Chronostalgia, a battle for European memory

Chronostalgia, a battle for European memory
Опубликовано: Tuesday, 04 April 2023 12:48
Oleksiy Kustovsky | Cartoon Movement

War has become a struggle over the past, as states try to rewrite history to justify their current aggression. Europe must recognise and disarm the viruses of collective blindness and nationalist madness, and that this is done by processing memory and culture. Words cannot stop tanks, argues prominent Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov, but they can help those who are deceived by fake news and propaganda.

The first thing I thought on the morning of 24 February when I heard the news about the Russian invasion was that Putin had started a war against all of us – against Europe – and that we are close enough, within nuclear striking distance, and that my daughter was asleep in the room next door.

Every war is a time machine, as well as a hitch in time. Suddenly the past had returned, and I recalled all the instructions they had drummed in our heads at school about what to do in case of a nuclear attack. None of it was any use. I didn’t have a gas mask to put on in under 17 seconds, nor did I know where the nearest bomb shelter was. (Later it turned out they have long-since been closed down.) And the advice about not standing by the window so as not to get cut up during the blast or not to look directly at the mushroom cloud to spare your eyes sounded particularly absurd.

And as the cherry on top, even the direction was different now – before we had anticipated an attack from the West, and now it would be coming from the East, straight from our erstwhile big brother. It was enough to confuse a person about where to take cover. I mulled all this over, quickly glanced around the house, and decided the bathroom was the best initial shelter – after all, it doesn’t have any windows. (Without exchanging a word, my wife suddenly suggested we go check out the basement and bring down bottles of water.) The hardest thing remained explaining all this to my daughter.

But the feeling was exactly that: of being suddenly jerked back in time, and what’s more, of the end of everyday life. There comes a moment when the everyday transforms into history, into war. I secretly hoped that our generation would escape it. I clearly imagined how in a Ukrainian family, the kids would be getting up for school, they’re grumpy, they want to sleep in, they eat some toast with jam, and suddenly the war is announced on TV. And everything is turned on its head, everything collapses, just as a day or two later apartment blocks along with the kitchens where the toast has been left uneaten start collapsing…

Four years ago, I wrote a novel in which the feeling of a “deficit of future” was so acute that every nation in Europe wanted to hold its own referendum on the past. Until then, referendums had always been about the future, they defined how things would be going forward, but the moment had arrived when the horizon closed and we started looking back only, towards the past. What does such a referendum entail? A choice of the happiest decade or year from the 20th century in each nation’s history. A deficit of future always unlocks huge reserves of nostalgia for the past. And voila, the moment has come for the past to flood the continent.

Which decade of the 20th century would nations such as Germany, France, and Sweden choose to return to? Or what about those on the periphery, such as Bulgaria and Romania? The choice was made more difficult in some cases by the fact that there are many happy decades, while other countries don’t have a single one. Anyway, Germany chooses the very end of the ’80s, an eternal perpetuum mobile of 1989, in which the wall is constantly falling. Italy goes back to the ‘60s. But for Bulgaria, of course, things are a bit more complicated. It’s as if the map of Europe shifts from territorial to temporal, and the various nations close themselves up inside their own happy past. For a very short while.

I think that this model or metaphor, this strong pull backwards, can be seen today as well. In short – time has replaced space. The world has been parceled out, more or less explored and familiar, it has become tight for our souls, to paraphrase the poet. We are left with the immense ocean of time, which is really an ocean of past.

And so, that which we are experiencing today is a battle for the past, for the redistribution of the past. The past as an alibi, and the past as a resource

The very idea of nostalgia has changed. It is no longer focused on a specific place or home (nostos), as the etymology of the word suggests. Nostalgia is now for a different time. Time has replaced space, so perhaps we should use some other term – chronostalgia, for example.

And in this sense, our wars have become wars for the past.

When the novel came out, at one reading the audience asked me: OK, but what would Russia choose? I wasn’t sure, I would like to think it would be the time of Gorbachev, of perestroika. The answer came on 24 February 2022. And it is one of the most difficult answers to utter. Because in this invisible referendum on the past, Russia chose the years of World War Two. Years in which legend seemed to be on their side for the last time. It enjoyed the recognition of a world that was even able to forget for a time the cruelties of the Soviet system, Stalin, the Gulags, the Holodomor. The last time you were a winner. (Never mind that on the other side of the scales you have those who were killed, orphaned, widowed; there are nations and systems where personal suffering does not count.)

The novel ends with a scene from a grandiose historical reenactment which punctually replicated the outbreak of the Second World War. An accidental shot turns the reenactment into the Third World War. Even the time in the book had to be the same: 4:47 AM. (OK, fine, so Putin’s war started at 4:50.)

And so, that which we are experiencing today is a battle for the past, for the redistribution of the past. The past as an alibi, and the past as a resource. For my generation and that of my parents, the future – the communist future – was just such an alibi. Back then it could justify and explain away all the hardships of the present. Today, since “future” has been exhausted as raw material, populists and nationalists have begun to promise “past.” In this sense it is understandable why Putin chose to return there, to the early 1940s. But can different times and temporal enclaves live side-by-side on a single continent? No. And not only because one people’s happiness cannot rest on the unhappiness of another. But because the past is not an individual project. You cannot live in it alone.

Russia’s current unhappiness and isolation have made it turn back towards the “happy” and powerful times of the Soviet Union. But all is empty and deserted there, none of those you would have competed and battled against, killed or allied with are there any longer. You need to think up a new enemy, a new threat. The only option is to first drag your nearest neighbour into this past, then your other neighbours, then Europe, and why not the world? With this war, Putin is saying “let’s fight on my territory, pardon me, I mean in my time, in the 1940s.” Like Don Giovanni’s Stone Guest, whose outstretched hand you should not shake so as not to be pulled into the underworld. (In recent decades, many European countries, including Bulgaria, have failed to understand this and have often shaken that hand.)

What Putin now wants is not to win this war, but to make it chronic, to force us all to live in that regime. His methodical goal is to bombard and raze to the ground the present (and the future) with all its infrastructure and everydayness – so that there is no water, no warmth, no light. To destroy everyday life, and from their existence as well, to literally an-nihil-ate the Ukrainian nation. Soviet power plus electrification – that’s how Lenin described the paradise of communism. Today Putin has put his own twist on this: if you don’t want Soviet power, then no electrification for you. Thank God, the people of Ukraine have shown that they can do without both Soviet power and electrification.

An aggressive project to revive the past, especially an unprocessed, forgotten or rewritten past, is the perfect breeding ground for populism and nationalism. We saw this under Trump, and now it is coming true in an even more sinister guise under Putin.

Europe is the continent with the most deposits of the past. And with the longest processed memory. Culture, which the continent is so proud of, is fundamentally the processing of memory, including the memory of our own guilt, the memory of infamy, as Borges would put it. From the first cave paintings, through Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, or Hesoid’s Works and Days (preserving and passing on history in an easy-to-remember hexameter), through Cortes to testimonies about Nazism and the Second World War. Memory and culture are part of Europe’s immune system. It must recognise and disarm the viruses of collective blindness, loss of reason, nationalistic madness, and the birth of new dictators.

This war has broken out at the moment when those who carry the living memory of World War Two are no longer with us. We are precisely on that generational precipice when the final participants who kept that memory alive, the last concentration camp prisoners, the last soldiers who fought in those trenches are passing away. I just hope we are not heading towards some strange sort of collective Alzheimer’s.

Memory is made of reactive matter, which should be exercised every day; stories should be told constantly so they are remembered. Because when the flame of memory goes out, the beasts of the past close the circle around us. The less memory, the more past. We remember, so as to hold the past at bay in the past.

Culture, which Europe is so proud of, is fundamentally the processing of memory, including the memory of our own guilt, the memory of infamy, as Borges would put it

But... here I want to take a slight detour. It is no longer a question merely of memory, but also of what we remember and how. Because Putin, too, swears by memory. Because populism and nationalism also create their own version of memory. A newly processed memory that fits every situation, two-dimensional, like the setting for a play. Tell me what memory you need, and we’ll deliver it. In Russia they never did do the hard work around the memory of World War Two as did Germany, for example. The painful work that penetrates all layers of society, enters into institutions, schools and history textbooks.

The winners are not judged. But there were things that could have been critiqued and condemned. The lack of such work on memory – of a certain remorse over what the Russian army did to civilians of conquered nations, over a military command that often did not spare the lives of its own soldiers, over the paranoia that sent Russian prisoners of war straight from Hitler’s camps to Siberia and so on – continues to keep the country in the status of the great victim. A status and alibi for new sacrifices it feels it deserves.

One of the most disturbing things here and now is the erasure of the boundary between truth and fakeness. The attempt to force us into a world where nothing matters, everything is permissible, every lie can parade as the truth, every conspiracy can win out over reason. This is a fake that not only rewrites the past but also predetermines the future. Put more precisely, it grounds itself in a rewritten past in order to justify current aggressions and infamies.

This is where analysis and conversation come in. This is where we need to start. Language is now different, and we must realise this. The way we tell stories is now different, and they no longer pass through numbers, paragraphs and projects, but instead pass directly through the person and their fears, loneliness, confusion and hopes.

Where is Bulgaria in this whole predicament? On the periphery of the war, if the current war even has a front and a periphery. As far as distance and geography are concerned, we are very close, some mere 500 to 700 km away. (Odessa is 721 km away as the crow flies.) But passing through the measuring system of time and past, we are even closer. The chicken is not a bird, and Bulgaria is not abroad, as a Soviet saying goes, and in 1962 Bulgaria made a shameful attempt to renounce its sovereignty and become the 16th republic of the USSR. The Bulgarian-Russian connection imposed by history has been cleverly used in propaganda, of course.

Throughout my entire childhood and youth I was taught in school that Russia was our big brother whom we could not do without (like all older brothers, he could beat up the bad kids in the neighbourhood who bullied us). I also know by heart even to this day “our friendship with the Soviet Union is so vitally necessary, just like the sun and air for every living creature” – a quote from the hero of the Leipzig Trial and Bulgaria’s first communist dictator, Georgi Dimitrov (who was also a Soviet citizen, by the way).

Of course, all of us from my generation secretly dreamed of other nations, of those yearned-for foreign lands to the west of us. And this is some small justice – the USSR never became a dream destination, despite the propaganda; instead it remained a place we held in awe. And this has consequences for the current situation.

Here pro-Russian propaganda easily works on various levels. From a feeling of gratitude to our two-time liberators (and, as it turns out, our two-time enslavers), through veneration for Russian culture (as if Putin and Chekhov were twin brothers) to statements by high-ranking politicians, who refuse to clearly take the side of the victim. All of this can’t but divide society.

According to a Eurobarometer poll from May of last year, out of all the countries in the EU, Bulgarians are closest to the Russian position on the war. A steep increase in Russian propaganda has been observed. Bulgaria is in last place in media literacy, last in vaccination rates, first in Europe in Covid per capita death rates. All of this is connected, of course. And this connectivity was suddenly laid bare at the start of the war: the antivaxxers turned out to be the staunchest pro-Putinists.

Facebook remains the most influential social media in Bulgaria, 90% of our traffic is there. The problem is that propaganda from the Internet has penetrated official and serious media as well. Many outlets create content from Facebook posts, which they republish uncritically, without comment. What’s more, Facebook is a laboratory for hate speech, which also transfers seamlessly into the official media. Recently one supporter of the nationalist party Vuzrazhdane (Revival), as a guest of a serious television program, declared that the only thing he would criticise Putin for was that his blitzkrieg in Ukraine was not successful.

Society is savagely split in two. I don’t think Bulgaria has seen such disintegration and polarization, made worse by social networks and public figures, in decades. It may sound too harsh, but I have to say it: sometimes I get the feeling that we are on the verge of a quiet civil war.

This part of Europe has not been on the crest of the wave of history since 1989. But this part of Europe has never ceased to tell stories and to offer warnings through its literature about what has already happened and could happen again. It seems to me that these stories have not been heard well enough. Here we can clearly sense that history is not yet finished.

Now we know and can formulate it as such: as long as there is a single bleeding wound of history on the continent, the entire continent bleeds. No one, no matter how many kilometres to the west they may be, can rest easily. We have realised the centre of Europe is not something static, stuck in Berlin or Paris. The centre of Europe is that mobile point of pain. Where it hurts and bleeds. Today it is in the East, in proud Ukraine.

In one of the most beautiful essays about Europe, “A Kidnapped West,” written during the Cold War (1983), Milan Kundera begins with a final, desperate telegram sent by the director of the Hungarian News Agency in 1956, while the building itself was under artillery fire. His message read: “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.” In those critical minutes he wanted to communicate something. The Russian army’s invasion of Hungary was an invasion of Europe, don’t wait, react. Did Europe (or the West back then) receive and decipher the message? Do the West now understand the message with the invasion of Ukraine?

Thank God, yes, this time we know for whom the bell tolls. People in Europe understood immediately. Kundera’s essay ends with the bitter conclusion that after the Second World War, the West turned away from Central Europe, which remained under Soviet influence, and simply thought of it as a satellite of the Soviet empire, without its own identity. This inertia, I daresay, continued in some respect even after 1989. The war in Ukraine has actually returned Central and Eastern Europe to Europe.

Is there any aspect in which the periphery surpasses the center? A hypersensitivity to what is impending. Picking up the scent of alarm in the air. Erstwhile Eastern Europe has learned to sense danger with its skin. For this reason, I will allow myself to put it this way: don’t underestimate books, essays, and poems coming from this corner of Europe. Decode the symbols in them.

Words don’t stop tanks and don’t down drones. But they can (can they?) stop, delay or at least cause those in the tanks who make war on innocent people hesitate, at least for a bit. Words can help those who are deluded by fake news and propaganda. The fact that the horrors of the Second World War have not repeated themselves before 24 February can nevertheless be attributed in some small part to the memory of evil that has been processed by witnesses, writers and philosophers.

This war will not end with the last bullet fired. It began years before the first shot and will likely end years after the final one. This is the new old propaganda front, which is stronger now than ever. And here the slow yet lasting media that is literature has a role to play. At the very least to teach us resistance and empathy, to offer us tools to identify fakes. To preserve personal stories from the epicenter of pain, to generate memory that will not be violated, and to console, if possible.

No propaganda should be stronger than the memory of a little boy fleeing from war with a telephone number scrawled on his arm.

This text is the transcription of a speech held at the Debates on Europe event in Sofia on 26 February 2023. © Debates on Europe 2023ary 2023
This article has been shared with the Guardian.
In association with Debates on Europe