The Keys to Freedom

At age 19, Tzvetan Konstantinov entered Sofia’s Pancho Vladigerov conservatory with national musical notoriety. The teenager with a gift for pitch had been studying piano since he was five, and by this time had a loyal fan base and sold-out concert tours throughout Bulgaria.

“I was on national TV, performing right and left. I was the youngest state artist. I had everything going on for me … except one tiny thing,” said Konstantinov, who has been a music teacher at GW now for almost 18 years.

Konstantinov’s national prominence gained him an invitation into the exclusive Communist Party. Bulgaria had a one-party system at the time, and Party members made up only one-quarter of the population – membership came by invitation only.

“It was kind of like their special building: ‘us’ – the Party members, and the rest – the non-Party members,” he said. “Everybody wanted to be in.”

But not Konstantinov.

He explained, pointing to the photograph of Sofia’s Nevsky Cathedral that hangs above his piano. When the Communists were banning Christian worship, he often snuck into church and held a candle outside the Nevsky every Easter to protest against them. His convictions polarized him against the Communists, and he was not interested in becoming an atheist for membership in their elite club. While retaliation might have concerned most, he thought his talent made him invincible.

“My na’vety had no limits,” he said, laughing. “At that time I thought, if you were good at what you do, who’s to stop you?”

Nobody did stop Konstantinov, at first. There were no threats, nobody pressured him to join, no one pursued his family. But then, slowly, a quiet void began. He was phased out of national concert tours. Close friends and colleagues stopped talking to him. When the Bulgarian government denied him a passport to perform on a prestigious concert tour in Western Europe, he really started to worry.

“They told (the tour’s organizers), ‘He can’t come, he’s sick right now, we’ll send you somebody else,'” he said. “They tried six months later, it was always the same thing.”

Every Bulgarian citizen had a dossier – a confidential, personal profile of sorts, guarded by the government. In order to figure out what was going wrong, Konstantinov needed to know what was written in his file. A close childhood friend made a connection with the Communist Party who could look into his dossier.

“‘Goodness! They appear to have painted you just like this,'” he said, recalling the information his friend retrieved: “‘Pro-Western orientation, anti-socialist views, unreliable for building socialism.'”

His friend’s connections advised that he join the army, where he could try to prove his loyalty to Bulgaria, and hope for another invitation into the Party.

But the “young and green” virtuoso had no desire to appease the Communists. Konstantinov would “cheerfully” join the Bulgarian People’s Army Reserves after earning his Master’s Degree, but for another reason: the draft.

Barracks, booze and a bad band

The draft forced Konstantinov to trade his polished life in the conservatory for male bonding in rustic army barracks.

“When a bunch of guys get together it gets very boring,” he said. “You start at the top, and then basically your vocabulary shrinks, your IQ gets down to single digits, and I ended up with just slang words.”

The barracks were 19th-century buildings with meter-wide concrete walls and cold wood floors. At night, you could hear rats playing underneath them – not Konstantinov’s idea of ideal amusement for New Year’s Eve.

“It looks like we’re gonna be on 31st midnight in this stinky place for no reason,” he recalled. “So I get all my buddies, and I convinced them to make a chamber orchestra.”

With a pianist, bass player, drummer and violin soloist, the makeshift jazz band prepared 20 pieces to play at the army’s Officer’s Club.

The boys loaded into a rusty van and took their act to the ritzy military club. While they were waiting for another act to finish up, Konstantinov’s band mates indulged in the bubbly atmosphere of dance, food and drink.

“My buddy started boozing heavily, and I said, ‘Bushy, please wait.’ He didn’t. They were all in various stages of drunkenness,” he recalled, pausing purposefully. “Yours truly, a professional as always – not a drop.”

At 2 a.m., they took to the stage. On their third piece, as Konstantinov played music from the French movie, “Fant?mas,” stage fright settled into the soloist. Moments later, the inebriated drummer lost his place, and the soloist, discouraged, picked up his jacket and walked off stage. Konstantinov overheard a little boy, the son of an officer, say to his sister in the crowd, “Hey, these guys, they can’t play.”

“Never in my whole career has anybody dare say these words to me,” he said. “That was my first and last attempt to make a jazz band.”

Konstantinov’s ruse for curbing boredom made army life bearable, and after 18 months, they discharged him with honor, but left him no less disillusioned with the Communist Party.

He said, “I saw, unfortunately, what kind of idiotic people were part of this, and I thought, I don’t want to be part of this.”

The end of nine days

Three years out of the army, Konstantinov had earned a doctorate from Pancho Vladigerov and become the youngest professor in the conservatory. It was the summer after his graduation, and he was getting ready to vacation along Bulgaria’s miles of pristine beaches. On his way out, he picked up an unexpected correspondence from his mailbox.

“It says, ‘Come to the passport office,’ and I say, ‘What now?'” he recalled.

Konstantinov obeyed the government order and headed to Sofia’s city center. Ushers escorted him to a room the size of a walk-in closet, furnished with only a desk and two chairs. In the corner of the room was a portrait of Lenin, and on the desk, a black phone and a passport.

“I’m thinking, what could that be?” he recalled. “And a young guy, very bright, dressed impeccably in a suit, white shirt, tie – definitely not willing to talk nice with me – says, ‘We know you’ve always been itching to go to your West. So we have decided that we’ll grant your wish – we’ll let you go.'”

The timing of the offer perplexed Konstantinov. At this point, he had no invitations to tour outside of the country, and was enjoying the status of musical celebrity in Bulgaria. The young man sensed his disenchantment.

“He says, well that’s up to you – you can decline to take the passport if you want.’ I said, ‘No no no no, I’ll just take it,'” Konstantinov recalled with a smirk.

Instead of giving the pianist a typical entrance visa, the government gave him a nine-day exit visa to leave Bulgaria. After that, the offer would expire.

Everybody told Konstantinov that he should go, but he felt compelled to stay by his studies, his teaching, and his fans. His famous piano professor Velichka Savova advised him to listen to the recordings of Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter and German composer Richard Wagner.

“See, Beethoven has said that music begins when the language stops,” he remarked. “I talked to so many people. All the words were exhausted. Well, there comes music. All of those thoughts and experiences and everything – the music puts them in the correct order.”

Konstantinov made the decision to leave for Vienna, Austria, with plans to return before the New Year. On the ninth day, he packed his three suitcases – two filled with books and music – and took one final drive around the mountainous beltway that surrounds Sofia.

Midnight calls and the American Way

Once in Austria, Konstantinov enrolled in Vienna’s prestigious University of Music. He went on to complete a second doctorate, and was gaining more popularity through his tours than most Austrian pianists. With a close watch on his international success, the Bulgarian Communists were once again eager to have him on the Party’s side.

“The embassy started making dirty phone calls at unorthodox hours,” he recalled. “My landlords were doctors, so when the phone rings at 12 midnight, they think something happened. But no, it’s just this scum – they’re just calling to play games.”

Eventually, Konstantinov stopped answering the embassy’s calls, but they still tried to manipulate his image. Toward the end of his third year in Vienna, they booked him to play at the Bulgarian cultural center for an exhibition of a famous Communist sculptor. By now, he could take no more of their regimen of fear and control, and considered becoming a citizen of Austria. But the process would take 10 years, and in the meantime the Bulgarian government could retaliate. For Konstantinov, ‘your West’ would take on a new meaning.

“Some of my American friends say, ‘Come on to the U.S. Let’s contact Lincoln Center,'” he said. “So in two weeks, I had a concert engagement, job, host family, everything.”

As he arrived at the New York airport, three stocky men in suits approached him. One of them whipped out a badge with the inscription, “Federal Bureau of Investigations.”

“He says, ‘Konstantinov, we’re so happy to greet you on American soil!'” he recalled. “That’s the American Way.”

Konstantinov flew on to Seattle, where he made his American concert debut and met a former Miss Washington who would become his wife. He continued his musical career throughout the U.S., and now lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and two sons. In 1989 – the same year that the Iron Curtain fell – Konstantinov took his teaching job with GW.

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