By Nikolay Nikolov
I had recently received the book The Little Prince by mail. It seemed to have crossed at least one ocean to reach me, just as the Prince appears unexplained in the story. The way this book found its place somehow changed its identity for me, as though it had been written in a new language, the language of adult children. One of the questions I had while I was reading the book was: “What language do the Prince and the narrator speak?” With time, the answer to this question became clear.
“Before the Prince accidently landed in the Sahara Desert, I was living alone without having anyone to truly talk to.” Until this moment the narrator is struggling to adapt to the ‘wise’ life of adults, who are trying to convince him that a painting of a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant is just an image of a hat. “It is very tiring when adults do not understand things on their own, and have to explain them all over again to children.”
How is it then that the Little Prince, an embodiment of the essential problems of being human – loneliness, isolation, fear and insecurity – immediately recognizes the elephant in the boa’s stomach? The answer is simple: He and the narrator share the same language-thought process. This is also the role of the desert as a space where real conversations can take place, “one thousand miles away from any populated area”, where nothing really matters.
The book waiting patiently on my night desk underneath The Little Prince is a collection of travel diaries and feuilletons by Aleko Konstantinov, published in 1967. The introduction to this particular edition stresses the fact that Konstantinov was a Russophile and that his travel diaries were a sarcastic expression of the author’s discontent with the “bourgeois-capitalist reality in which predatory and dark people thrive.” What would Konstantinov have thought if he had read this introduction? Would this be an appropriate way to remember him?
Is it possible for the same pages of the same book, written in the same language to send different messages, both that of the comrade responsible for the introduction, and also the authentic words of Konstantinov himself? Is there a connection between the two interpretations, with different social, political and cultural perspectives informing their choice of words?
And the most important question of all: What language am I speaking when I choose particular words, and to whom am I speaking it? What meaning does ‘post-socialism’ provide for those of us who live in a ‘post-socialist’ world? Do we really know what it is to be free? Are we in a desert, dehydrated from lack of thought?
Their freedom and our freedom
“I cannot positively define freedom,” says Prof. Kalin Yanakiev after an interview lasting nearly two hours.
Two coffees, a hot chocolate, a vase containing an artificial flower and an ashtray, overflowing with Kent and Lucky Strike cigarette butts, maintains an elusive sense of belonging between us. Up to here we see a hat. How can we see an elephant?
Freedom seems to be something that only makes sense to a person when they feel its absence. And if they do not know exactly what freedom is, at least they can be certain of what it is not. So, the question for Prof. Yanakiev is: Are we freer today than we were yesterday?
“As for the present and the peculiar misuse of the past for the present, young people today are often told: ‘Now you have a freedom that you did not have before. Do you like this freedom?’”
The professor continues:
“Under such freedom you cannot be sure of anything. Anyone can deceive you, overtake you unfairly or not give you the chance to develop. This is “freedom”. Now once we did not have freedom, but do you know what we did have? We had a security that you do not have now. A German politician once said: ‘Freedom without security is the freedom of the jungle; security without liberty is a cage in the zoo’. Both are therefore reduced to an absurdity. The freedom of the jungle is not freedom, and security of the cage is not security.
“We did not have security during socialism for the simple reason that when something is mobilized for the sole benefit of the state, there is absolutely no security. What security could you possibly have? That what has been in the past will continue to be so in the future? We did not have this kind of certainty – a student would start university, reach the third semester, then suddenly be sent to work on a large building project because, in the eyes of the state, they were no-one, they had no choice. As another example, no-one could be certain that they would not suddenly have to accommodate a complete stranger in their home. This is fraudulent security. There was only one apparent certainty: That by following the rules laid down by the state and not manifesting any kind of individualism or personality, it was possible to have a better life of the kind we now take for granted in Bulgaria.”
I return to my thoughts and wonder if someone who had not lived during those years could truly imagine such a reality. I personally do not think that they could, although I feel a deep sense of resentment and fear when it comes to events ‘before 1989’. Suddenly we, the people who are not able to remember communism, cannot see the elephant under the hat. We lose perspective and everything becomes black and white. But our lack of knowledge or memories of communism gives us the feeling that we are not free.
The question that follows: “What should be done and what is the approach in such a suffocating situation?” For me, these questions often end with “Dad?”, as I wait to hear his story. What I learned from him is that in situations of non-freedom, opposition can take on a very simple material nature. For example, a pair of blue jeans is a symbol of the freedom to be different, loaded with aesthetic and ideological meaning. A few days ago I received a more specific answer from my father, who said:
“I was about 14 years old. The puppet theater in Zaimov Park was performing the story of the Treasures of Sylvester. In the middle of the performance, the puppets danced The Twist for two minutes. I stayed to watch the show ten times purely to see the dance again. ”
Freedom as a two-minute dance of dolls…
According to Prof. Yanakiev, the deliberate deprivation of liberty was one of the core characteristics of the Bulgarian totalitarian regime. For nearly 50 years, human life, a fundamental right of the individual, became a resource of the state. “Mobilization of everything for everybody”, says Prof. Yanakiev, but what exactly does that mean?
It means that private, personal space disappears and everything becomes public, that is, it belongs to the state. One no longer has himself, his family, or his property. They exist only through the arbitrariness of the state.
“Children were not born of the family, although they were born in their families. Once they were born they belonged to the Pioneers, Komsomol or Fatherland Front. Parents did not have the freedom to decide whether or not their children should join these organizations – they were simply resources to be mobilized at birth.
“Husbands and wives did not belong primarily or exclusively to each other, rather they belonged to different branches of the Labor Front and shared only what was impossible for the state to take from them: partnerships between men and women. The political vocabulary of communism did not include ‘husband’ or ‘wife’, so people had ‘companions’ or ‘friends’; which meant that while they may have been comrades, primarily they belonged to the state. ”
Today we do not live in such a system. So why, you might ask, is it important to know what has changed, and how, in Bulgaria since 1944, especially for those who did not experience the period of non-freedom? As explained by Prof. Yanakiev, the metamorphosis of the foundations of society caused such “profound damage” that the effects still reverberate today.
“To understand why not everything runs smoothly today and why some people still struggle, we need to look back and examine the genesis of the conversion of totalitarian power into the system of political-economic oligarchy.”
But I think there is a much more important moment that should not be overlooked. Not how cruel the regime was, but that blue jeans, The Twist and The Beatles were possible despite the cruelty. The language and the voice were not silenced. The affirmation that ‘You are nobody” did not come true, and our parents do have the language to tell us the stories of resistance and struggle for the preservation of the individual. We should try to understand this – perhaps the inexplicable force of bright clothing in a gray Bulgaria.
Why is this actually so important? Simply, because the easiest way to realize who you want to be, is to be faced with what you do not want to be. In this particular case a person is not willing to accept that the boa constrictor and the elephant are a hat, or that 2 + 2 = 5, even though the totalitarian regime tries from above to impose ‘hat’ and ‘5’ as the truth. Prof. Yanakiev reminds us that by refusing to admit that falsehood, “You express, albeit passively, a departure from the political order, a diversion from mobilization.”
If you are against ‘the reasonable people’, as the narrator has struggled all his life against the ‘mind’ of his elders, you are taken to represent the opposite of mind – that is, madness. That one word is an infinitely sad and short guide to freedom under communism. In the words of Georgi Markov:
“The most stupid thing to do would be to lie, that things are not as they are. The most unforgivable thing would be to shoot yourself. The answer is very simple: we have to continue to be exactly what we were – crazy. Because it is a form of life that best suits us, because we were born for it, because it is the highest privilege of nature – DO NOT be like them. And I think that all the beauty of life lies in the insanity of those who are insane.”
Children of Liberty
Who are we from? Where are we going? What should we do? Where are our jeans? Do we even need them?
After a few more similar questions, Prof. Yanakiev answers:
“I am no oracle. But I could express my personal opinions and other people could argue for them.”
Again, we rely on empty glasses and full ashtrays to maintain the sense of belonging. The conversation is long. We might have asked the wrong question. What is the appropriate language? What is the hat or the elephant for? What is sense and what is madness? Why do we not understand each other? For Prof. Yanakiev, the meaning is divided between our generation and his because “I cannot make anyone feel strongly about something they never experienced”.
Actually we, the children of freedom, have been plucked from the black-and-white reality of our parents, children of non-freedom. For them, there was only one choice, either ‘for’ or ‘against’ the regime; reconciliation with non-freedom and bowing to the realization that you are part of a herd, or trying to discover who George and John are in the Beatles song ‘Taxman’. However, it was not all long hair and The Twist. The elephant had already been eaten by the boa. But the important thing was to be different, to be mad. Madness is a culture from which language comes. This difference, this marginality eventually undermined the regime by refusing to recognize the ‘hat’. According to Prof. Yanakiev:
“Marginality was a virtue, a political virtue, an anti-virtue. I want to be marginal, I do not want your positions or your career or your ‘proper art’. I do not want your ‘correct taste’, I do not even want an ordered family life – this all came from the 1968 generation, the so-called ‘hippies’. There is nothing left today from that time.”
Why is nothing left? Because, unlike communism, post-communism is not based on a principle of society or a driving force for change. Under communism, when there was a minority who fought to keep their personality, thereby paradoxically maintaining diversity under the lid of totalitarianism, there was a clear division between ‘us’, Comrades, and ‘them’ – ‘hippies’ at best and ‘enemies of the people’ at worst. Today this dualism does not exist. Meaning has been lost because now the madness is no longer madness, just delusion. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, because there are different languages through which to view the picture of the hat / elephant. There is a desert in the minds of the current older generation, which holds their memories of ‘what was back then’. This is post-socialism: Something that was broken from the beginning!
It is no coincidence then that there is no positive definition of our freedom, and no wonder George Gospodinov has described the last 25 years as a chronic existential crisis, with some periods of recession. It does not matter whether we see a hat or an elephant swallowed by a boa constrictor, because nothing matters in the desert.
According to Prof. Yanakiev the post-socialist generation has an important role to play here:
“We do not need to throw our hands up dismissively and say that nothing can be done. I personally have confidence that an awakening of young people can come about not necessarily through direct political messaging, but by connecting to their innate thirst for life. Many young people today are bored with the life-path laid out for them, leading them through higher education and careers in the jungle of life. They are looking for something deeper, a ‘vita maxima’ and for people to tell them things that fire their interests. ”
This freedom is mine and I can share it.
What is this ‘something deeper’? Not metaphysics or religion, of this I am sure. And why should it be a vita maxima exactly – isn’t that very extreme? The only difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the generation of Prof. Yanakiev and our parents and of the “marginal” – is that they rely on the language of negation. I do not want such a life! I do not agree. My generation have the opportunity, freedom, and even requirement to do more and not tolerate nihilism. We should leave our comfort zones by making perhaps a more difficult request for freedom, and try to define what it is, where it is, and how it is achieved.
How correct is this advice? It is very correct because no matter how rotten our democracy or how uncivilized our statesmen, this is not about political freedom, about which we may not have much to say, but about cultural freedom.
It is good to remember that large, permanent changes are mainly achieved through political protests and revolutions. The fact that a given population does not have the life horizon to make comparisons with the past does not mean that it does not want to know what preceded it so that it may influence the present. The Beat Generation of 1950s America arose from the unwillingness of a group of writers at Columbia University to settle for the literary status quo, from Kerouac to Ginsberg, and Bob Dylan to the Beatles (the name ‘The Beatles’ was deliberately written so as to embody the meaning of the Beat generation).
The Beat Poets altered the language and meaning of their generation. The American dream continues to stand for a set of possessions, a career and a family, but for these poets, the dream was the release from property and wealth, and the ability to travel aimlessly and to feel. This feeling was transferred to their verses and the paper in their books, free of syntax, censorship or form. Their discontent and unwillingness to settle with the status quo became the greatest muse to touch our generation. Who has not heard Bob Dylan or read On the Road?
Our generation, even if it does not have a common identity, has biography and shared memories. The question is how, in what way and who to pass them on to? To a large extent, it will depend on how we approach the understanding and discussion of post-socialism. Why do we not try to move the conversation away from ‘Do you like this freedom?’, a freedom understood as a dream of democracy that never came true, and say instead, ‘You know, yes, I do like this freedom’ because it is my freedom, and now I can share it.
To create a culture, we need to stop filling the hole of post-socialist reality with nostalgia for communism and far-right renaissance patriotism. In this sense, there is depth to it. Because elephants should gradually outweigh hats, and post-socialism should acquire a meaning and identity not through its connection with the past, but through its modern mirror and future perspective.
Nikolay Nikolov is originally from Bulgaria and currently lives in London. He has an MSc in Political Sociology from the LSE and has worked as an associate producer for the New York Public Radio show The Takeaway. Currently, he’s doing a PhD in Politics at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, UCL. He is the Editor-in-Chief of www.banitza.net