How one man fostered a vibrant youth scene out of the rubble of a fallen state.
Nineteen-eighty-nine was a definitive year in the late 20th Century. A social order inspired by the architects of the Bolshevik Revolution ran aground on rocks of protest, as the people of the communist states of Eastern and Central Europe took a stand for personal freedom. For a then eighteen-year-old Bulgarian skateboarder called Alex Kyourkiev, the events that took hold of the streets that year sent his life, and the youth culture of this vital part of the Eastern Bloc, into a wholly new and unforeseen direction. In the decades that followed he would go from poster-child for the Communist Youth Union to counter-cultural icon. His is a story doubtless repeated throughout the former Soviet Bloc: by skateboarders Martin Karas in Czechoslovakia and Kuba Prezyna in Poland. A story repeated anywhere that time and place have synchronised the anger of youth with a wider feeling on the wind. Where the underground cultures attracting all the disparate disaffected – the punks, skaters, drop-outs, hippies, student activists, musicians – have shown that by bucking the system you unveil its vulnerability and somehow, amongst the rubble, bring about change.
But this isn’t a history lesson. Nor is it an attempt to explore the relative failings of the left and right. This is just a story of a man from Bulgaria, who in his own small way blew away a broken social order and continues to do so to this day.
Today, as we conclude our interview in his office located in Sofia’s historic immigrant quarter, a mafia whistleblower and his two bodyguards are shot down in the street outside. This is the upside down world to which Alex Kyourkiev brought ‘skateboards and good things in life’ as the tagline of his online skate store, Cleckshop, says. Lord knows, we could all do with some of that.
When skateboarding first came to Alex in 1987, it appeared as a rare and coveted portal to a Western way of life. “My dad used to work for the national telephone company so he always had a room reserved in the local post office accommodation,” says Alex, delving into a back story for the benefit of Western heads. “It was a tenet of communism that individual tradesmen holidayed together en masse. A few resorts had foreign tourists and I remember seeing a skateboard there for the first time – it seemed amazing fun. So when I was working on the Sunday market stall, selling imported “original” heavy metal badges and patches at the age of sixteen, I was offered a proper skateboard in exchange for three heavy metal badges. Under the communists it was impossible to get hold of a skateboard or anything that symbolised the Western way of life. I took his arm off for it.”
Ironically, the years preceding the 1989 revolutions took a weird twist for the skate punks of the Eastern Bloc as the communist youth leagues, in their various forms, began to take an interest in sanctioning and federating the movement. “The DKMS [Dimitrov Communist Youth Union] decided to support skateboarding and they started organising events and building ramps,” explains Alex. “I was picked to be a part of the national sponsored team. We were flown by plane to comps around the country and stayed in hotels. We went to Czechoslovakia, to a communist skate camp – which was amazing, by the way. Even now this seems like a mirage – we were sponsored by the state! We bored of the slalom and freestyle quickly and got into vert when a ramp appeared in the Black Sea resort of Varna, and later in Sofia, too. There were a maximum of four ramp skaters, and maybe three roller skaters. Once in winter, at minus-twenty, we paid five Leva [about one pound fifty at the time] for a snow truck to push the snow off the ramp. We ended up mangling the flat bottom doing that!”
Hardware was almost completely unavailable, with an estimated eighty per cent of boards at the time being home-made. “We needed boards and hardware,” continues Alex. “One of the oldest guys, Katcho, was making us bandanas, T-shirts with cut sleeves and kneepads out of washing bowls. Another old skater had a press and was making us concave, fish-shaped boards. They were good for vert but the second you tried to skate street they snapped!”
Clouds were gathering as the eighties drew to a close, however, and fidelity to the regime was total. National service was mandatory, at the time, and the worst thing that could happen if you were a male turning eighteen. As a country versed in Soviet ways, the Bulgarian army was primarily in the business of breaking and indoctrinating wayward youth. Drinking dye, breaking limbs, heroin addiction and disappearing were the options for an objector.
“From age eighteen, dodging the army was all anybody thought about,” explains Alex. “I saw ten friends fail to break a mate’s arm in order to get out of trouble. I took a gamble. Acceptance to one of Bulgaria’s elite academic institutions could get you a deferment. I’m not an intellectual but I had a skater mate who was. I had him sit the exam for me and with the time that bought me, we fled the country.”
Because of their pariah status, only one country outside the Bloc could be accessed and, with his board and precious little else, Alex and a childhood friend slipped away to the island of Malta in 1992, leaving behind a broken scene and a bewildered generation.
“So, Malta,” remembers Alex, “the very first day we were sitting by the sea front, drinking a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and tasting freedom. We were discussing how we had to find other skaters when this guy rolled up on a board. His name would turn out to be Stevie Thompson, and he later became the first skater I ever put on my company, Virus.”
Any British skateboarder reading this may well have done a double-take of that last sentence, because Stevie Thompson is a well-known face in the British scene – a renegade Brighton shop owner and one of the most creative skaters ever to come out of England.
“And so we became part of the Maltese skate scene,” continues Alex. “Some of the best years of my life, during which I met my future wife. In 1994 I returned to Bulgaria clandestinely to re-connect with the scene and to assess if the military were still looking for me. They soon came knocking and in early 1995 I was spirited away, this time with my new wife to her home in England.”
With a young family to support, Kyourkiev was soon a motorcycle courier, making clandestine runs back into Bulgaria with whatever he could source that people needed: headphones for the DJ’s, fat caps for the graffiti boys, vinyl for the punks, bearings for the skaters.
The irony here of course is that from our Western perspective, the downfall of communism and the advent of some limited social change is perceived as a good thing, whereas for the people involved, the subsequent madness left them pining for the relative certainties of the old order. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know what happened when Eastern Europe swapped the failed social model of communism for the failed social model of free-market capitalism: without the attendant structures to manage the transition, organised crime, political corruption, wholesale plundering of state resources and social anarchy became the norm – a situation which remains to this day. When the people who make the law break the law, there is no law.
As the black market exploded in the late nineties across the former Eastern Bloc, Alex realised that the only way to build any kind of stability into the network was to create a legit operation within Bulgaria to promote and distribute the foodstuffs of youth culture.
“I came across a good deal on a hundred blank boards,” he says. “I got the boards and wanted to take them to Bulgaria and give them to my friends, when it hit me – why just take blank boards, why not print those boards and brand them? I never thought of starting a skate company or anything like that. I contacted British skate legend Don Brider and we did like a hundred boards in three graphics. That was an amazing feeling. We chose the name ‘Virus’ and dropped it into the logos of the most popular beer and cigarette brands in Bulgaria. This was the beginning of Virus Skateboards – the first skateboard company in the Eastern Bloc.”
The enthusiasm with which the project was received in the formerly barren youth landscape only served to whet Alex’s appetite. “They sold out in a week, and things began to snowball,” he recalls. “I built a team, started to travel with it and created videos and websites. Since the country can’t support print media independently, we built a community website called SkateBG. Today, we think we have almost every single skater in the country using it.”
After over a decade avoiding the Bulgarian authorities Alex decided that the time had come where he could no longer help contribute to these burgeoning youth cultures from exile. And, utilising contacts within and without, he slipped back into Bulgaria in 2002, rented a locked attic office beside a brothel in downtown Sofia, and started to build scenes in earnest. Stevie Thompson would fly over to skate with the locals on tours, which grew annually to become the stuff of legend, and from 2004 onwards, every major magazine in the skateboarding world carried a summer story from Bulgaria.
“The demos, comps and tours have become more important as we saw the potential for them to put pressure on these lazy, venal, corrupt bastards institutionalised in this government of ours today where everything has a price,” explains Alex, passionately. “Global graffiti expos in the National Palace of Science and Culture, or BMX demos for the public, or Go Skateboarding Day events – all these things embarrass them into action.”
Bulgaria today has virtually no entrepreneurial class outside of the mafia, and so dumbstruck onlookers immediately ask: How did this happen? Who organised to bring all these people here? Why don’t we do free stuff for kids all the time like other countries, elsewhere?
“This is when our phones ring two days later, and some apparatchik starts making enquiries as to, ‘What’s going on, exactly?’” explains Alex. “Look at what happened with snowboarding here – as communism fell, it was cheap entertainment for country kids wearing a couple of pairs of trousers. The crew built their scenes, opened the shops, the resorts began to develop and now Bulgaria is a snowboard destination. For us, this is all part of a wider progression in the status of youth culture as a legitimate part of the wider culture of this country. Kids here have been ignored too long, man.”
Inevitably, the dons of the various scenes realised that online portals, while vital for the youth, were an irrelevance to all the people born behind the Iron Curtain and in 2006 they began the long, slow, Soviet-style process of getting youth programming onto national TV to help tune-in an older generation. Anyone who has had experience of a former Soviet state will know that the apparatus of the system lingers a lot longer than the ideology does, so state television is still a narrow and backward cartel in the former Eastern Bloc. Satellite TV provided the commercial bridgehead that would get the jolly band onto the airwaves, and by late 2007 X-Ray TV was launched – a half hour youth culture show, hosted by one of the faces on the Sofia DJ scene, which promoted Bulgaria to the outside world, and the outside world to Bulgaria.
As a consequence of X-Ray, old faces began to emerge from the shadows, some unseen since that heady summer of 1989. Old photographs surfaced, as did video footage shot on black market camcorders most likely sourced by Alex himself back in the day. Soon enough, filmmakers were pitching the idea of a documentary to Alex and his collective. And, after much boozy ‘do we really want to start on this?’, in 2009 a European Union funding programme accepted the pitch for Switch, a documentary about the story of youth culture during the fall of the Iron Curtain and right up to the present day – researched, edited and produced by the collective which now operate out of Alex’s Sofia office space.
Alex Kyourkiev is a busy man today. He has a tranche of paperwork to submit to the EU in order to prove their documentary is a legitimate enterprise (the EU takes a dim view of Bulgarian transparency, for reasons ably demonstrated by the body in the street outside). In this place where we naively think life got universally better and all the social ills of yesterday have drained away, a darker truth remains. Some social freedoms have indeed flourished, but in concert the institutionalised corruption and ‘can’t do’ mentality of the past continually threaten to rear up and swallow the future. It is in this half- light that Alex and a handful of like-minded souls are crafting an alternate reality for young people to slip into. Their paths are obstructed at every turn by communist hangovers and capitalist Babylon.
Richard Lovelace wrote four hundred years ago:
“Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.”
Freedom is not something that is given, but taken by those with courage to enjoy it.
Alex Kyourkiev is one such man, but there have been others. As he leaves our interview into the bitter snows whipping down off the Vitosha mountains, I am filled with admiration for each of them, their collars upturned to deny the winds of reality, their faces turned against the winters of the soul.