The Lost Treasure of Revolutions

I once asked someone that I was re-interviewing here in East-Central Europe how he would compare his life back in 1988 with his life today. He looked at me as if I were crazy. “Of course it was better then!” he exclaimed.

“It was better under Communism?”

He laughed. “No, it was better when I was 25 years younger!”

The desire to be young again is powerful. But more powerful still is to be younger and part of a movement on the verge of remaking the world. In Poland, Solidarity activists look back with great affection to the time when it seemed as if the entire society was pulling for a single goal. For a brief period of time, East Germans participated in a grand experiment to transform their country into something different from both the past and from the West.

In Bulgaria, the group of activists was smaller. Dimitrina Petrova, who is now the executive director of Equal Rights Trust in London, remembers the conversations that gripped her and her circle of friends in those days. They would become key participants in the changes that took place in Bulgaria in 1989. But what they talked about at the time doesn’t quite translate into today’s context.

“One version of what happened in the 1980s and 1990s, the mainstream version, is that this was a transition from a totalitarian or authoritarian society — a closed society — into a democracy, and it was driven by people’s desire to live in freedom,” she told me in an interview in London in January. “The freedom fighters, eventually with the very significant participation of the West, overturned the Communist regime. This is the mainstream story of 1989 today. But I think this story is only part of the truth, not the whole truth. It doesn’t reflect accurately what people talked about at the time, cared about, or called for. Many of the issues we cared about wouldn’t make much sense in the contexts that people understood or cared to understand in the years after 1989.

She continued, “For example, we had endless discussions — Krassimir Kanev, whom you know, and Deyan Kyuranov, and myself, and many others — about the tiniest nuances of meaning in the early Marx, and what a ‘just society’ would be according to Marx, and whether that could be our vision of the future. This is no longer relevant, at least not now. Maybe it will become relevant again in a different time or place, but it’s not now. Because of the dominant line of discourse that has become the mainstream interpretation of what happened around 1989, people either accepted it — because it’s also part of the truth — or if they didn’t, they shut up.”

These discussions took place because of a unique convergence of factors. “We were young, energetic, and had plenty of time on our hands, and no motivation to make a career in the official system because there were no rewards, neither at a personal nor a material level,” Petrova said. “Time was the crucial element: the time to read, to talk, to talk, to talk, and to talk. It was a very oral kind of existence. So that’s why it was a happy time. And we won.”

But today, these conversations appear like the “lost treasure of revolutions,” to quote Hannah Arendt. “I feel a huge loss connected to this. I don’t even have anyone to talk with about these things any longer. The community in which I lived disappeared,” she concluded. “I have nobody to talk with about such issues and I would even have difficulty reconstructing what I was just saying. I was almost stuttering to myself because I’m trying to reconstruct what I know were superior interests to what I’m doing now or am interested in now. My capacity to talk about radically different societies has been out of usage for such a long time that I’ve even lost the language to talk about it. I’m not even sure if I am still interested or whether I can revive this interest.”

 

The Interview

 

How did you get involved in Ecoglasnost, the first opposition movement in Bulgaria?

 

No, it wasn’t the first movement. There were many others. I’ve written about this in a chapter of a book on opposition and dissent in Communist Bulgaria for a German academic group of historians. The book was published by Ashgate. It’s quite an academic and rigorous study that has chapters on each country, and there are thematic general chapters as well. My chapter on Bulgaria, which is about 30 pages, is the history of dissent. And so I not only remember a little bit, but I quite recently, 10 years ago, went to the archives and read what I could.

Ecoglasnost came to prominence in late 1989 and was the most popular group in 1990, even into 1991. But it wasn’t the first group. There were many others that have now been forgotten. Many things have been forgotten. There’s nothing objective about how people remember the past. What did Hannah Arendt say in The Human Condition? “The fairies and the unicorns are more real than the lost treasures of revolutions.” This is how I feel. Sometimes we just remember these things differently. But most essentially, they have no relevance. They do not form part of what people today are interested in hearing. In a way, these things no longer have reality.

 

Is that because these are inconvenient truths?

 

No, it’s because discourses have changed. There were several discourses in the late 1980s, which then changed into something else. For example, one of the main discourses of the 1990s, which continues to this day, is the human rights framework. One version of what happened in the 1980s and 1990s, the mainstream version, is that this was a transition from a totalitarian or authoritarian society — a closed society — into a democracy, and it was driven by people’s desire to live in freedom. The freedom fighters, eventually with the very significant participation of the West, overturned the Communist regime.

This is the mainstream story of 1989 today. But I think this story is only part of the truth, not the whole truth. It doesn’t reflect accurately what people talked about at the time, cared about, or called for. Many of the issues we cared about wouldn’t make much sense in the contexts that people understood or cared to understand in the years after 1989.

For example, we had endless discussions — Krassimir Kanev, whom you know, and Deyan Kyuranov, and myself, and many others — about the tiniest nuances of meaning in the early Marx, and what a “just society” would be according to Marx, and whether that could be our vision of the future. This is no longer relevant, at least not now. Maybe it will become relevant again in a different time or place, but it’s not now. Because of the dominant line of discourse that has become the mainstream interpretation of what happened around 1989, people either accepted it — because it’s also part of the truth — or if they didn’t, they shut up.

I think that the view that the main thing that happened after 1989 was a transition from a Communist society to a society of democracy is a facet of the truth. However, apart from being a transition to democracy—which it was—it was also an emancipation of the dominant classes. A social transformation took place — a liberation, an emancipation — but unlike in other revolutions where you would expect the oppressed to liberate themselves. In the case of the Eastern European revolutions, it was a dominant class that needed and received liberation: economic, political, ideological liberation. So from the point of view of social stratification, the limits that held back Eastern European elites were broken, and these elites liberated themselves to become free elites.

So, the two things are not incompatible. There could be other ways to describe what happened, but that’s what I meant when I talked about the inconvertibility of meaning. It’s not because people wouldn’t understand if they were listening—especially if they were cultural historians, and they studied Communism, and especially if they had access to the language. But it’s a question of relevance. Like in all discourses, it’s not a matter of the intellectual cognitive possibility to understand; it’s about whether it makes any sense to invest time into understanding. So, from the point of view of the dominant discourses today, our story is irrelevant.

I’m not saying this with bitterness or disappointment. I think this was quite inevitable. In the end, that’s how life is, and I would even say, “that’s how it should be.” No history is final. On top of what you write will be what others will write. Of course, it will be more and more difficult to do the archival work of understanding past cultures, but this will keep being done, and who knows what our times and our lives will mean to the future. We cannot know that, and that’s good! If our lives were interpreted by the limited powers of those who control discourses today, then we would be finished.

I don’t feel that what I’m saying is in any way unique or interesting. I’m not expressing it well, but I believe this is a feeling harbored by many people from my generation and from my part of the world.

 

You initially said that the fall of Communism was the best thing that happened to you and the worst thing that happened to you. Did you have in mind anything specific when you said that?

 

It was the happiest thing because we had a project and we over-delivered. We didn’t even call for so much. We wanted – better to speak for myself — I wanted to have a reformed system where there would be more freedom. I didn’t have an issue with social equality. I had an issue with the planned economy, and with the cognitive hubris of the planned economy and the possibility to make responsible decisions in a centrally planned economy. But I and many others also accepted the ideas of social equality, meaning not just the absence of discrimination in terms of gender, ethnicity, and so on, but also socio-economic equality. We had internalized that ideal, and we thought that this was a good thing. As you know, in the West it’s not taken for granted. So, in fact, the horizon of the future for me did not necessarily involve a movement toward the rich becoming richer and the poor poorer.

So, it was the happiest event in my life because we had a shared project, we were young, and we were idle. Idleness was a huge factor that contributed to the end of the system through disruption from within, because we had time. And we had time — especially intellectuals and university people like me — because of the way the system worked. I had to teach a certain number of hours per week. I had to read books, and I had to deliver papers or whatever. That was very easy. We were young, energetic, and had plenty of time on our hands, and no motivation to make a career in the official system because there were no rewards, neither at a personal nor a material level. Time was the crucial element: the time to read, to talk, to talk, to talk, and to talk. It was a very oral kind of existence. So that’s why it was a happy time. And we won.

I personally was enormously privileged. I was the lucky bastard because not only we as a group won, but I, as an individual, was somehow chosen by my friends to go on and to be a representative in the parliament. Therefore, I had the opportunity to participate in making the first post-Communist constitution. Those first stages were still very exciting. Parliament was a theatre. Actual theaters in my country went bankrupt at that time. Nobody went to the theater during the era of the Grand National Assembly in 1990-91, because the theater was the Grand National Assembly. There were incredibly colorful personalities from all walks of life saying incredible things, and people were glued to their TVs 24 hours a day because we worked overnight. It was a crazy time. Often times there was a crisis, and we (the opposition to the Communist party who had won with a very thin majority in June 1990) walked out of parliament. Eventually it became boring. Fortunately, I left. I didn’t remain in the party political process after that. But during the most interesting time, I was there. It was a revolution, it was bloodless, and it succeeded—it even over-succeeded.

But I want to make one additional point that goes back to what I was saying about the mainstream version of what happened. On the one hand, it was absolutely true that dissidents wanted more freedom and human rights. But the other part of the story, the untold part of the story – because I haven’t written my own book about the subject — is the betrayal of equality. This is one of the messages that was lost. I lived in Hungary for 11 years, so I know Hungary also quite well. So, this is true at least in Bulgaria and Hungary. People, especially those who were not the intellectuals and the dissidents, were motivated to go against the regime, to participate in those first street protests that decided everything, because they felt that the promise of equality had been betrayed. The most sensitive slogans that we had in Ecoglasnost were not the human-rights-based or the freedom-based slogans but the equality-based ones. The most thrilling thing we actually came up with, was: “Every Bulgarian millionaire must become a sponsor of Ecoglasnost.” Our very suggestion that there were  Bulgarian millionaires was a bomb. The equality issue was especially sensitive to people outside Sofia who were not intellectuals but were the masses that delegitimized the regime.

People didn’t quite understand very intuitively what it is to have freedom of expression. “What is it that you want to express?” they wanted to know. But what people in the villages and the small towns understood and were annoyed with was the privileges of the nomenklatura, the fact that this elite was living much better, sending its children to expensive Western universities. The life of the nomenklatura had nothing to do with the lives of the ordinary people. Events such as the Chernobyl catastrophe highlighted this, when the nomenklatura got a separate set of instructions on what to eat and what not to eat, which was different from what was publicly announced for the general public. We were supposed to be an equal society. But look at those “proletarian leaders”, with their triple chins, singing the Internationale at the Party Congress: were those people like us? So, bitterness about a failed promise of equality was widespread, and it contributed in a major — but now forgotten — way to the de-legitimization of the system.

 

Volen Siderov of Ataka is basically saying the same thing now that he was saying back then when he talks about those issues of social equality. He spent most of the time in our interview railing against the new elite and talking about the importance of social equality.

 

But did he speak about social equality back then?

 

When he was the editor of Demokratsiya? I don’t know.

 

I don’t remember. I don’t know. Today many people will say they are nostalgic because Communism was an equal society and equality was a good thing and it’s a pity we lost it. If people went against the Communist regime because they were let down on equality, or at least partly because of that, then what happened in the years after 1989 — the quick creation of much greater inequality – caused the backlash, with Communists or socialists returning to power a few years into the “transition.” In almost all former communist countries, a similar return of a more egalitarian Left took place at some point in the 1990s, and this was put down to “nostalgia.” There is also a whole nostalgia discourse today. But I think nostalgia is a misnomer. Nobody in our part of the world is really “nostalgic” for what we know was bad in communism. The so-called nostalgia is something else. It’s in fact the way in which people experience a kind of a double letdown. In my generation at least, and at least in Bulgaria and Hungary, the positive value of social equality had been entrenched. We believed in it. We accepted that it was worth fighting for and dying for. We were raised this way. It’s true that when I was among the liberal intellectual circles, this was not what was discussed, because it was taken for granted. It was also taken for granted that the society that we wanted in the future would also be equal, but in a different way. When it came to freedom and equality, we did not envisage paying with the one to buy the other. We assumed that we could have both.

 

So when you say that it was also the worst day of your life, you mean that it was this failure to transform society in a socially equal way, to achieve both liberty and equality for all.

 

Yes. While I was very happy then, on that day in November 1989, looking back I see it also as the start of the disintegration of a radical vision of the just society. What followed that glorious day was the systematic failure to work toward a system that would not imitate the earlier stages of capitalism but would somehow combine liberty and equality in a more decent way, or at least preserve the vision to achieve, if nothing else, at least some kind of a social contract that would look in that direction. But this didn’t happen. In Bulgarian history of the 1990s, the very possibility of such a society that would have equality and liberty together was lost. Of course, the Socialist party was saying something to that effect, but in fact, equality was not the heart of their agenda.

Anyway, I can’t stress enough that the society which emerged in the 1990s was not what I wanted. I have always been a radical, you see. I was hoping for a radically different society that was not based on Communist structures, but was at the same time equal, free, pluralist, and fully democratic.

In a strange way, my youth was superior to all of my subsequent decades doing classical human rights work. It was superior because at least we were trying to imagine a radically different just and fair society, including the role of the state in such an ideal world. I’m not sure that it’s the state alone that should ensure equality. There may be different routes to equality that do not need to rest on a state-controlled economy, or even on a much bigger role of the government in the redistribution of wealth or the central supervision of public funds, healthcare, housing, and so on. We’ve been there, done that. That wasn’t our imagined way to equality. We were trying to think of equality with liberty without the state being the main redistributor. Not that we figured how: but we were at least trying.

I feel a huge loss connected to this. I don’t even have anyone to talk with about these things any longer. The community in which I lived disappeared. I lost my friends. You know, I do maintain very good friendships with many people from those years, but the community disappeared. We were dispersed. Everybody took their own paths, and the community disappeared. The conversation we had then, some people would have called it in the Bulgarian context a “seminar.” This disappeared. I have nobody to talk with about such issues and I would even have difficulty reconstructing what I was just saying. I was almost stuttering to myself because I’m trying to reconstruct what I know were superior interests to what I’m doing now or am interested in now. My capacity to talk about radically different societies has been out of usage for such a long time that I’ve even lost the language to talk about it. (Funny, given that my dissertation is on the subject of “utopia”.)  I’m not even sure if I am still interested or whether I can revive this interest. I definitely don’t talk about these things with my family or with my colleagues or even with my students. I teach human rights politics in Budapest at the Central European University [CEU] for how many years now, 20 years? It will be 20 years soon. I’ve taught human rights politics there since the mid-1990s, so year after year I talk to students about the meaning of the human rights movement, the political geography of the human rights movement, and things like that. But I wouldn’t talk to them about visions of the future.

 

The context has changed.

 

Yes, the context changed. And I wouldn’t feel this is relevant.

 

Unless you were to perhaps find a similar community in Belarus. Not now, but maybe in a year or two.

 

I thought before going to Belarus that it would be a time machine for me in many ways. Well, in one or two ways it was, but on the whole, it didn’t quite remind me of Bulgaria in the 1980s. It’s a very different place.

 

And the world of human rights NGOs seems to have gotten smaller.

 

Yes, if you talk about human rights in a narrow or strict sense. But if you talk about all sorts of cause organizations, all sorts of civil society organizations, it’s a lot bigger. Still, many people have dropped out. Somebody needs to dig out and interview the people who consciously absented themselves from the public, those who dropped out and disappeared. I mean the people who early on sensed the end of something, didn’t accept what was coming, and then they devoted themselves to self-destruction through alcohol or simply resigned and sank into privacy. I don’t know if that was because they couldn’t do better, or because they didn’t believe anymore in anything. But something happened, and it happened to the best among us. These are the people who know better about the lost treasure of revolutions. Meanwhile, I didn’t know what I was doing, exactly, but I kept going. The things that concerned me year after year were different. So, for 11 years, I worked on the Roma issue. This had a very big impact on me, and it influenced what I’m doing now.

 

So many people I talk to on Roma issues—both Roma and non-Roma—are fundamentally depressed about this issue. When I look at what you’ve done, you’ve achieved quite a bit at the legal level, for instance at the European Court of Human Rights. So I would naturally think you would have a somewhat more positive view of what has taken place of the last 40 years. But I’m sensing that you don’t have a very positive view.

 

I had a lot of hope. I thought that what my organization, the European Roma Rights Center, had achieved, together with many others, was changing the position of the Roma and, with that, something very important and essential in European culture. But since I left Budapest in January 2007 to come here to London, almost immediately things began to unravel. Roma began to get killed in Hungary, which was a phenomenon of the past by the time I was leaving. There was a reversal of the gains made by Roma in many ways. Then, frustratingly, the European Union—which up to a point served as a positive force—stopped playing that role and proved to be inefficient in addressing the Roma issue. The EU Roma policies are a big disappointment. The EU officials don’t know what to do. They hire the wrong people. The whole institutional arrangement of the EU is such that it is somehow constitutionally incapable of handling Roma issues.

On the other hand, and more importantly, the Roma issue didn’t become a Roma movement. It became corrupted. It became what I call “project-ism.” There are donors, and there are the projects they fund. There is nothing spontaneous, nothing that comes from people’s needs, nothing that reminds me even remotely why people wanted to do something when I was young. It is donor-driven, with good intentions, but the whole thing doesn’t work. My organization also was inspired by a foreign model, although for a time it worked: it achieved what it wanted to achieve.

But so what if we had all these victories in Strasbourg? When I was starting at the European Roma Rights Center back in 1996, I thought that if you succeed in Strasbourg, there’s nothing beyond or above that. That was the ultimate victory. I almost imagined such a victory as comparable to the fall of Communism. You either win or lose. If you win, that’s it, and many things follow. One success builds on another. You win one case and the court decision is enforced, and so on. My early experience strongly supported such a legal utopia, because I experienced how one court case mobilizes the people, how one empowered Roma person, who was not taken seriously by the community, then became the leader of the community because he succeeded in a first-ever case, suing the police and winning. So there were one or two grounds for me to believe that doing this legal work would be a very strong factor in changing things. I was reading too much American literature. I was looking at too many American court dramas. I was a believer in social change through law. I still think that law has a very important role to play, but in the end, in the Roma case in Europe, it did not prove to be that transformative force that could really turn things around. Regarding Roma, there are things that seem to be more important than legal victories, and they’re not happening. There are institutional changes and movement changes that are not happening. Progress on the position of Roma is blocked now despite all the legal victories.

 

It could be like the American Civil Rights Movements circa 1958 or 1959, when there were some victories but people were relatively pessimistic about the possibility of significant change.

 

And then the 1960s came. That could be. But at the moment I don’t see the ingredients that can make a change. I don’t see the leadership and the structures, and somehow the conditions are not there. I still think that we (the ERRC) did a good job, but it depends where you judge it from. If you judge it from the point of view of what human rights organizations and their constituencies are supposed to achieve, it all looks positive. But viewed from a bigger distance, with my organization as just a speck in a much bigger context, then I’m not sure. But then, when I say “I’m not sure,” I’m not sure about the whole human right movement either.

 

The last question is whether you’ve had second thoughts about what you were thinking in 1989-1990. You’ve talked about whether the legal strategy was the appropriate strategy on Roma issues. You’ve talked about the failures of social equality to be realized in a transformed system. Were there other principles that you’ve had second thoughts about?

 

Human rights. Human rights was the closest thing I had to religion, but in the last 10 years I have been building my own critique of human rights.

 

What is the fundamental critique that you are building?

 

Human rights are less and less capable of serving as a transformative force for society. They are on their way to becoming simply an ideology of the global power status quo. The things that those in power can do in the name of human rights are multiplying in meaning, geographically, and in their effects. There will come a time when people will wonder whether they can be on the side of human rights if certain things are also done, by those with power to those without, in the name of human rights.

 

Is it in part because everybody is appropriating the language of human rights?

 

In part.
You can speak about the human rights of fetuses. You can speak about the human rights of animals.

 

Well, it’s partly this issue of a growing inflation of the meaning of human rights. Because if everything is human rights, then…

 

Nothing is human rights.

 

Yes, that’s part of the reason. But there are other, more important, deeper underlying reasons. It would not be easy to sum them up now without creating a big misunderstanding.

Of course, there’s the huge problem of funding of human rights initiatives. The way in which the human rights movement is funded can only be described as hubris. I mean hubris in the ancient Greek sense of an un-intended evil chaos—not just chaos as opposed to order, but also an unfair chaos. It results from the concentration of funding powers in such a way that decisions can’t be made fairly and responsibly, as the volume of decisions to be made exceeds the capacity of the decision makers and they can neither exercise due diligence, nor rely on a fair and objective procedure to counteract the concentration of power. But this is just one of the problems around human rights funding.

And funding is itself only a small and non-essential part of the processes that are transforming the role played by human rights. I hope to write about this one day when I retire.

 

London, January 23, 2013

 


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