The very first thing I believed on the morning of 24 February 2022 once I heard the information in regards to the Russian invasion was that Vladimir Putin had began a battle in opposition to all of us – in opposition to Europe – and that we’re shut sufficient, inside nuclear putting distance, and that my daughter was asleep within the room subsequent door.
Each battle is a time machine, in addition to a hitch in time. All of a sudden the previous had returned, and I recalled all of the directions that they had drummed in our heads in school about what to do in case of a nuclear assault. None of it was any use. I didn’t have a gasoline masks to placed on in underneath 17 seconds, nor did I do know the place the closest bomb shelter was. (Later it turned out they’ve long-since been closed down.) And the recommendation about not standing by the window in order to not get reduce up in the course of the blast or to not look straight on the mushroom cloud to spare your eyes sounded significantly absurd.
And because the cherry on prime, even the route was totally different now – earlier than we had anticipated an assault from the West, and now it might be coming from the East, straight from our erstwhile massive brother. It was sufficient to confuse an individual about the place to take cowl. I mulled all this over, shortly glanced round the home, and determined the lavatory was the very best preliminary shelter – in spite of everything, it doesn’t have any home windows. (With out exchanging a phrase, my spouse out of the blue instructed we go try the basement and produce down bottles of water.) The toughest factor remained explaining all this to my daughter.
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However the feeling was precisely that: of being out of the blue jerked again in time, and what’s extra, of the top of on a regular basis life. There comes a second when the on a regular basis transforms into historical past, into battle. I secretly hoped that our era would escape it. I clearly imagined how in a Ukrainian household, the youngsters could be getting up for varsity, they’re grumpy, they need to sleep in, they eat some toast with jam, and out of the blue the battle is introduced on TV. And all the things is turned on its head, all the things collapses, simply as a day or two later condominium blocks together with the kitchens the place the toast has been left uneaten begin collapsing…
4 years in the past, I wrote a novel by which the sensation of a “deficit of future” was so acute that each nation in Europe wished to carry its personal referendum on the previous. Till then, referendums had at all times been in regards to the future, they outlined how issues could be going ahead, however the second had arrived when the horizon closed and we began wanting again solely, in the direction of the previous. What does such a referendum entail? A selection of the happiest decade or yr from the twentieth century in every nation’s historical past. A deficit of future at all times unlocks large reserves of nostalgia for the previous. And voila, the second has come for the previous to flood the continent.
There comes a second when the on a regular basis transforms into historical past, into battle. I secretly hoped that our era would escape it
Which decade of the twentieth century would nations resembling Germany, France, and Sweden select to return to? Or what about these on the periphery, resembling Bulgaria and Romania? The selection was made harder in some circumstances by the truth that there are numerous pleased many years, whereas different nations don’t have a single one. Anyway, Germany chooses the very finish of the Eighties, an everlasting perpetuum cell of 1989, by which the wall is continually falling. Italy goes again to the Sixties. However for Bulgaria, in fact, issues are a bit extra difficult. It’s as if the map of Europe shifts from territorial to temporal, and the assorted nations shut themselves up inside their very own pleased previous. For a really quick whereas.
I feel that this mannequin or metaphor, this sturdy pull backwards, might be seen as we speak as nicely. Briefly – time has changed area. The world has been parceled out, roughly explored and acquainted, it has change into tight for our souls, to paraphrase the poet. We’re left with the immense ocean of time, which is absolutely an ocean of previous.
The very concept of nostalgia has modified. It’s not centered on a selected place or house (nostos), because the etymology of the phrase suggests. Nostalgia is now for a distinct time. Time has changed area, so maybe we must always use another time period – chronostalgia, for instance.
And on this sense, our wars have change into wars for the previous.
When the novel got here out, at one studying the viewers requested me: OK, however what would Russia select? I wasn’t positive, I wish to assume it might be the time of Gorbachev, of perestroika. The reply got here on 24 February 2022. And it is without doubt one of the most troublesome solutions to utter. As a result of on this invisible referendum on the previous, Russia selected the years of World Battle Two. Years by which legend gave the impression to be on their facet for the final time. It loved the popularity of a world that was even in a position to overlook for a time the cruelties of the Soviet system, Stalin, the Gulags, the Holodomor. The final time you had been a winner. (By no means thoughts that on the opposite facet of the scales you could have those that had been killed, orphaned, widowed; there are nations and methods the place private struggling doesn’t depend.)
And so, that which we’re experiencing as we speak is a battle for the previous, for the redistribution of the previous. The previous as an alibi, and the previous as a useful resource. For my era and that of my dad and mom, the longer term – the communist future – was simply such an alibi. Again then it may justify and clarify away all of the hardships of the current. Right this moment, since “future” has been exhausted as uncooked materials, populists and nationalists have begun to vow “previous.” On this sense it’s comprehensible why Vladimir Putin selected to return there, to the early Nineteen Forties. However can totally different instances and temporal enclaves dwell side-by-side on a single continent? No. And never solely as a result of one individuals’s happiness can’t relaxation on the unhappiness of one other. However as a result of the previous isn’t a person undertaking. You can not dwell in it alone.
And so, that which we’re experiencing as we speak is a battle for the previous, for the redistribution of the previous. The previous as an alibi, and the previous as a useful resource
The novel ends with a scene from a grandiose historic reenactment which punctually replicated the outbreak of the Second World Battle. An unintentional shot turns the reenactment into the Third World Battle. Even the time within the e book needed to be the identical: 4:47 AM. (OK, fantastic, so Putin’s battle began at 4:50.)
Russia’s present unhappiness and isolation have made it flip again in the direction of the “pleased” and highly effective instances of the Soviet Union. However all is empty and abandoned there, none of these you’ll have competed and battled in opposition to, killed or allied with are there any longer. You could assume up a brand new enemy, a brand new risk. The one possibility is to first drag your nearest neighbour into this previous, then your different neighbours, then Europe, and why not the world? With this battle, Putin is saying “let’s battle on my territory, pardon me, I imply in my time, within the Nineteen Forties.” Like Don Giovanni’s Stone Visitor, whose outstretched hand you shouldn’t shake in order to not be pulled into the underworld. (In current many years, many European nations, together with Bulgaria, have failed to know this and have usually shaken that hand.)
What Putin now needs is to not win this battle, however to make it persistent, to drive us all to dwell in that regime. His methodical objective is to bombard and raze to the bottom the current (and the longer term) with all its infrastructure and everydayness – in order that there is no such thing as a water, no heat, no gentle. To destroy on a regular basis life, and from their existence as nicely, to actually an-nihil-ate the Ukrainian nation. Soviet energy plus electrification – that’s how Lenin described the paradise of communism. Right this moment Putin has put his personal twist on this: if you happen to don’t need Soviet energy, then no electrification for you. Thank God, the individuals of Ukraine have proven that they’ll do with out each Soviet energy and electrification.
An aggressive undertaking to revive the previous, particularly an unprocessed, forgotten or rewritten previous, is the right breeding floor for populism and nationalism. We noticed this underneath Trump, and now it’s coming true in an much more sinister guise underneath Putin.
Europe is the continent with essentially the most deposits of the previous. And with the longest processed reminiscence. Tradition, which the continent is so pleased with, is essentially the processing of reminiscence, together with the reminiscence of our personal guilt, the reminiscence of infamy, as Borges would put it. From the primary cave work, by means of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, or Hesoid’s Works and Days (preserving and passing on historical past in an easy-to-remember hexameter), by means of Cortes to testimonies about Nazism and the Second World Battle. Reminiscence and tradition are a part of Europe’s immune system. It should recognise and disarm the viruses of collective blindness, lack of motive, nationalistic insanity, and the delivery of latest dictators.
This battle has damaged out for the time being when those that carry the dwelling reminiscence of World Battle Two are not with us. We’re exactly on that generational precipice when the ultimate contributors who stored that reminiscence alive, the final focus camp prisoners, the final troopers who fought in these trenches are passing away. I simply hope we’re not heading in the direction of some unusual type of collective Alzheimer’s.
Reminiscence is made from reactive matter, which must be exercised day by day; tales must be informed always so they’re remembered. As a result of when the flame of reminiscence goes out, the beasts of the previous shut the circle round us. The much less reminiscence, the extra previous. We keep in mind, in order to carry the previous at bay prior to now.
Tradition, which Europe is so pleased with, is essentially the processing of reminiscence, together with the reminiscence of our personal guilt, the reminiscence of infamy, as Borges would put it
However… right here I need to take a slight detour. It’s not a query merely of reminiscence, but in addition of what we keep in mind and the way. As a result of Putin, too, swears by reminiscence. As a result of populism and nationalism additionally create their very own model of reminiscence. A newly processed reminiscence that matches each scenario, two-dimensional, just like the setting for a play. Inform me what reminiscence you want, and we’ll ship it. In Russia they by no means did do the exhausting work across the reminiscence of World Battle Two as did Germany, for instance. The painful work that penetrates all layers of society, enters into establishments, faculties and historical past textbooks.
The winners aren’t judged. However there have been issues that might have been critiqued and condemned. The shortage of such work on reminiscence – of a sure regret over what the Russian military did to civilians of conquered nations, over a navy command that usually didn’t spare the lives of its personal troopers, over the paranoia that despatched Russian prisoners of battle straight from Hitler’s camps to Siberia and so forth – continues to maintain the nation within the standing of the good sufferer. A standing and alibi for brand new sacrifices it feels it deserves.
Some of the disturbing issues right here and now’s the erasure of the boundary between reality and fakeness. The try and drive us right into a world the place nothing issues, all the things is permissible, each lie can parade as the reality, each conspiracy can win out over motive. This can be a pretend that not solely rewrites the previous but in addition predetermines the longer term. Put extra exactly, it grounds itself in a rewritten previous to be able to justify present aggressions and infamies.
That is the place evaluation and dialog are available. That is the place we have to begin. Language is now totally different, and we should realise this. The way in which we inform tales is now totally different, and so they not go by means of numbers, paragraphs and initiatives, however as a substitute go straight by means of the particular person and their fears, loneliness, confusion and hopes.
The place is Bulgaria on this entire predicament? On the periphery of the battle, if the present battle even has a entrance and a periphery. So far as distance and geography are involved, we’re very shut, some mere 500 to 700 km away. (Odessa is 721 km away because the crow flies.) However passing by means of the measuring system of time and previous, we’re even nearer. The hen isn’t a fowl, and Bulgaria isn’t overseas, as a Soviet saying goes, and in 1962 Bulgaria made a shameful try and resign its sovereignty and change into the sixteenth republic of the USSR. The Bulgarian-Russian connection imposed by historical past has been cleverly utilized in propaganda, in fact.
he means we inform tales is now totally different, and so they not go by means of numbers, paragraphs and initiatives, however as a substitute go straight by means of the particular person and their fears, loneliness, confusion and hopes
All through my total childhood and youth I used to be taught in class that Russia was our massive brother whom we couldn’t do with out (like all older brothers, he may beat up the unhealthy youngsters within the neighbourhood who bullied us). I additionally know by coronary heart even to today “our friendship with the Soviet Union is so vitally essential, similar to the solar and air for each dwelling creature” – a quote from the hero of the Leipzig Trial and Bulgaria’s first communist dictator, Georgi Dimitrov (who was additionally a Soviet citizen, by the best way).
After all, all of us from my era secretly dreamed of different nations, of these yearned-for international lands to the west of us. And that is some small justice – the USSR by no means grew to become a dream vacation spot, regardless of the propaganda; as a substitute it remained a spot we held in awe. And this has penalties for the present scenario.
Right here pro-Russian propaganda simply works on varied ranges. From a sense of gratitude to our two-time liberators (and, because it seems, our two-time enslavers), by means of veneration for Russian tradition (as if Putin and Chekhov had been twin brothers) to statements by high-ranking politicians, who refuse to obviously take the facet of the sufferer. All of this will’t however divide society.
In line with a Eurobarometer ballot from Could of final yr, out of all of the nations within the EU, Bulgarians are closest to the Russian place on the battle. A steep improve in Russian propaganda has been noticed. Bulgaria is in final place in media literacy, final in vaccination charges, first in Europe in Covid per capita demise charges. All of that is linked, in fact. And this connectivity was out of the blue laid naked initially of the battle: the antivaxxers turned out to be the staunchest pro-Putinists.
Fb stays essentially the most influential social media in Bulgaria, 90% of our visitors is there. The issue is that propaganda from the Web has penetrated official and critical media as nicely. Many retailers create content material from Fb posts, which they republish uncritically, with out remark. What’s extra, Fb is a laboratory for hate speech, which additionally transfers seamlessly into the official media. Not too long ago one supporter of the nationalist social gathering Vuzrazhdane (Revival), as a visitor of a critical tv program, declared that the one factor he would criticise Putin for was that his blitzkrieg in Ukraine was not profitable.
Society is savagely cut up in two. I don’t assume Bulgaria has seen such disintegration and polarization, made worse by social networks and public figures, in many years. It might sound too harsh, however I’ve to say it: typically I get the sensation that we’re on the verge of a quiet civil battle.
This a part of Europe has not been on the crest of the wave of historical past since 1989. However this a part of Europe has by no means ceased to inform tales and to supply warnings by means of its literature about what has already occurred and will occur once more. It appears to me that these tales haven’t been heard nicely sufficient. Right here we are able to clearly sense that historical past isn’t but completed.
Now we all know and may formulate it as such: so long as there’s a single bleeding wound of historical past on the continent, your complete continent bleeds. Nobody, irrespective of what number of kilometres to the west they might be, can relaxation simply. We now have realised the centre of Europe isn’t one thing static, caught in Berlin or Paris. The centre of Europe is that cell level of ache. The place it hurts and bleeds. Right this moment it’s within the East, in proud Ukraine.
In some of the stunning essays about Europe, “A Kidnapped West,” written in the course of the Chilly Battle (1983), Milan Kundera begins with a last, determined telegram despatched by the director of the Hungarian Information Company in 1956, whereas the constructing itself was underneath artillery fireplace. His message learn: “We’re going to die for Hungary and for Europe.” In these vital minutes he wished to speak one thing. The Russian military’s invasion of Hungary was an invasion of Europe, don’t wait, react. Did Europe (or the West again then) obtain and decipher the message? Do the West now perceive the message with the invasion of Ukraine?
Thank God, sure, this time we all know for whom the bell tolls. Individuals in Europe understood instantly. Kundera’s essay ends with the bitter conclusion that after the Second World Battle, the West turned away from Central Europe, which remained underneath Soviet affect, and easily considered it as a satellite tv for pc of the Soviet empire, with out its personal id. This inertia, I daresay, continued in some respect even after 1989. The battle in Ukraine has really returned Central and Jap Europe to Europe.
Is there any side by which the periphery surpasses the middle? A hypersensitivity to what’s impending. Choosing up the scent of alarm within the air. Erstwhile Jap Europe has discovered to sense hazard with its pores and skin. For that reason, I’ll permit myself to place it this fashion: don’t underestimate books, essays, and poems coming from this nook of Europe. Decode the symbols in them.
Phrases don’t cease tanks and don’t down drones. However they’ll (can they?) cease, delay or at the very least trigger these within the tanks who make battle on harmless individuals hesitate, at the very least for a bit. Phrases may also help those that are deluded by pretend information and propaganda. The truth that the horrors of the Second World Battle haven’t repeated themselves earlier than 24 February can nonetheless be attributed in some small half to the reminiscence of evil that has been processed by witnesses, writers and philosophers.
This battle is not going to finish with the final bullet fired. It started years earlier than the primary shot and can doubtless finish years after the ultimate one. That is the brand new previous propaganda entrance, which is stronger now than ever. And right here the sluggish but lasting media that’s literature has a task to play. On the very least to show us resistance and empathy, to supply us instruments to determine fakes. To protect private tales from the epicenter of ache, to generate reminiscence that won’t be violated, and to console, if potential.
No propaganda must be stronger than the reminiscence of a little bit boy fleeing from battle with a phone quantity scrawled on his arm.
This textual content relies on a speech held on the Debates on Europe occasion in Sofia on 26 February 2023. © Debates on Europe 2023
This text has been shared with the Guardian.