T.K. Dragostinova: The Cold War from the Margins

The Cold War from the Margins. A Small Socialist State on the Global Cultural Scene

Dragostinova, Theodora K.
330 S., 40 Abb.
€ 20,95; $ 19.95
Reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by
Reka Krizmanics, Universität Bielefeld

Theodora Dragostinova’s second monograph – The Cold War from the Margins – is about a lavishly funded project of cultural policy in late socialist Bulgaria: the celebration of the 1300th anniversary of Bulgaria’s statehood. This celebration coincided with the 90th anniversary of the Communist party’s establishment in Bulgaria. Dragostinova investigates the planning and execution of this flagship project for the domestic, regional, and some distant audiences (Western, Indian, Mexican, and Nigerian). She thus tells a compelling story of the ways in which soft power was turned into hard power. She does this by recounting how Bulgaria gained international recognition and access to new markets, while consolidating relations between the kin-state and its diaspora. She succeeds in her theoretical ambitions by demonstrating how a pericentric perspective – that is, the vantage point of a small entity – might be productively utilized to navigate East-South relations. Dragostinova assembled her source base from archives in four countries (Bulgaria, Hungary, United Kingdom, US). However, she paid particular attention to British diplomatic sources and consulted news sources, both domestic and émigré. Her leading questions are intertwined and are intrinsically tied to the idea of smallness: Why did such a small country invest so heavily in culture at this time? How did Bulgaria carve out a space for itself in East-South encounters?

Chapter One provides a nuanced analysis of the late Bulgarian domestic context. Dragostinova sets out to refine Bulgaria’s image in historiography as the most loyal ally of the Soviet Union. She thus portrays the dynamism of Bulgaria’s cultural policies as both an annoyance and as an effective challenge to the execution of Soviet political will. She promises to address another consensus in the scholarly literature – namely, that dissent was lacking in socialist Bulgaria. She does so by investigating the relationship between official culture and the regime’s legitimacy, especially the role of dissent and party strategies of cooptation. But most importantly, she discusses the ways in which lesser-known party structures influenced the planning of the 1300th anniversary of the establishment of the Bulgarian state in 681, the key policy object around which the book revolves. She defines the goal of the commemoration as “the collective recognition of the most important figures in Bulgarian history in order to connect the past to communist mythology”, or, the “unity of past-present-future” (p. 41). Of all the contemporaneous events, high-profile exhibitions, such as Bulgarian Treasures and 1000 Years of Bulgarian Icons, stood out. Apart from her analysis of the party apparatus that carried out the cultural work, Dragostinova discusses the ascension of the mastermind behind these policies, Liudmila Zhivkova, and her circle. She argues that Zhivkova’s personal interest in esotericism was a particularly important aspect of these relations, and beyond her education in Oxford, her perceived intellectual openness made her more appealing to the Western public as well.

Chapter Two is oriented to the Southeastern European context, but references to these relations spread across the book. Dragostinova does not only recount the old competition of national narratives with rather symbolic stakes, such as Romania’s claim to be the more ancient civilization, or more tangible stakes, such as the Macedonian Question that put strains on relations with Yugoslavia. She also shows how these convoluted histories help us to understand the strategies that cultural leaders of Bulgaria chose. Moreover, by establishing this meso-level in the analysis, she was able to discuss the attitudes that Bulgaria’s other neighbors, Greece and Turkey, had to these commemorations. This choice enabled a more coherent, well-rounded narrative of Bulgaria’s cultural aspirations in the global 1970s.

Two chapters deal mostly with Western capitalist settings. Chapter Three recounts Bulgaria’s cultural presence in the United States and in Western Europe, further elaborating some of the main policy considerations behind the cultural campaign. Zhivkova’s work as organizer and her political ideas were clearly the backbone of these processes. Chapter Four is centered around socialist Bulgaria’s attempts to consolidate its diaspora in the United States and in West Germany. This consolidation took place by engaging with the relations between Bulgarian diplomats, cultural workers and émigrés. Dragostinova showed that patriotic messages resonated well with the majority of diasporas, arguing that the most ideologically rigid state within the bloc used patriotic messaging effectively. Moreover, Bulgaria had very elaborate plans for placating many of the regime’s critics in the diaspora and developed various strategies to facilitate outreach to different generations of emigrants. The camp logic of the Cold War, which was transcended and greatly complicated in other contexts, is perhaps the most prevalent in these parts of the monograph. Dragostinova thus dissects the distress of Bulgarian authorities over Western cultural import, while they insisted on spreading their own “culture as a way of life”.

Chapter Five and Six discuss the organization of the events around the 1300th anniversary in India, Mexico, and Nigeria. This assembly of case studies testifies to the socialist state’s ideological flexibility in its diplomatic, cultural, and economic encounters with various countries of the Global South. Dragostinova thus emphasized Bulgaria’s attempts to downplay potentially alienating differences between the political establishments. To this end, personal relations between political leaders were instrumental. India and Mexico, as main target countries, were pursued by the Bulgarian leaders, including Zhivkova. The main messaging asserted that Bulgaria represented a grand world civilization while also emphasizing its Europeanness (p. 165). Notably, these narratives revolved around supranational, often universalistic ideas, which were compatible with the global aspirations of socialism, often referred to as socialist internationalism. Dragostinova suggests that cultural policies helped to bridge great geographical distances and thus offer a narrative to these new relations. However, she also points to the economic gains that the parties involved sought. Dragostinova dedicated an entire chapter to Nigeria, in which she offered insights into Nigerian-Bulgarian relations along similar lines, while also expanding on different understandings of development.

The comparative framework provided with various case studies is rewarding in many ways, but the local contexts are occasionally rigid and, at times, more elaboration would have been welcome. This is the case regarding one aspect of the endeavors in Nigeria, where leading politicians represented the predominantly Muslim Hausa and Fulani communities at a time when Bulgaria’s policies hardened toward its own Muslim minority. There might have been little reflection on this issue in diplomatic correspondences, but then a point about their conspicuous absence could have been made. Nonetheless, the analytical benefits of the comparison outweigh these minor concerns. In lieu of a conclusion, the epilogue discusses the afterlife of the 1300th anniversary celebrations.

Dragostinova’s monograph has several particular strengths. First, the analysis shows that it is possible to connect the national with the global level of analysis seamlessly. Embedding her research in the regional context thus plays a critical role. Second, by emphasizing how Liudmila Zhivkova’s visions shaped Bulgarian cultural policies and the organization of the 1300th anniversary more specifically, the author puts a woman center stage, which is rarely the case in similar studies, as gender remains an underexplored aspect of East-South relations. Third, Dragostinova was able to make arguments concerning matters that would classify as “Bulgarian national history”, thus challenging historiographical Beliefs such as Bulgaria being the USSR’s most faithful follower within the Eastern Bloc and discussed the lack of dissent (in the cultural scene) in a new light.

The Cold War from the Margins is undoubtedly an important contribution to the literature of New Cold War history. It enhances our understanding of late socialism, socialist diaspora-building in the capitalist West and cultural relations with it, as well as the Eastern bloc’s ambitions in the Global South. Dragostinova was less interested in the cultural cross-contamination between Bulgaria and India, Mexico, and Nigeria, respectively. Instead, she showcased how a small socialist state, with its own ideological idiosyncrasy, eccentric cultural leaders and very materialistic needs on the global markets, was able to extend relations in various corners of the Global South, mostly to its own advantage. Its rigorous embeddedness and engagement with domestic and regional processes renders the book fit for students of various areas of specialization.

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