Intertwined Personal and Social Trauma in the ‘Events’ of the ‘Bulgarian Spring’

Published On May 3, 2013 | Blogs, Uncategorized

Photo_TinaSchivatcheva_By: Tina Schivatcheva (guest contributor)
Tina Schivatcheva is a graduate of the University of Cambridge (MA International Relations).

 

Bulgaria started 2013 with angry public protests. The demonstrations were termed ‘rebellions of the hungry’ and reflected the public discontent with the financial austerity, poverty and endemic economic crisis. Six people self-immolated and their desperate acts further ’enflamed our sleeping society’ [1]. On the 21st of February 2013 the cabinet submitted its resignation.

Traumatic events demand a response that recognizes their impact rather than one that moves rapidly to forgetting the trauma or incorporating it into existing narratives. The politicization of the traumatic experiences also demands a refusal of the easy categories and hitherto accepted agendas, and calls for seeking new analytical paradigms, exploring the political cognition of affect. As the personal trauma, which resulted in the violent taking of one’s life, expanded into social trauma, it should motivate the social re-consideration of the concepts of socio-political co-experience, and also the undertaking of new analyses of the relations between the citizen and the society. Thus, the attempts to try to understand the multi-layered meaning of the acts of self-immolation, necessitate taking into consideration the ethical dimensions of the political, wherein ‘we are implicated in each other traumas’ [2].
 
Transition and trauma: An enduring socio-political crisis
Individual security and personal trauma is closely tied to the community in which individual personhood is situated. The traumatized are considered to ‘carry an impossible history within them. Or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess (and thus which possesses them)’ [3]. The individual histories and the private experiences of poverty, hopelessness and desperation are defined by the social history of an enduring political and economic crisis. In terms of economic development, after the economic catastrophy of the 1990s, the Bulgarian economy recorded ten years of robust growth, prior to the start of the world financial crisis. But then, economic recovery and investment have been restricted to certain big cities and certain regions, leaving other regions behind – an uneven development process which has led to an acute regional disparity and marginalization of certain parts of the country.

The processes of post-socialist economic transformation entailed social transformation, resulting in a dramatic rise in the physical and social displacement of large social groups, thereby producing a key distinction between ‘mobile’ and ‘immobile’ groups in the populace. The ‘immobile’ groups, such as the group of the elderly, have been the clear losers of the transition. Radical and extensive privatization and economic restructuring, however necessary, have led to systemic impoverishment, decimating entire sectors of the economy and society. Bulgaria’s social crisis has been measured at 23-years in duration; 23 being the length of the post-socialist period. The persistent socio-political and socio-economic crisis has traumatized the social consciousness. As elsewhere in the former Eastern Block, ‘crisis imagery obtained overtones of finality and timelessness, and the crisis itself was re-imagined from a temporary developmental challenge into an all-embracing and a-historical condition,’ [4]. Many have called the situation in Bulgaria a ‘national catastrophe.’ The resulting ‘catastrophic’ breakdown in both meaning and trust is a social event. Therefore, the private-public trauma expressed by the self-immolations is also a form social criticism. This is a critique of a society in which the number of moles far exceed the number of public institutions.
 
The crisis of life and death
Freudian approaches to theorizing trauma perceive it as a double telling, the oscillation between a crisis of death and the correlative crisis of life – two stories which are both incompatible and absolutely inextricable [5]. March, 6th, 2013 was a national day of mourning in Bulgaria. The country grieved the passing away of the 36 years old Plamen Goranov; many called him ‘the Bulgarian Ian Palach.’ Photographer, mountain-climber, and small entrepreneur, Plamen, whose name means ‘flame’ was young, vibrant and talented. On the 20th of February Plamen self-immolated, in front of the the office of Varna’s Mayor. For more than 10 days afterwards he was in the grey area between life and death. The city of Varna stood a solemn vigil for his recovery… Finally, on the 3rd of March, Bulgaria’s national day, Plamen crossed to the other side.

Plamen Goranov’s political message, though perhaps rash and naïve, was clear and uncompromising: he wanted a concrete action undertaken in the name of the public good. His act of self-denial was meant to lead to a public good, when all other means to obtain it via the official channels, such as mass complaints and numerous public protests, had failed. The rest of the victims, who self-immolated did not have an explicitly political message; they protested the persistent poverty and helplessness. Some psychologists have sought to explain the phenomenon as the ‘quest for heroism’ [6].

However, the self-immolations can also be considered as a desperate plea for help. Passing out of the isolation, imposed by a traumatic event, can take place, only via the process of listening by another [7]. Thus, the acts of self-immolation tell a story of suffering and desperation, thereby forcing the seemingly indifferent polis to listen, and in this way to renew and re-create itself as the polis, ‘civilem communitatem’ of citizens, rather than as a loose collection of transient individuals.

Dimitar Dimitrov attempted to self-immolate in front of the Bulgarian presidency. However, good people extinguished the fire, called an ambulance, and after intensive medical treatment, he survived. Dimitar explained that his action was a call to help a socio-economic class, to whom nobody pays attention. The 51-years old added: ‘My idea was not political, nor domestic, but rather social. I see how my peers lost their jobs, lost their property via house-mortgages, many people took their lives’ [8]. Dimitar appealed ‘to stop the disparaging treatment towards a whole generation.

The statistics supports his words: the available data point out that in 2011 Bulgaria had recorded the highest rate of completed suicides in Europe [9]. Altogether in 2010 and 2011 the country had witnessed a total of 1600 suicide attempts; half of them were successful. Dr. Mihail Okoliyski, Medical Doctor (MD) and head of the Bulgarian Department of Mental Health at the the National Center of Public Health Protection (NCPHP) cautioned that, ‘every fourth Bulgarian is at great risk of developing a mental illness’ [10]. Since the beginning of 2013, aside from the self-immolations, almost 200 people have committed suicide, warned Dr. Vladimir Nakov, an MD at the National Health Centre [11].

Dr. Okoliyski cites everyday stress as the main reason for the high suicide rate [12]. But what are the causes of this stress? The available Eurostats data elucidates that in every year from 2007 to 2011, Bulgaria has lead the EU-27 in the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion [13]. The percentage of people at risk have been: in 2007- 61.3%; in 2007 – 60.7 percent; in 2008 – 44.8 percent; in 2009 – 46.2 percent; in 2010 – 49.2 percent; in 2011, the last year for which data is available, the percentage is 49 percent.

Throughout the past four years, while Bulgaria has been governed by the center-right government of the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (abbreviated in Bulgarian as GERB), the hegemonic ‘truth’ was that of Bulgaria’s marked improvement in its budget position (the deficit was cut from almost four percent of GDP in 2010 to one percent in 2012), yet the simultaneously existing ‘truth’ about the social suffering and deprivation was not told neither so loud, nor in such an eloquent way. Badiou links the emergence of a particular ‘truth’ to a particular ‘event’ – the events of self-immolation uncovered the previously untold truths of the Bulgarian quotidian existence. Thus, the tragic self-immolations of the Bulgarian spring draw attention to the ways in which the notions of ‘events’ and ‘social truths’ function within the contemporary socio-political structures.

There is a foundational repositioning of political subjectivity, attendant to the ‘events,’ theorizes Badieu. Certainly, a new political subjectivity – that of ‘the martyr,’ ‘the victim’ has emerged, thereby causing a shift to the rest of the political subjectivities of the Bulgarian political pantheon. New practices of citizenship, social and political commemoration, as well political ethics have emerged, leading to greater unity of the polis in the acts and expressions of mourning.

In Badiou’s philosophy, events are also juxtaposed with situations. Arising sporadically from situations, events are explosive; they transform situations and shape new ones. The disruptive views of the present that they provide have the potential to form an allegorical link between individual aspiration and societal transformation. In the eyes of the media the lives of the Bulgarian victims of self-immolation were reduced to and magnified by one event: their acts of self-immolation. The lives of desperation, that the victims have lived, have thus been converted into ‘events,’ transforming one situation of complacent public acceptance of the status quo, into a disruptive call for social action.

Consequently, as the result of the self-immolations, a new ethical vintage point enables the citizen to re-position itself vis-à-vis the representative institutions of the state, and the Bulgarian political class. This new vintage point is symbolized by a new monument, which has now been added to the Bulgarian political landscape.
 
Lux aeterna
The visual scene and its various representations are some of the key elements in the complex individual and social processes of meaning and lived experiences. The view of the Bulgaria political landscape is now disrupted by a new commemorative monument, located in front of the office of the city of Varna’s mayor, at the place, where Plamen self-immolated. This monument was created not by a sculptor, but by the citizens of Varna. Some brought rocks, others – flowers. A pile of rocks, covered with flowers, above which is flying the Bulgarian flag now marks the place, from which Plamen made his last political message.

In the flat and snowy Arctic landscapes, regions with little natural landmarks, the Inuit construct out of rocks the ‘inukshuks.’ Inukshuk means ‘something, which acts and fulfils the function of a person.’ These are piles of rocks, which are seen from afar, and which help the orientation in the while monotonous whiteness. The pile of rocks in Varna commemorating Plamen now helps to find the right direction in Bulgaria’s political landscape. The pile also reminds the mayors of Varna about their responsibilities towards the people who have elected them into power.

Growing social tensions, caused by an endemic crisis, have been sparked off by acts of individual human agency. In Bulgaria’s new political pantheon Plamen Goranov carried that spark. Although not the only victim of self-immolation, Plamen’s sacrifice had an explicitly political motive. Yet, in the anger of his last dissent he forgot that political, derives from ‘polis,’ wherein the polis is the body of the citizens. Plamen despaired that the polis can and would change, and he chose his last stand as a radical, extreme, desperate form of protest.

The Bulgarian polity will stand stronger, but it will take time to birth forth a community of active citizens in pursuit of the common good, rather than passive consumers of individual ‘political goods.’ The polis needs the ‘quotidian heroism’ of persistent political activism, the slow process of democratic debate, rather than the grand gestures of ultimate denial. What would have happened, if Plamen would have lived? Probably he would have been burning in the activity of one of the new ‘parties of the protest,’ and decried more of Bulgaria’s political ills… Some would have liked the flair and passion of his opinions; others – not. Now we all mourn him.
 

Notes
[1]. ‘The self-immolations show the need to change for the better,’ btvnews.bg, (17/03/2013), http://btvnews.bg/bulgaria/samozapalvaniyata-posochvat-nuzhdata-ot-promyana-kam-dobro.html
[2]. Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1996), p. 24. Henceorth this document will be referred to as ‘Caruth, 1996.’
[3]. Caruth, Cathy, Trauma Explorations in memory, (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 5. Henceforth this document will be referred to as ‘Caruth, 1995.’
[4]. Shevchenko, Olga, Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow, (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 2008), p. 11.
[5]. Caruth, 1996, p. 7.
[6]. Lazarova, Irina, ‘The self-immolations fill in the lack of heroes,’ Pressadaily, (23.03.2013), http://pressadaily.bg/publication/11770-Д-р-Ирина-Лазарова:-Самозапалванията-запълват-липсата-на-герои, (accessed on 04/04/2013).
[7]. Caruth, 1995, p. 11.
[8]. ‘The one, who self-immolated in front of the presidency. I did not want them to extinguish the fire,’ Center-bg, (08.04.2013), http://center-bg.com/news/news/Самозапалилият-се-пред-президентств-2, (accessed on 04/04/2013).
[9]. Guineva, Maria, ‘The Bulgaria 2011 Review: Health and Healthcare,’ Novinite, (06.01.2012), http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=135531, (accessed on 26/04/2013).
[10]. ‘Bulgaria Registers Highest Rate of Completed Suicides in Europe,’ Novinite, (26.05.2011), http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=128612, (accessed on 26/04/2013).
[11]. ‘Bulgaria holds preyers to end suicides and despair,’ BBC News, (05.04.2013), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22039182, (accessed on 26/04/2013).
[12]. ‘Bulgaria Registers Highest Rate of Completed Suicides in Europe,’ Novinite, (26.05.2011), http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=128612, (accessed on 26/04/2013).
[13]. Eurostats, http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/submitViewTableAction.do?dvsc=2, (accessed on 04/04/2013).

Photos:
Photo 1: Pyramid of rocks and flowers, which now marks the place where Plamen self-immolated (Photo credit: Stanqo)

Photo 2: Photo of Plamen Goranov, who tragically self-immolated earlier this year, during one of the anti-government protests (Photo credit: Teodor Nikolov)

Photo 3: Protests in Sofia, 24-02-16, gathering at the Presidency (photo credit: Tourbillon)