Sites of memory: debates and myths

Nikolay Aretov.

The emotional content of national identity is linked to the representation of key events and figures from the past and even from nowadays . Attitude towards them is manifested in different types of texts (historical, journalistic, literary, and private) that are invariably associated with certain emotions or even generate them. In the last ten years, more or less spontaneously erupted several significant public debates associated with identity and sites of memory, charged with emotions.

Back in the 1980s began a discussion about the „Turkish yoke” and the presumed replacement of this term with synonyms pretending to be more precise or at least political correct. Nobody took the responsibility of such act, there were no clear evidences that such things ever happened exactly as they were presented by the patriotic traditionalists . There was really one more general process that enveloped swap or restricting the use of several terms related to Balkan Middle Ages – ‘feudalism,’ ‘progressive,’ etc. But the attention of experts, journalist and general public was focused on ‘Turkish yoke / ‘slavery’, replaced with ‘Ottoman presence’. This discussion seemed to set the model for the other debates that followed it.

Chronologically first of them in the new Millennium was probably the attack against Otto Kronsteiner who had suggest the possibility of parallel use of Cyrillic and Latin alphabet (1999). As a result The University of Veliko Tarnovo decided to cancel its previous decision to give him the title Doctor honoris causa (2001).

Another discussion was related to our project „Balkan Identities in Bulgarian culture in the modern times” and began in 2002 with an article by the journalist Iva Yoveva in newspaper Trud. The title was indicative – “A Frenchwoman against Time of Parting” and refers to the famous novel by Anton Donchev. The essence of the dispute was about the presentation of the Islamization of Bulgarians and commitment of this presentation with ideological constructions, including so called „Revival process”, which was not directly mentioned in most of the texts that followed.

Quite ardent was the discussion related with so called Project Batak. The starting point had to do with Martina Baleva’s article in newspaper Culture from 2006, but the main debate was carried out in 2007 with the announcement of an exposition and conference organized by Ulf Brunnbauer and Martina Baleva “History and present of Bulgarian national stereotypes in the light of the Batak myth”. Under pressure from the media, nationalist organizations and individuals, and after personal threats, conferences and exhibitions were cancelled.

The next case was different, this time it was not exactly a debate, but rather numerous angry reactions in Bulgaria against the sculpture Entropa created by Czech artist David Černý ( ) (2009, Brussels) It this composition, ironic to all European countries, Bulgaria was presented as a ‘Turkish toilet’. The common feature with other cases was that here again was envisaged one malevolent foreigner. The artist lanced the mystification that the presentation of Bulgaria was done by Bulgarian female artist. Reactions imposed the decision that the image should be covered, the artist was declared persona non grata in the city of Plovdiv and the Czech ambassador in Sofia was donated with toilet facility. Most active in the campaign were representatives of the nationalist political party Atacka.

A curious case, which can hardly be defined as debate, was the divergence of opinions about the canonization in 2011 of the (part of) the victims in the April Uprising (1876). Among other things, this showed that in the 21 st century is easier to have a new version of the national myth than to problematize already imposed.

N ext significant discussion was relating to the Soviet Army Monument in Sofia - the appearance of graffiti Up to date of June 17, 2011, and clearing it through the night on 20-21 of June. The emergence of the quotes in the name of the monument – To the Soviet Army „liberator” from the grateful Bulgarian people (27-28 October) can be seen as weaker aftershock. This debate partly repeated the earlier discussion of the Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov (demolished in 1999), but then political circumstances, and hence the development of the story was different.

The main problem bough cases is the meaning of the events of 1944, which in terms of emotions can be seen as expressions of admiration and, secondly, as a response driven by the feeling of humiliation, generated by the presence of the monument. There are, of course, many other overtone arguments and emotional reactions, in some cases openly declared, in other kept silent, and even partly unconscious.

Almost parallel with the debate on the Soviet army Monument broke the controversy over the Museum of Socialist Art (inaugurated on September 19, 2011). Emotionality of the reactions was obvious. Less direct was the relationship with national identity. But it can be traced if the observer focuses on the issue of artistic values from the recent past that were appropriated or rejected, on the canonization or lowering their status. From a certain perspective, one of the theses claimed that certain values of the past were declassed (i.e., kidnapped) by the organizers of the museum with selfish motives (such as to clear space for themselves). According to another point of view something very different happened - false values from the past were canonized (again) by exposing in this museum (with exactly that name) and not in something else.

One can try to seek common patterns in all this discussions about different Bulgarian sites of memory and the evolution of the model in which these debates take place.

At first a revisionist argument appears, as a rule it is known from before, but in that case it is more radically uttered, or some external circumstances point to it. In some cases one could assume another, fundamentally different motivation of the emotional reactions - such as declassing of competitors, gaining political dividends, etc. It is possible that revisionist thesis also had similar motives, conscious or not. Opponents of the revisionist thesis react emotionally, and do not understand or deliberately radicalized in, claiming that it as an attack against something that national mythology presents as valuable and important.

Revisionist thesis may have built some justification, it can only be hinted at, it may be imagined, and even consciously constructed by its opponents. The challenge of the „Turkicisation” is based on the dubious authenticity of primary sources. Batak project also provides justification for the thesis that many of its opponents ignore or reject. There are only speculations about the ideas of the people who created the graffiti Up to date.

Values and treasures that underlie such debates can be quite different - from the Cyrillic alphabet, neo-martyrs and Batak’s victims to the Mausoleum and the Soviet army Monument; emotions associated with them also may appear quite different on the surface, their common feature is that all of them have to do with something “our”, that became an object of encroachment. It is noteworthy that „our” trauma is also seen as a value that must be kept: „slavery”, „Turkicisation”, neo-martyrs, Batak massacre.

Several relatively constant elements could be noticed in these discussions. Emotional charge is evident, but nevertheless it is always ambivalent. The main opponent (enemy) have to be a foreigner, along with him usually stands one or more Bulgarian helpers. This couple amasses all negative emotions, nevertheless the attitude towards it appears to be unambiguous, or at least more complicated. First - the enemy is strong, and the power is always respected. Second – after all, he should be enough smart to create his infernal conspiracy. Third - he held a prestigious position, which still generates respect, and perhaps a little envy.

Champions of the truth stand against him. Depending on the chosen reference system, they can be defined in different ways - David against Goliath, simple Bulgarians against cunning foreigners, etc. Folklore also suggests possible associations.

Plots with malicious alien abductor of „our” treasure are well known and have long enjoyed a good response among the audience. Actually this is the main theme of the Bulgarian national mythology from the time of its formation. The function of the abducted treasure originally had been performed by a woman, faith, old books, Cyrillic alphabet and other valuables. Recently the myth of the abducted women occur in the case of „Bulgarian medics in Libya” (arrested in 1999) and in many (true) stories of „white slaves”. In the Libyan case, however the Liberator (EU Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner and French president's spouse Cécilia Sarkozy) was not typical and nurses released in 2007 also did not fully fit into the role.

Opposing views can build mythical narratives that use the same matrix. Only functions are casted to different actors. In the case of the story about the Soviet Army Monument the role of a malicious alien may be attributed to Russian figure, which has its Bulgarian helpers. And vice versa, the villain may be American (imperialist), who also has local supporters.

There is another mythical plot that is often repeated in various versions and it is readily accepted by the audience; it generates debate only occasionally, which generally remains muted. This plot is unambiguously heroic, it is also associated with a treasure, but in this case there is no enemy. Treasures may be different – the ring of Tsar Kaloyan, Thracian tombs and temples (even the cave from which Orpheus descended into Hell), part of the relics of John the Baptist, the Ark of Noah. Attempts to debate about such myths as a rule are only partly realized. The authenticity of their treasures is problematic, that parallels them with the debate about Islamization and neo-martyrs.

The media through which debates take place evolve in time. At first the arena of the battles was primarily newspapers and the champions of the “correct” thesis were trying to engage some academic, state or municipal institutions. Recent debate about the Soviet Army Monument developed otherwise. On one hand and to a certain extend it had a performative character, on the other, the debate took place mainly on the Internet and especially Facebook. Some institutions were engaged, but the main opponents were informal groups and non-government structures.