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  • Tzvetan Todorov, A Final Interview
  • Richard J. Golsan
    Translated by Nathan Bracher (bio)
R. J. Golsan [RJG]:

Tzvetan, I would like to ask you first about your background and your youth in Communist Bulgaria, because so many of your books and essays refer to your youth there, contrasted with your adult life in the West: How has your perspective on your communist youth changed over time?

Tzvetan Todorov [TT]:

So, we have often spoken about this subject in conversations over the years, but I am now going to try to approach it in a more systematic manner. The way that I see my adolescence up to the age of 24, which is when I came to France, has not changed appreciably over the last few years. Bulgaria, then, was a society that I now call totalitarian. That's perhaps too generic a term, but it was a repressive, intolerant, dogmatic society, in which there was only one truth, that of the Communist Party and its programs, which needed to be confirmed at every instant.

This was reflected first of all in family life, because each family could be involved in these matters and therefore feel they were involved politically. Additionally, this could be felt in the life of the school boy and university student that I was. Among ourselves—among my peers and equals—we had to be sure that all of us maintained the proper conduct. Also, our contacts with the outside world, I mean the world outside Bulgaria, were certainly determined by the difficulty of having them, since for us the iron curtain was not a Churchillian metaphor aimed at maintaining the Cold War. No, it was very concretely a total separation that existed between the socialist camp, of which Bulgaria was a part, and the rest of the world, which we used to call the capitalist camp.

I mentioned first of all the family. My father had been a man of the left before the war. So right after the Red Army had passed through Bulgaria in the fall of 1944, when Bulgaria fell into the zone of Russian and Soviet influence, so right after this political change, my father received a substantial promotion in his profession. He was a librarian, and he was the director of a library, a quite modest library of one of the banks in Sofia, I believe. But he had published several little books on the [End Page 4] purpose and organization of libraries, so he enjoyed a certain reputation as a specialist on the subject.

Right after the change in political power, his star was on the rise because he was a man of the left. Shortly after the change took place, he became a member of the Communist Party, and was appointed director of national libraries. He was therefore charged with managing all of Bulgaria's libraries in a way, and in particular the most prestigious of them all, the National Library. Very quickly, however, within three or four years, in other words around 1948 or '49, the communist regime hardened and began examining the past of its own partisans, including people like my father, and in a very peculiar way.

Specifically, all who had been active as leftists or pro-communist prior to the war, prior to the Communists' arrival to power, started to come under a certain suspicion. Not that their convictions were in doubt, but [the problem was] that they owed their career only to themselves. They had not been the children of the new regime. They did not owe their promotion to their current superiors, but to their own qualifications. And for that reason, all these individuals became suspect. A bit like in Russia, where the same thing had happened.

The same phenomenon took place in the Soviet Union about twenty years after the revolution, in other words right in the middle of the 1930s. Hence the famous trials, during which individuals were condemned even though their communist convictions were not in doubt. The same process occurred in all of the popular democracies, which followed the pattern of their Russian big brother, only at a faster rate, since in Bulgaria it was occurring four years after...