Coke Crosses the Iron Curtain

A documentary reveals a little-known story of how Coca-Cola accidentally entered communist Bulgaria in the mid-1960s

Prime Minister Zhivkov and his wife enjoying a bottle of Coke | Photo:

The early 1960s. At home, with the TV on. It’s shortly before 7p.m. and the channel is playing its regular commercial block. The screen goes black and then a familiar jingle – one that makes people start drumming their fingers on the arm of the chair. Three seconds into the ad, they have already caught sight of the round-ribbed bottle and given in to the catchy tune: “Coca-Cola gives you that refreshing new feeling…”

It is a minute and a half in front of the black-and-white screen, and few any doubt that “things go better with Coke.”

But while some are singing along, convinced that the drink is “the refreshing-est,” others are not so sure.

With the Cold War heating up, the East and the West are drawing farther and farther apart. For the Western world, Coca-Cola might be a household’s everyday buy, but for the ones East of the Iron Curtain, the reality is slightly (to extremely) different.

To communist Bulgaria, Coke is not even a soft drink. It is clearly alcoholic, or at least that is what the state claimed at the time, broadcasting Coca-Cola commercials of drunken American soldiers toasting with a bottle of Coke.

“Coke is an enemy to socialism,” is the first general conclusion of the Bulgarian documentary “A Cold Coke in the Days of the Cold War” with authors Irina Nedeva and Evgeniya Atanasova. And yet, Bulgaria was also the first country in the mid-1960s to slip a bottle of Coke through the Iron Curtain and into the communist bloc.

A coincidence or a mistake? Or a turning point in socialist history?

The movie, a production of Bulgarian National Television (BNT) from 2005 and screened Dec. 2 at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna, traces back the chronology of how Coca-Cola first entered the country’s market in 1965. Based on interviews, and a rich variety of both photo and video footage, the film is a collection of memories and personal impressions, of documents and revelations, and anecdotes full of paradoxes, luck and a great deal of determination.

“The idea of the movie was actually born during a television talk show,” explained Irina Nedeva for The Vienna Review. “This is where we met Toncho Mihaylov – the man, who later turned into the main character of the documentary. Interestingly enough, he wasn’t even expected to be in the TV studio.”

It was a coincidence that brought him there.

The show that night was dedicated to the life of a former Bulgarian diplomat, an event to which the crew had invited several guest speakers and an audience with some connection to the discussion. Mihaylov had not been formally invited but was substituting for a colleague, who was unable to attend. Right before the show, he introduced himself and mentioned that he had documents that “might prove interesting to many.”

“We met already the next day and decided that we are going to make the movie,” Nedeva said.

The opening scene of the documentary is set in a Parisian bistro in the fall of 1965. Mihaylov has been sent there on a business trip from the company for soft drinks, State Economic Union, again as a substitute for a colleague. A coincidence?

He had left the country and gone to Paris with goal of finding a tasty orangeade suitable for importing. “Orangeade is good,” stated the established socialist mindset and “it doesn’t sound harmful.” And the one by the name of Fanta that he tasted did not seem to hide any dangers. Or at least not until he realized it was produced by Coca-Cola.

And Coca-Cola was a no-no.

As an independent, Mihaylov has been thoroughly informed who to talk to and what not to fall for. So, the chances of a Bulgarian going to Paris and trying out the orangeade of that one company that he is not allowed to have any contact with whatsoever do not seem very likely. And yet, there he was.

“History is a product of coincidences,” Nedeva explained. And also a product of what people make out of these lucky (or not so lucky) situations.

“Toncho is a very active person,” she added. “Most importantly, he is not ashamed of himself. It was him who came to us, ready to share his story.”

The production, however, did not come to a smooth start. Nedeva and her colleagues Evgeniya Atanasova and Damyan Petrov asked for permission to film the documentary, and even though BNT did not give them a negative rightaway, the decision was stalled.

“Why is this taking so long,” Nedeva recalled Mihaylov asking her. “Are we waiting for something?”

“For permission,” she answered.

“But what do you need permission for, you have a camera.”

All they needed at this point was to start filming. They were on a tight budget and therefore forced to shoot with the show’s single camera. Time was also limited.

“We would film a scene or two,” Nedeva recalled, “and then run back to his apartment and go over the actual documents; then we would film again.”

Mihaylov and the crew could only count on the resources at hand and decided not to look for financial support from abroad, the Coca-Cola Company in particular. Nedeva and her colleagues wanted the film to be as authentic as possible minimizing any influence from outside. Altogether, the documentary took a year to produce. It had taken Mihaylov much longer, though, to find an opportunity to tell his story in the first place.

“The aim of this movie was not to create a portrait of the man behind the action,” Nedeva said. “The goal was to present the fact that the 60s were a battle between two worlds – us in the East constantly trying to catch up with the West.”

Catching up was risky business in communist Bulgaria.

Having talked to representatives of the Coca-Cola Company in Paris, Mihaylov feared he had gotten himself into trouble. He suggested they not to tell anybody about the company’s offer to introduce Coca-Cola in Bulgaria – only Fanta.

His proposal was met with skepticism. But strangely enough, also with enthusiasm.

“In for a penny, might as well be in for a pound,” his boss told him and made a call to the Prime Minister Todor Zhivkov for permission.

To the surprise of both of them, he too, approved the idea and without consulting Moscow, decided to make a contract with the American company and have Coca-Cola produced in Bulgaria. And why?

Nedeva shakes her head.

“There is no definite answer to this question,” she added. “Even Mihaylov doesn’t know. One can only speculate.”

And yet again, this is a movie about something else. History often turns out to be unfair to the little names and too generous to the big personalities of the past. This film is different.

“It is about one man and how much he has been through,” Nedeva concludes firmly. “It is about him using others, but also about him being used and under extreme pressure.”

There he is – the small man on the big screen, at the heart of the story.

“Stories like this one – this is what actually makes history.”

Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » appearance » Widgets » and move a widget into Advertise Widget Zone