There needs to be an open discussion against simplifying the past, says the award-winning author. Troyanov speaks to DW about the dangers of glorifying Communist dictatorship in Eastern European countries.
Deutsche Welle: You've just published your novel "Macht und Widerstand" (Power and Resistance) in Bulgarian. The book is about Bulgaria's communist past. Is the subject still relevant in Bulgaria? Does the communist past still have an impact the country today?
Ilya Troyanov: It is a crucial subject matter, not only in Bulgaria but all the countries in the former Eastern Bloc. We have spent a great deal of time in the past few years discussing Russian politics. The Russian regime and social upheaval in this country are directly linked to the communist past and the so-called fall of the iron curtain. When I speak to colleagues, be they from Hungary or Poland, we realize that the similarities between us are astounding and that this open wound is still a defining, if not a central, existential element of this society.
You mentioned Poland and Hungary. Is the palpable renationalization of politics in post-communist countries like Poland and Hungary linked to their communist past?
The word renationalization is almost a euphemism. One must understand that in such a situation, there is a lapse in civil society and democracy. This, of course, is related to the fact that there is no clarity among the people about the unbelievable devastation and destruction caused by a dictatorship. If you glorify the past dictatorship, then it is even easier to slide back into a new dictatorship. I believe that "east-west" and "right-left" compasses no longer help us. Basically, it is about people's democratic participation, how pronounced their instinct for freedom or social justice is and the scope of subservience and apathy. The latter is undoubtedly linked to the fact that there are incrustations, which describe the continuity from 1945 until today.
So you're saying that the political compass, as we know it, no longer works?
If you work as a writer, you notice that thinking in dichotomies is becoming stronger again. But if we at all believe in something like freedom of opinion, then we obviously must believe in plurality and nuanced arguments. When you notice that those who dominate public opinion operate with the simple possible juxtapositions, then public opinion per se as a discursive, democratic domain is intrinsically endangered.
Part of a mosaic showing the faces of the former communist leaders (R-L) Georgi Dimitrov, Dimitar Blagoev and Todor Zhivkov in the House of the Bulgarian Communist Party
In this context, what part could Western media – including DW – play in this crisis situation in Europe? In Bulgaria, for example, a conflict zone between the EU and NATO on one hand, and Russia and Turkey on the other?
What we need more than ever are forums, open areas of discourse. Whenever I speak to colleagues from these countries, I hear that there is direct or indirect censorship, which of course restricts individual methods or even the option of expressing oneself. In Russia, for example, the country's communist past is a taboo; at the moment, there is even a renaissance of national figures like Stalin. In Turkey, there is also no critical scrutiny of its imperial past. That is something that you notice from the Bulgarian perspective.
Recently, Erdogan had a map of "Greater Turkey" published, which not only includes Mosul but also large parts of Europe. These are all ideas and nationalist ambitions that are closely related to whatever historical narrative is manifested. And since the narratives have been defined by the state, media from other countries can of course undermine them.
The interview was conducted by Alexander Andreev
Ilya Troyanov, 51, is a German writer born to Bulgarian parents. In 1971, his family fled Bulgaria to Germany, where they were granted asylum. His novel "The Collector of Worlds" brought him international acclaim. Troyanov lives in Capetown.