By Nataliya Borys.
I was truly excited to take part in this conference for many reasons. Firstly, I was intrigued by the intellectual ambitions of the conference and its research focus. It is, indeed, a great idea to rethink socialism, and moreover, it is even more intellectually stimulating to think about it in terms of grassroots experiences of people, biographies of some intellectuals, women, ethnic minorities, and forgotten witnesses of the era.
Memory studies, or memory politics, dominate the current field of research with numerous conferences and workshops. To some degree, I feel personally a certain intellectual “fatigue” from talking about memory politics, state politics, as well as discourse analysis. Contemporary research about the socialist past is strongly dominated by the analysis of political discourse and memory politics of elites.
Often, scholars do not hear the voices from below, forgotten and ignored: how people lived, how they experienced socialism, what kind of memories they left. Thus, it was really refreshing to participate in the conference and hear about everyday life experiences in Eastern Europe. Approaches to rethink socialism vary, and the organizers chose another path to it, a more tortuous, for sure, but intellectually even more stimulating and truly exciting for me.
As the organizers claim, the difficulty in understanding and dealing with this legacy is due not only to the (in)actions of political elites or the larger public, but because socialism is part of the biographical experience of the people who lived it, and they share their truth about it based on their undeniable status as witnesses. This experience is diverse, ambiguous and controversial, and so are the memories of it.
The organizers set the ambitious task of comprehending state socialism, and its leftovers, such as nostalgia. Over the past three decades, the dominant public discourse of the previous historical period has undergone significant changes: from a firm rejection in the first years of the transition to the latest wave of rehabilitation of the regime and nostalgia (socialist nostalgia, Ostalgie, Yugo/Tito-nostalgia), particularly in the Southern Eastern countries. I have heard about strong nostalgia in the region and I was curious to know more about it.
My second reason to target the conference was to know more about the Bulgarian and Balkan experiences of socialism. Being a Ukrainian, and writing about Ukrainian socialism, I am somehow confined to conferences and workshops dealing with Ukraine and the region. It was great to go beyond my regional and intellectual boundaries. I must admit that I know not that much about the region and particularly about the experience of socialism in Bulgaria. I was curious to know about it and to see in what degree the Ukrainian and Bulgarian experiences are similar or vary, how Bulgarian scholars re-assess their past, which methods they use, and which conclusions they draw.
The third reason was that I have never been to Bulgaria. Bulgaria, a sunny dream, a land of roses and delicious food, monasteries and its warm beaches. Thus, the conference was the way to satisfy my intellectual curiosity and the ever-satisfying pursuit of academic tourism. And I was not disappointed.
I am grateful to the organizers, Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies for having selected me and my colleague, Yulia Korolevska from Berdiansk University, Ukraine. We were the only ones who discussed the Ukrainian experience of socialism, based on oral history.
The conference started with a keynote speech by Klaus Roth (Institute for Empirical Culture Science and European Ethnology, Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich, Germany, who in his research spoke about socialist everyday culture, based on oral history in some Bulgarian villages. Moreover, his research project, conducted jointly with Bulgarian colleagues, aimed to put into comparative approach the GDR and Bulgarian villages.
As I wanted to know more about the Bulgarian experience of socialism, I targeted presentations of Bulgarian scholars in Bulgarian. It was my first experience of listening in Bulgarian about Bulgaria. The panels about Bulgarian experience were, without doubt, the most popular at the conference. Participants joyfully commented, laughed and expressed their feelings during presentations. Veronika Dimitrova from the University of Sofia talked about penal policies towards homosexuals in Bulgaria in the 1950s-1960s, while Evgenia Ivanova (Regional Museum of History, Stara Zagora) and Velcho Krastev talked about Gypsies/Roma in Bulgaria in Socialist Times: Forced Migrations and Resettlement. This presentation also provoked a lot of comments and historical parallels with the present situation in Hungary with Roma and for me with Jews in Romania, when Israel paid in foreign currency for a right to receive Romanian Jews. It seems that Bulgarian Roma had a lot of golden jewelry, and police used to extort it. The state even paid its debt with Roma gold.
Many Bulgarian presenters were from the Institute of Ethnology, the main organizer, and presented interesting topics about Bulgarian societies, such as the fate of royal graves under socialism, working at the socialist radio, penal policies towards homosexuals in Bulgaria in the 1950s and 1960s, wedding bands, football and national feasts, etc.
I could not miss the panel about gender and Krassimira Daskalova’s presentation. She spoke about Sonia Bakish and the Leftist Feminist movement in Bulgaria in the 1960s. Valentina Mitkova, also from the University of Sofia, spoke about Bulgarian women’s magazine, Zhenata Dnes and readers’ letters. Andrea Feldman from the University of Zagreb shared her experience of writing the biography of outstanding Croatian leftist woman Vera Ehrlich. Scholars from the gender panel made a choice to present the lives and fates of some outstanding women who lived in different eras. They were Jewish coming from the high Austro-Hungarian intelligentsia.
Andrea Feldman shared her work on the biography of Vera Ehrlich (1897-1980), who was a Jewish Yugoslav woman, a feminist intellectual and a prominent social anthropologist. Feldman mentioned that there are more than 50 boxes of Vera’s archives (a dream of any historian! Me, I struggle to find any smallest piece of personal archives), though Vera had carefully purged them, removing letters from her sister in Vienna and any political correspondence. Many sides of her life remain in shadow and many questions remain: why did she keep all letters, but not from her sister? Why did she never mention her political convictions? What pushed her to come back to Yugoslavia from the USA? Feldman claims that as a Jew and a kind of pre-socialist Yugoslav intellectual, she was a victim and a privileged person at the same time.
Valentina Mitkova made an interesting presentation about readers’ letters to women’s magazine Zhenata dnes in the 1960s-1970s. She argues that in the 1960s women started to send letters with their own stories to the editor, making an independent storyline paralleling the official one. These letters allow scholars a glimpse of Bulgarian women’s real life. As she argues, women complained in most of cases about their subordinated position and the most recurrent topic was about men, “who do nothing at home”. Women asked for advice and how to find time for home and what society can offer to women to solve this problem. Learning about this women’s magazine, it reminded me of a Ukrainian women’s magazine, and my own research. Finally, the topics covered in the Ukrainian magazine were exactly the same, with the number 1 complaint about men who do not help at home. Somehow, both magazines, their content and readers’ letters, seem to be very similar.
Krasimira Daskalova’s presentation focused on Sonia Bakish, the editor-in-chief of the above-mentioned Zhenata dnes, and Sonia’s so-called leftist feminism. Krasimira also decided to focus on the biography of a prominent Bulgarian woman, arguing that the biographical method is a good method to leave space for individuals and for women. Sonia Bakish was born in a Jewish family in Plovdiv, joined the communist party, and married a Bulgarian high-rank party apparatchik. As editor-in-chief of Zhenata dnes, she managed the following major topics: the problem of shortage, the double (triple) burden, as well as sexuality (she invited a famous sexologist). The double burden was a major issue in feminist discussion. Surely, the double burden was not something new for Bulgarian rural women, but a challenge for previous high-class intelligentsia, who had to face it. Explaining what leftist and state feminism in Bulgaria is, Krasimira defines Bulgarian high-rank women as state feminists, and Sonia as an eco-feminist. Officially, feminism was not used as a word, but many, including Sonia, acted in a feminist way. Moreover, Sonia defends ecological issues, not because she believes in them, but rather in a gesture of “relational feminism,” using her husband’s party relations to discuss and solve some issues.
Then I must mention Ulf Brunnbauer from the Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, University of Regensburg), who gave a provocative keynote speech “How to write the history of state socialism”. Why was his lecture \provocative? He made interesting claims and pointed out why and how to study socialism by changing perspectives. He rightly pointed out that we live now in a revolution in sources: archives do not dictate our research nor our vision today. There is a shift of research focus to global entanglements, which are not forcibly linked to traditional archival sources. According to him, the research by state is obsessed with the state focusing on the state. But we cannot explain the state by the state. The comparative framework can help us to go beyond the state paradigm. He also pointed out the economic issue, which matters the most in his opinion. State socialism in its competition with capitalism forced the latter to comply with socialist standards, and imposed welfare everywhere in Europe.
At the same time, socialism followed the same modernizing trend as other Western countries: women’s emancipation, industrialization, consumption revolution, aging population, small nuclear families, media development, travels, etc. What is interesting is that when socialist and capitalist societies started to merge, they also started to diverge, as socialist countries never managed to go beyond industrialization. But developed Western societies did. Industrialization didn’t become the indicator of modernity, but innovation did. And here the socialist societies failed, as they bet on cheap labor instead. Ulf concludes that in thinking about socialism, we should think about globalization, comparison, economy, and go beyond our traditional vision of research and of thinking about former socialist countries as something fixed.
Roman Abramov, the professor from High School of Economics, Moscow also summarized the Russian experience of socialism, why it is so important and which perspectives it can give by comparing Bulgarian and Russian experiences.
In conclusion, the conference was an opportunity to ask interesting questions and re-think socialism from the contemporary perspective. What was it? As Ulf asked, was it a detour in the long history of east European nations’ eternal struggle to become subjects of history, free of imperial overrule? Were Eastern European countries backward societies that went terribly wrong, producing human suffering on a vast scale along the way? Or a time of progress and of an alternative to a capitalist mode of production, which considers humans only a commodity and destroys social bonds? Listening to all presentations, it appears that it was all these things at once – depending on the standpoint of the speaker.
State socialism lives on, not only in the memory of people and their struggles over the past. The historian’s assumed advantage of the benefit of hindsight, thus, rests on shaky ground. State socialism remains a moving target. This region remains relevant to analyze as a place to study social and political responses to marginality.
 I should mention the excellent books by Maria Todorova, such as Rethinking Socialism, which is, without exaggeration, a great introductory book to the experience of socialism in the region. I should mention the memoirs by Samuil Bernstein, a Russian linguist and a famous specialist in Bulgarian studies in the Soviet Union (Болгароведение). He left vivid impressions about his research trip to Bulgaria, his vision of Bulgarian socialism and Bulgarian internal problems (with the Macedonian population). Also in my research, which deal with Ukrainian Soviet historians, I also read official reports and some memoirs about collaboration with Bulgarian scholars, but it is almost all that I know about Bulgarian socialism.
 Krassimira Daskalova is a professor of modern European cultural history at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, in Bulgaria. Since 2007, she has been the editor and book review editor of Aspasia: The International Yearbook of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European Women’s and Gender History, published by Berghahn Books in New York.