By Petar Dobrev
Translation: Irina Samokovska
One year ago we launched dVERSIA magazine, united by our anxiety about the reality that surrounds us and the obvious impossibility of building a just and inclusive society despite the protest waves.
This anxiety is even more acutely felt today. The foundations to which we have grown accustomed have been collapsing at an almost unreal pace – just like the tobacco warehouses in Plovdiv and the sea baths in Varna. During our first year of publication we witnessed the Bulgarian government deciding to start financing private schools, drawing on a meager educational budget – actually the second-lowest educational budget in the EU. At the same time, children from small towns and villages have no other option but to travel in car trunks to the nearest school due to the insufficient number of school buses. Meanwhile, the fees for some programmes at the Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” doubled, thereby rendering a number of degrees inaccessible for a large part of the students seeking admission to a university. Unequal access to healthcare was legalized and institutionalized thanks to reforms in the sector. It was not patients’ health but the financial gain of hospitals that was recognized as a guiding principle. Labor legislation was amended solely for the benefit of employers, at the expense of workers, thus paving the way for practices such as one-day employment contracts.
All of these disintegrations are taking place against the backdrop of such a negligible possibility for response that resignation is a logical consequence. In the meantime, the numerous “civic media outlets” either approve of what is going on, or are too busy with other topics, which they somehow find more urgent ‒ for instance, the Monument to the Soviet Army, the latest right-wing project, etc.
dVERSIA does not want to join this silent consensus. Contrary to the trending calls for a republic “free of the left-right division,” we believe that the policies, which led to the above-mentioned catastrophes, are clearly of a right-wing hue, regardless of the fact that they were passed off as “expert” and “natural”. We want to state a left-wing alternative to counter this hue and to diversify the monotonous public discourse. Borrowing from Alain Badiou, we believe that the true idea is an idea which creates divisions. This is why a media outlet should knowingly and willfully divide in a politicizing manner. We believe that what we have written so far suffices to clearly distinguish our stance from what belongs, be it implicitly or explicitly, to the Right, as well as from the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the circle of supporters of A-specto magazine, which are commonly held to be left-wing.
We hope that we shall keep carving this division line in order to make it as clear as possible.
We insist on distinguishing ourselves from the Right because we cannot accept the government policies leading to a loss of basic rights such as access to education and healthcare. We also refuse to put up with the institutional racism which refers to gypsies as “brutes” from the top and officially legitimizes “civic” patrols that abuse refugees along the border.
Through our ideas we also want to firmly differentiate ourselves from allegedly oppositional right-wing civic media. We refuse to exoticize and to “balkanize” Bulgaria and to assume, as they do, that “our mentality” or the legacy of communism are to blame for the current situation in the country.
Our dissent is even stronger in view of the fact that protests against the commercialization of education are taking place all over Europe, the British healthcare system is being subjected to the same neoliberal attacks as ours, and ‒ as this text is being written ‒ France is shaken by protests of gigantic proportions in defense of labor legislation. Given this situation, we find it impossible to assume that the system is perfect in its entirety, yet partially undermined on a local level by the “heavy legacy” of communism or by specific amoral individuals.
We refuse to lead supra-political battles in the moral field or to demonize individuals or entire groups because they are not “European” enough or “entrepreneurial” enough – for instance the Roma, the poor, the peasants, the fans of Chalga music. How is Delyan Peevski, a controversial Bulgarian politician and media mogul, different from the hundreds of large-scale Western capitalists whose names surfaced in the Panama Papers? Peevski is not a mistake which impedes the system – he exists because of the system itself.
This is why we cannot identify in any way whatsoever with the nominally left-wing Bulgarian Socialist Party, the Alternative for Bulgarian Revival, or with the “left-wing” journalists gravitating around them. This is not possible for a number of reasons, including the fact that they are part of a system which is to blame for the introduction of the flat tax, but also because of their racist and nationalistic policies. These can be observed in the anti-Roma social reforms of Ivaylo Kalfin, Minister of Labor and Social Policy, or their uncritical nostalgia for the socialist times that goes as far as to support crimes such as the “Revival Process”*. Not to mention their attitude towards refugees, their sexism and homophobia – all of which became flagrant in the election campaign of Mihail Mirchev, the Bulgarian Socialist Party’s candidate for Mayor of Sofia. We also cannot suffer their naive belief that Vladimir Putin, yet another “hero” in the Panama Papers case, can be some sort of alternative to Western capitalism.
Through our magazine we are trying to divert the hegemonic discourse and to create a space that offers a different version of the Left. The current volume contains a selection of articles published throughout the past year which most fittingly reflect our understanding of what constitutes the Left. They are supplemented by an article of renowned historian Robert Brenner from 1991, “The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – The Roots of The Crisis,” whose Bulgarian translation is published here for the first time. We believe that this essay provides an important framework for our notion of the Left because it is a merciless portrayal of the bureaucratization and the stifling atmosphere of real existing socialism. At the same time, it also unveils even darker prospects that were to be brought about by the shock transition to capitalism – and today they have already been realised.
Another historian, Greek professor Spyros Marketos, said in a 2015 interview for our magazine that the bleakest forecasts are already reality and that the system no longer lends itself to reform. The neoliberal reforms imposed on Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War have already reached Greece and have even succeeded in making left-wing party Syriza kneel down before the financial imperative. As Europe’s periphery is struggling to breathe on account of austerity, the same set of measures is also in store for the capitalist “core,” so that we can all switch to the “era of Fukushima-capitalism” under which human life has no value relative to capital.
Since the “Fukushima-capitalist” system itself is the essence of the problem, dVERSIA’s Left tries to envision some sort of an alternative to it in several ways. Contrary to the common nationalistic responses of blaming “the Other,” for each and every crisis, – so clearly recognizable in the current stance towards refugees – we are trying to outline paths ahead through embracing and “permitting” identities that are different from the dominant ones. They may be remote ones, such as those described in the anti-colonial article by Ivaylo Dinev entitled “Columbus vs. the People,” or adjacent ones, which are nevertheless equally unfamiliar, like in the article entitled “The Community You Carry Within” which attempts to speak of Alevites in Bulgaria without orientalizing them. These identities may also be very popular ones which have become marginalized and ridiculed precisely for this purpose, as the article by the title “Chalga Music is a Faggot Moment in the Life of a Redneck” demonstrates, seeking to oppose the demophobia characterizing Bulgarians’ intellectual stupor in regards to chalga music.
dVERSIA’s Left is not nationalistic and it does not share the fears of many liberals concerning Islam and refugees. It seeks the dark spots in Bulgaria’s history, as demonstrated by the late 19th century article entitled “Pomak tears” which describes one of the numerous cases of expatriation of Muslims from our territory after the 1878 Liberation. The non-nationalistic stance remains in place even on the topic of Macedonia, an occasional stumbling block for Bulgaria’s Left since the 20s of the XX century. The article “The Taming of the Macedonian Shrew” deconstructs the essentially colonial stance of Bulgarian elites towards Macedonia – shared by conservatives and liberals alike.
Our Left is not sexist either. The article by Magpie Corvid entitled “Marxism for Whores,” translated into Bulgarian by Neda Genova, speaks about sex-work beyond the condescending attitude of liberal feminism and claims that, instead of fruitless attempts at introducing a ban, the women in this job need trade unions and support networks. The article by Margarita Gabrovska entitled “When Are Our Egg Cells at Their Most Beautiful?” tackles new developments in biopolitics on the issue of freezing egg cells that not only commercialize an initially medical practice, but also suggest that a fully realized woman cannot be anything other than a career-oriented mother.
We believe that education is a right and not a privilege, which is why we tried to provide a platform for alternative opinions on the educational reform which is currently being carried through in Bulgaria. “On Access to Knowledge and Future Inequalities,” an article by Valentina Georgieva that advocates a future autonomous university and free education, is a case in point. Stanislav Dodov analyzes reforms in primary and secondary education in “The New Educational Law: It Is Reasonable To Be Bulgarians and EU Citizens,” in which he counters the ineluctable nationalism and Eurocentrism with a will to a critical and radical education. Ivaylo Dinev follows the history of Sofia’s urban district Studentski Grad (Students’ Town) to explain the current situation in the neighborhood and to declare that change is possible only through giving a voice in the matter to the students themselves.
dVERSIA is not a space for post-socialist nostalgia and its collective is also careful to avoid presenting history in simplistic terms. “The Prickly Exhibit,” an article by Chavdar Tsvetkov, examines the sugar-coated and commercialized nostalgia for the socialist years, as witnessed in the private Varna-based “Retro-Museum”. The history of the Left in Bulgaria is reviewed in its complexity, as demonstrated by my article “Dimitrovgrad – From Utopia to the Inconvenient Heritage”. The piece of writing reflects the disappointment from the communist utopia in “the town of youth” at the end of socialism, as well as its surprising revival today. However, there are places where “left memory” has a different fate. Ivaylo Dinev’s article “Spectacle and Oblivion: Who Has the Right to History?” shows how the memory of the Samokov Commune has largely been erased on an official level at the expense of the recent commercial emphasis on antiquity and the “restored” fortress Tsari Mali Grad. An even more brutal erasure of the Left from the life of Bulgarian poet Geo Milev has taken place in the performance of “Geo” on the stage of the National Theatre “Ivan Vazov,” as illustrated by another article by the same author – “Geo Depersonalized”.
The interview with Russian historian Alexei Yurchak, translated into Bulgarian by Irina Samokovska, focuses on Soviet history in order to demonstrate the complexity of the reality in USSR times and to elucidate why it could not be reduced to the widespread “pro-western dissidents vs. official authority.”
As regards the recent attempts to create those spaces and communities, which are characterized by a greater degree of fairness and solidarity, dVERSIA tracks two examples of such “pockets of autonomy” in the interviews with the members of the Sofia-based social centers “Adelante” and “Xaspel”. In her article “Politics of Fiction – Zbyněk Baladrán’s Exhibition Socio-fiction in Sofia” Neda Genova dwells on forms of contemporary art as a political gesture that reflects on the relationship between past and future and deprives the artist of the privileged position of the holder of the only key for decoding the artwork. The closing article by the same author, “Kurdistan without Kurdistan?”, sheds light on the most dramatic recent attempt at creating an alternative horizontal society, undertaken by the Kurds in Rojava, Northern Syria – and this under the double siege by the troops of an increasingly authoritarian Erdogan as well as the Islamic State.
In its first issue dVERSIA laid claim to an independent and critical left discourse which seeks out and discusses new projects for living together. One year later we managed to publish this volume thanks to donations from our readers, to whom we are immensely grateful. This gives us hope that we have at least partially kept our promise and managed to create a community with which we can keep thinking, writing, speaking, fighting… in an attempt at failing better!
* The Revival Process is the official name of the forceful assimilation of Bulgaria’s Muslim minority (900,000 people or 10% of the population) through compulsory replacement of their Turkish and Arabic names with Bulgarian names. It was enacted between 1984 and 1989 under the communist government of Todor Zhivkov. Those who refused were exiled to Turkey.