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Kristeva and Her Bulgarian Suffering

It may be hard to comprehend now, but for a Bulgarian emigre pre-1989, petty compromises with the system were possible, even desirable.

by Boyko Vassilev 13 April 2018

Few Bulgarians can match the international fame of Julia Kristeva. So it’s no surprise that news spread quickly when the Bulgarian-French philosopher, feminist, and public intellectual, who has been living in Paris since 1965, was accused of collaborating with communist Bulgaria’s secret service.


A shockwave reverberated from Sofia to Paris and New York. Is it happening again? Another famous Eastern European emigre, after Czech novelist Milan Kundera, had a more complicated relationship with communism than we knew. International media started to look for Bulgarian contacts – and to dig into an obscure and forgotten past.


The announcement was made by a state commission created in 2006 to open the files of the communist-era security services: Kristeva, who was given the code name “Sabina,” appears as a secret collaborator of Bulgarian intelligence starting in 1971. The prolific writer, who has authored some 30 books and had working partnerships with legends like Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, vehemently denied the allegation and implied that she would go to court. “Someone wants to harm me,” commented Kristeva, who has often taken moral stances on issues touching on women, totalitarianism, and oppression.


All that fuss prompted the commission to publish the whole dossier. Its website collapsed multiple times, unable to cope with the huge demand. Then, intriguing questions popped up.


Among the 400 pages there was hardly anything written or signed by young Julia Kristeva. Her words are presented by spies, disguised as diplomats, who met and talked to Kristeva, then filed reports. According to their accounts, her information was mostly useless. You could have easily found this trivia in contemporary French papers, or from listening to gossip. Kristeva was not very disciplined: she often declined invitations to meetings or did not show up at all.


Does this make her technically an agent? Yes, the experts say. And does this classify Kristeva’s deeds as immoral? Bulgarians approach this question from a variety of angles.


According to critics, her decision compromised her integrity. The 24-year-old Julia was allowed to study in France on a French stipendium, a miracle in communist Bulgaria. So, they claim, she had to make a pact with the devil; a more honest person would have refused. In Sofia she was a good Komsomol (communist youth) activist; in Paris she immediately joined communist – and Maoist – circles. And after all, the critics demand, why does she not repent now? Why does she deny instead of explaining herself?


Kristeva’s defenders paint a more complex picture. She came from a non-communist family. Her father worked for the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.  Upon going to France, the files show, she made a promise to return and to not marry – only to break it almost immediately, wedding fellow leftist writer Philippe Sollers. Kristeva had left her parents and a sister in Bulgaria. When a Bulgarian “diplomat” wants to chat, would she put them at risk them by refusing? And, if she was such a treasured agent, why did she dare come to communist Bulgaria only once, in 1989, under the umbrella of then-president of France Francois Mitterrand’s visit? The defenders emphasize: this is the final triumph of an inhuman system over a talented victim.


This labyrinth has no easy exit. All agree that the opening of the Bulgarian secret police files is a fraught enterprise. The move was late and incomplete, since much content has been deleted (even in Kristeva’s file, some experts suspect). Among the wider public, the reaction to the files that have been opened is one of puzzlement. It shouldn’t make a difference who was an eager agent, who was forced to collaborate – and who was just a simulator, feeding the spy apparatus with harmless trivia. Few believed that communism would collapse so soon and that the files would be made available to an ignorant public. In those circumstances, a petty career compromise was possible, even desirable.


Who has failed in the matter of the files? The law, the commission, the lazy and sensation-seeking media, or the uncaring society, washing its own guilt with the compromises of celebrities? That is another conversation. And it is not about Julia Kristeva, protected by her lawyers and worldwide fame. Other Bulgarian intellectuals made much harder landings. They made deals no one understands today – and earned small moral victories no one is ready to acknowledge.


Kristeva’s case has another aspect: her attitude to Bulgaria was, at best, ambiguous, agonized. As an expert in psychoanalysis, she should have asked herself where this pain came from: shame, guilt, repentance? In the 1990s Kristeva wrote “Bulgarie, ma souffrance” (“Bulgaria, my suffering”), which scholar Dusan Bijelic parodied into “Bulgarie, ma sous-France” (“Bulgaria, my under-France”). In the essay, she addresses Bulgarians: “Your compliments are reproaches, your gratitude is like a request, your hopes appear to be feeble … You are not happy, you do not want to participate. Though you go too early, you arrive too late ... You want everything, provided you can sleep, laze, or cheer, tack, cheat …” Sometimes Bulgarians say such things to themselves. But they do not want to hear them from abroad, even less from a successful Bulgarian. 


Yes, success in Bulgaria often comes with acknowledgement from overseas. However, many successful Bulgarians often renounce their country of origin as a place they have happily escaped and would rarely want to visit again. Funnily, their names sound similar: the artist Christo, the footballer Hristo (Stoichkov), Kristeva. Bulgarians perceive them ambivalently: with pride because they succeeded – and with anger because they do not share their success with them.


They would summarize dilemmas like Kristeva’s in this way: “Your great career did not save you from our compromises. You are like us, so do not feel ashamed of us. After all, you are Bulgarian.”
Boyko Vassilev 
is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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