Between Relativistic Reflection and Positivistic Certainty
author: Roumen Daskalov
title: From Stambolov to Zhivkov. Major Debates in Modern Bulgarian Historiography Sofia: Gutenberg, 2009, 515 pp.
Everyone who read Roumen Daskalov’s monograph about the Bulgarian Revival must have been waiting impatiently for his new book, From Stambolov to Zhivkov. Major Debates in Modern Bulgarian Historiography Daskalov declares at the very beginning that he has written a history of Bulgarian historiography, or a history of Bulgarian historiographical discourse, where he is concerned not with the historical reality (the past) but with its historiographical representation (the history written about the past). For his analysis of the relevant historiographical debates, Daskalov has chosen the thematic circles related to Stambolov, Russophilia and Russophobia; the phenomenon and government of the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union (BANU); fascism and the antifascist struggle; the problem of ‘people’s democracy and socialism’ in Bulgaria. One immediately notices that all thematic circles are related to political history, Daskalov’s purpose being to examine ‘the radical historiographical revaluations’ and the recurrent ‘new readings’ of history. Three of the four selected thematic circles belong to those that were of crucial importance for the legitimation of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) after 1944, touching on essential elements of its ideology. But the time until the mid-twentieth century had not yet made them suitable for historical investigation. As a result, with the exception of the theme concerning Stambolov, this presupposes comparing only two major periods of historiographical interpretations of the past: the communist and the postcommunist periods.
Even in the first study, devoted to Stambolov, Russophilia and Russophobia, Daskalov shows successfully how extra-scientific intrusions and energies made their way into scientific discourse regardless of the latter’s claims to ‘scientificity’ and ‘objectivity’. Some rhetorical strategies that accompanied the gradual attempts to rehabilitate Stambolov before 1989 are pointed out as well. The departure from scientific impartiality in the new readings at the beginning of the postcommunist period as well as ‘the breakup of the monopoly of professional historians … over historical knowledge’ (p. 98) are also demonstrated even in this study. In addition, the author successfully outlines ‘the new academic consensus’ of the 1990s, characterized as ‘national to nationalist, pro-Stambolov and slightly Russophobe…’ (p. 108); the connection of the changes in interpretations with the political conjuncture and growing nationalism in the last few decades (p. 109); the literal collapse of intellectual constructs from the 1980s (especially those of Ilcho Dimitrov) about Bulgaria’s historically justified pro-Russian (pro-Soviet) foreign-policy orientation (p. 111). Even at this early stage of the book, Daskalov points out how historians’ value stances are reflected in the selection of data, in different interpretations of the same facts, in the choice of terms of description. Nor does he omit to demonstrate how the interpretations guided by ‘the national point of view’ can be ambiguous as the national interest itself has different definitions (p. 111).
This first study calls for some critical remarks, too. Parts of the exposition seem to be somewhat chaotic in presenting authors and points of view as well as in differentiating the separate thematic sub-circles. The author could have pointed out also how even the first discussions on the Stambolov government, Russophilia and Russophobia, directly followed from and constituted developments of different political discourses that existed already at the time of the Stambolov regime. At times Daskalov’s exposition seems to be lost in the wider context that gave rise to definite new interpretations. In addition, it seems to me that some authors who contributed to the revaluation of the Stambolov theme during the communist period are somewhat overlooked.
In his analysis of the historiography devoted to the BANU, Daskalov also demonstrates clearly how various points of view, positions and discourses coming from purely political discourse made their way into historians’ subsequent professional evaluations (p. 153). In addition, Daskalov traces various ‘distortions’ and ‘pure fictions’, ‘brazen falsifications’ that went as far as attributing false quotes to historical actors (pp. 168-169, 174). He does not omit to note how the BANU theme was reviewed during the communist period without any ‘legal and institutional concept of democracy’ (p. 143). Presenting the dominance of the class paradigm until 1989 and the virtual absence of the urban/rural, late-modernization or populism paradigms, Daskalov offers further convincing proof of the absence in traditional Bulgarian historiography of contemporary scientific concepts and language that are necessary in order to make sense of the past.
It seems to me that in the introductory part of this study Daskalov could have presented more clearly the characteristic features of interwar political literature on the BANU and the influence of that literature on later ‘scientific historiography’ both during the communist period and in the post-1989 revaluations. On the whole, insofar as the interwar period began to be interpreted by scholars only after the end of the Second World War, there is a notable absence of the twists, turns and sharp clashes of points of views that are so characteristic of academic interpretations of on the ‘Stambolov theme’. On the whole, I am tempted to add that both the political pressure in interpretations and the strong influence of ideology do not make the theme itself particularly interesting for a serious historiographical analysis.
I think that, as regards the third theme – fascism, authoritarianism and antifascism – despite the significant amount of literature published over the years, Daskalov has written some of the best pages in his whole book. Even at the beginning, he succeeds in convincingly demonstrating the fateful character of this problematics from the point of view of the communist regime and its legitimation. Noting the treatment of Bulgarian fascism and authoritarianism in foreign studies as well as in earlier researches on agrarianism and populism, Daskalov once again convinces us of the power of political pressure, the literal borrowing of partisan communist theses as well as the overall life of Bulgarian historiography in isolation, where it spoke in a different language and was largely ignorant of the achievements on similar problems around the world. In the different aspects of the theme – fascism, Nazi occupation, antifascist resistance, conditions for resistance, the political parties involved in the antifascist resistance, its targets, the governments of Bagryanov and Muraviev – Daskalov traces in detail the initial transformation of the communist ‘party truth’ into ‘scientific truth’ and the subsequent painful attempts to ‘normalize’ the interpretation. Here, too, the author presents very convincingly the manoeuvring employed by historians, who used contradictions in the statements of the communist leaders themselves, the ambiguity of language, the reference to ‘specificities’ of Bulgarian fascism, the virtuoso use of new official statements and other tricks in the conditions of non-freedom. These pages definitely also inspire regret for the wasted intellectual energy invested in the above-mentioned manoeuvres. Still, Daskalov demonstrates, despite the obvious political restrictions and tendency to leave things unsaid, the growing ‘empirical content’ of the discussions on fascism (p. 203); significant revisions (p. 204); the conclusion that Bulgarian fascism was weak, which is not to say that the established regime was also weak– here the author places special emphasis on the role of Vladimir Migev (p. 218). In addition, Daskalov reveals the only written evidence of a public statement (by Krastyo Manchev) regarding the absence of ‘fascism in power’ in Bulgaria – in a brief report in a journal published, moreover, in a barely noticeable section of the journal (p. 204). In this sense, Daskalov also pays attention to the role, pointed out already by Ivan Elenkov, of the debate on fascism with a view to upholding the concept of ‘historical scientificity’, ‘professional and expert’ historical knowledge as opposed to ideology and politics.
Here I would say that it is also interesting how nationalism and the national Bulgarian point of view were practically integrated into the above-mentioned concept of scientificity, all the more so considering that the latter was born of discussions in reaction to vulgar Stalinist Marxism, the class-based approach and ‘national nihilism’ from the early communist period. Daskalov himself notes the symptomatic absence in the discussions on fascism of the latter’s connection with nationalism and the national question (p. 207). Here only future studies could demonstrate whether the absence of a social base for fascism in Bulgaria was due not least to the weak Bulgarian nationalism, a fact recently pointed out by M. Todorova. In fact, gradually – especially after 1989 – some scholars, such as N. Poppetrov, would note also the growing role of social problematics in the programmes of Bulgarian fascism, a role that was ignored in the communist period (p. 212).
In some of the best pages in the whole book, Daskalov points out how the rejection of the thesis of ‘fascism in power’ led to the disintegration of the other theses that legitimated the communist regime for decades. For its part, the very questioning of the communist regime as a totalitarian one partially restored the legitimacy of the old regime while taking away part of the legitimacy of or calling into question the antifascist resistance (p. 277). In insightful reflections, Daskalov arrives at the conclusion regarding both the legitimacy of antifascism and the illegitimacy of the Soviet-type communism imposed through it (p. 279). And it is here that he demonstrates a remarkable sense of scientific impartiality, offering subtle formulations on crucial issues of the Bulgarian past that I myself would sign without hesitation. All the more so considering that, as Ulf Brunnbauer notes, those were some of the underrated issues in the transition and in the new currents which claimed to offer ‘modern’ interpretations and which could have easily been accused by traditional historiography of dealing with problems marginal to historiography (everyday life, oral history, historical anthropology, ‘history from below’). For Bulgarian society indeed remained without impartial and topical interpretations of truly significant events and phenomena from the past, such as the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, the twentieth-century wars, or 9 September 1944, while historians discussed issues that could easily be seen also as a quest for a safe haven where no matter what thesis they discussed they would never be at loggerheads with society at large or with fellow-historians. As a result, Bulgarian society was left to historians from the traditional mainstream, and lived in an atmosphere of nationalist interpretations encouraged by the media.
Daskalov’s fourth study examines the origin and development of the communist regime, its revision and rethinking over the years. The author is obviously aware of the quality of the relevant historiographical production, of the high extent to which historians ‘sang in chorus’ with the regime. But that is precisely why he notes at the very beginning all the significance of this ‘production’ from the perspective of ‘the power-knowledge relation’ where not only ‘the truth’ but also the false ‘knowledge’ is of interest (p. 295). That is also why the period as a whole was avoided by professional historians; to the extent that they dealt with it, they nevertheless managed to collect more factual material or strove at least to use some more neutrally-sounding descriptions (p. 328). To Daskalov, it would be an exaggeration to qualify as some form of dissidence the tortuous, half-hearted and painful attempts of some authors to find in ‘the people’s democracy’ a counterpoint to what had come to be called ‘mature socialism’ (p. 328). At the same time, the muted and indirect criticism of the regime through the expression of more outspoken national or nationalist views became increasingly irrelevant after the regime itself adopted a nationalist policy line (p. 341). At the end of his analysis, the author also discusses the post-1989 revaluations of the meaning of events on 9 September 1944 and the transformation of the previous debate on ‘the beginning of socialism’ into a debate on ‘the beginning of totalitarianism’ (p. 350) or of Georgi Dimitrov into an instrument of Stalin, a conduit of Sovietization and destroyer of the democratic opposition in Bulgaria (p. 353). The People’s Tribunal and the communist repressions became the subject of debates for the first time too.
Like the monograph on the Bulgarian Revival, this book also abounds in invaluable insights, findings and general observations on the historical profession, the institutions for the production of historical knowledge and Bulgarian historiography as a whole. Even in his study on Stambolov, the author finds that when there are ‘strongly polemical issues’, division of literature by genre is not particularly productive and, furthermore, ‘the boundaries are often blurred, especially in the effort of the relevant works to represent a historical narrative and to establish truths’ (p. 15). To my mind, not less valuable are his opinions as to how otherwise ‘scientific’ interpretations sometimes come from ‘conjecture and insight’ which the author gets from biased memoirs (p. 23) or how a number of observations of contemporaries eventually made their way into ‘professional historiography’ (p. 28). Rightfully focusing in his final paragraphs on the outstanding and powerful figure of Nikolai Genchev, Daskalov convincingly demonstrates the methodological and theoretical poverty of Bulgarian historiography when viewed in an international historiographical context. Using as an example the ‘aloof’ and document-abiding writing of Velichko Georgiev (aimed at dissociation from the ideology of the regime), Daskalov again finds something already noted by Georg Iggers about East European historiographies as a whole: production of factographic texts lacking analytical depth. I would say that when it comes to this type of ‘studies’, the reader must complete the text herself/himself, while the informed historian will see them more as a diligently and well-written student factographic work that needs to be followed by analysis in depth and in a comparative perspective (which somehow ought to be an invariable part of every professional historical study).
One is not surprised by Daskalov’s general conclusion as to how political control over historiography and open ideologization were strongest during the communist period (p. 453). His book abounds in observations regarding the attainment of the communist ‘party truth’ by privileging the BCP’s perspective in narrating historical events (pp. 454-455), sometimes even without direct falsifications but with ‘exaggerations’, ‘distortions of meaning’ as well as ‘untrue claims’ (p. 48). Daskalov could not have missed noticing the significant evolution of views on some problems even in the period before 1989, as well as the gradual application of the national framework ‘with characteristic amnesias about some communist conceptions and actions’ (p. 456). In this sense, similarly to M. Todorova years ago, he also notes the then-existing perception of the evolution towards nationalism as ‘almost dissidence’ (p. 456); the reduction of Marxism over the years more to declarations of loyalty which, however, also resulted in scientific isolation from the new trends in the West and paralysis of the theoretical quests (p. 457). Daskalov is probably the first author who presents also the internal professional hierarchy, where the Institute of History of the BCP held a lower position than the other ‘true’ scientific centres which produced ‘serious’ history (p. 457).
It is notable that the author largely succeeds in applying the same critical approach to the post-1989 historiographical production on which the influence of the new political and intellectual context is clearly evident. This holds for the noted inevitable influence of the political turn on the views even of historians like Ilcho Dimitrov who, as a result of the collapse of the communist regime, eventually accepted the understanding that there may be more than one ‘truth’ about pivotal historical events (p. 346). At the same time Dimitrov, who used to be a strict judge of failed historical tendencies like Stambolovism and Russophobia, began to appeal for taking into account, when evaluating the regime that collapsed in 1989, the ideals and intentions of its creators (p. 470). Also very telling of the understandings among professional circles in Bulgaria is Daskalov’s conclusion that it was precisely on the issue of the ‘Macedonian question’, not on that of the communist repressions, that historians like Mito Isusov and Ilcho Dimitrov felt very vulnerable and were compelled to admit ‘sins’ of Georgi Dimitrov and the BCP (p. 363). Some of the final paragraphs of Daskalov’s book suggest that it is much easier for a left-wing historian (Vladimir Migev) to accept the new interpretations, approaches, and especially the new thematic fields, than for an able Bulgarian military and diplomatic historian deeply educated in the values of nineteenth-century classical historicism (Georgi Markov). Here it is curious to recall that many of the new trends in western historiography after the Second World War were initiated by scholars schooled in their youth in Marxism, albeit in a non-dogmatic form.
In a number of cases Daskalov demonstrates his abilities and mastery as an impartial researcher who, however, does not hesitate to take a stance on controversial and complex issues of the past. To him, the recently established by a number of scholars (such as Roumen Avramov) existence of anti-capitalist and left-wing leanings in Bulgarian society before 9 September 1944 does not contradict the thesis regarding the decisive role of the external factor in Bulgaria’s ‘political development towards socialism’; it only facilitated the imposition of socialism (p. 351). Daskalov notes also how ‘the very concept of revolution somehow legitimated violence’ insofar as it ‘depreciated life and legal procedure’ and ‘had the romantic halo of something good and precious by its end goals and ideals which justified the violence accompanying it…’ Here, however, the author does not omit to add something very important for the post-1989 perspective, noting how ‘the discrediting of the ideals by the results (but also by the means) de-heroized the revolution, and revealed and criminalized the violence’ accompanying the revolution (p. 368). Making another felicitous observation and judgement, Daskalov points out that unlike King Boris III who was acting under pressure from Germany, Georgi Dimitrov acted more out of conviction than coercion from Stalin, and because of his definitely communist ideal and lack of an even relatively autonomous policy, he cannot be a national hero like Stambolov (pp. 359-360). Without being a fan of this type of calculations, Daskalov does not omit to point out the larger scale, intensity and brutality of the post-9 September 1944 repressions noted by non-communists as well as by communists (pp. 369-370). To him, the visible absence of a strong opposition and dissidence in Bulgaria until the end of the regime was due to multiple factors, among which the strong initial repressions; the traditional conformism typical of Bulgarians; the traditional Russophilia; a weak liberal-democratic tradition; the use of nationalism by the regime; isolation from the West. Again according to Daskalov, the reasons why the period of communist rule has not been fully discredited despite its repressive character have to do with the fact that the strongest repressions were conducted in the first years (except for the ‘Revival Process’); the binding over time of many people to the regime and the striking of ‘roots’; the painful transition and poverty after 1989 (p. 380).
To my mind, one of the greatest merits of Daskalov’s study is his ability to ‘foresee’ future historiographical interpretations on controversial issues. Bearing in mind the inevitable ‘influence of the present on historical knowledge’, he asks himself whether the new realities in the European Union might make historians more positive towards Stamboliyski’s federal ideal about the Balkans (p. 161). He attempts to foresee how socialism or the communist period will be viewed in time and convincingly supposes that the defenders of the period will be ever more defensive while the openly nostalgic views and praises will be seen as shows of extremism (pp. 346-347).
Let me also say a few words about the relationship between Bulgarian historiography and ‘postmodernism’ examined by Daskalov. It is noteworthy that despite the naïve understandings of ‘truth’ which he finds to prevail among the majority of Bulgarian historians, he has nevertheless ingeniously noticed that after 1989 old historians have also begun to call for ‘relativization’ (pp. 472-473) – obviously not as a result of some theoretical reflexivity but rather because of a personally endured life- and professional experience. Actually, it seems to me that here Daskalov has made one of his most insightful observations. To the ‘traditionalists’, relativism is particularly unacceptable not because of the very relativization of truth but insofar as it calls into question ‘the truths of national history which is regarded as sacred’ (p. 481). Also very felicitous is Daskalov’s observation regarding the impossibility to encourage relativistic interpretations in the conditions of non-freedom characteristic of the communist period. To this I would add that the poverty of the transition where, as Vladislav Todorov so aptly puts it, ‘postmodernism ends at Kalotina because that is where Schengen begins’, does not predispose to postmodern relativism, especially when this goes hand-in-hand with an ill-concealed parochial snobbery in following ‘extravagant French trickster-philosophers’.
It seems it is high time for me to upset the ever more alarming and truly dangerous continuity that is being established between the ‘traditionalists’ and the so-called ‘modern historians’, or innovators, by expressing some not so trivial and insignificant critical remarks and disagreements with this obviously timely and necessary book. It seems to me it would have been more appropriately subtitled, ‘Major Debates on Modern and Contemporary Bulgarian History’. At times, especially in the last study, on socialism, I feel as if I am not reading a book about debates in Bulgarian historiography. I tend to be left with the impression that certain periods are being retold – a danger against which obviously none of us is insured. In the first pages of his last chapter – when Daskalov discusses the crucial formatting influence of classical German historicism (although the latter is not called by this name in the text) – he seems to omit to underline that it is ideologically laden with national romanticism and nationalism. Especially considering that it is precisely nationalism that proved to be most contagious among historians in Bulgaria even during the communist period. That is why after the first twenty years of communist ‘national nihilism’ and a shorter forcible Macedonization in Pirin Macedonia, some would proceed to praise the previously condemned kings, and then end with the ‘Revival Process’ with which the vast majority of Bulgarian historians – be it because of national stereotypes or professional ethos – do not have a serious moral problem. Let us not forget that quite often the media versions, too, of representation of the past in the last twenty years have been simply a public, media display of a way of professional thinking, discourse, ethos and mentality cultivated among Bulgarian historians as early as from the 1970s and 1980s onwards.
It is difficult not to notice also Daskalov’s unease when he has to judge critically authors from his circle, especially if they are of his generation. This unease was obvious even in his above-mentioned impressive essay on historiography devoted to the Bulgarian Revival. Here it can be found in the sometimes frequent listing – in ‘phone directory’ style – of studies on oral history, ethnographic micro-studies, histories of gender and women, histories of minorities, histories of everyday life, and so on, noting only their ‘innovative character’ but without the critical analytical approach applied to other studies. That is also why it seems to me that when dwelling on the conflict between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘modern historians’ Daskalov, too, fails to grasp some reasonable grounds for the rejection, by the traditionalists or at least by their more prominent and open representatives, of some historical studies produced ‘outside the guild’. But even Daskalov’s desire to be tactful has ultimately failed to conceal one of the main characteristics of Bulgarian historiography, including of the ‘innovators’: resolving ‘domestic issues’, simple application of new and unused foreign models and approaches to Bulgarian material. There is almost a complete absence of comparative analyses, while individual studies rarely address more general questions, to say nothing of addressing problems that are significant for historiography as a whole, let alone for the social sciences and humanities.
To use a book-reviewer’s cliché, the critical remarks and wishes expressed here by no means belittle Daskalov’s work. And then, he himself – as this book also proves – has never shied away from self-criticism (p. 342). Aware of his own transition towards ‘significant relativization of the views on “truth” and “objectivity”,’ Daskalov recommends going still further, towards ‘even more radical linguistic and literary-critical approaches towards historical works.’ Hailing Daskalov’s in-principle declared radicalism, I would only like to remind the reader that some of Hayden White’s views are regarded, as a whole, with open scepticism by most historians not only in Bulgaria. And then, Hayden White himself strays quite far from his sophisticated style of literary criticism when he has to express his own stance on issues such as George Soros’s activity (which he praises) or George W Bush’s policy and the war in Iraq (which he condemns). For like Daskalov, I, too, prefer and feel a need ‘to keep something of the positivistic programme and faith, albeit not in classical form, which might also be a nostalgia for something at least partly certain.’ I want to know that ‘Minutes of Proceedings No. 41’ is from a university-department council or meeting which was really held and that it really proceeded exactly as recorded in the minutes. I want to know that Veda Slovena is ultimately only a mystification produced by Ivan Gologanov, not something that was sung to him by the population of the Rhodopi Mountains and that reflects its millennia-long historical memory. And I do care which of the two is true.
 Daskalov, R. Conceptions of the Bulgarian Revival. A Historiographical Study (in Bulgarian). Sofia: LIK, 2002. Published in English as The Making of a Nation in the Balkans. Historiography of the Bulgarian Revival. Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, 2004.
 Elenkov, I. and D. Koleva. ‘Post-1989 Changes in Bulgarian Historical Science: Delineations and Limits.’ In: Mishkova, D. (ed.) The Balkan Nineteenth Century. Other Readings (in Bulgarian). Sofia: Riva, 2006, pp. 46, 73-81.
 Todorova, M. Bones of Contention. The Living Archive of Vasil Levski and the Making of Bulgaria’s National Hero. Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, 2009, p. 182.
 Brunnbauer, Ulf (ed.). (Re)Writing History – Historiography in Southeast Europe after Socialism. Münster: Lit-Verlag, 2004, p. 29.
 Todorova, M. ‘Historiography of the Countries of Eastern Europe: Bulgaria,’ American Historical Review, vol. 97. No. 4, October 1992, pр. 1107-1108.
 Todorov, V. ‘NATO, the Bulgarian Question and Its Apostles,’ Kultura, No. 38, 25 November 1998, p. 11 (in Bulgarian).
 Daskalov, R. ‘On “Alternative History”, If It Exists,’ Sotsiologicheski Problemi, 2008, No. 1/2, p. 392 (in Bulgarian).
- Stefan Detchev
- Roumen Daskalov – From Stambolov to Zhivkov