WHOSE ARE THESE ILLUSIONS, ANYWAY?

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Dragomir Ushev, BTA

A first book by a young woman causes unprecedented controversy in Bulgaria. Its main virtue: the author's grandfather

communist headquarters sofia.jpg

Hackscomplainthat little is happening in Bulgarian literature these days, but they are wrong. In October, a book by a young woman made headlines in the tabloids, some of which took the unusual course of kindly publishing both sympathetic interviews with the author and large excerpts from her oeuvre. Some Bulgarians old enough to remember Communism and its collapse at the end of 1989 were infuriated, but others hailed the book as a "literary phenomenon".

The young woman made numerous media appearances and had a grand book launch at the National Gallery in Sofia. Her name is Lyudmila Filipova. She is 29. Her book is the Anatomy of Illusions, and her grandfather was Grisha Filipov, one of the most hardline Communists of the 1970s and 1980s, a close crony of Todor Zhivkov, and Bulgaria's prime minister in 1981-1986. In a country where the prime minister is the son of an erstwhile senior member of the Politburo of the Bulgarian Communist Party, the chief prosecutor bears the name of a notorious grandfather, also a member of the feared and omnipotent Central Committee, and the granddaughter of Todor Zhivkov is an MP who runs a successful fashion business, Lyudmila Filipova may appear of relatively insignificant stock. But she was the first to write a book about what many still see as a very contentious period in Bulgaria's recent history, "the transition which started in the 1970s and ran well into the 21st Century". In addition to her own views on what really happened in the sunset days of Communism, in her book Filipova expounds on the initial amassing of wealth by some in Bulgaria, and includes portions of her grandfather's memoirs.

Grisha Filipov was born and studied in the USSR. He was a senior Communist Party functionary from 1958 to 1989

Grisha Filipov was born and studied in the USSR. He was a senior Communist Party functionary from 1958 to 1989

The memoirs themselves had already caused a minor scandal. Several years ago, Lyudmila Filipova was set on publishing them in full, but didn't, because of a dispute between the former prime minister's sons: Orlin, Lyudmila's father, and his brothers Chavdar and Luchezar. The first two are now dead, and the surviving one holds the copyright. For the time being, he is not considering publication.

Bulgarian teenagers have no direct memories of either Communism or its proponents in Bulgaria, and others of a certain age might rarely choose to remember figures like Grisha Filipov, but it would be useful to remind everyone that under him the ostensible prosperity of the late 1970s came to an end. At the beginning of the 1980s the Bulgarian Secret Services were allegedly involved in the attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II in Rome, while at home millions of leva were spent on megalomaniacal events to mark the 1,300th anniversary of the Bulgarian state. An economic crisis left most of Bulgaria in darkness during a series of severe winters. In 1985, the Revival Process started, and almost a million Turks were forcibly "christened", often at gunpoint. In the following year, Chernobyl happened. The Bulgarian government kept quiet about it until Western radio stations such as the BBC broadcast the news to an increasingly frustrated population.

These events would be interesting enough to explore using an original source, even in a fictional account, many would say. However, perhaps owing to short collective memory or to a carefully masterminded marketing campaign, neither the media nor the author discussed the secrets of the Communist establishment. Instead, they focused on the prototype of Boris Bukov, the main character in the Anatomy of Illusions.

Controversial entrepreneur Vasil Bozhkov may have been the inspiration for Lyudmila Filipova's Boris Bukov

Controversial entrepreneur Vasil Bozhkov may have been the inspiration for Lyudmila Filipova's Boris Bukov

Boris Bukov is indeed interesting. A local lad who falls in love with the daughter of a senior apparatchik and in the process gets involved with State Security; he then goes on, when the regime changes, to found an economic empire. There are many literary works in the world that deal with the dangerous relationship between love, money and power in a totalitarian state. A very good antecedent in Bulgarian literature is another Boris, that of Dimitur Dimov's Tobacco, an epic novel dealing with roughly the same issues between the two world wars.

The media identified Filipova's Boris as interesting not because they are particularly interested in comparative literature, but because the author said she had been inspired by a real-life person, Vasil Bozhkov, the former owner of TsSKA, Bulgaria's most popular football team. He is also the head of NOVE holding, a huge consortium of companies dealing in everything from construction works to running casinos, and one of Eastern Europe's richest men. Bozhkov, who among other things owns a vast archaeological collection, has been the subject of much speculation about the origins of his wealth.

"I am unable to determine to what extent Bozhkov is a part of the book at all," Lyudmila Filipova told the newspaper 24 Chasa. "In fact, I was impressed by him as a man. While I was working for him I kept asking myself many questions. For instance, what is it like to be at the top and have everything, but never look happy and content? "

Lyudmila Filipova

Lyudmila Filipova: "I had always thought I would start writing when I got old. But my husband read a few pieces, and he liked them. I had been thinking about the Anatomy of Illusions for a long time, and I decided to try." Filipova's husband is the owner of the Technopolis chain store

Lyudmila Filipova was born in 1977 and graduated in business and industrial management in Sofia. Upon her graduation, she embarked on what would evolve into a remarkable career. She did indeed work for Vasil Bozhkov, and for two other equally controversial entrepreneurs: Petyo Bluskov, a former journalist, and Petar Mandzhukov, a former arms trader and now a media magnate.

She has some experience of public life as well, mainly because of her involvement with Vuzrazhdane, or "Revival," an association of industrialists founded to promote capitalism in Bulgaria.

Some pundits and critics were quick to acclaim the Anatomy of Illusions as quality literature. These included writer Viktor Paskov, journalist Martin Karbovski and politician Lyuben Dilov Jr. However, not everyone in Bulgaria's literary circles seems to be enthralled. Sylvia Choleva, a poetess and a respected critic, was incensed not only by the literary standards of the book: "Where is literature and how can we subtract it from the putrefying corpse of politics? Before we get to read about the black Mercedes, which is speeding uphill toward Boyana for yet another party to be attended by the princes and princesses, the kids of the senior leaders of the Controversial entrepreneur Vasil Bozhkov may have been the inspiration for Lyudmila Filipova's Boris Bukov Communist state, we are given an introduction. The word 'moment' appears there on six or seven occasions within five sentences.

Significantly, the repetition is not a tool. The whole book is fraught with unsophisticated word usage, while the story progresses in what writer Vladimir Trendafilov had described as 'pre-press' quality. The story itself is bland, mediocre, and told with unpardonable reluctance to even think that there were - and are - other, less privileged people alive. It aspires to assert itself as being a truthful, sincere, first-hand account of what happened, but, similarly to other books by senior members of the Communist regime masquerading as memoirs, fails to convince because it is full of half-truths, of pompous wigs and crocodile tears, of incorrect facts or downright lies. Its only purpose is to keep the myth alive; the myth that we really lived well and were just slightly oppressed; of how aristocratic the erstwhile establishment was, in contrast to that of today. That they were indeed the good guys.

"This novel is an affront to a couple of generations who had to toil through Communism and are now in their middle age: humiliated, crushed, sunk to the bottom. These people hardly have the energy to remember that in those years no one could take leave for Christmas, because Christmas was a working day; and that the children of parents other than the drivers for UBO, the arm of State Security catering for the top apparatchiks, could end up in juvenile detention just for trying to get a Deep Purple album. They never learned how to work the system and get rich once the Communists officially fell from power".

Lyudmila Filipova says that she prefers to live in 2006 rather than 1986 the way it is described in her novel. "I like my life and I like the times I live in. If something is not the way I'd like it to be, I try to make changes, and I count on myself. I never thought of living some place else".

Filipova's reluctance to discuss her grandfather may be explained by her desire to escape his shadow. However, such reticence cannot really be explained by reference to any feeling of collective guilt of the kind so brilliantly exemplified by literary works in other post-totalitarian societies such as Germany after the Nazis. "I am proud of my grandfather because he did a lot for this country. I am his granddaughter. And I am happy that I have recently started doing things to assert my own name," says Filipova.

Two years ago Lyudmila Filipova made her entry into politics. She did not join the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party, the heir to her granddad's Communists, but went into the constituent committee of the New Time political movement. At that time she told Tema, a weekly magazine: "I think the time for family politics has come. Since I was four years old I have spent my life among politicians. I used to listen to my grandfather, I used to work with him, I helped him, and I have to a large degree inherited his suprahuman discipline".

Filipova is no longer in New Time, but has not relinquished her convictions. Neither has she given up hope of getting involved in politics again. Her next two books, she says, are almost finished. These will not be collections of short stories because "when I read a book I like, I start living in it, and I don't want it to end." The Anatomy of Illusions is 400-pages long.

In the meantime, the Anatomy of Illusions is on the Helikon bookshops bestseller list. Sadly, the public debate it could have generated about its controversial approach to Bulgaria's recent past has failed to materialise. No big surprise, considering that Bulgaria never saw any significant effort made at de-Communisation, and consequently the "restoration" of Communist-era values and individuals is steadily under way.

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