Online seminar #7: Memory and Justice: Personal Reminiscences and Public Narratives of Communism

Daniela Koleva in conversation with Nikolai Vukov

PoSoCoMeS Online Seminar Series, session #7

Monday, 10 January, 2022 5.30 pm CET

Zoom link:

In the monthly online PoSoCoMeS seminar, Nikolai Vukov discusses the book Memory and Justice: Personal Reminiscences and Public Narratives of Communism, published in 2020 in Bulgarian, with the author, Daniela Koleva, and the audience.

The book explores the memory of the communist past: the ‘official’ memory established by state institutions; the public memory shaped by media, memorials and commemorations; and the everyday (vernacular) memory of individuals, families, local and generational communities. The broad question the author seeks to answer is how the recent past is remembered and which circumstances condition this remembrance. The question invites a constructivist perspective on memory as a set of dynamic and polemically tense cultural practices generating alternative understandings of the past. The methodology of the study is based on oral history supplemented by policy and institutional surveys and field trips. Its core is the thesis that memory is a process of meaning making, and meanings are generated in narratives.

Koleva views memory as the set of interpretative lenses through which social actors make sense of the past on various levels. She argues against the reduction of the ‘sotz’ (vernacular for ‘socialism’) to a cultural shorthand where its multifarious and contested moral, political and historical connotations are lost. She points to the influence of transitional justice on the culture of memory shaped around the traumatic narrative. While the link here is rather direct and easily seen, the relation of the nostalgic narrative to the post-communist politics of memory is more subtle and ambivalent; it shows the shortcomings of the black-and-white pictures of the past based on victim–perpetrator oppositions, which are largely modelled after legal discourse. Finally, the author relates biographical experience to the cultural production of knowledge about the recent past.

Daniela Koleva is professor of oral history and memory studies at the Department of History and Theory of Culture, Sofia University. Her research interests are in the fields of oral history, social history and anthropology of socialism and post-socialism, biographical and cultural memory, politics of memory and heritage, gender and social constructivism. She has published a monograph on the ‘normal life course’ in communist Bulgaria and a number of book chapters and articles in peer-reviewed journals. Her interest in the everyday life and life course under communism has resulted in a series of edited volumes, one of them international: Negotiating Normality: Everyday Lives in Socialist Institutions (Transaction/Routledge, 2012, 2nd ed. 2017). She is co-editor of 20 Years after the Collapse of Communism: Expectations, Achievements and Disillusions of 1989 (Peter Lang 2011), Ageing, Ritual and Social Change: Comparing the Secular and Religious in Eastern and Western Europe (Ashgate/Routledge, 2013), From Literature to Cultural Literacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Recently she embarked on a new project on the transnational entanglements of Cold War medicine and health care, supported by the ERC Synergy Programme.

Nikolai Vukov is Associate Professor at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (IEFSEM – BAS) and visiting lecturer in cultural history and social anthropology at St. Kliment Ohridski University in Sofia St. Kliment Ohridski and Paisiy Hilendarski University in Plovdiv. He holds PhDs in anthropology and folklore studies (2002 – Bulgarian Academy of Sciences) and in modern history (2005 – Central European University, Budapest). Nikolai Vukov has held fellowships at a number of universities and research centers, among which the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, the Maison des sciences de l’homme in Paris, the American Research Institute in Istanbul, the Center for Academic Research in Sofia, and the New Europe College in Bucharest. His scholarly interests are related to the anthropology of memory and commemorations; twentieth-century European history; communist and post-communist studies; monuments, public rituals; and museum representations. He is the author and co-author of several monographs and of more than 120 articles and studies in edited volumes and journals in Bulgaria and abroad. His most recent research is dedicated to borders and border guarding in communist Bulgaria.