A Captivating Mind | The Nation


A Captivating Mind

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“There is no single memory of communism, and there is no national consensus about the past,” says Ivaylo Znepolski, a Bulgarian philosopher and director of the Institute for Studies of the Recent Past, one of the very few organizations to actively delve into the history of communism in the country. “The memory of communism in Bulgaria is a vast, unsolved problem, and this is evident in the politics of the state in the past twenty-five years, regardless of the governments in power.”

While a national consensus about the communist past may be difficult to achieve—history is a multifaceted realm, made up of millions of unique personal experiences that are often at odds with one another and can not be easily reconciled—Bulgaria’s post-communist governments have been guilty of actively suppressing the memory and examination of the crimes of the past. The current government still refuses to officially acknowledge Bulgaria’s role in Markov’s murder; when the state prosecutor decided last year to close the investigation, he not only cited the statute of limitations but also cast doubt on the finding that Markov was murdered by the SSS. As in many other countries across the former Soviet bloc, the political changes in Bulgaria in 1989 were initiated on the inside, by members of the Communist Party and the SSS, who often used their positions to derive the best personal advantage for themselves, their relatives and their friends. Political rule in the name of the people was simply transformed into private economic power, as public property was quickly—and most often criminally—privatized by the elite. In effect, the new political and economic class today is mostly composed of people who have direct or indirect links to the old communist regime. And controlling the present, as Orwell knew so well, means controlling the past and, more importantly, the future.

“In Bulgaria, there was no real decommunization, no lustration, and the SSS secret files were opened very late so as to achieve this controlled transition to democracy,” says Hristo Hristov. “But in the final run, society is still manipulated by the same mechanism, in which former members of the SSS are always present—in politics, in the economy, in the media. It is the reason why we don’t have a memory of Georgi Markov. And the memory of Markov is missing because there is no memory of the victims of communism as a whole.”

Last year, a sociological study spearheaded by the Hannah Arendt Center in Sofia examined young Bulgarians’ knowledge of totalitarianism in Europe and at home. The respondents were between the ages of 15 and 35, and the results were striking: 79 percent hadn’t heard of the Gulag; 67 percent hadn’t heard of the Iron Curtain; 51 percent didn’t know the reason for Markov’s death; and 89 percent had no knowledge of the book In Absentia Reports.

The Bulgarian crisis of historical memory is hardly peculiar to young people, especially when it comes to Markov’s literary works. Most adults are familiar with his name today, but only in the context of his murder. Few have read his essays or novels, and only the biggest bookstores in Sofia stock a book or two of his by chance. It is much easier to find a copy of Todor Zhivkov’s memoirs than, for example, Markov’s excellent novellas “The Portrait of My Double” and “The Women of Warsaw.” His work is not taught in schools, and he does not even have a monument in Sofia—just a small slab of a memorial, usually covered by leaves, on Journalist Square. The Bulgarian who should have taken the same position in his nation’s literature and political history as Brodsky in Russia, Havel in the Czech Republic and Milosz in Poland has been relegated to the dustbin of memory. After his murder abroad, Markov was killed a second time, this time in his home country.

Only in 2000 did the then-president of Bulgaria, Petar Stoyanov, award to Markov the highest state honor, the Order of Stara Planina, “for his memorable contribution to Bulgarian literature, drama, and journalism, and for his exceptional civic position and resistance to the communist totalitarian regime.” It was one of the very few gestures of official recognition he ever received in the post-communist era.

Markov’s fate outside Bulgaria has not been much different. Some foreigners still recognize references to “the umbrella murder,” but his writing is virtually unknown. A heavily abridged version of In Absentia Reports came out in Britain in 1983 and then a year later in the United States under the title The Truth That Killed, but the book has long been out of print. Reviewing it for the Los Angeles Times, the social historian Arthur Weinberg wrote: “What George Orwell imagined in ‘1984’ about a totalitarian society, Markov makes real in his memoirs of life in Bulgaria under Bolshevik rule: terror, tension, oppression.” The occasional superlative in the press aside, The Columbia Literary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945 does not even mention his name.

“I have done several attempts to publish works by Markov, but almost all of them failed. I couldn’t understand why nothing by Markov was being published,” says Stefan Tsanev, Markov’s very close friend in the 1960s and today one of Bulgaria’s most popular playwrights and historians. In 2001, Tsanev wrote the introduction to Markov’s collected plays, but the volume had a limited 800-copy run and is impossible to find in Sofia today, even among rare book collectors. “The communists are really good at erasing the past,” Tsanev adds.

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