Friday, May 28, 2021

Theodora Dragostinova's "The Cold War from the Margins"

Theodora K. Dragostinova is Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University. She is coeditor of Beyond Mosque, Church, and State and author of Between Two Motherlands.

Dragostinova applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Cold War from the Margins: A Small Socialist State on the Global Cultural Scene, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book goes to the heart of my argument: that, as seen in Bulgaria, there was a specific state socialist idea of culture during the Cold War that spotlights communist Eastern Europe as the site of alternative modernity. To quote: “The way West and East interpreted the role of culture reflected their competing ideas of state, society, and human rights. … Bulgarian experts used the phrase ‘true arts’ (istinsko izkustvo) to promote their vision of culture, which was essentially seen as high culture aimed at the masses, as opposed to culture in the West, which they saw as split between elite culture reserved for the rich, and cheap, vulgar mass culture.” There is still much value to think what exactly culture is, who gets to define it, and who has the chance to participate in it!

In the rest of my book, I explore how Bulgaria’s communist elites organized a staggering number of cultural events across the globe—from the Balkans to Western Europe and the United States to India, Mexico, and Nigeria. In all of these case—and as stated on Page 99 “there was a dynamic interplay between culture, ideology, and propaganda in the way Bulgaria staged its cultural presence.” In some cases, the Bulgarians emphasized their national uniqueness, as they did in the Balkans. In others, they wanted to be seen as important contributors to European civilization, as they did in the West. And in still others, they showcased their universal contributions to humanity, as they did in India and Mexico.

All in all, the idea was that culture allows a small state to exert global influence and chart an independent path outside of political, military, or economic frameworks. Judging by some of the events and their resonance, the Bulgarians were quite successful!

Yet, we should remember: communist elites largely controlled cultural expression. To return to Page 99, “distrust and vigilance in regard to Western cultural events remained the norm. … At the same time that Bulgaria sought access to the best exhibition spaces and performance halls in the West, requested more publicity in the media, and expected political recognition of its cultural efforts at the highest levels, officials zealously policed what type of Western culture could be shown in Bulgaria.” This quotation captures perfectly the contradictions of the global Bulgarian cultural extravaganza that my book explores!
Follow Theodora Dragostinova on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue