Bulgaria, Post-Totalitarian Europe and Me
It’s been three months since the publication, via Sofia, of the Bulgarian communist secret police dossier classifying Julia Kristeva as a spy working under the name “Sabina.” The semiologist, psychoanalyst and novelist firmly denies the allegations and now takes the opportunity to investigate Europe’s malaise through the lens of her native Bulgaria.
I am indignant that Le Nouvel Observateur, the French weekly, openly declared me a KGB agent, spreading this falsehood with the impunity of those who think they are not accountable to anyone. Had the journalists taken the trouble to read the dossier fabricated by the totalitarian police, they would have found clear evidence that I was the one subjected to surveillance, not the other way around. Several journalists in Bulgaria in fact did just this (see my website: www.kristeva.fr), declaring the dossier empty and fit only to be thrown in the trash, along with the tendentious Commission as well. Indeed some sixteen agents were sent my way in order to contact just one “spy.” They came up with imaginary pretexts to justify their trips to the West. My husband, Philippe Sollers, who distrusted pro-Soviet regimes, set his foot down against our receiving any Bulgarian visitors. He adamantly refused to see them. That we dined with this apparatchik who claims he “recruited” me is totally implausible.
Revealingly, there are no informant missions assigned to me in these Stalinist archives. Whoever devised them merely attributed opinions to me expressed in the third person, for example on Aragon or on the “Prague Spring” as being “not in the spirit of the Bulgarian Communist Party…” Because I made such a lousy “spy,” Sollers seemed to become their primary target. He was of interest to them because he spent time at the Chinese and Albanian embassies, and (the year the “Sabina” dossier got underway), founded the Maoist publication, Le Mouvement de juin 1971; it lasted three months and was Voltaire-like in spirit. One could hardly say it weighed heavily on Sino-Soviet relations! But the secret agents must have thought I’d be useful in getting to this “dangerous” leader.
Allow me to highlight the three stages of this dark business : 1) The Secret Services create a dossier, filling it with bureaucratic reports to give it weight ; 2) The “Lustration” (purging) Commission, in charge of the secret police archives, tosses these dossiers to the public without analysing them, without warning those they’ve accused of being collaborators and traitors; 3) Certain left-leaning publications in the West relate all this without undertaking any real investigation, either because of a feeling of guilt or because of an incapacity to analyse history.
It is important to situate and analyse the ordeal that was inflicted upon me in the larger, current context of post-totalitarian Europe, where nostalgia for communism gets entangled with nationalist demands and threatens the viability of the European Union. I’m inclined to continue this reflection elsewhere, limiting myself today to the symptomatic convergence between, on the one hand, totalitarian systems that curtail the rights of men and women, and, on the other hand, the media fever for grabbing scoops and spinning made-up news that destroy reputations and infringe on people’s private lives with total impunity. I do not rule out my going to court to bring this convergence to the fore. But it is important right now to reflect on this symptom’s components: the debris of communism is kindling nationalist movements in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, while the press, the so-called “fourth power,” is losing its independence due to the pitfalls of hyperconnected democracy.
I experienced my departure from Bulgaria in 1965, with a scholarship from the French government, as an exile. It was the era of the thaw. Communist education, beyond its “lying ideology” which Soljenitsyne decried as more pernicious than restrictions on freedom, did nevertheless convey the universalism of the Enlightenment. At university we discussed Hegel’s dialectic, the critique it produced of Marxism, Georg Luckas and his disciples. The French Communist Party was, for me, Aragon with his La Semaine sainte and Les Lettres françaises, and also the review, La Nouvelle Critique which opened up the way to Tel Quel and structuralism. The Parisian university and literary milieu welcomed and took me in right away; I was interested in structuralism as it developed from Russian formalism, and in a Marxism that could be interpreted. I saw a France that was emerging from the Algerian war, trapped and guilt-ridden, but more French than ever as it recovered its corrosive memory in the most audacious movements of European thought.
I enrolled at the École des Hautes Études and took Lucien Goldmann’s seminar. He was reinventing Marx with Pascal, Hegel and structuralism, but I also studied with Roland Barthes, who was examining literature through the “nouveau roman” and semiology. I was happy to belong to this nomadic world of students from Germany, Italy, England, Latin America, and even Eastern Europe (to a lesser degree) who, in the era preceding 1968, formed an international community of researchers. I saw good fortune in my foreignness, even if I knew straight away that I would never be really French among the French. I had a feeling of weightlessness; it was painful, but the experience left me open to questioning and innovation. My political concerns, my contacts with Eastern European dissidents, tended to make me critical of militants.
My “political dissidence,” my “commitment” was to seize the intellectual freedom on hand to develop and pursue critical thought, a process begun in Bulgaria as a student. Through my contact with avant-garde intellectuals and writers from the left in France, but also in larger Europe, and very intensely in the United States, I further elaborated my research in the fields of poststructuralism and psychoanalysis. My experience of exile can be summed up as seeking the impossible and the unknown— questioning as a way of being in the world. The globalisation of ideas was preceding the globalisation of markets.
I therefore cut ties with Bulgaria (this was easy in an era without the Internet or phones) but obviously not with my family—who came to France three times between 1966 and 1989 thanks to the intervention of Jacques Chaban-Delmas (contacted by my in-laws in Bordeaux)—and with whom I corresponded by mail. It was this correspondence of 29 letters that was intercepted and divulged in the Bulgarian dossier. This is what I find to be the most sordid part of this whole affair—a total violation of my privacy. At the very moment when the world is troubled by the fact that personal information is being exposed without permission via social media, my letters have been made public, not only in the Bulgarian KGB archives but throughout the entire world, and not a single journalist was troubled by that. The Commission in Sofia wasn’t troubled either.
It was imperative not to be considered an “enemy of the people” in Bulgaria because my parents and my sister lived there. I tried to keep up good relations by going periodically to the embassy, eventually to get their visas. I inevitably had to deal with the apparatchiks sitting behind desks, most of whose names I didn’t know, and can’t remember. I had kept some contact with the dissident movement and knew it had come upon hard times. I didn’t return to Bulgaria for a very long time.
I finally did return in 1983 with my son (born 1975), so that he could meet my parents. I went back again in January 1989 with François Mitterrand who invited me to join his delegation; we met with dissidents such as the future president of the Republic of Bulgaria, Jeliu Jeliev, and my friend Blaga Dimitrova, future vice-president. My father passed away in September of the same year, in strange circumstances: it seemed “they” were doing experiments on the elderly and he was cremated against his will. Graves, you see, were reserved for communists only, but if I could just die before him, my notoriety would guarantee us this privilege (of being together in the same grave)! I had the impression a kind of street gang logic ruled the country; the lines were incredibly long everywhere, people spoke differently. In the twenty-five years I had been away, my mother tongue had become brutal, people spoke in a volley of insults.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, I started going there more regularly. I returned in 2002 when my mother died and when the University of Sophia granted me the title of Doctor Honoris Causa. In 2014, the University of Sofia organised a colloquium on my work. There I met with a young generation of philosophers, sociologists and analysts intellectually engaged in a demanding, thoughtful way by the political and ethical debates in Europe and the United States. They were both anxious and lucid about the challenges facing Bulgaria with its political imbroglios. Numerous voices, both known and unknown, spoke out to denounce the deleterious climate created by the procrastinations of the so-called “Commission.” With a troubled Europe as backdrop, these reactions show that diverse currents that still run through opinion in the public sphere there.
Some reclaim communist dogma and turn towards Russia—bulwark and Big Brother. Others continue to count on European aid, despite of how funds inevitably drift toward the Mafia. Still others, rare but tenacious, are hoping for the democratic reforms favoured by the European Union. But during this economic and political stalemate, the ghosts of totalitarianism do not stay hidden away in the police filing cabinets. Those ghosts are invading and filling the public square with resentment. My take on this is Nietzschean: I see it as an incapacity to transform past wounds and current frustrations into action. Instead, we see a collective wallowing in reactionary hostility. People cloak their bitterness, vengeance, and denunciations in that notorious “national sentiment,” which is both idealistic and spiteful—condemning this part of Europe to freeze in the suburbs of history, suffering. Just as with these so-called “purges of the past ,” validating Stalinist methods by taking them up again and failing to question police proceedings—proceeding without interviewing those who are being slandered. And all of this happens in such a way that the dogmatic regime of the past is relayed forward to the present by the new regime of the “buzz” and a form of thinking based only in calculus. Have we really forgotten the Stalin Show Trials?
The only way out of this toxic state is to deepen our understanding of totalitarianism by probing its different facets, its institutional history, and its cultural memory. In writing Bulgaria, My Suffering (1994), I tried not to forget to emphasize religious roots as well.
The Orthodox faith has magnificent moments, notably its understanding of pain and grief, with rituals that offer a sensorial celebration. But it does not allow for any real reflection on personal freedom. It lacks the Renaissance’s hymn to liberty and its risks. Bulgaria went through a kind of precocious Renaissance in the tenth century, when Christianity spread among a people without a firmly implanted national identity; yet by devising the Cyrillic alphabet, this people created and safeguarded its culture. Cyrillic worked like a powerful anti-depressant, capable of welding together a nation.
On the other hand, in Bulgaria as in other countries, especially in Eastern Europe, Enlightenment ideals were imposed by an elite and did not sufficiently integrate themselves into social behaviour and institutions. Though humanist thinking and questioning flourished in universities, it was absent in the political sphere. Upon this bedrock, communism grafted its ideals, but wayward totalitarianism trampled social and societal aspirations, turning citizens away from their citizenship. Post-communism is today tempted by a return to spirituality, whether reactionary or communist religious faith—one which moves alongside our spectacle-oriented, marketing-driven society without questioning it. More drastically than in other European countries, post-totalitarian democracies are confronted with the difficulty of bringing to life a humanist culture whose refoundation, ever in progress, requires the continual questioning of identity, nation, faith, and the very need to believe.
Europe carries a heavy responsibility within this deepening fracture that is crippling its overarching project. If the accomplishment of human rights for all means guaranteeing respect for the person and his or her creative singularity, the movement of capital is not a sufficient guarantee these rights will be upheld. Education, professional training, and culture must be our focus, in our schools and in our businesses. Only in this way can we foster the much needed re-evaluation of the past so that reactive resentments can give way to political and democratic renewal.
The only way we can save ourselves is by exercising constant vigilance that it is the human being who is at the centre of the media-sphere, where we are all such consumed actors. Bulgaria, my suffering…
Note: The original version of this article was published in French in the magazine Marianne on September 7, 2018.