1989 – THE OTHER DATES

by Georgi Gospodinov, from the book “The Invisible Crises”, publishing house Zhanet 45, 2012 (abridged version)

On November 10th, it was announced on television that we were free. The passive voice here is important. It was announced to us. The same way that they used to ‘release’ oranges, red peppers and lady pads into the market. You wait and wait and then one day someone announces to you that they have been ‘released’. November 10th turned out to be very similar to the occasion of receiving the registration plates for your vehicle, or to be the next in line for an appartment after a long period of waiting. An award for exceptional patience. Remember that after the announcement on that late November afternoon no-one took to the streets to express their joy. The day before in Berlin, in front of the Brandenburg Gate, it had been packed with bodies. But those bodies had been rehearsing  every Monday for a year in front of St. Nicholas’ church in Leipzig. Despite the law enforcement officers. The Bulgarian body is a bit slower and more cautious. Yes, the system is falling apart, yes, Zhivkov has been deposed, but ... How do you know that it’s not a trap? Or a mistake that will be fixed the next day. I am not blaming anyone, I was not celebrating in the square myself but still, it feels weird now and I have to spell it out. It really is not easy; for 45 years a person can become alienated from a lot of things. You cannot break free in one night if you have not been free for so long. Even more so if you have not had such a great desire for freedom. And after so many years there is not even the memory of it left.

But, thank God, this is not the entire picture. Still, there were other more meaningful dates during 1989. It is those that I would like to speak about as they have been slightly neglected.

Some time ago I came across a few-minutes long video of the procession from November 3rd, 1989. The material was broadcasted on television around 1991-92 on Panorama with Boyko Stankushev. It was certainly not filmed with the cameras of Bulgarian National Television. Then, I remember, there was no footage in the evening news, just a very short message which went along the lines of: “A group of citizens, who delivered a petition on hydraulic projects with the permission of the capital city’s People’s Council.” Such amazing language, how could we forget it. Anything can be made harmless with a few empty words. A little specialized vocabulary: hydro... what was it, with the permission, a group of citizens... What is important is to avoid being concrete. In “particular regions of the country” among “small groups of the population, encouraged by foreign forces, tension has been created”, said Zhivkov earlier in a speech in May 1989...

I was watching the somehow surviving video recording of the procession on November 3rd and I clearly remembered the cordon of people with cameras and video recorders, who were standing on the side and in a very relaxed, not to say cynical, manner were documenting each face. Actually, this tape was most probably recorded by exactly such a ‘cameraman.’ Immediately, it becomes clear why the camera does not have the journalistic concern to capture the entire procession, to give a broader picture of the gathering. The camera in this case has a different type of professionalism – it captures faces close up, articulates them clearly so that they can be identified one by one later on. Even I recognized myself – for 3-4 seconds at 21. And I recollected with clarity the whole joy, fear and awkwardness of the body, moving among other bodies – awkward in their own right, joyful and a bit fearful. I look around, move my head around, I see that others do so as well. As if each of us has the need to see that the rest are still there. Now I realize, as I hardly did then, that the body has its own memory and that our bodies lacked the memory of resistance.

And so on November 3rd, 1989, be it timidly, under the pretext of ecology, still, what had been missing in the important chain of years 1956-1968-1980, was happening. Whether it was innocent and safe or not could not be known at the time. As Timothy Garton Ash writes, let us not forget that this was the year of ‘Tiananmen’. We should also take into consideration the possible complications that did not but could have happened in 1989.

If I had to choose between 3rd and 10th November, I personally would chose the first. Because there was awareness at that time at least. A negligible amount of awareness from today’s point of view, but a shaking of our own bodies chained by the lack of freedom. Those I am not sure how many meters of garden behind the Central House of the National Army next to the National Assembly, had to be walked. I would not substitute that short and silent procession even for the first free procession on 18th November.

The oblivion of some dates at the expense of others is a weird phenomenon. Similarly, it is weird that the Dimitrovden on 26th October that same year, with the petition and beating of the people gathered in the garden in front of Kristal, has been forgotten. Someone was narrating how Stambolov was shouting from the mini-van: “This is not a movie, they really beat people.”

Georgi Gospodinov is a poet, writer and playwright, one of the most translated Bulgarian authors after 1989. He has four poetry books awarded with national literary prizes. Gospodinov became internationally known by his Natural novel published in 21 languages.