A History of Totalitarian Power and Care
editor: Ivaylo Znepolski
title: A History of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. The Regime and Society. Sofia: Institute for Studies of the Recent Past / Ciela Publishers, 2009, pp.716.
A History of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. The Regime and Society (edited by Ivaylo Znepolski) has not appeared in a void. The closest context of this impressive volume (716 pages) is the series of books published by the Institute for Studies of the Recent Past, most of whose authors are also the authors of the studies in the History. It must be immediately noted, however, that these studies are not abridged versions of the relevant books but specially written texts inspired by a common project. And although a significant amount of literature on the 1944-1989 period has been published in the last decade, we can safely say that History of the PRB is unique – above all in its scope of themes and problems. I know of no other study that offers such an exhaustive analysis of the different fields of social life under socialism – political history, social history, history of institutions, history of the production of historical knowledge… Actually, this is above all a history of the policies of the regime in the different social spheres and, respectively, of its different practices of control. A history of the ‘care’ that makes the totalitarian state totalitarian.
The careful reader will see that History of the PRB actually problematizes two myths or clichés of approximate knowledge of the recent past. The first one is the easy generalization that ‘This is the time when the Party was in power.’ Whereas this is no doubt true, what was ‘the Party’ really? In an ironic horror story by Alek Popov from the mid-1990s, Lenin and the Bolsheviks are represented as evil extraterrestrials or, possibly, demons, but definitely as non-humans. I give this literary example because it hyperbolizes the typical of the early Transition tendency to think of communism as a monstrosity ‘external’ to the human, as an evil that penetrated the social fabric surreptitiously and then went away before we could understand what it really was. That is precisely what makes so significant the way in which Alexander Vezenkov, for example, in his study ‘The Single-Party System: The BCP and Government of the Country’, explains in detail what the all-encompassing control by the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) actually consisted in, how it was exercised, what the ‘interface’ was by which the party constantly interfered and shaped life. This also holds for Momchil Metodiev’s study on State Security (DS), which explains what the Committee for State Security (KDS) actually was, whether its structure and tasks changed, and so on.
The second myth which History of the PRB dispels is that communism is a dogmatic, ‘wooden’ ideology. The studies in the book show very well how over the years, the regime made quite successful attempts to adapt its ideological postulates to the changing circumstances. This applies both to the economy and the ‘national question’ and, for example, to the concept of ‘socialist realism’. There is no ideological postulate that was not modified, sometimes to the point of being turned on its head. Ultimately, what was ‘right’ was what the Party deemed to be right. As a matter of fact, this also explains the phenomenon of dissent within the party – various ‘dissenters’ who refused to recognize the symbolic monopoly of the Central Committee over the interpretation of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine constantly appeared within the BCP and its affiliated intelligentsia. The critical potential was channeled into something like communist Protestantism – a desire to interpret the Scriptures of Marx and Lenin without a controlling institution, the church/party.
History of the PRB impresses not just with its scope but also with its ethical and conscientious approach to facts. Most of the contributors to the book seem devoted to the facts, and not to speculative constructs, to the archives, and not to theory. This is a history of totalitarianism written by historians (even when in purely biographical terms some authors come from other disciplines); it would have undoubtedly been different if it had been written by neo-Marxist sociologists or literary historians and cultural anthropologists. However, this devotion to facts and archives has not led to the pseudo-objectivity that often hides a refusal to take a moral and political stance. The History of the PRB project refuses to ‘normalize’ and exonerate the totalitarian past through arguments of the ‘objective-processes’ or ‘such-were-the-times’ type. Totalitarianism is not socialism, and the regime in power from 1947 to 1989 was not simply a variant of the global ‘left’ – this is the major conclusion reached by the different studies in the book.
The scrupulous treatment of facts in History of the PRB does not mean that this is a positivistic History fixated on facts taken at face value. That this is not the case is best revealed by the prominent self-reflexive layer of this collective study. It is most evident in Prof. Ivaylo Znepolski’s introductory study, ‘Totalitarianism: A Look at the History of an Unfinished Debate’, and in the final section, ‘Studying Communism: Sources, Approaches, Methods’, which includes studies by Ivan Elenkov, Daniela Koleva, and Rumen Daskalov. The self-reflexive framework of the History begins with a justification of the term ‘totalitarianism’ and an inquiry into the possibility of using it to refer to the 1948-1989 period (Ivaylo Znepolski). There are at least two important questions here: To what extent is the term ‘totalitarianism’ productive and should we use it to refer to the whole period between 1948 and 1989, or should we use it only for Stalinism? Prof. Znepolski’s convincingly defended thesis, which is confirmed by most of the following studies, is that ‘The reformed totalitarianism from the point of view of the political system did not become less totalitarian’ (p. 76). In his other study in the History, ‘“Consensual Dictatorship” and Its Social Base’, Ivaylo Znepolski argues the thesis that the term ‘totalitarianism’ is applicable, by showing how the power of the BCP was naturalized by means of ‘corruptionof the masses’ – a technique that varied but remained equally effective both before and after 1956.
The self-reflexive layer is expounded in the final section of the book, which investigates the actual production of historical knowledge of the totalitarian period. This section deals with the following: the discourse of professional historians as a form of departure from the ideological discourse, which, however, had its internal limits (Ivan Elenkov); the possibility for an ‘oral history’ that would introduce an alternative regime of historical knowledge of the past (Daniela Koleva); the debates on key terms of historiographical discourse in rethinking totalitarianism (Rumen Daskalov).
Whereas the self-reflexive layer is no doubt interesting for those who are professionally engaged in studying the recent past, of course the main emphasis in History of the PRB is on the study of the different event orders and social fields. In the first place I would note the very informative articles in the first section, ‘The Political Nature and Political History of the Communist Regime (1944-1989)’ written by Daniel Vachkov and Mihail Gruev. They could and should be used most extensively by future authors of textbooks of history of the period under review. The same holds for the section on economic life in the PRB, which includes texts by Daniel Vachkov and Martin Ivanov on the economy in the two major sub-periods of the totalitarian regime, as well as texts by Mihail Gruev on collectivization and demographic processes. All these wide-ranging facts, processes and events are systematized in a remarkably precise way.
The arrangement of the texts in the History is apparently reminiscent of the usual historiographical practice of beginning with political history, moving on to the economy and social sphere, and ending with culture and the other peripheral, ‘superstructural’ phenomena. In this case, however, there is no hierarchization in the exposition of historical processes or, more precisely, historiographical knowledge is not subordinated to a dominant narrative, be it political or economic. This is a ‘non-totalitarian’ history of totalitarianism. The social spheres are investigated separately – economy, political institutions, social stratification, literature, culture, and so on. However, the reasonable question arises: Isn’t this simply a collection of articles in hard cover, titled A History of the PRB?
This question can be answered in at least two ways. The first is, how else? Considering the present development of the humanities, it would be absurd to expect a methodologically monistic, all-encompassing work. There is no privileged approach in studying society; rather, the truth is sought by combining different methodological paradigms and perspectives. Secondly, although the separate studies look like a fan, this fan nevertheless meets at a common point. The common point is the power or control exercised by the Party in the different spheres. In other words, Chavdar Marinov’s article on the individual cases in ‘the national question’ is devoted not to the national identities themselves but to the ways in which the communist party tried to control those identities. This also holds for almost all other studies in the book: Petya Kabakchieva writes less about social stratification under socialism than about the attempts of the Party to shape this stratification; Plamen Doynov explores the Party’s attempts to direct literature by way of the term and concept of ‘socialist realism’, and so on. Generally speaking, this is a history of power in the PRB, more precisely of the power techniques and legitimating discourses through which power directed and shaped the processes in the different social spheres.
The History tends to deal more with facts than with representations. An exception is the excellent text of Nikolai Vukov on the monumental monuments of the communist regime. A history of ‘the regimes of representation’ would probably help to illuminate the legitimating base of totalitarianism, which would take us deeper into the territory outlined by Ivaylo Znepolski in his study on ‘ “Consensual Dictatorship” and Its Social Base’ – namely, identifying the instruments and techniques through which the totalitarian regime was naturalized and the resistances against it neutralized.
The big question we could ask about totalitarianism in Bulgaria is whether its collapse was inevitable or accidental. In favour of the thesis of the more or less accidental character of the collapse of totalitarianism is the opportunism of Todor Zhivkov and of the BCP as a whole, their ability to adjust to the situation; the ‘unfortunate’ coming to power of Gorbachev who withdrew his confidence from Zhivkov, and so on. In other words, one may presume that given another constellation of forces, the regime could have survived in a transformed, Chinese or Latin American, form. However, the arguments in favour of the other thesis are even stronger. That totalitarianism was ‘destined’ to collapse is best revealed by its ‘bankruptcies’. A History of the PRB devotes special attention to at least three of them. These are the bankruptcy of the economy (more precisely, the three bankruptcies described by Martin Ivanov), the bankruptcy of the national project manifested in the results of the ‘Regenerative Process’ (Chavdar Marinov), and the bankruptcy of the cultural monopoly, that is, of the control over the production of legitimating symbols (Ivan Elenkov, Plamen Doynov). Which suggests that what happened had to happen.
A History of the PRB is structured in a way that allows one to read the past in parallel storylines. The chronological principle is followed in the separate studies, but it is not dominant in the book as a whole. In other words, the separate texts constantly refer us back to the imposition of the regime, the April 1956 Plenum, the attempts at reforms in the 1970s, and so on – once through the lens of the power shifts within the BCP, then again through the economic processes, and finally through the social and cultural policies. Thus, if the reader wants to acquire adequate knowledge about a given sub-period or key year, they must construct a narrative on their own, piecing together fragments from the different studies. If we are interested in the situation in the early 1970s and the attempt to create a socialist consumer society, we can compare the processes in the economy (the financial crisis), culture (the rise of Lyudmila Zhivkova and the idea of ‘creative transformation of life’ as a sort of counterpoint to consumerism whose demands were never satisfied), and the attempt at renaming Muslim Bulgarians. For their part, the 1980s can be seen through the economic agony, the nationalist outbursts around the ‘Regenerative Process’ and Todor Zhivkov’s desperate faith in ‘scientific and technological progress’ that led to the top place of ‘scientific workers’ (as academics were called at the time) in the table of average wages in the different branches (Petya Kabakchieva). The History does not offer pre-packed knowledge, it expounds many narratives but refuses to impose a dominant Narrative, being somewhat like an encyclopaedia to be read in a sequence chosen by the reader.
If there is a second edition of the History, it would be advisable to add an apparatus that will help the reader choose a route to explore totalitarianism. I have in mind above all an index, a timeline of key events in the different spheres, possibly brief information about the historical figures mentioned in the text. Such an apparatus would also be especially valuable for an international audience if, hopefully, the book is published in translation.
A History of the PRB automatically invokes clichés like ‘landmark event’, ‘filling a void’, and so on. Sometimes, however, clichés are true. I would only make one correction. The work of the scholars who have produced A History of the PRB does not so much ‘fill’ as ‘clean up’ a void. Our knowledge of the totalitarian past is like a void glutted with prejudices, emotions, stereotypes and media constructs. A History of the PRB attempts to illuminate and clean up this void and, in that sense, demonstrates the courage of reason that is the true mark of the Enlightenment.
- Boyko Penchev
- Ivaylo Znepolski (ed.) A History of the Peoples Republic of Bulgaria. The Regime and Society