What is it about this part of the world that seems to turn ordinary, rational people into conspiracy nuts?

Item: a few days after Václav Havel’s funeral, a Czech friend explained to me why she lost faith in him. She’d admired him under the old regime, but later, she said with an almost guilty giggle, she heard that maybe he was never a real dissident at all. Look at the royal treatment he received in prison, unlike some other political prisoners. It can only mean that he had been collaborating with the commies all along. I was so gobsmacked by this I forgot to ask why, if his prison conditions were so easy, he emerged from jail sick with the bad lung that plagued him the rest of his life.

Item, mentioned in my last blog: a Russian think-tank expert’s bunkum about Al-Jazeera being a tool of the U.S. government.

That Bulgarians are not immune from the conspiratorial mindset is a regular theme in Bulgarian TV journalist Boyko Vassilev’s columns for TOL. In a column last year comparing the Arab Spring with Europe’s revolutions of 1989, Vassilev mused, “The belief that someone else would eat what the revolutionaries have planted is one of the most destructive things in new democracies. It leads on to cynicism, discouragement, and conspiracy theories.”

For sure, the sense that the good things wrought by the revolution have flowed into the hands of the well-connected, the slick guys, leaving ordinary folk bereft, is one driver of conspiratorial thinking and general disgust with a system that to many people seems fixed in favor of the old communist nomenklatura and the gangsters-cum-capitalists who succeeded them. This is one theme explored in a new book about the crisscrossing lives of some Bulgarians and one American researcher, Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism.

The author, Kristen Ghodsee, directs the gender and women’s studies program at Bowdoin College in Maine, and Duke University Press published the book, but this is not typical academic fare. Ghodsee (an occasional contributor to TOL) alternates chapters of ethnographic observation based on her own experiences, written in narrative form in the first person, with made-up stories drawn from the lives of people she’s met. She calls these “ethnographic fictions.” One concerns a young woman’s struggles to keep food on the table for herself and her sick father. Almost destitute, she says goodbye to her home town of Madan, in southern Bulgaria, to look for work in Sofia:

When she arrived in Sofia, she had the name and address of another girl who had moved to Sofia from Madan. When Yordanka went to the apartment, the girl’s roommates, two twenty-one-year-olds from the Christian city of Russe, said that Yordanka’s contact had left. They did not know where she was. And they did not want to room with any more “whores from Madan,” slamming the door in her face. Yordanka had only thirty leva left and did not know where to go. …

[Yordanka then begins answering ads for roommates posted at Sofia University, a school she once dreamed of attending.]

She called the first number.

“Hello.”

“Hello, I am calling about the room.”

“Are you a student?”

“No, but I …”

“Where are you from?”

“I just came in from Madan.”

The voice on the other end of the phone laughed. “I am sorry, but I don’t want to live with a peasant.”

The phone clicked off. …

Eventually, Yordanka feels compelled to make the same choice as the heroine of a famous story by O. Henry – she sells one of her most precious possessions.

Ghodsee has written two other books about post-communist Bulgaria. What I like about the new one is how she looks for the everyday continuities, as well as the sudden shifts, in Bulgarians’ lives over the past 20 years. Just as under communism most people did not go around bemoaning their fate and banging their heads against the Iron Curtain, when things changed most people did not suddenly become budding capitalists. Some soon realize that they have skills or possessions that have suddenly become worth money, like the fictional Yordanka or the rural people who sell off their old kilims at a fraction of the price the rugs will fetch in posh London or New York shops, to get cash to buy cheap new Chinese carpets.

In one chapter, told in the first person, Ghodsee describes what happened when she visited Madan, the home of the fictional Yordanka. Madan is a town in the Rhodope mountains where most people are Muslims. By this time she has a Bulgarian husband and a young daughter, and she speaks the language. However, it never occurs to her that her two droop-eared basset hounds, animals never before seen there, could wreak havoc in the provincial town: “Wherever I walked them through town the locals gazed at them with horror. People stared at me as if I were walking two monsters through their streets: women fled from my path, children screamed, old grandmothers swore at me in muted Bulgarian.”

As she and her dogs become the object of intense interest from the townspeople, the tables are turned on Ghodsee: the locals are now the ethnographers, “forcing me to reflect upon and answer questions about the many peculiarities of my own cultural practices. … Despite the differences between us, they too were now in a position to become cultural translators.”

Photo: Sofia’s crumbling monument to Bulgarian statehood, built in 1981. Photo by Vesselin Dimitrov.

Ky Krauthamer

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at Transitions Online. Email: ky.krauthamer@tol.org

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