Symbols and images of "evil" in student protests in Sofia, 1997.

Author:Todorova-Pirgova, Iveta


This article analyzes Bulgarian student protests in 1990 and 1997 in their political, sociological, and cultural dimensions. Beginning with an overview of the Bulgarian political situation in the 1990s, the article goes on to consider student protests as cultural expressions of a semi-closed community. The focus is primarily on the cultural and ideological aspects of the protests, and seeks to illustrate the peculiar forms of cultural synthesis that such protests represent.

Political protests are more than interesting forms of contemporary culture, showing how new communities are created, how they express themselves in cultural forms, and what their real impact on the social reality might be. Bearing in mind the fact that these are syncretic forms, I present them in their social, ideological, political, and cultural dimensions. Furthermore, having participated in the protests, I present them from the viewpoint of the "insider."


The crisis marched in front, dressed in a gown reaching down to the ground, its hair loose, and side by side with it, stepping like a cat, in a light dance-like manner there moved the spectre of communism. (1) Setting the Stage: Political Protests and Political Situation in Bulgaria in 1990 and 1997

Communism in Bulgaria collapsed in 1989. However, the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP), aspiring to stay in power, made some cosmetic changes to try and secure its political position. As part of these changes, the BCP changed its name and became the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), thereby asserting that they no longer were communists. They argued that the communist period of the party had lasted a very short 45 years, and had ended, while the whole history of the Socialist Party had lasted for more than 100 years. Renaming the party was an important move in an attempt to seek legitimacy within the new political context and, if possible, to retain power. Along with the new name, the leaders of the BSP also tried to make some changes in the party's ideological and economic platforms, but because of mass political protests organized against them, these could not be realized.

In 1990, because of these protests, a coalition of opposition parties called the UDF (Union of Democratic Forces) temporarily gained political control. Due to a deepening economic crisis, however, the BSP was able to regain control shortly thereafter, maintaining it until 1996. In the fall of 1996 the economic situation in the country became critical. Inflation increased by the hour, and there was a shortage of basic goods. The bank system collapsed in November as a result of the many unsecured credits that had been extended over the previous years, and at the same time the political crisis deepened. On December 21, 1996, the socialist government of Jan Videnow resigned, and on January 8, 1997, Nikolay Dobrev, the next socialist leader, was authorized by President Petar Stoyanov to form a government. New political protests sparked by President Stoyanov's unwelcome and unpopular authorization began in early January 1997, but they were transformed into a massive national strike after January 10, when the Bulgarian Parliament building was attacked. These protests lasted for 30 days, and the BSP was forced to hand over the government. On February 4, 1997, Dobrev returned the authorization of the socialist party to President Stoyanov, and new elections were scheduled ahead of term. Since then, the Bulgarian government has been formed by representatives of the UDF.

In short, the 1990 and 1997 protests were successful in terms of achieving their political goal of removing the former communists (now socialists) from the Bulgarian government. Students were key to the success of both protests. As a result, students now believe in themselves and know, for future purposes, that they can have a real impact on political decisions.

I was a participant in both protest movements as protester and observer. As a result, my account is naturally influenced by my own positionality. The members of the BSP presumably would describe the same events in another way. For me, these protests were not only an object of analysis, they were also part of an important time full of high hopes, emotional and intellectual experiences, and real actions and communications.

I will not, however, speak about myself in this paper, but rather about my students, their colleagues, and friends. My position will nevertheless be an implicit part of the text, presented in the descriptions and in the interpretations of the events in question.

This paper, then, addresses the 1997 student protests--which took the forms of ritualized and theatricalized processions, and mock funerals, all to some extent influenced by Bulgarian folklore--in light of the theoretical construct of a semi-closed community rallying around one cause. The protests will also be juxtaposed with mock funerals from 1990 and 1997, theatricalized expressions of the same protest causes.

Setting the Stage Theoretically: Student Protests and the Cultural Expressions of a Semi-Closed Community

We have to reveal the genuine image of evil, so that people can see it and banish it forever from our lands for good. Its manifestations may pass unnoticed by the mind, but not by the eyes, or by the heart. I don't want anyone to tell me later that I was deluded, for ... here! That's it! These are words of a student from St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia. While speaking with me, he painted the portrait of an old and ugly witch finishing her snack with blood dripping from her hands. Above her head there was a red-lettered halo-like inscription: BSP. The text on the backside of the poster read: "It is time for the one aged 100 to retire! Off you go to the woods!"

Responding to my question of why the image of the BSP had to be visualized in such a way, the same student said, "In this way our protest is more powerful and has greater impact. Otherwise people cannot feel it deeply enough." Then he added,

We should not be aggressive, but we should not be afraid of the truth, either. When you depict evil in this way, it is no longer scary. It is also, how shall I put it, a little funny, and you can believe that you are stronger and you can defeat it. Isn't this better than talk, talk, talk, and getting lost in the mountain of words until you forget what you are talking about. This spoils the magic, you get tired and you are ready to give it all up, isn't it so? The metaphorical use of the concept of magic by this student should not prevent a folklorist from seeing that the overall statement is an expression of the need to exert a synthetic impact by means of words, sounds, and plastic movements. The mechanism of conveying the message by simultaneously employing such means as voice, body, or molded objects, familiar to folklorists working with older forms of folk culture, is set in operation whenever there is a need, and when the requisite socio-cultural environment is in place.

I have elsewhere (1991) defined a semi-closed community as one which closes up around a certain idea and whose members feel the need for artistic self-expression within that community. If a closed community can be defined as a small and limited one with a strong net of social relations into which the individual is well integrated (Bogdanov 1989), and if an open community can be defined as a large one with mostly written means of communication, then a semi-closed community such as a political protest movement is something in between. It emerges from the social environment of the open community and it is closed only around a specific cause for a particular moment. People who want to identify themselves with such a semi-closed community come from different walks of life. They have different social, educational, and professional backgrounds, but they belong to that community because they share a common idea that unites them. (2) Thus, in the semi-closed community of the protesters, we can expect verbal, musical, or ritual expressions of only one political idea.

Within this semi-closed community, students expressed their identity not only as being against the political establishment, but also underscored the prestigious status of their university community. They shared a common political idea, but they considered themselves to belong to the intellectual elite, a very prestigious and authoritative community in Bulgarian society. Intellectuals are considered and consider themselves to provide mental and behavioral models to be followed. To give an example: in the last few years, people who accrued wealth without an education were ridiculed in many jokes. These jokes implied that such people were rich because they were dishonest, and that they would always remain stupid. It should therefore be clear why it was so important for the students to identify themselves as part of the intellectual elite. Being identified with the intellectual elite was one more reason for the closeness of the students' community--"we, students" and "they, the other people." One of my students said:

We are educated, intelligent people and we understand very well what is going on. Communists can delude the ordinary people, as they always have done, but not us. Communists can try to hide themselves behind new names or new words, but we know their real names and their real faces. People have to see the truth before it is not too late. We want to demonstrate this truth, we will do this every day, and we hope that the people will support us and throw away this political garbage. It is high time for that! Two types of leaders could be found among the protesting students: those engaged with organizing, and those engaged with the different performance activities. Organizers coordinated participants spatially and temporally. The main performers not only performed, but also gave creative directions about the performance and costumes to the performing student...

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