09/24/2013 05:12 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

The Lost Treasure of Revolutions

I once asked someone that I was re-interviewing here in East-Central Europe how he would compare his life back in 1988 with his life today. He looked at me as if I were crazy. "Of course it was better then!" he exclaimed.

"It was better under Communism?"

He laughed. "No, it was better when I was 25 years younger!"

The desire to be young again is powerful. But more powerful still is to be younger and part of a movement on the verge of remaking the world. In Poland, Solidarity activists look back with great affection to the time when it seemed as if the entire society was pulling for a single goal. For a brief period of time, East Germans participated in a grand experiment to transform their country into something different from both the past and from the West.

In Bulgaria, the group of activists was smaller. Dimitrina Petrova, who is now the executive director of Equal Rights Trust in London, remembers the conversations that gripped her and her circle of friends in those days. They would become key participants in the changes that took place in Bulgaria in 1989. But what they talked about at the time doesn't quite translate into today's context.

"One version of what happened in the 1980s and 1990s, the mainstream version, is that this was a transition from a totalitarian or authoritarian society -- a closed society -- into a democracy, and it was driven by people's desire to live in freedom," she told me in an interview in London in January. "The freedom fighters, eventually with the very significant participation of the West, overturned the Communist regime. This is the mainstream story of 1989 today. But I think this story is only part of the truth, not the whole truth. It doesn't reflect accurately what people talked about at the time, cared about, or called for. Many of the issues we cared about wouldn't make much sense in the contexts that people understood or cared to understand in the years after 1989.

She continued, "For example, we had endless discussions -- Krassimir Kanev, whom you know, and Deyan Kyuranov, and myself, and many others -- about the tiniest nuances of meaning in the early Marx, and what a 'just society' would be according to Marx, and whether that could be our vision of the future. This is no longer relevant, at least not now. Maybe it will become relevant again in a different time or place, but it's not now. Because of the dominant line of discourse that has become the mainstream interpretation of what happened around 1989, people either accepted it -- because it's also part of the truth -- or if they didn't, they shut up."

These discussions took place because of a unique convergence of factors. "We were young, energetic, and had plenty of time on our hands, and no motivation to make a career in the official system because there were no rewards, neither at a personal nor a material level," Petrova said. "Time was the crucial element: the time to read, to talk, to talk, to talk, and to talk. It was a very oral kind of existence. So that's why it was a happy time. And we won."

But today, these conversations appear like the "lost treasure of revolutions," to quote Hannah Arendt. "I feel a huge loss connected to this. I don't even have anyone to talk with about these things any longer. The community in which I lived disappeared," she concluded. "I have nobody to talk with about such issues and I would even have difficulty reconstructing what I was just saying. I was almost stuttering to myself because I'm trying to reconstruct what I know were superior interests to what I'm doing now or am interested in now. My capacity to talk about radically different societies has been out of usage for such a long time that I've even lost the language to talk about it. I'm not even sure if I am still interested or whether I can revive this interest."

The Interview

You initially said that the fall of Communism was the best thing that happened to you and the worst thing that happened to you. Did you have in mind anything specific when you said that?

It was the happiest thing because we had a project and we over-delivered. We didn't even call for so much. We wanted -- better to speak for myself -- I wanted to have a reformed system where there would be more freedom. I didn't have an issue with social equality. I had an issue with the planned economy, and with the cognitive hubris of the planned economy and the possibility to make responsible decisions in a centrally planned economy. But I and many others also accepted the ideas of social equality, meaning not just the absence of discrimination in terms of gender, ethnicity, and so on, but also socio-economic equality. We had internalized that ideal, and we thought that this was a good thing. As you know, in the West it's not taken for granted. So, in fact, the horizon of the future for me did not necessarily involve a movement toward the rich becoming richer and the poor poorer.

So, it was the happiest event in my life because we had a shared project, we were young, and we were idle. Idleness was a huge factor that contributed to the end of the system through disruption from within, because we had time. And we had time -- especially intellectuals and university people like me -- because of the way the system worked. I had to teach a certain number of hours per week. I had to read books, and I had to deliver papers or whatever. That was very easy. We were young, energetic, and had plenty of time on our hands, and no motivation to make a career in the official system because there were no rewards, neither at a personal nor a material level. Time was the crucial element: the time to read, to talk, to talk, to talk, and to talk. It was a very oral kind of existence. So that's why it was a happy time. And we won.

I personally was enormously privileged. I was the lucky bastard because not only we as a group won, but I, as an individual, was somehow chosen by my friends to go on and to be a representative in the parliament. Therefore, I had the opportunity to participate in making the first post-Communist constitution. Those first stages were still very exciting. Parliament was a theatre. Actual theaters in my country went bankrupt at that time. Nobody went to the theater during the era of the Grand National Assembly in 1990-91, because the theater was the Grand National Assembly. There were incredibly colorful personalities from all walks of life saying incredible things, and people were glued to their TVs 24 hours a day because we worked overnight. It was a crazy time. Often times there was a crisis, and we (the opposition to the Communist party who had won with a very thin majority in June 1990) walked out of parliament. Eventually it became boring. Fortunately, I left. I didn't remain in the party political process after that. But during the most interesting time, I was there. It was a revolution, it was bloodless, and it succeeded--it even over-succeeded.

But I want to make one additional point that goes back to what I was saying about the mainstream version of what happened. On the one hand, it was absolutely true that dissidents wanted more freedom and human rights. But the other part of the story, the untold part of the story - because I haven't written my own book about the subject -- is the betrayal of equality. This is one of the messages that was lost. I lived in Hungary for 11 years, so I know Hungary also quite well. So, this is true at least in Bulgaria and Hungary. People, especially those who were not the intellectuals and the dissidents, were motivated to go against the regime, to participate in those first street protests that decided everything, because they felt that the promise of equality had been betrayed. The most sensitive slogans that we had in Ecoglasnost were not the human-rights-based or the freedom-based slogans but the equality-based ones. The most thrilling thing we actually came up with, was: "Every Bulgarian millionaire must become a sponsor of Ecoglasnost." Our very suggestion that there were Bulgarian millionaires was a bomb. The equality issue was especially sensitive to people outside Sofia who were not intellectuals but were the masses that delegitimized the regime.

People didn't quite understand very intuitively what it is to have freedom of expression. "What is it that you want to express?" they wanted to know. But what people in the villages and the small towns understood and were annoyed with was the privileges of the nomenklatura, the fact that this elite was living much better, sending its children to expensive Western universities. The life of the nomenklatura had nothing to do with the lives of the ordinary people. Events such as the Chernobyl catastrophe highlighted this, when the nomenklatura got a separate set of instructions on what to eat and what not to eat, which was different from what was publicly announced for the general public. We were supposed to be an equal society. But look at those "proletarian leaders", with their triple chins, singing the Internationale at the Party Congress: were those people like us? So, bitterness about a failed promise of equality was widespread, and it contributed in a major -- but now forgotten -- way to the de-legitimization of the system.

Volen Siderov of Ataka is basically saying the same thing now that he was saying back then when he talks about those issues of social equality. He spent most of the time in our interview railing against the new elite and talking about the importance of social equality.

But did he speak about social equality back then?

When he was the editor of Demokratsiya? I don't know.

I don't remember. I don't know. Today many people will say they are nostalgic because Communism was an equal society and equality was a good thing and it's a pity we lost it. If people went against the Communist regime because they were let down on equality, or at least partly because of that, then what happened in the years after 1989 -- the quick creation of much greater inequality - caused the backlash, with Communists or socialists returning to power a few years into the "transition." In almost all former communist countries, a similar return of a more egalitarian Left took place at some point in the 1990s, and this was put down to "nostalgia." There is also a whole nostalgia discourse today. But I think nostalgia is a misnomer. Nobody in our part of the world is really "nostalgic" for what we know was bad in communism. The so-called nostalgia is something else. It's in fact the way in which people experience a kind of a double letdown. In my generation at least, and at least in Bulgaria and Hungary, the positive value of social equality had been entrenched. We believed in it. We accepted that it was worth fighting for and dying for. We were raised this way. It's true that when I was among the liberal intellectual circles, this was not what was discussed, because it was taken for granted. It was also taken for granted that the society that we wanted in the future would also be equal, but in a different way. When it came to freedom and equality, we did not envisage paying with the one to buy the other. We assumed that we could have both.

So when you say that it was also the worst day of your life, you mean that it was this failure to transform society in a socially equal way, to achieve both liberty and equality for all.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.