Joyfully swinging upside-down from the monkey bars in Complex Red Star, a purpose-built community to house the ballooning urban population of 1960s communist Bulgaria, ten-year-old Zhivko Ivanov Kirov had all he could want: love, security, and dreams of a bright future. Sheltered by the mighty Vitosha Mountain and bathed in sparkling summer sunlight, he dangled there beside his friends––all of them hanging upside-down, blood rushing to their heads––with no concern for geopolitics or Western attempts to destroy his happy existence. His was a world filled with family, friends, ideals, and a gospel of equality.
The darkness of communism described by Western media would have been unrecognizable to young Zhivko. He was not trapped in a nightmarish world of bleak totalitarianism. There were no secret police surveilling his every move, no sinister Party apparatchiks demanding his cooperation. But soon, perhaps too soon, he would discover the deceit, manipulation, and control that underpinned his carefree life. And fifteen years later, his world would turn upside down again, and everything he knew would end. Ideologically, materially, and emotionally, his life would collapse without warning. And like many of his playmates hanging precariously from the monkey bars that summer’s day, he would leave his native Bulgaria forever.
The immigrant’s path is a rocky three-step journey. First come the challenging events that drive their exit, since successful nations rarely lose their people (Alperin and Batalova). Though formative experiences fade, they never vanish, and the past is always present. Second comes the transition to a foreign land, a foreign culture, and a foreign language, typically with few assets to secure comfort or well-being. The immigrant must take risks and expose their vulnerabilities, and they must master skills and conquer insecurities. Third comes the process of integration. The immigrant must grow roots, and embrace the language, culture, and institutions of their new nation—a complicated journey that demands a reconciliation of past and present.
My father Zhivko’s arduous transition from communist Bulgaria to corporate America illustrates the three steps of the immigrant journey. Though the details of his story may be unique, his journey is by no means atypical: skilled immigrants display a robust early-life education, an explicit search for opportunity, and integration through workplaces and educational institutions that minimize their reliance on émigré communities. Despite their initial disadvantages, many immigrants thrive in America, and America thrives because of immigrants.
Past as Present: Life in Communist Bulgaria
While narratives of the past are always subject to redefinition, as historian Maria Todorova observes, the art of remembrance is all the more challenging when a political system collapses. Understanding the communist experiment and my father’s place in it is further complicated by the fact that Bulgarian communism was never a singular experience. Founded in 1946 in the wake of World War II, the People’s Republic of Bulgaria purported to celebrate the fundamental equality of all people and promoted rapid industrialization to secure their liberation from imperialist nations. The message was a powerful one, and it delivered tangible results. Bulgaria’s transition from an overwhelmingly agrarian society to “the Silicon Valley” of Eastern Europe speaks to the very real achievements of the country under communist rule (“Bulgaria: Soviet Silicon”). Close to 80 percent of the population was tied to the land at the founding of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. By the fall of communism in November 1989, ten metropolitan areas claimed populations above a quarter million (Curtis). Meteoric educational advancement, full employment, rapid mechanization and industrialization, and a blossoming tourist industry transformed the tiny Black Sea nation of eight million people into an increasingly urbanized land of opportunity.
These far-reaching changes brought the likes of young Zhivko to Complex Red Star, with all the prospects that living in the capital provided. His two-bedroom unit housed two parents, two children, and the all-important baba (grandmother)—nanny, cook, housekeeper, and unquestionably the most indispensable member of any household. From the perspective of many Bulgarians, communism delivered a dramatic post-war boom. While my father’s grandparents toiled in rural lands with sickles and scythes, toileted in outhouses with hand-dug holes, and collected rainwater to bathe, his parents, uncles, and aunts became scholars and educators, traveled internationally (albeit under the eye of the ever-present secret police), and enjoyed the arts—at least those deemed supportive of the regime. A beneficiary of these unprecedented opportunities, my father would test into one of Bulgaria’s famed foreign language high schools and be set on a path of expectation and achievement.
While the benefits of the regime were clear to young Zhivko, the horrors of Soviet gulags and, closer to home, the infamous Belene concentration camp went unseen. Stocked with 4,500 political prisoners, including communist party activists, the Belene “labor reeducation community” served as a powerful threat to potential “enemies of the people.” As historian Ivajlo Znepolski writes, “The entire bourgeoisie and even the middle class were branded as fascists. This terror even subjected individuals and groups not directly affected by it to intense psychological pressure. Uncertainty and a sense of threat gripped the whole of society” (164). Together with far-reaching surveillance by Bulgaria’s notorious State Security, the feared Durzhavnasigurnost (DS)—the secret police and intelligence agencies rolled into one—the instruments of repression were sweeping and severe.
It would not be long before my father was tracked and asked to collaborate with the regime. As a student in the French high school, visits to the French Cultural Center were permitted, providing access to publications critical of the Eastern bloc. He vividly recalls how a DS officer lay waiting for him, “asking” that he spy on schoolmates and report their reading materials and conversations with French staff (Kirov). Turning to his father for advice, my grandfather said, “I’ll sort it out.” A phone call, a favor, and a connection would handle the matter but the means were never discussed (Kirov).
But when it came to organized political activity, there were no strings to be pulled. Preparing to demonstrate against the Falklands War in front of the British Embassy, my father again found himself interrogated by the DS. Though anti-imperialist, the cause was irrelevant; it was the lack of order, the smallest sign of any civil disobedience, that mattered. His file was duly labeled “fascist,” enemy of the people.
My father’s experience with the DS was unexceptional. As Znepolski writes, “By the end of the communist period, State Security had about 15,000 full-time employees, who depended annually on approximately 50,000– 65,000 secret collaborators and informants” (174). And my father was a typical DS target. The state security’s “efforts were aimed at […] the intelligentsia, youth, and minorities […] social groups that were most likely to influence public opinion and political power, therefore keeping control over them was key to the regime’s survival” (182-183). Overt threats were supported by a culture of self-censorship. The US Embassy pasted idealized photos of American life to their windows, including stunning visuals of the Viking Mars rover that displayed a technological prowess that belittled the Soviets and mocked the official narrative. When passing these photos, my grandfather, out of fear, instructed my father to avert his eyes and pass by quickly. If informants were plentiful, potential collaborators were ubiquitous. Paranoia ran rampant.
Despite the best efforts of the DS and Department of Propaganda, Western ideas became more enticing when the economies of Eastern Europe stagnated and standards of living trailed behind the West. Rock bands such as Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and Boston, inspired a generation of waning communists. Movies, including Star Wars: A New Hope, Rocky, and Rambo, provided a window to a world Bulgarians wanted for themselves. Easy to capture on short-wave radio, the BBC and Radio Free Europe challenged dominant narratives, and two years of mandatory military services did little to re-indoctrinate the youth—my father describes the experience as one of “thinly veiled abuse and alcohol” (Kirov). Ironically, it was under the influence of Rambo that he chose to serve as a paratrooper.
Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika reforms of 1987 and onward signaled the beginning of the end for the communist experiment. As a student of history at Sofia University, my father describes the period “as an intense episode of societal self-examination, of critical analysis, of asking difficult questions and challenging accepted norms and concepts” (Kirov). Indicative of the changes to come, his professors challenged established dogma, a few even sharing their preference for Western economic and political models—something unimaginable a year or two earlier. Without material gains to validate the regime’s success, the discrepancies between communist philosophy and experience became all but irreconcilable by the mid-1980s. Already branded an enemy of the people, there was no possibility of “re-educating” my father. He continued to participate in numerous protests and marched on the frontline of the historical demonstration that forced Petar Mladenov to utter the infamous words, “Shall we call the tanks?” Despite public demands for reform, Bulgaria’s future looked grim.
The country’s peaceful transition did not equate to a painless one. Industrial output plunged, and agricultural production plummeted, causing previously unknown food shortages and rationing—Bulgaria boasted food surpluses before the fall of communism (Dimitrov). Political structures, too, collapsed. Mafia-style structures quickly emerged to fill the vacuum, not democratic institutions. Shootings and mafioso executions were reported almost daily. Homelessness, a previously unknown condition, exploded as hyperinflation and unemployment skyrocketed (Kirov). His job gone and his pension worthless, my grandfather, a professor of economic history, hawked margarine and chocolate on the streets of Sofia to pay the bills. Writing in The Lancet, Stuckler et al. report spiking mortality and morbidity rates, particularly for men, with the sudden onset of privatization in post-communist countries, findings confirmed by physician and demographer France Mesle of the Institut National d’Estudes Demographiques. For all the excitement in Western media about the collapse of the Eastern bloc, a generation was economically, socially, and physically destroyed. My father’s once intense loyalty to socialist doctrine died a slow death throughout the 1980s, and when the system collapsed and the life for which he had prepared was finally over, he turned his sights elsewhere. As a doctoral student with a wife and young child, eighteen months would pass until he left his native land, but his exit was never in doubt.
Despite its own peculiarities, Zhivko Ivanov Kirov’s story resembles that of many Soviet bloc émigrés, but also that of immigrants across the globe. Harvard scholar William Kerr attributes immigrant success rates to their explicit search for opportunity and willingness to take bold action towards this end. Underpinning these qualities often lies a profound disillusionment with the mother country and a belief that leaving is beneficial. Armed with an education, a measure of educational leadership experience, a record of risk-taking and rule-breaking, my father would leave Bulgaria, not with a desire to return but with a sense of betrayal, anger, and disappointment. He had cut the cord that moored him to his native land.
The Transition: From Zhivko to Jivko
The transition to a new country represents a critical juncture in the life of any immigrant. Their roots have been pulled but have yet to be replanted. Though my father spoke five languages, English was not one of them, and though he had accumulated limited savings, they were all but worthless in hard currency. While Bulgarians were exiting the country in droves, they had yet to establish an émigré community of knowledge, friendship, and assistance. All were new arrivals, rootless, struggling to make sense of their past and forge a new present.
Figure 3 shows very little emigration prior to 1990, a period in which the government denied freedom of movement. However, in the first twelve months following the end of communism, close to 37,000 Bulgarians dispersed across the globe (“Bulgarian Population”). Over the subsequent three decades, the tiny country would lose 23 percent of its population, becoming the fastest-shrinking nation on Earth, leaving an aging population of under seven million, with an additional 4,800 Bulgarians emigrating annually (“Bulgarian Population”).
Despite the exodus, comparatively few Bulgarians settled in the US, resulting in weak support networks for new immigrants. Restricted visas made graduate education the principal means of entry to America. William Kerr reports that “those with college degrees are roughly three times more likely to migrate than those with only a secondary level of education” (2). A significant 65 percent of Bulgarian immigrants came to the US already in possession of an undergraduate degree, in comparison to 32 percent of native-born Americans and 30 percent of immigrants more generally (Alperin and Batalova). Ironically, young Bulgarians were exceptionally well prepared during the communist years to leave their homeland at the first opportunity.
My father’s transition followed this model. His wife at the time spoke English and was accepted into a master’s program at MIT. After submitting a Fulbright application for graduate school, my father joined her three months later, intending to bring their young son as soon as he found work. However, shortly after his arrival, his wife filed for divorce and set up home with her new American boyfriend. Alone, virtually penniless, with little language, no friends, and a pending work permit, my father walked the streets of Boston asking grocery stores and restaurants for work. Barely able to understand job ads and struggling to express himself, he found minimum-wage work washing dishes and cutting lettuce in a restaurant kitchen. His Honduran colleagues would offer survival tips, including throwing plates in the trash when the work became unbearable. With his permit in hand, he found additional employment at Souper Salad as a sandwich-maker and occasional cashier, followed by a third job packing groceries in an organic store. Never working less than two jobs at a time and always scouring for better wages, his path had departed from that of skilled immigrants to parallel the journey of many less fortunate migrants. He remembers the loneliness and depression as being intense, his English still too poor to converse beyond the mundane, and his future bleaker in America than in Bulgaria (Kirov). When his young son arrived to live with his ex-wife and her new husband, my father’s journey reached its nadir. In Bulgaria, my father had had a role, respect, and family. In America, he had nothing. Perhaps portending his change of fate, a phonetical error on his entry visa anglicized Zhivko to Jivko, a name unknown in either Bulgaria or the West. There seemed no path forward and no road back. Consigned to a future of manual work and minimum wage labor, my father’s transition to America bore little resemblance to the American dream.
And then it came. The turning point. Out of the blue.
A full year after his arrival, he was summoned from the kitchens of Souper Salad to take a phone call that would change his life. The Fulbright Foundation was offering him full funding for a master’s degree at a US university of his choice. To this day, my father has no idea how they found him. Long forgotten, he had submitted the application in Bulgaria, without a forwarding address, place of work, or American phone number. Yet, by a turn of fate, Souper Salad’s phone rang that day.
With that one call, my father’s trajectory changed from that of nameless immigrant to one of new possibilities. Spending hours translating his essays from Bulgarian to English, he completed a master’s degree at Northeastern University. There he found other Bulgarian graduate students and a community with a shared past and future. Importantly, his new friends were not exclusively Bulgarian. With four American roommates and all the accompanying benefits and support that being part of an institution entails, he began to sow the seeds of integration, learn American ways, and find his place in his new country. Now, he could spread his wings, and he eventually moved to Pittsburgh for a fully-funded PhD, where he would meet my mother, a British doctoral student in Political Science.
For any immigrant, the transition to a new country is a period of uncertainty, struggle, and psychological dislocation. Immigrants must start anew, with all the possibilities and challenges this entails. My father’s transition veered between two paths, with two very different trajectories. Perhaps this is unusual, but the immigrant’s transition can be a precarious one, easily derailed by unexpected circumstances. Perhaps fate plays its part, but the data shows that arriving with a strong education is an immigrant’s strongest asset, stabilizing the transition period with institutional support, a community of friends and colleagues, and the acquisition of skills to help secure integration. From an institutional base, the immigrant moves beyond the émigré community, beyond their ties to the past, and the process of integration can begin.
Integration: Becoming American
Integration is more than permanently residing in a country. Mary Waters and Marisa Pineau of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine explain that “integration implies movement toward parity of critical life opportunities with the native-born American majority” (2). Meaningful integration depends on both the willingness (and ability) of immigrants to join American socioeconomic institutions, and the willingness of Americans to allow them to do so. Notably, the majority of Americans are receptive to skilled immigrants. In a 2018 survey, Connor and Ruiz of the Pew Research Center found 78 percent of Americans support skilled immigration. This does not mean immigrants do not encounter racism, xenophobia, or general prejudice. These can be routine, but these attitudes are unlikely to be a systematic barrier to success for skilled immigrants.
Workplace opportunities are the backbone of long-term integration into American society, and the data suggests that immigrants integrate with considerable success. As William Kerr summarizes, immigrants constitute 17 percent of the high-skilled workers in the US, a 2:1 ratio per capita in STEM employment (56 percent of STEM employees and 70 percent of Silicon Valley software engineers), 52 percent of PhDs, 18 percent of inventors (25 percent of patented technologies), and 33 percent of Nobel Prize winners. Furthermore, 40 percent of all Fortune 500 companies are created by first- and second-generation immigrants (2-3). While starting points matter, as does race, ethnicity, class, geographical area, and legal status, immigration is an American success story (Waters and Pineau 2).
A more detailed breakdown of workplace sectors confirms these findings. Data from the Migration Policy Institute (Figure 4) illustrates employment patterns for immigrants and native-born Americans. The success of European immigrants, 44 percent of whom are from the Eastern bloc, in Management, Business, Science, and Arts occupations is particularly marked (Alperin and Batalova).
As reflected by data on employment patterns, European immigrants earn disproportionately high incomes compared to both immigrants as a whole and native-born Americans, and have substantially lower poverty rates—4 percent lower than native-born Americans and 7 percent lower than immigrants more generally (Alperin and Batalova). They are also more likely to have health insurance (72 percent), and 65 percent gain citizenship, compared to 49 percent for all immigrants, further securing their economic, social, and political integration. Add to this English language proficiency (over a third of European immigrants only speak English in the home, compared to 16 percent of immigrants more generally), and their integration becomes more evident (Alperin and Batalova).
My father’s integration process closely reflects patterns of Europeans more generally, albeit with a notable difference. Upon completion of my mother’s PhD in 1996, she accepted an academic position at the University of Bristol in the UK, where my father planned to write his doctoral dissertation. Anti-immigrant sentiments were growing in Britain, and lacking an institutional base he struggled to find his own identity. For a second time, he returned to unskilled jobs, working in a call center and, using a pseudonym, selling advertising space to Russian Oil and Gas companies for an ex-convict while trying to complete his thesis by night. Academic openings were scarce, and with little chance of securing two faculty positions at Bristol University, he made the difficult decision to abandon the academic track and turned his attention to the corporate world.
After acceptance to a graduate managerial training program with a UK-based international technology company, my father’s corporate career progressed rapidly. Older and with richer life experiences and a wider skill-set than other graduate trainees, his salary quickly doubled with promotion after promotion. Free from the norms of English traditions of hierarchy, deference was not in his vocabulary. Possibly due to his immigrant experience, he was always willing to take the next leap forward and never willing to settle, commuting 240 miles daily to and from London for a better opportunity. Forever scarred by the economic shortages of post-communist Bulgaria, he refused to shell out on the train fare, instead catching a 4 AM bus for a fraction of the cost. Head-hunted by Hewlett Packard in 2001, he rose to become Global Director of Sales Training, responsible for the training of 8,000 HP sales employees and 20,000 HP Partners, with a global team and multi-million-dollar budget—a position that brought our family to the US via the corporate-sponsored route of a permanent work visa, followed by a green card and eventual naturalization.
Although occupation is an essential means of grounding immigrants, there is more to integration. Despite quickly gaining British citizenship—a low-key affair compared to the American ritual—my father bore the social insecurities of many immigrants, and micro-aggressions were common. Unable to pronounce his name, people would call him Jiff, Revco, or some variant of their choosing. When a senior couple crashed into his car at a gas station, they demanded proof of his legality and required him to explain his presence in the country. On occasion, these sentiments spilled over to the workplace, for instance when a senior manager vetoed him for a position, arguing that my father’s name was too big a handicap and that they needed a “Joe Smith.” Carrying this baggage, my father refused to give us Bulgarian names or speak to his children in Bulgarian. Forever fearful that his East European ancestry would mark us as second-class citizens, English was the only language of our household.
On paper, my father’s integration is complete. He has citizenship, a strong career, children who identify as American, and a wife who teaches American and Texas government. In preparing this paper, I asked him whether he now feels American. He set aside his laptop and glanced at a hand-carved icon on the office wall, his expression equivocal. Yes and no. His cultural and ethnic identity will always remain Bulgarian, though he barely recognizes his homeland. But his civic identity, his social and political identity, is solidly Western and specifically American (Kirov). With time, he has found a way to reconcile his past and present.
Aggregate data on the immigrant’s journey is impressive. Immigrants succeed in America, and America succeeds because of immigrants. As William Kerr argues, immigrants’ successes raise the performance of all Americans. Not only are we stronger together, but to lose immigrants to competitor nations would strike a devastating blow to the American economy (Kerr, Kerr, and Lincoln).
But why are immigrants so successful? After all, the immigrant’s journey can be tumultuous, shaped by the exit conditions from their homeland. Their transition to a new country, culture, and language, typically under strained material conditions, can be precarious, fraught with loneliness and fear as well as friendship and hope. At face value, these would appear to be barriers to success. Yet they are not.
Part of the immigrant’s tale is simply that those who come to America are among the best and brightest that their homelands have to offer. Their country has equipped them, possibly primed them, for success. They arrive with a robust education and skill set, with the main ingredients for prosperity in hand. And while starting conditions are strong correlates of achievement, the explicit search for opportunity, fueled by an uncertain past and willingness to embrace risk, surely contributes to their success. It is now three decades since my father left Bulgaria. During an endless stream of conference calls, I ask him for his concluding thoughts on his immigrant journey. I return him to young Zhivko hanging upside down on the monkey bars that sunny day, calling his friends to play.
Does his topsy-turvy world now make sense, I ask? “More so with time,” he answers, “although making sense of the world is really just adding yet another narrative to the experience” (Kirov). But has he learned to settle and feel secure? I know the answer. No. Never. In retirement, my father will get a job at Trader Joe’s, packing bags and stocking shelves, no matter the size of his 401K—though he may just write Zhivko on his name tag.
Stuckler, David, Lawrence King, and Martin McKee. “Mass Privatization and the Post-Communist Mortality Crisis: A Cross-National Analysis,” The Lancet, 373, no. 9661 (2003): 399-407.
Todorova, Maria. “Introduction: Similar Trajectories, Different Memories.” In Remembering Communism: Private and Public Recollections of Lived Experience in Southeast Europe, 1-28. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2014.
Waters, Mary C. and Marisa Gerstein Pineau. The Integration of Immigrants into American Society. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2015.
Znepolski, Ivajlo, Mihail Gruev, Momtchil Metodiev, Martin Ivanov, Daniel Vatchkov, Ivan Elenkov, and Plamen Doynov. Bulgaria Under Communism. London: Routledge, 2019.