05/22/2013 01:41 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2013

The Politics of Memory

America is the land of "move on." That's the name of the organization whose original mission was to persuade the U.S. electorate to move on from the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. But it could also be the name of President Barack Obama's approach to the crimes and misdemeanors of the preceding Bush administration: America needs to turn its back on the problems of the past and face forward to the future.

Western Europe, meanwhile, has often presented itself as the land that has solved the history problem. The different factions in Northern Ireland submitted to protracted negotiations. France and West Germany settled their differences through economic and geopolitical cooperation. West Germany offered apologies and reparations to the victims of the Holocaust. History, in other words, has been tamed. It has been relegated to the safe confines of the textbook and the museum.

Only in the eastern stretches of Europe, according to this presumptuous interpretation, does history remain a problem. The countries to the East, accordingly, show an unhealthy fixation on the past, whether Serbia and the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 or Hungary and the resentments of the Trianon Treaty of 1920. Moreover, East-Central Europe faces the twin challenges of totalitarianism by failing to come to terms with either fascism or Communism.

There are plenty of people in East-Central Europe who would prefer the idealized American or the West European approach to the history of the last 100 years. They'd like to face forward and move on. Or they'd like to presume that their countries, too, have solved the history problem by drawing a thick line between themselves and the past by way of the ruptures of 1989.

But that's not how Vasil Kadrinov feels. A former political prisoner in Bulgaria, he has worked tirelessly to engage the horrors of the past -- in his own country as well as other countries in the region. He has worked to open the files of the Bulgarian secret service and to prevent former officers from participating in politics. He has lobbied to reduce the state pensions of Communist-era functionaries and intelligence officers. He is a founding member of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience.

What motivates him, in part, is not only his own experience as a political prisoner but the experiences of those who served much longer terms. When he was imprisoned in the 1980s, he met Lazar, an old man who was in his 17th year as a political prisoner. Lazar formed a choir and kept up the spirits of his fellow inmates through music and humor.

"I keep coming back to these stories, especially with the memorial project that I've been doing over the last three or four years," Vasil Kadrinov told me as we sat in an outdoor café in Bulgaria's second largest city, Plovdiv, last September. "The problem is that such people like Lazar are dying. Our duty is to preserve the memory of them. But every year I grow more disappointed because so few people are active on this topic."

Vasil Kadrinov is not selective in his approach to history. He doesn't focus exclusively on the crimes of the Communist era. "One big problem we have with the past is the time before the Communists came to power," he said. "What kind of society was there in Bulgaria? There is a myth that before the bad Communists came along with the bad Soviet army, it was the very good kingdom of Bulgaria." For Kadrinov, in other words, the confrontation with Bulgarian history doesn't just start in 1945.

In our conversation, which continued from an earlier interview about minority issues from five years earlier, we discussed the "history problems" that have plagued Bulgaria for the last century, problems that are not unique to East-Central Europe. Accountability with the past is a challenge for all of Europe and the United States as well.

The Interview

What was the actual condition of your life in Stara Zagora? How many people were in the cell?

We were four people in the cell. It was a small cell, the beds stacked on top of each other. Between the beds was about 70 centimeters so that we could stand. Every evening the guards came to check on us, and we stood in a line, four men one behind the other. The conditions in the central prison were very bad because it was an old prison. There was very little food. On the other side of the corridor were people who were sentenced to death. They were executing people, so some of them were crying. It was a very bad atmosphere.

Last year I went back for the first time, with a documentary film crew from the German television station RTL. I was researching stories of young people from the GDR who escaped to Turkey and Greece through Bulgaria. There were two editors on this documentary, and one of them, Freya Klier, had been a young girl who tried to escape the GDR to Sweden. We researched different stories about young people from the GDR who escaped, some of whom had been killed. In the documentary, we talked about two boys who were killed on the Greek border. Another one, Thomas Müller, had his foot amputated in the Burgas hospital. Other deserters such as a brother and sister from Dresden were brought to the central prison in Sofia.

We went with the film crew to the section I'd been in and took pictures. I didn't find many changes. There was only a new primitive toilet in the cell. I looked into my neighbor's cell, because at that time nobody was being held there. I said to the guard, "I was here about 25 years ago, and there aren't many changes." He said to me, "You were here for only a short time and you have forgotten what it was like here. And you are not doing enough to change these conditions." And there was nothing I could say to this man in reply. In 2006, a delegation of members from the Green group of the European Parliament came to Bulgaria. I was an assistant to this group. This was before the accession of Bulgaria to the European Union in 2006. We had a meeting in the Ministry of Justice with the deputy minister responsible for prisons. He asked the Greens to lobby for money from the EU for new prisons in Bulgaria. Until now, there have been no new prisons.

In Stara Zagora, you said you did work to take time off your sentence. What kind of work was it?

In the prison was a factory for furniture. We made beds for small children, bureaus for writings, and so on. About 100 prisoners worked in this factory.

How was the work?

It wasn't such hard work. I think it was similar to what workers were doing in regular factories. It was the prison that was the problem, not the work in this factory. Maybe it even helped make the time go more quickly. Because if you stay in a cell all day...

You go crazy.


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To read the rest of the interview, click here.