Losing My Illusions

Anyone engaged in social change has grappled with the essential question. Should I work within the system or outside the system?

In the United States, the question is often expressed geographically: to operate “inside the Beltway” or “outside the Beltway.” The Beltway is, of course, the ring road that encircles Washington, DC. Some start off on one path and jump to the other. Barack Obama, for instance, was once a community organizer. Now he’s at the very center of Beltway politics.

In East-Central Europe before 1989, many dissidents went in the opposite direction. They started out trying to change things within the system. As a young man, Adam Michnik tried to push the Polish Communist Party toward reform only to give up early on. As a result, he developed a theory, the “new evolutionism,” that argued that the Party would only change as a result of external pressure. It would take more than a decade before his theory would be proven right.

Rayna Gavrilova also tried to work at first within the system. This, she told me in an interview in New York in January, was the occasion at which she lost her first illusion. She was 21 years old and a university student. She stood up at a Party meeting and challenged the construction of a new palace of culture in the middle of Sofia. Why not spend that money on apartments for all the people who were waiting for accommodations.

“This building was huge, a white elephant in the middle of the city,” she said. “Sophia was a small, undeveloped city, with many people living three generations to an apartment. When I said that with all those millions we could build beautiful apartments for everyone, the head of the meeting, a respected professor, just looked at me and said, ‘There is no space in Sofia to build 100,000 apartments.’ I understood that this was not an open conversation. I saw the hypocrisy. I remember it very clearly: how could a person that I trusted tell me this?”

Her second illusion was shattered by the first free elections in Bulgaria in 1990 when the opposition lost and the Bulgarian Socialist Party won. “When I realized that the majority of people didn’t think like I did, that was a big slap,” she confessed. “I truly thought that people would see the promise of real change. But many of them preferred to stick with the past.”

She didn’t shed her final illusion, about the nature of politics, until she was already in the United States. Although by now thoroughly disillusioned, Rayna Gavrilova is by no means pessimistic.

That remains a signal accomplishment: to lose one’s illusions and retain one’s optimism.

 

The Interview

 

When you look back at 1989, and everything that has changed or not changed in Bulgaria, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being least satisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

 

In general, if you compare it to the situation pre-1989, I would evaluate the changes as probably 7 overall, in terms of combined progress in all the areas that matter to people. This is of course filtered through my own perspective and these are the things that are important for me also — economic development, innovation, catching up with technology, consumer choice and satisfaction, the chance to do whatever you feel, access and exposure to whatever human civilization has accumulated, freedom of media and of expression, human rights.

The one aspect that has made least progress is what we sometimes call human security: the sense that your life, your wellbeing, and the wellbeing of your children are protected. I have in mind, in the first place, healthcare and access to quality education (and not just any education). Your satisfaction with life depends a great deal on feeling secure and feeling that your children are well provided for. We have lagged behind in this, for many reasons. Human security lagged as a secondary concern after democratization and economic liberalization — and that was very unfortunate. The impact of this lack will be felt for many years to come. I am not an optimist about improvement in this area. Challenges to this sense of security are unfortunately on the rise, and people feel as though their property is threatened, their streets are more dangerous, there are more drugs around, and they are at greater risk of being harmed.

 

The same period of time, 1989 to the present, the same scale, but your own personal life.

 

9. I probably belong to a small minority who not only have done better than before but are aware of it. In terms of personal satisfaction, back in 1989, I had a happy family and one child. Now I have a happy family with two grown-up children. For me, and for many Bulgarians, family is very important. My parents passed away in the normal way, without prolonged suffering. That’s important for keeping up your optimism, that there is some justice in the world. If you spend five years caring for someone who is suffering, that decreases your sense of justice in the world.

Professionally, I’m a university professor. Between 1989 and 1990, I became an associate professor and published book in the United States. That would never have happened before 1989. I also had an opportunity to do something different. First I went to work for one of the democratic governments as a deputy minister of culture. The chance of doing something like that under the old framework was probably nil. Then I became director of the Open Society Foundation in Bulgaria, which was also unthinkable under the old situation. I’ve subsequently had an opportunity to grow in this job in terms of scope of management responsibilities. Last but not least, I am probably better off in economic terms. For instance, the value of the property my husband and I have, which was nil when there was no market, has suddenly appreciated.

 

And looking at the near future, how would you rate the prospects for Bulgaria, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic.

 

The momentum for change has slowed down. I’d say 5. Because this process of incremental change will face a lot of obstacles, and this time not the obstacle of fighting for democracy. We’re in for the long haul. Bulgaria is improving, but the bad news is that it might not happen in our lifetime. I’m an optimist by nature. I truly believe that we are seeing improvement. But it will become tangible for most people only over a long period of time. For the next 5-15 years, there won’t be big progress.

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

I remember very clearly. I was with colleagues from the university. We were sitting around a table, which is what we usually did at that time, talking about everything. Then we got a phone call from a well-known figure, Nikolai Genchev, a dissident professor, a real freethinker. He told us, “Turn on the TV, something is happening.” We didn’t have a clue. That was part of the politics of the Communists, which was very smart. The universities were really ivory towers. They didn’t touch us if we didn’t touch them. I was part of this big group of complacent people. We enjoyed the freedom of talking to each other and our students about whatever we wanted. I could be a Fulbright scholar and travel to the United States. I was not a dissident making trouble for them. We were living on an island, so I didn’t have a clue.

Of course everyone thought that something would change because Russia was changing. Bulgaria unfortunately was always a sidekick of Russia’s. If something was brewing in the Soviet Union, it would eventually touch us in some way. But I didn’t anticipate that it would be so quick and so dramatic. One thing I didn’t know was that the economic situation was so dire, that we would default, just a year later, which brought the country into such a big mess.

 

You said you were on an island. Was that also part of your family tradition, when you were growing up? Or did you arrive on this island when you began working at the university?

 

No, when I was growing up, my father was a hardcore Communist. He was an aeronautical engineer. He was a believer. Even in the university in those first years, I was a strong believer that Communism would be the future of humanity: equality, help, solidarity. I was really a true believer. And I always saw myself, at least at the beginning in my teens and early twenties, as part of this movement. When I went to university, I started reading and getting out of that first cocoon of my life, which was my family. Because of my family, I used to believe that we were making sacrifices — we didn’t have a car, for instance – but that it would be better for the next generation.

My family was an isolating phenomenon in another respect. They were not critical. They might make jokes about Todor Zhivkov, but we didn’t have anyone prosecuted. We were an average family. Then I went to university and mingled with people, listened, and I started really questioning what I could do. For a period of time, I tried to do something constructive at the university. I got up at the Party meeting at the university and asked, “Why are we building this stupid National Palace of Culture? We know that in Sofia at least 100,000 people live in cramped apartments.” Or I would say, “This professor is really lousy, why don’t we evaluate him and kick him out?”

Very quickly I lost any illusions that we could change things from within. Many of my fellow travelers believed at the time, until 1989, that if you work within you can change the system. I lost my illusions, but probably in a conformist way. I retreated into history.

 

Was there particular moment — you mention standing up in a meeting — when you felt your illusions disappear?

 

I mentioned this question about the National Palace of Culture. I was 21 at the time. This building was huge, a white elephant in the middle of the city. Sophia was a small, undeveloped city, with many people living three generations to an apartment. When I said that with all those millions we could build beautiful apartments for everyone, the head of the meeting, a respected professor, just looked at me and said, “There is no space in Sofia to build 100,000 apartments.” I understood that this was not an open conversation. I saw the hypocrisy. I remember it very clearly: how could a person that I trusted tell me this?

 

When the opposition emerged with the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), did you see that as an effective vehicle for the transformation of Bulgaria or were you skeptical?

 

All my hopes were with them. My husband, unlike me, comes from a kulak family. His grandfather was beaten, arrested, his land appropriated. His father was denied entrance to university. When I heard these stories for the first time, it hit me in the face. We were not big dissidents. In the history department, we were very divided at the time. It was the time of the renaming of the ethnic Turks. The faculty was split into two parts. One part actively participated in that. The other half was silent but resistant. It was not a big act of opposition. But the UDF was really our hope, and we felt very personally whatever happened there, whether it was talking to people, going to meetings in smoke-filled rooms, or discussing what to do next.

 

And when the UDF lost that first elections in 1990, how did you feel?

 

That was the second slap, after the National Palace of Culture. That’s when I lost the second illusion — that people are rational beings and that my fellow citizens see the picture as clearly as I see it. I saw that we were not in the same boat. At first, I thought that in two-three years we would put everything in place. This was still the mentality of building the future and living in it. When I realized that the majority of people didn’t think like I did, that was a big slap. I truly thought that people would see the promise of real change. But many of them preferred to stick with the past.

 

Have you had other second thoughts since that period of 1990? Or have you been on the same trajectory until today?

 

In general, I still hope that my fellow travelers will find the right way. Because one other illusion that took longer for me to understand is how devious and dirty politics is. Even three years ago, I still retained some illusions when I heard some of my fellow travelers talk about how they win elections in Bulgaria. My inner self wanted to say to them, “Don’t tell me!” But I asked my acquaintance anyway, “Why are you dealing with this mayor, since he’s so dirty?” My acquaintance, who is someone pretty senior in the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria party, said, “Give me a break. That mayor brings me a thousand votes.” I still couldn’t understand that this honest, decent man was talking to me one day and then the next day he would go to a smoke-filled room with a dirty politician. Part of me understands this, and part of me is really disappointed.

When I came here to New York in January 2011, I started to read local newspapers every day, like the metro section of The New York Times. I started coming across a lot of news about politics and what politicians do. At the beginning I was tweeting every day to people back home: “Don’t despair! They do politics like this everywhere. We are not worse off.” Many Bulgarians are so self-disparaging: we are so dirty, we are so corrupt. No, my belief is that humanity is more or less the same everywhere. If people have an opportunity to steal, they’ll steal. But in each society there are some deterrents — some are moral, some are legal. Whenever the moral fails, the legal steps in. In Bulgaria, both have failed. That’s very sad. But it’s also a reason to be optimistic. It means that you can do something. It doesn’t mean that the human material is spoiled.

 

It seems that some Bulgarians have a reverse pride — we are the most pessimistic, we have the great emigration rate.  Tadeusz Konwicki wrote a book called The Polish Complex. Poles used to constantly refer back to this “Polish complex,” the mentality that Poles had during communism. Someone could write something similar about Bulgaria.

 

That would be useful. But this book would be read by only a small group of people: the decision makers, the doers. Most of my friends and acquaintances in Bulgaria stay at the level of conversation. I don’t find this sufficient. I’d rather place my hope in these kids who are protesting environmental problems and so on. At least they are motivated to do something. There is an inherent hope that human action can do something.

 

There’s been a lot of discussion about why there has been a pushback against liberalism and against the “open society” in East-Central Europe: FIDESZ in Hungary, populist movements in other countries. Which of the three options would you choose? If we think of it epidemiologically, is it run-of-the-mill flu, is it cyclical, or is it more serious like a bird flu that we’re unprepared for on a global level.

 

I tend to agree with the third hypothesis: bird flu. That doesn’t mean it’s incurable. I like to describe it as a systemic problem. It’s not cyclical. I don’t think it will go away.

What we liberals did not take into account was the importance of narrative and engaging people’s emotions along with their minds. We have made the same mistake as the economists who believe that human beings make rational choices, that the economy has mechanisms of self-regulation. We believe that the truths we believe in are so obvious that you have to be an idiot or a fascist not to be believe in them. This is really what we did wrong. We never cared about what people felt, about our messages, about our choices. That’s why we’ve lost huge constituencies everywhere. If we don’t do something serious to engage the minds and the emotions of people, we’ll turn into, I don’t know, China.

We often talk among ourselves that the liberal consensus is over. Especially in our part of the world, it was very strong. Even the nonbelievers and non-supporters agreed that this was the right way to go. Now, 20 years later, it’s the opposite. Even the people who strongly believe in those values are not sure if we are on the right track, because these values have proven ineffective in making people’s lives better.

 

You mentioned that human nature is not that much different in America than in Bulgaria, especially when it comes to dirty politics. Were there other things that you learned here that were unanticipated?

 

I’ve read my de Tocqueville, but still this surprised me: the strong conviction here in the usefulness of collective action. I’m not talking about the formation of a political party, just the need to engage your fellow citizens to do something. The degree of solidarity that emerges, not through everyday interactions but when there is a necessity, really struck me.

Also, there’s something I thought was mostly French but now I realize it’s American too: the way people use public debate to shape the future is truly amazing. If there’s anything that makes me an Americanophile, it’s these two things. It’s not only liberals, but also on the right: the attempt to bring more people into the conversation, to make the case, to use ads, to do whatever it takes. This makes me optimistic. But how to bring this mindset into the post-communist world eludes me.

 

Is there something you would change in Bulgaria as a result of this understanding? Or does it just work here, and it has limited applicability in Bulgaria?

 

My field of history is culture. I don’t believe in “it’s the economy, stupid.” I believe in “it’s the culture, stupid.” Culture has a lot of inertia. I think many things could be done in a different way. But frankly, as I said before, it will take a generation, if we make the effort. If we don’t make the effort, even a generation will not be enough.

 

New York, January 18, 2013


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