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Bulgaria: uncultivating the personality cult

About 50 miles from Sofia, the highway ends. In the clear mountain air, apartment houses sparkle, and in the central square, a glass and steel House of Culture rises. Stores sell Swiss chocolate. Pravets is no ordinary place.

This village of 4,200 residents is Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov's hometown. Mr. Zhivkov has directed this country since 1954, making him Eastern Europe's longest-serving leader.

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During his decades in office, the President has cultivated a modest popularity at home, portraying himself as a paternal figure and ingratiating himself with successive Soviet leaders. In the Gorbachev era, that task has become more difficult - the youthful Soviet leader is thought to hold a poor opinion of his aging Bulgarian counterpart.

But Zhivkov nonetheless is trying hard to please. He issues almost daily praise of perestroika and glasnost, recently deciding in the spirit of restructuring and openness to tone down his own personality cult.

No longer, Bulgaria's leader declared, should state rituals carry the ``superficial pomposity'' left over from the Stalinist era. Ubiquitous portraits of the President were to be removed from public places. In their place, Zhivkov decreed a more ``natural, simple, and businesslike'' style to political images. The goal, he said, is to show that Bulgaria has become less regimented society.

What better place to check out the progress of the cult crackdown than in the President's hometown. Driving up the main avenue, no adoring photos are visible. In the central square, there once was a marble statue of the hometown hero. A bystander reports it was taken down last fall.

Success? Yes and no. Old Stalinist-style adulation may be out of fashion, but new Gorbachev-style admiration is in. A large banner dominates one side of the square. It reads, ``Perestroika is our Destiny.''

The presidential home stands off the main street. No signs indicate the route. None are needed.

``This isn't a museum,'' the guide says. ``But there was so much interest that, well, something had to be done.''

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She explains that the young Zhivkov lived here until he was 14. His parents, Hristo and Marutza, were poor peasants. Parents and children slept on the floor in the same room.

Before leaving, visitors are handed a book entitled ``Todor Zhivkov, A Biographical Sketch.'' It is 450 pages.

What about the new anti-personality cult campaign?

``I don't know much about that,'' the guide says. ``We have 200,000 visitors every year. We are very proud, very proud.''

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