Bulgaria 'unmasks' top French intellectual
Bulgaria has had an uneasy transition from Communism to democracy as a result of which it continues to experience painful pangs related to its recent past. Unlike other nations in the former Warsaw Pact Bulgaria never made a proper de-Communisation effort. Top Communist-era officials and thousands of apparatchiks continued, and some still continue, to hold public offices. The process of lustration – banning members of the Communist Party and its agents from holding public offices for a period of time, like it was effected in Czechoslovakia and East Germany, while providing sufficient checks and balances for everyone affected in the process never happened here. Logically, where there has been no purgatory after a despotic regime, later there is bound to be a witch-hunt.
Is this what has been going on during the past 10 years with the workings of the Commission for the Declassification of the Documents and Identifying Bulgarian Citizens for Links With the Former State Security and the Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian People's Army, popularly referred to as the Dossiers Commission or just the Commission?
The Dossiers Commission is a body, set up under the tripartite coalition government in 2007, which was supposed to probe holders or would-be holders of public offices, which it defines according to its statutes, against the databases of the former Darzhavna Sigurnost, or State Security. In case it detects someone has been listed as an "operative" or an "agent" it discloses that individual's name and his or her file to the general public. Those affected can object after their files have been made public. Significantly, they can sue the Commission only over breaches of protocol.
They cannot sue over the content of the files.
Legally, the Commission does not claim anyone was an "agent" or a "secret collaborator." Its role is to announce that it has discovered papers indicating someone had links to State Security. The Commission conducts no investigation whether what has been mentioned in the papers is true or false. Nor does it seek to verify whether any of the alleged activities indeed took place.
Those being probed are past or current MPs as well as people standing for public offices. Included are members of professional organisations such as lawyers and journalists, media owners, famous sportsmen, even… debtors of failed banks.
The Commission has no lustration powers. It says its purposes are moral.
It passes no judgement. It leaves the judgement to Facebook.
At the end of March, one of the Commission's reports stated that Julia Kristeva, the French intellectual who was born in Bulgaria but has lived in France since 1965, fell in that category. She had been listed, back in 1971, as an "agent" for State Security, codenamed Sabina. Kristeva was reported to have been "recruited" while already in Paris, in 1971.
The "revelation" caused a significant stir in Bulgarian society. Predictably, a vocal group of people identifying themselves as pro-democracy intellectuals took the Commission's findings at face value and were quick to condemn Kristeva.
Others preferred to trust Kristeva, who immediately rejected the allegations calling them "absurd" and "grotesque," rather than the Communist-era operatives who wrote the reports.
The overwhelming majority of Bulgaria's population, who are preoccupied with survival in what is Europe's poorest, most corrupt and least free country, obviously had no idea who Kristeva was. What will stick in their minds is that someone of high international stature, obviously a liberal intellectual – yet another liberal intellectual – has turned out to have been a Communist stooge.
Julia Kristeva is a philosopher, literary critic, psychoanalyst and feminist, who has worked alongside Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan and another Bulgarian-born French intellectual, Tsvetan Todorov. She has been given a bunch of French and international awards including Commander of the Legion of Honour, Commander of the Order of Merit, the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought and the Vaclav Havel Prize. Her impact on French feminism has been huge, with shockwaves reaching far beyond the borders of France.
Julia Kristeva has been named one of the 20th century's most important thinkers. Kristeva, who is now 76, continues to give lectures, notably at Harvard and Columbia, where she is usually mobbed by students and academics.
So how could Julia Kristeva's name end up in the annals of the former Bulgarian State Security? And why did the Commission, 29 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, release what it considered to be genuine proof that Julia Kristeva was a Communist agent?
To understand the intricacies pertaining to these questions and to fathom the highly polarised public reaction to the Commission's "revelations" one needs to know in better detail what State Security used to be and what became of it post-1989. How the current Dossiers Commission operates and whom it benefits are central issues.
The Bulgarian State Security was established immediately after the Second World War which, in the case of Bulgaria, ended with the imposition of hardline Communism. It was modelled entirely on the Soviet secret service, the KGB. In its early years it was in charge of suppression, in most cases very brutal, of any dissent. Thousands of people belonging to the pre-war intelligentsia suffered at the hands of State Security which frequently arrested, tortured and "disappeared" individuals without any trial or court order – not that a trial and a court order meant anything at all in what was going to become the Soviet Union's most loyal satellite in Eastern Europe. The late Tsvetan Todorov, with whom Julia Kristeva worked in France, described succinctly those years in his 1992 Voices From the Gulag: Life and Death in Communist Bulgaria (published in English by Pennsylvania State University Press in 1999).
Through the years, the State Security apparatus expanded. State Security had several directorates each tasked with various intelligence and counterintelligence activities. Those included "wet jobs" abroad as well as a political police at home. Some of the international operations included, but were not limited to, the assassination of dissident writer Georgi Markov, in London in 1978, and the attempt to kill Pope John Paul II in Rome, in 1981.
State Security in those years was omnipresent and omnipenetrating. Each government company, professional organisation, every dollar shop, even every bar at Sunny Beach – especially every bar at Sunny Beach – had one or more State Security operatives in charge of overseeing the ideological standards were being adhered to. Every media had what was called a Special Department where a State Security operative worked to ensure "state secrets" were not promulgated. Every Bulgarian citizen who travelled to the West was vetted by State Security. Life in Bulgaria was life with State Security. The situation was almost literally Orwellian. This partly explains why totalitarian Bulgaria never had a Lech Walesa or a Vaclav Havel. It did not even have a Doina Cornea.
After the fall of Communism, State Security was disbanded – its infamous political police ceased to exist just a few weeks after the fall of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. The whole of the Interior Ministry, under which State Security operated, was "depoliticised." Its employees were given a choice: quit the Communist Party or leave the force. One famous example of a then young officer in the Interior Ministry Fire Department, who preferred to remain a member of the BKP rather than keep his job, was one Boyko Borisov. He resigned and went on into the protection business of the 1990s. He has been prime minister of Bulgaria since 2008.
In 1993, Kjell Engelbrekt a scholar who at the time worked for Radio Free Europe in Munich and is now a professor at the Swedish Defence University, explained in detail both the structure of Bulgaria's former State Security and its main methods. Engelbrekt described it as both "corrupt" and "unusually sinister." It was sinister in that it resorted to monstrous methods of eliminating politically divergent individuals – like the minuscule pellet full of poison that was shot into Georgi Markov on Waterloo Bridge in London. And it was corrupt in the Balkan sort of way – with its intricate network of personal likes and dislikes, of nepotism, of complicated family relationships, of revenge, of small favours being exchanged and penalties being dealt out in case anyone failed to oblige, and so on and so forth.
Many files pertaining to State Security, including the volumes on Georgi Markov, were destroyed in the months after Communism collapsed. Gen Atanas Semerdzhiev, who served as Bulgaria's vice president in 1990-1992, was responsible for ordering the destruction of the documents. Ten years later he was charged and sentenced to imprisonment. However, Bulgaria's Supreme Court, in the 2000s, repealed the sentence. The case was terminated in 2006.
FAILURE TO BRING ON JUSTICE
Through the 1990s the Bulgarian state made a number of legal attempts to bring to justice some particularly brutal operatives of the former State Security, including reportedly sadistic prison guards in the country's notorious gulag system. None of them were successful and the much-publicised trials did not result in prison sentences.
There have been several attempts to declassify whatever remained of the State Security archives. After the initial document-burning, which some experts claim went on in a rather haphazard manner, the Bulgarians were exposed to the usual Balkan mixture of allegations, conspiracy theories and pure nonsense pertaining to the dossiers. Originals or copies of the dossiers reportedly changed hands in Sofia's Slaveykov Square, as did, at the time, pirated CDs. The archives were kept in several locations which had different access regulations. Rumours of tampering with the existing documents were widespread.
An agency to declassify the dossiers, which was appointed by the government in 1997, produced a list of State Security operatives in high positions, but only a few names were read out in parliament following a ban by the Supreme Court. A second agency was established in 2001 but was terminated the following year.
The current Commission has been in existence since 2007 and operates under statutes adopted by the tripartite coalition preceding the ascent to power of Boyko Borisov's GERB. It is composed of representatives of all political parties. Since its inception in 2007, and contrary to the statutes which mandate a time limit to anyone serving on it, it has been headed by one and the same person: Evtim Kostadinov, a Communist-era policeman from the northeastern town of Dobrich and an MP for the BSP.
REPORTS AT ODDS WITH LIFE
It is important to note that the Commission works exclusively with documents. "Registration cards" that bear no signature of an alleged collaborator, without any other proof (because it was supposedly destroyed) are enough for the Commission to declare a "link" between the individual in question and State Security. Thus the Commission can and does declare people's "association" with the former State Security on the basis of… missing documents.
The Commission's task is to verify that these cards are "genuine" in the sense that they are originals. It does not seek to establish whether what was written on them in fact corresponds with reality, nor whether any actual harm was done to anyone as a result of any alleged activities.
Why people’s names ended on State Security "registration cards" has been the subject of many discussions. State Security is known to have fabricated dossiers for a plethora of reasons. One was to blackmail people. Another was to ensure those allowed to travel to the West would return. Those already in the West could be listed as "collaborators" in order to make sure their families would stay calm - and put. Yet another was to please superiors: a part of the job for State Security operatives was to recruit new collaborators, and when they couldn’t, they just put down names of friends and acquaintances. University professors found out they had been listed as "collaborators" because they taught Bulgarian language summer classes to foreigners. One academic discovered he was listed as a "keeper" of a "safehouse" because he had given the key to his attic to a friend to spend a few hours with a girl in. The "friend" had been a State Security collaborator.
It is difficult to understand life in a totalitarian society unless you have lived in it. Imagine the following: you stand in front of a State Security man who holds a "declaration of allegiance" in one hand. In the other one he has your passport. Your passport to the Free World. Which one would you choose?
Critics of the commission say that acting in this way turns the Commission into a mouthpiece for the former State Security. It represents the State Security's standpoint alone without any attempt to verify whether there is any actual truth in them.
Through the years, the Bulgarian public opinion has been increasingly polarised in its attitudes to both the former State Security archives and the ways the Dossiers Commission operates. Some say that there was nothing wrong with State Security because it protected Bulgaria's national interests during the Cold War. This is plainly wrong. Bulgaria was, to put it mildly, a vassal of the Soviet Union. In many cases, especially pertaining to foreign and defence policy, it strictly toed the Kremlin line. If Bulgaria had any national interests during the Cold War they were to overthrow Communism – which State Security was supposed to protect.
Others claim that State Security was the employer of a highly professional force, Bulgarianised mini-James Bonds of high professionalism and intelligence. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of State Security's employees were sometimes semi-literate pen-pushers who wrote huge piles of meaningless reports that now seem comical. The real drama is that these operatives had the power to influence the lives and the careers of citizens. And the drama of post-Communist Bulgaria is that they are being taken at face value.
So, how could Julia Kristeva, the French intellectual, manage to get herself involved in this?
WHAT'S REAL AND WHAT'S NOT
Looking at Kristeva's "dossier," which the Commission conveniently posted online for the hacks to see and draw their own conclusions, the immediate answer is she hasn't. The file contains not one document signed or written by her. It does contain copies of personal correspondence to her parents in Bulgaria that State Security intercepted and monitored. The reports about her alleged meetings with a State Security operative in Paris at the time are written in uneducated Bulgarian. The man, code-named Lyubomirov, had trouble spelling "semiotics." A Bulgarian second-rate operative in charge of recruiting and keeping contact with a world-famous philosopher? No. Rather a clerk justifying his salary and expenses in France.
According to Yovo Nikolov, a senior journalist for Kapital newspaper in Sofia with significant experience with the State Security archives, Julia Kristeva's "dossier" is at least odd. Nikolov asserts that there are many "gaps" in Kristeva's file. The most obvious is that there is not one trace of anything that she has done in her own hand in France that might have benefited State Security back in Bulgaria. The State Security reports describe real or imaginary meetings with Kristeva at which she said nothing of significance. On one occasion she "informed" that the poet, Louis Aragon, distanced himself from the French Communist Party, a piece of "news" that had been all over the French newspapers for months. The operative who wrote the Kristeva file ended his reports stating that Kristeva was not reliable and she failed to appear at meetings and keep appointments. The most important thing, notes Nikolov, is that throughout the file Kristeva is being referred to mainly as a "subject of investigation" rather than as a "secret collaborator."
Nikolov also stresses that the hypothesis that the "dossier" had been purged is "attractive" but the register of documents attached to the file and the actual documents present in the file fails to corroborate it.
Nikolov's opinion is disputed. One man who disagrees is the German writer of Bulgarian origin, Ilija Trojanow. Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemaine Zeitung, Trojanow has no doubts that Kristeva was indeed an "agent" for the Communists and should be condemned. According to Trojanow, the pages in the "dossier" had been renumbered at least twice, which indicates that some pages were missing. Trojanow thinks that the missing pages were the ones that had Kristeva's writing on them.
Picking from these two standpoints a significant number of international and domestic intellectuals have produced their own theories and counter-theories. What has ensued is the sadly familiar Balkan morass where the difference between right and wrong, between good and bad, between truth and lies, between a victim and a victimiser gets obscured by the overwhelming load of opinions and counter-opinions, of real and construed memories, of real and, yes, fake news.GOSPEL TRUTH?
Those who consider the "findings" of the Commission the gospel truth insist that Kristeva – and everyone else who gets a mention in the State Security files – should be morally condemned to eternal damnation. There are others, however, who see that the former State Security in many instances created a fictitious reality, often in order to justify its staff salaries. That "reality" had nothing to do with real life.
Simulating meaningful work was not alien to the former State Security just as it was de rigueur for Bulgarian state-employed workers, officials, Communist Party apparatchiks – practically everyone who lived in Communist Bulgaria. In theory, it was a society where "everyone should be getting according to their needs whilst contributing according to their abilities." In actual life it was a system where workers simulated work while the state simulated it paid them. One of the most enduring legacies of Communism is this "culture of simulation" – quite visible in Bulgaria of 2018.
Kristeva has lived in France since 1965, but never lost touch with Bulgaria. She had close ties to Palais de l'Elysée and personally to the former French President Francois Mitterrand. In early 1989, Mitterrand made a visit to then still Communist Bulgaria. Surprisingly, he invited a number of Bulgarians to breakfast at the French Embassy in Sofia, a meeting that historians now see as seminal for the downfall of Communism in this country 10 months later. In attendance were philosopher Zhelyu Zhelev, who later became the first president of democratic Bulgaria; satirist Radoy Ralin, painter Svetlin Rusev, writer Yordan Radichkov, poetess Blaga Dimitrova, journalist Koprinka Chervenkova and several others. Most of them belonged to the just founded Club for the Support of Glasnost and Perestroyka, Bulgaria's then only pro-democracy grassroots organisation, closely monitored and repressed by State Security.
Julia Kristeva accompanied Mitterrand. In fact, she probably helped organise the breakfast. In 1995 she was invited, and accepted, to serve on the editorial board of a small literary newspaper. It was that job that prompted the Commission to probe into her "murky" past.
Who benefits from her "exposure" as a Communist-era "collaborator"? Is it the general public, provided the "revelations" by the Commission create as much confusion as they throw light on the recent past? Is it the victims of State Security or their victimisers? Does the Commission serve its declared moral purposes if it it does not discern between the dangerous State Security operatives, the Communist killers and torturers, and the doctors, lawyers and journalists who went along because they had to get along? Or the people whose names ended in the "dossiers" because State Security operatives simulated fulfilling their quotas for new recruits?
Considering the extremely varied public response to the Julia Kristeva episode some unpleasant truths emerge. First, a world-famous intellectual has been put in the rather Kafkaesque situation best described with the Bulgarian witticism that in order to prove your sister is not a whore, first you have to prove that you have no sister at all. Then, 29 years after the fall of Communism, some Bulgarians prefer to trust semi-literate State Security operatives rather than a world authority of impeccable standing and reputation. The result is that a significant amount of public energy goes into philosophising who Julia Kristeva had coffee with in Paris, in 1971, rather than the much more important issues of the day, including the (mis)deeds of the current rulers.
Many of the Bulgarian guests at that famous breakfast on 20 January 1989 are now dead. Yet, some are still around. Koprinka Chervenkova, who has headed the Kultura newspaper since the 1990s comments on the case of Julia Kristeva: "This is a farce; yet another example of the failings of the Commission and the bad law that directs it." Chervenkova suffered directly from State Security in the sunset days of Communism because she refused to toe the Communist Party line. She adds: "Both the Commission and the law should be immediately ditched."
However, this is not very likely. A few days after the Julia Kristeva episode a conference was held to discuss the future of the former State Security archives and of the Dossiers Commission. A beaming Tsvetan Tsvetanov, GERB's top lieutenant, assured that the Commission would continue to operate for at least "three-four years" – or until the next general election. Its "findings," apparently, continue to be a powerful political tool in the Bulgaria of 2018.
In the meantime, it will probably remain a mystery forever why State Security had to intercept and read Julia Kristeva's postcards to her parents. Were its well-trained and highly intelligent operatives not supposed to deal with the correspondence of Communism’s enemies rather than of its agents?