- Published on Friday, 06 July 2012 06:45
- Written by Maria Todorova
This year's jubilee has been dominated by what all festive anniversaries do: remembering and celebrating a victory.
Because it is an official victory, it is to a large extent a prescriptive remembering, focused on two central pillars and their firmly entrenched formulas: the "peaceful revolution" and the normative Vergangenheitsbewältigung, as in Germany. In Bulgaria, 1989 is popularly known, in a typically anticlimactic fashion, not as revolution, but as "the change" (promianata), much like the German Die Wende.
In fact, it started as a liberal intellectual revolution, soon to be transformed into a drastic social revolution, turning a fairly egalitarian society into one of enormous wealth differentiation and a marginalised intelligentsia.
Even in this anniversary year, 1989 is not in the centre of popular attention except in small intellectual circles, but I would argue – counter-intuitively – that alongside its natural fading away, the memory of communism is growing in many and novel ways. Communist presence diminished the fastest in the visual and symbolic sphere: almost 100 populated areas were renamed, street names were changed and a new coat of arms, national flag, anthem, and holiday system were adopted.
A huge number of communist-era monuments were dismantled, the culmination being the dynamiting of the Dimitrov mausoleum in 1999. Rival ones were constructed, commemorating the victims of communism. While the monumental evidence from the communist period is clearly diminishing, it is more noticeable now when its presence is not mandated. It is acquiring the status of the formerly cherished pre-communist monuments.
In the legal sphere the memory of communism is still present, but is fading irreversibly. Legal proceedings against former communist politicians (few of which ended with convictions) hardly achieved the desired function of clearing up and catharsis. The repeal of repressive legislation, the restoration of private ownership of land and the restitution law sought to create a new owner class with a market orientation but the formation of the new moneyed elite followed different avenues. The secret files were opened but, compared to other East European societies, the attempt to condemn the past with the help of disclosures was unsuccessful.
Only a small number of Bulgarians views the pre-1989 system as undeniably criminal. For the majority, the regime was restrictive of political and economic freedoms, but provided security, and the plummeting living standards in the 1990s contributed to this perception. The blanket criminalisation of communist rule in Bulgaria is a failure.
Debates about the communist legacy were fierce in the first decade after 1989, but the "rewriting of history" was almost entirely confined to the mass media, memoirs and popular history. Since the end of the 1990s, when the transition period ended and the irreversibility of the process became clear, an exponentially growing scholarly literature has reassessed the communist period within a variety of frameworks: totalitarianism, state capitalism, paternalism, economy of deficit, "second" and "third" network theory, "domesticated" socialism, elitism, even Dada. "Modernisation" is becoming hegemonic even as it attracts accusations of "normalisation".
Most interesting today is "post-communist nostalgia" as a special memory case. Lamenting the losses that came with the collapse of state socialism does not imply wishing it back. Not all aspects are missed. Mainstream ideological treatment, however, would like us to believe that it was all one package, that one cannot have full employment without shortages, inter-ethnic peace without forced homogenisation, or free healthcare without totalitarianism. And since allegedly you cannot wish for a part without wishing for the whole, any positive mention of the socialist past is seen as ideologically suspect. We quickly label a video clip of socialist era commodities as communist nostalgia, when we obviously would not apply the term Ottoman nostalgia to a video clip of belly dancers gyrating to oriental tunes. Post-communist nostalgia is not only the longing for security, stability and prosperity but also the feeling of loss for a specific form of sociability. Above all, there is a desire, among the ones who lived through communism, even when they opposed it or were indifferent to its ideology, to invest their lives with meaning and dignity, not to be thought of, remembered or bemoaned as losers or "slaves". Lastly, there is the tentative but growing curiosity among the younger generation.
A joke encapsulates the ambivalent attitude toward the communist past, as it exemplifies the traditional ironic response of Bulgarians both before and after the fall of communism.
A woman sits bolt upright in the middle of the night. She jumps out of bed and rushes to the bathroom to look in the medicine cabinet. Then, she runs into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator. Finally, she dashes to the window and looks out into the street. Relieved, she returns to the bedroom. Her husband asks, "What's wrong with you?" "I had a terrible nightmare", she says, "I dreamed we could still afford to buy medicine, that the refrigerator was absolutely full, and that the streets were safe and clean." "How is that a nightmare?" The woman shakes her head, "I thought the communists were back in power."
This article was orginally published on November 9, 2009