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Losing My Illusions

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Anyone engaged in social change has grappled with the essential question. Should I work within the system or outside the system?

In the United States, the question is often expressed geographically: to operate "inside the Beltway" or "outside the Beltway." The Beltway is, of course, the ring road that encircles Washington, D.C. Some start off on one path and jump to the other. Barack Obama, for instance, was once a community organizer. Now he's at the very center of Beltway politics.

In East-Central Europe before 1989, many dissidents went in the opposite direction. They started out trying to change things within the system. As a young man, Adam Michnik tried to push the Polish Communist Party toward reform only to give up early on. As a result, he developed a theory, the "new evolutionism," that argued that the Party would only change as a result of external pressure. It would take more than a decade before his theory would be proven right.

Rayna Gavrilova also tried to work at first within the system. This, she told me in an interview in New York in January, was the occasion at which she lost her first illusion. She was 21 years old and a university student. She stood up at a Party meeting and challenged the construction of a new palace of culture in the middle of Sofia. Why not spend that money on apartments for all the people who were waiting for accommodations.

"This building was huge, a white elephant in the middle of the city," she said. "Sophia was a small, undeveloped city, with many people living three generations to an apartment. When I said that with all those millions we could build beautiful apartments for everyone, the head of the meeting, a respected professor, just looked at me and said, 'There is no space in Sofia to build 100,000 apartments.' I understood that this was not an open conversation. I saw the hypocrisy. I remember it very clearly: how could a person that I trusted tell me this?"

Her second illusion was shattered by the first free elections in Bulgaria in 1990 when the opposition lost and the Bulgarian Socialist Party won. "When I realized that the majority of people didn't think like I did, that was a big slap," she confessed. "I truly thought that people would see the promise of real change. But many of them preferred to stick with the past."

She didn't shed her final illusion, about the nature of politics, until she was already in the United States. Although by now thoroughly disillusioned, Rayna Gavrilova is by no means pessimistic.
That remains a signal accomplishment: to lose one's illusions and retain one's optimism.

The Interview

Have you had any second thoughts since 1990? Or have you been on the same trajectory until today?

One other illusion that took longer for me to understand is how devious and dirty politics is. Even three years ago, I still retained some illusions when I heard some of my fellow travelers talk about how they win elections in Bulgaria. My inner self wanted to say to them, "Don't tell me!" But I asked my acquaintance anyway, "Why are you dealing with this mayor, since he's so dirty?" My acquaintance, who is someone pretty senior in the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria party, said, "Give me a break. That mayor brings me a thousand votes." I still couldn't understand that this honest, decent man was talking to me one day and then the next day he would go to a smoke-filled room with a dirty politician. Part of me understands this, and part of me is really disappointed.

When I came here to New York in January 2011, I started to read local newspapers every day, like the metro section of The New York Times. I started coming across a lot of news about politics and what politicians do. At the beginning I was tweeting every day to people back home: "Don't despair! They do politics like this everywhere. We are not worse off." Many Bulgarians are so self-disparaging: we are so dirty, we are so corrupt. No, my belief is that humanity is more or less the same everywhere. If people have an opportunity to steal, they'll steal. But in each society there are some deterrents -- some are moral, some are legal. Whenever the moral fails, the legal steps in. In Bulgaria, both have failed. That's very sad. But it's also a reason to be optimistic. It means that you can do something. It doesn't mean that the human material is spoiled.

It seems that some Bulgarians have a reverse pride -- we are the most pessimistic, we have the great emigration rate. Tadeusz Konwicki wrote a book called The Polish Complex. Poles used to constantly refer back to this "Polish complex," the mentality that Poles had during communism. Someone could write something similar about Bulgaria.

That would be useful. But this book would be read by only a small group of people: the decision makers, the doers. Most of my friends and acquaintances in Bulgaria stay at the level of conversation. I don't find this sufficient. I'd rather place my hope in these kids who are protesting environmental problems and so on. At least they are motivated to do something. There is an inherent hope that human action can do something.

There's been a lot of discussion about why there has been a pushback against liberalism and against the "open society" in East-Central Europe: FIDESZ in Hungary, populist movements in other countries. Which of the three options would you choose? If we think of it epidemiologically, is it run-of-the-mill flu, is it cyclical, or is it more serious like a bird flu that we're unprepared for on a global level.

I tend to agree with the third hypothesis: bird flu. That doesn't mean it's incurable. I like to describe it as a systemic problem. It's not cyclical. I don't think it will go away.

What we liberals did not take into account was the importance of narrative and engaging people's emotions along with their minds. We have made the same mistake as the economists who believe that human beings make rational choices, that the economy has mechanisms of self-regulation. We believe that the truths we believe in are so obvious that you have to be an idiot or a fascist not to be believe in them. This is really what we did wrong. We never cared about what people felt, about our messages, about our choices. That's why we've lost huge constituencies everywhere. If we don't do something serious to engage the minds and the emotions of people, we'll turn into, I don't know, China.

We often talk among ourselves that the liberal consensus is over. Especially in our part of the world, it was very strong. Even the nonbelievers and non-supporters agreed that this was the right way to go. Now, 20 years later, it's the opposite. Even the people who strongly believe in those values are not sure if we are on the right track, because these values have proven ineffective in making people's lives better.

You mentioned that human nature is not that much different in America than in Bulgaria, especially when it comes to dirty politics. Were there other things that you learned here that were unanticipated?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.