Chronostalgia, a battle for European reminiscence


The very first thing I assumed 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 struggle towards all of us – towards Europe – and that we’re shut sufficient, inside nuclear placing distance, and that my daughter was asleep within the room subsequent door. 

Each struggle is a time machine, in addition to a hitch in time. All of the sudden the previous had returned, and I recalled all of the directions they’d drummed in our heads at college about what to do in case of a nuclear assault. None of it was any use. I didn’t have a fuel masks to placed on in beneath 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 minimize 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 high, even the course was totally different now – earlier than we had anticipated an assault from the West, and now it will 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, rapidly glanced round the home, and determined the toilet was the perfect preliminary shelter – in spite of everything, it doesn’t have any home windows. (With out exchanging a phrase, my spouse abruptly prompt we go take a look at the basement and produce down bottles of water.) The toughest factor remained explaining all this to my daughter.

Obtain the perfect of European journalism straight to your inbox each Thursday

However the feeling was precisely that: of being abruptly jerked again in time, and what’s extra, of the tip of on a regular basis life. There comes a second when the on a regular basis transforms into historical past, into struggle. I secretly hoped that our era would escape it. I clearly imagined how in a Ukrainian household, the children could be getting up for varsity, they’re grumpy, they wish to sleep in, they eat some toast with jam, and abruptly the struggle is introduced on TV. And every thing is turned on its head, every thing collapses, simply as a day or two later house 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 direction of the previous. What does such a referendum entail? A alternative of the happiest decade or yr from the 20th 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 struggle. I secretly hoped that our era would escape it

Which decade of the 20th century would nations similar to Germany, France, and Sweden select to return to? Or what about these on the periphery, similar to Bulgaria and Romania? The selection was made harder in some circumstances by the truth that there are numerous blissful many years, whereas different nations don’t have a single one. Anyway, Germany chooses the very finish of the Eighties, an everlasting perpetuum cellular 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 sophisticated. It’s as if the map of Europe shifts from territorial to temporal, and the assorted nations shut themselves up inside their very own blissful previous. For a really brief whereas. 

I feel that this mannequin or metaphor, this robust pull backwards, will be seen at this time as effectively. In brief – time has changed area. The world has been parceled out, kind of explored and acquainted, it has turn out to be tight for our souls, to paraphrase the poet. We’re left with the immense ocean of time, which is actually an ocean of previous. 


The very thought of nostalgia has modified. It’s now not centered on a selected place or residence (nostos), because the etymology of the phrase suggests. Nostalgia is now for a special time. Time has changed area, so maybe we must always use another time period – chronostalgia, for instance. 

And on this sense, our wars have turn out to be 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 certain, I wish to assume it will be the time of Gorbachev, of perestroika. The reply got here on 24 February 2022. And it is likely one of the most tough solutions to utter. As a result of on this invisible referendum on the previous, Russia selected the years of World Struggle Two. Years by which legend appeared to be on their facet for the final time. It loved the popularity of a world that was even in a position to neglect 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 might have those that had been killed, orphaned, widowed; there are nations and methods the place private struggling doesn’t rely.)

And so, that which we’re experiencing at this time 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 Struggle. An unintended shot turns the reenactment into the Third World Struggle. Even the time within the e-book needed to be the identical: 4:47 AM. (OK, nice, so Putin’s struggle began at 4:50.) 

And so, that which we’re experiencing at this time 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 long run – the communist future – was simply such an alibi. Again then it might justify and clarify away all of the hardships of the current. In the present day, 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 Forties. However can totally different instances and temporal enclaves reside side-by-side on a single continent? No. And never solely as a result of one folks’s happiness can not relaxation on the unhappiness of one other. However as a result of the previous is just not a person mission. You can not reside in it alone. 

Russia’s present unhappiness and isolation have made it flip again in direction of the “blissful” and highly effective instances of the Soviet Union. However all is empty and abandoned there, none of these you’ll have competed and battled towards, killed or allied with are there any longer. You have to assume up a brand new enemy, a brand new menace. The one choice is to first drag your nearest neighbour into this previous, then your different neighbours, then Europe, and why not the world? With this struggle, Putin is saying “let’s battle on my territory, pardon me, I imply in my time, within the 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 struggle, however to make it continual, to drive us all to reside in that regime. His methodical aim is to bombard and raze to the bottom the current (and the long run) with all its infrastructure and everydayness – in order that there isn’t a water, no heat, no gentle. To destroy on a regular basis life, and from their existence as effectively, to actually an-nihil-ate the Ukrainian nation. Soviet energy plus electrification – that’s how Lenin described the paradise of communism. In the present day Putin has put his personal twist on this: for those who don’t need Soviet energy, then no electrification for you. Thank God, the folks of Ukraine have proven that they will do with out each Soviet energy and electrification.

An aggressive mission to revive the previous, particularly an unprocessed, forgotten or rewritten previous, is the right breeding floor for populism and nationalism. We noticed this beneath Donald Trump, and now it’s coming true in an much more sinister guise beneath 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 happy with, is basically 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 way 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 way of Cortes to testimonies about Nazism and the Second World Struggle. Reminiscence and tradition are a part of Europe’s immune system. It should recognise and disarm the viruses of collective blindness, lack of purpose, nationalistic insanity, and the beginning of recent dictators.

This struggle has damaged out in the intervening time when those that carry the dwelling reminiscence of World Struggle Two are now not with us. We’re exactly on that generational precipice when the ultimate individuals 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 direction of some unusual form of collective Alzheimer’s.

Reminiscence is made from reactive matter, which ought to be exercised every single day; tales ought to 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 bear in mind, in order to carry the previous at bay up to now. 

Tradition, which Europe is so happy with, is basically 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 wish to take a slight detour. It’s now not a query merely of reminiscence, but in addition of what we bear 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 onerous work across the reminiscence of World Struggle 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 are usually not judged. However there have been issues that would have been critiqued and condemned. The dearth of such work on reminiscence – of a sure regret over what the Russian military did to civilians of conquered nations, over a army command that usually didn’t spare the lives of its personal troopers, over the paranoia that despatched Russian prisoners of struggle straight from Hitler’s camps to Siberia and so forth – continues to maintain the nation within the standing of the nice sufferer. A standing and alibi for brand spanking new sacrifices it feels it deserves.  

Probably the most disturbing issues right here and now’s the erasure of the boundary between reality and fakeness. The try to drive us right into a world the place nothing issues, every thing is permissible, each lie can parade as the reality, each conspiracy can win out over purpose. This can be a faux that not solely rewrites the previous but in addition predetermines the long run. 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 in. That is the place we have to begin. Language is now totally different, and we should realise this. The best way we inform tales is now totally different, and so they now not move by way of numbers, paragraphs and tasks, however as a substitute move straight by way of the particular person and their fears, loneliness, confusion and hopes.

The place is Bulgaria on this entire predicament? On the periphery of the struggle, if the present struggle 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 way of the measuring system of time and previous, we’re even nearer. The rooster is just not a chook, and Bulgaria is just not overseas, as a Soviet saying goes, and in 1962 Bulgaria made a shameful try to surrender its sovereignty and turn out to be the 16th republic of the USSR. The Bulgarian-Russian connection imposed by historical past has been cleverly utilized in propaganda, in fact.

he method we inform tales is now totally different, and so they now not move by way of numbers, paragraphs and tasks, however as a substitute move straight by way of the particular person and their fears, loneliness, confusion and hopes

All through my whole 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 might beat up the unhealthy youngsters within the neighbourhood who bullied us). I additionally know by coronary heart even to this present day “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 way in which).

In fact, all of us from my era secretly dreamed of different nations, of these yearned-for overseas 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 numerous ranges. From a sense of gratitude to our two-time liberators (and, because it seems, our two-time enslavers), by way 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 may’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 struggle. A steep enhance 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 loss of life charges. All of that is related, in fact. And this connectivity was abruptly laid naked at first of the struggle: 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 effectively. 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. Lately one supporter of the nationalist celebration 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 break 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 could sound too harsh, however I’ve to say it: typically I get the sensation that we’re on the verge of a quiet civil struggle. 

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 way of its literature about what has already occurred and will occur once more. It appears to me that these tales haven’t been heard effectively sufficient. Right here we will clearly sense that historical past is just not but completed.

Now we all know and might formulate it as such: so long as there’s a single bleeding wound of historical past on the continent, the whole continent bleeds. Nobody, irrespective of what number of kilometres to the west they could be, can relaxation simply. We now have realised the centre of Europe is just not one thing static, caught in Berlin or Paris. The centre of Europe is that cellular level of ache. The place it hurts and bleeds. In the present day it’s within the East, in proud Ukraine.

In probably the most stunning essays about Europe, A Kidnapped West, written in the course of the Chilly Struggle (1983), Milan Kundera begins with a remaining, determined telegram despatched by the director of the Hungarian Information Company in 1956, whereas the constructing itself was beneath 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 Struggle, the West turned away from Central Europe, which remained beneath Soviet affect, and easily considered it as a satellite tv for pc of the Soviet empire, with out its personal identification. This inertia, I daresay, continued in some respect even after 1989. The struggle in Ukraine has truly returned Central and Jap Europe to Europe. 

Is there any facet by which the periphery surpasses the middle? A hypersensitivity to what’s impending. Selecting 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 enable myself to place it this manner: 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 will (can they?) cease, delay or a minimum of trigger these within the tanks who make struggle on harmless folks hesitate, a minimum of for a bit. Phrases can assist those that are deluded by faux information and propaganda. The truth that the horrors of the Second World Struggle 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 struggle won’t finish with the final bullet fired. It started years earlier than the primary shot and can possible finish years after the ultimate one. That is the brand new outdated propaganda entrance, which is stronger now than ever. And right here the gradual 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 doable. 

No propaganda ought to be stronger than the reminiscence of a bit boy fleeing from struggle 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.


Related Articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest Articles