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Putin doesn’t want the war to end; instead, he wants to take us back to the Soviet Union of the 1940s

Photo by Sinitta Leunen on Unsplash

We are seeing this model – this strong pull backwards – being played out now. In short, time has replaced space. The world has been parcelled out, more or less explored and familiar. We are left with an immense ocean of time, which is really an ocean of the past.

When the novel came out, at one reading the audience asked me: OK, but what would Russia choose? At the time, I wasn’t sure. I would like to think it would be the Gorbachev years, the time of perestroika. The answer came on 24 February last year. In this invisible referendum on the past, Russia chose the years of the second world war; the last time they enjoyed the recognition of a world prepared to forget Stalin, the gulags, the Holodomor and the cruelties of the Soviet system.

Putin has chosen, understandably, to return to the early 1940s. Russia’s current unhappiness and isolation have made it turn back towards the “happy” and powerful times of the Soviet Union.

What Putin wants is not to win this war, but to make it chronic, to force us all to live in that regime. His goal is to bombard and raze the present (and the future) with all its infrastructure and everydayness – so that there is no water, no warmth, no light. To destroy everyday life, and from there existence as well, to literally an-nihil-ate the Ukrainian nation.

An aggressive project to revive the past, especially an unprocessed, forgotten or rewritten past, is the perfect breeding ground for populism and nationalism. We saw this under Trump, and now it is coming true in an even more sinister guise under Putin.

Memory and culture are part of Europe’s immune system. It must recognise and disarm the viruses of collective blindness, loss of reason, nationalistic madness, and the birth of new dictators. But the Ukraine war has broken out as those who carry the living memory of the second world war are no longer with us. We are on that generational precipice when the last of the participants who kept that memory alive, the last concentration camp prisoners, the last soldiers, are passing away. I hope we are not heading towards some strange collective Alzheimer’s.
Because when the flame of memory goes out, the beasts of the past close the circle around us. The less memory, the more past. We remember so as to hold the past at bay – in the past.

It is no longer a question merely of memory, but of what we remember and how. Because Putin, too, swears by memory. Populism and nationalism also create their own version of memory. In Russia they never did the hard work around the memory of the second world war that Germany, for example, did: the painful work that penetrates all layers of society, enters into institutions, schools and history textbooks. Its absence keeps alive Russia’s status as the great victim: an alibi for new sacrifices it feels it deserves.

One of the most disturbing things now is the erasure of the boundary between truth and fakeness. This fakeness not only rewrites the past but predetermines the future. It grounds itself in a revised past precisely to justify current aggressions and infamies.

Throughout my entire childhood and youth in Bulgaria I was taught in school that Russia was our big brother whom we could not do without (like all older brothers, he could beat up the bad kids in the neighbourhood who bullied us). Of course, my generation secretly dreamed of other nations, of those yearned for foreign lands to the west of us. And this is some small justice – the USSR never became a dream destination, despite the propaganda; instead it remained a place we held in awe. And this has consequences for the current situation.

In Bulgaria today, pro-Russian propaganda works easily on various levels. From feelings of gratitude to our two-time liberators (and, as it turns out, our two-time enslavers), through veneration for Russian culture (as if Putin and Chekhov were twin brothers), to statements by high-ranking politicians who refuse to unambiguously take the side of the victim.

A Eurobarometer poll from May of last year, indicates that public opinion in Bulgaria is closer than that of other EU countries to the Russian position on the war. Bulgaria is also in last place in the EU for media literacy. Facebook remains the most influential social media in Bulgaria: more than 95% of our traffic is there. The problem is that propaganda from the internet has penetrated official and serious media as well.

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Bulgarian society is savagely split in two. I don’t think the country has seen such disintegration and polarisation – made worse by social networks and public figures – in decades. It may sound too harsh, but sometimes I get the feeling that we are on the verge of a quiet civil war.

This part of Europe has not been on the crest of the wave of history since 1989. But it has never ceased through its literature,and stories, to offer warnings about what has already happened and could happen again. It seems to me that these stories have not been heard well enough. Here, we can clearly sense that history is not yet finished. Now we know and can formulate it: as long as there is a single bleeding wound of history on the continent, the entire continent bleeds. No one, no matter how many kilometres to the west they may be, can rest easy. The centre of Europe is not something static, stuck in Berlin or Paris. The centre of Europe is that mobile point of pain. Where it hurts and bleeds. Today it is in the east, in proud Ukraine.

In one of the most beautiful essays about Europe, A Kidnapped West, written during the cold war (1983), Milan Kundera begins with a final, desperate telex message sent by the director of the Hungarian news agency in 1956, while the building itself was under artillery fire. His message read: “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.” In those critical minutes, he wanted to communicate something. The Russian army’s invasion of Hungary was an invasion of Europe; don’t wait, react. Did Europe (or the west back then) receive and decipher the message?

This time we know for whom the bell tolls. People in Europe understood immediately. Kundera’s essay ends with the bitter conclusion that after the second world war, the west turned away from central Europe and simply thought of it as a satellite of the Soviet empire, without its own identity. This inertia, I dare say, continued even after 1989.

The war in Ukraine has actually returned central and eastern Europe to Europe. From the periphery there is a hypersensitivity to what is impending, an ability to pick up the scent of alarm in the air. Eastern Europe has learned to sense danger with its skin. For this reason, I will allow myself to put it this way: don’t underestimate the books, essays, and poems from this corner of Europe. Decode the symbols in them. Words don’t stop tanks and don’t down drones. But they can (can’t they?) stop, delay or at least cause those in the tanks who make war on innocent people hesitate, at least for a bit. Words can help those who are deluded by fake news and propaganda.

This war will not end with the last bullet fired. It began years before the first shot and is likely to end years after the final one. But literature has a role: at the very least it can teach us resistance and empathy; it can offer us the tools with which to identify propaganda lies; it can preserve personal stories from the epicentre of pain, generate memory that will not be violated, and, if possible, console. No propaganda should be stronger than the memory of a little boy fleeing from war with a telephone number scrawled on his arm.

Georgi Gospodinov is a Bulgarian novelist and the author of Time Shelter, which has been longlisted for the 2023 Booker International prize. This article is adapted from an address given at Debates on Europe 2023 and published in collaboration with Voxeurop. It was translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

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