Bulgaria is on the brink of a silent civil war

The Bulgarian writer, nominated for the “Booker” for his novel “Time Asylum”, spoke to the British publication theguardian about the lack of future – a central theme in his novel, about the dangerous nostalgia for an unconscious past, about the polarization of Bulgarian society, about the rise of populism and nationalism.

Four years ago I wrote a novel in which the feeling that there was a “deficit of the future” was so acute that every nation in Europe wanted to hold its own referendum on the past. Until then, referendums were always about the future. But the moment came when the horizon closed and we began to look only back to the past. A referendum on the past would involve choosing to return to the happiest decade or year of the 20th century in any nation’s history. The deficit of the future always unlocks vast reserves of nostalgia for the past: which decade would nations choose? Germany chooses the very end of the 80s, the perpetuum mobile of 1989, in which the wall is constantly falling. Italy returns to the 60s. It is as if the map of Europe shifts from a territorial one to a temporal one, and the nations close themselves – for a very short time – in their own happy past.

We see this pattern – this strong pull back – being applied now. In short, time replaced space.

The world is fragmented, more or less explored and known. We are left with a vast ocean of time, which is actually an ocean of the past.

The very idea of ​​nostalgia has changed. No longer focused on place or home (nostos), as the etymology of the word suggests, nostalgia is now for another time. Perhaps we should use another term – chronostalgia, for example. And in this sense our wars have become wars of the past.

When the novel came out, at one reading the audience asked me: well, but what would Russia choose? I wasn’t sure at the time. I like to think that these will be the Gorbachev years, the time of perestroika. The answer came on February 24 last year. In this invisible referendum on the past, Russia chose the years of World War II; for the last time they enjoyed the recognition of a world ready to forget Stalin, the gulags, the Famine and the cruelties of the Soviet system.

Understandably, Putin chose to return to the early 1940s. Russia’s current misery and isolation has caused it to return to the “happy” and powerful times of the Soviet Union.

What Putin wants is not to win this war, but to make it chronic, to force us all to live in this regime. Its goal is to bombard and destroy the present (and the future) with all its infrastructure and everyday life – so that there is no water, no heat, no light. To destroy everyday life, and from there to existence, to literally destroy the Ukrainian nation.

An aggressive project to revive the past, especially an unprocessed, forgotten or rewritten past, is the perfect breeding ground for populism and nationalism. We saw this under Trump, and now it is coming true in an even more sinister guise under Putin.

Memory and culture are part of Europe’s immune system. It must recognize and disarm the viruses of collective blindness, loss of reason, nationalistic madness and the birth of new dictators. But the war in Ukraine broke out because those who carry the living memory of the Second World War are no longer with us. We are at that gap of generations, when the last participants who kept this memory alive, the last concentration camp workers, the last soldiers, are leaving. I hope we’re not headed for some weird collective Alzheimer’s disease.
Because when the flame of memory goes out, the animals of the past close the circle around us. The less memory, the more past. We remember to keep the past at bay – in the past.

It is no longer just about memory, but about what we remember and how. Because Putin also swears by memory. Populism and nationalism also create their own version of memory. In Russia, they never did the hard work around the memory of the Second World War that Germany, for example, did: the painful work that penetrates all layers of society, enters institutions, schools and history textbooks. His absence keeps Russia’s status as the great victim alive: an alibi for new victims it thinks it deserves.

One of the most disturbing things now is the blurring of the line between truth and falsehood. This fake not only rewrites the past, but predetermines the future. It is based on a revised past precisely to justify the present aggressions and disgraces.

Throughout my childhood and youth in Bulgaria, I was taught at school that Russia is our big brother, without whom we cannot live (like all big brothers, he could beat the bad kids in the neighborhood who bullied us). Of course, my generation secretly dreamed of other nations, of the coveted foreign lands to the west of us. And this is a small justice – the USSR never became a dream destination, despite the propaganda, instead it remained a place we experienced in awe. And this has consequences for the current situation.

In Bulgaria today, pro-Russian propaganda works easily at various levels. From a sense of gratitude to our two-time liberators (and, as it turns out, two-time enslavers), to worshiping Russian culture (as if Putin and Chekhov were twin brothers), to statements by high-ranking politicians who refuse to unequivocally side with the victim.

A Eurobarometer survey from May last year shows that public opinion in Bulgaria is closer to the Russian position on the war than that of other EU countries. Bulgaria also ranks last in the EU in terms of media literacy. Facebook remains the most influential social media in Bulgaria: over 95% of our traffic is there. The problem is that the propaganda from the Internet has infiltrated the official and serious media.

Bulgarian society is cruelly divided into two. I don’t think the country has seen such disintegration and polarization — exacerbated by social media and public figures — in decades. It may sound too harsh, but sometimes I feel like we are on the brink of a silent civil war.

This part of Europe has not been on the crest of the wave of history since 1989. But she never ceased, through her literature and stories, to offer warnings of what had already happened and could happen again. It seems to me that these stories are not heard well enough. Here we can clearly feel that the story is not over yet. Now we know and can articulate it: while the continent has a single bleeding wound from history, the entire continent bleeds. No one, no matter how many kilometers to the west, can be calm. The center of Europe is not something static, stuck in Berlin or Paris. The center of Europe is that moving point of pain. Where it hurts and bleeds. Today it is in the east, in proud Ukraine.

In one of the most beautiful essays on Europe, Hijacked West (1983), Milan Kundera begins with a final, desperate telex message sent by the director of the Hungarian News Agency in 1956, while the building itself was under artillery fire. His message read: “We will die for Hungary and for Europe.” In these critical moments he wanted to communicate something. The Russian army’s invasion of Hungary was an invasion of Europe; don’t wait, react. Did Europe (or the West then) get and decipher the message?

This time we know for whom the bell tolls. People in Europe understood immediately. Kundera’s essay ends with the bitter conclusion that after World War II, the West turned its back on Central Europe and simply considered it a satellite of the Soviet empire, with no identity of its own. This momentum, I dare say, continued after 1989.

The war in Ukraine actually brought Central and Eastern Europe back to Europe. From the periphery, there is a hypersensitivity to what is to come, an ability to detect the scent of anxiety in the air. Eastern Europe has learned to feel danger with its skin. For this reason, I will take the liberty of saying it this way: do not underestimate the books, essays and poems from this corner of Europe. Decode the symbols in them. Words don’t stop tanks or shoot down drones. But they can (can’t they?) stop, slow, or at least make those in the tanks waging war on innocent people hesitate, at least for a while. Words can help those who are misled by fake news and propaganda.

This war will not end with the last bullet fired. It started years before the first shot and will probably end years after the last one. But literature has a role: it can at least teach us resistance and empathy; it can offer us the tools to identify propaganda lies; it can preserve personal stories from the epicenter of pain, generate a memory that will not be disturbed, and, if possible, comfort. No propaganda should be more powerful than the memory of a little boy fleeing war with a phone number scrawled on his arm.

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