetimes through their photographs. I often reimagined them without the motif of totalitarianism. There would be no forced smiles on those marching in unison at Labor Day parades nor children wearing the uniforms of communist youth, eager to belong but too young to understand the consequences. There would be none of the numbing isolation bred by restricted news and travel. And there certainly wouldn’t be the five years stolen from my grandfather’s youth by a communist labor camp.

In the fall of 2014, as I hunted for anecdotes lost through my grandmother’s deteriorating memory, a disturbing analogy revealed itself to me: the potential in contemporary, democratic Bulgaria for collective dementia about its past. The country housed both a generation too new for firsthand knowledge of political repression and an older one that yearned for the absence of crime and unemployment that a dictatorship once guaranteed.

In 1989, two and a half decades before my revelation, Eastern European communism had crumbled along with the Berlin Wall, opening Bulgaria’s borders to Western influence and immigration. The hopeful arrival of democracy created space for personal freedoms and a free market but also for myopic political nostalgia when it failed to deliver on rising joblessness, corruption, crime, and depopulation.

The idea of an amnesiac future so disconnected from its history awakened an urge to examine the effects of democracy and communism in my homeland—and to explore similar political geography.

Cuba, a communist time capsule, drew me in immediately. I observed life there as a native of the Soviet bloc, noticing the nuanced decorum of communism, the censure and control that are often masqueraded as people’s choice. Not looking for parallels but effortlessly tuned into them. Every subject I photographed—the child in a red scarf saluting voters, people protesting against political imprisonment despite beatings and detention, the aging families of those who’d fled—made me recall my youth and the pictures that preceded it.

Creating layers in photography is something that has attracted me throughout my career. They have an ability to intensify both style and meaning, whether through luck and journalistic reflex in a single image or through combining multiple frames. As a young photographer, I experimented by making political diptychs and later via digital double exposures—some with an aesthetic drive, others with a storytelling impetus. But a third entity came to life in Cuba, when I realized that the visual and sociopolitical parallels between present-day Cuba and pre-1989 Bulgaria were undeniable and best juxtaposed, one image layered on top of the other.

And so I attempted to bridge one country’s past to another country’s present, to show that political ideals, its profiteers and its victims, could remain unchanged by time or geography. And, above all, to ensure that some of those who cannot broadcast their ails are heard, whether a stranger in Cuba or my grandmother, who expired shortly after her memories did.