My Europe: Society's sleep gives birth to dictators


If we as a society are not ready to wake up, wars and catastrophes will destroy us, writes our columnist, the multi-award-winning Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov.

Our columnist, the Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov

So the time has come… The war is on its way in Europe , we are on our way to the air raid shelter, to the bunker. And blood is flowing again in the vessel in which history and literature should flow.

These are the first words I was able to put down on paper after the start of the war against Ukraine. It was an emotional outburst that ended like this:

And what am I going to tell my daughter tonight when I have sworn to her night after night that there will be no war? And how can we even explain that the nursery of this world is unprepared for a war?

Georgi Gospodinov with his daughter

And these evenings have been going on for over a year now. Back then it wasn't actually a question I asked myself, it was more desperation and shame that it could come to this. And fear, of course, because my daughter was sleeping in the next room. In an apartment that was only a nuclear stone's throw away from the theater of war. And I was suddenly overwhelmed by the rules that we had to learn in “military classes” at school back then. Completely senseless rules, of course: you mustn't look in the direction of the mushroom cloud, because that spoils your eyes; you have to get away from the windows to avoid being injured by the broken glass after the detonation…

Nuclear fear roused

I didn't really know anymore whether it was pointless or sensible. But what I knew for certain: the red button of nuclear fear had already been pressed. I hurriedly looked around the room and knew immediately that these rules, stupid or not, I really need to teach my daughter. And that's the moment she wakes up again.

Then the war developed conventionally: with advancing battle and protective tanks, with artillery fire and mangled human bodies. And somehow we pushed aside the nuclear fear. Without forgetting them entirely, of course. Putin failed to take Kiev within days or weeks, and Ukrainians did not wave the white flag as he expected. But suddenly, a year later, he shook nuclear fear up again with a speech. And not only with hints, not only rhetorically, but also actively, in which he withdrew from the nuclear disarmament treaty START II .

Destroyed gaming table

What is that supposed to mean? – I wondered. On the one hand – a new round of fear, switching on the nuclear fear. On the other hand, that was probably a declaration of bankruptcy in conventional warfare. There was even a glimmer of hope: Speaking of nuclear weapons, could Putin himself be waving a discreet white flag with the nuclear symbol on it, not visible to locals but easily recognizable to opponents? Because the last way out of a failed conventional warfare is probably to pull the nuclear trump card out of your sleeve and either change the gaming table or destroy it.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin

Of course, that's no consolation at all, because destroying the gaming table is, quite simply, destroying the whole world. Yes, a few rats and insects will survive, as will some ginkgo biloba trees that survived the Ice Age and the Hiroshima bomb. Which may have a symbolic meaning, because the ginkgo biloba leaves are said to help against poor memory. So these trees will forever preserve our memory of the disaster. But the bad thing about it: In a deserted world, they won't be able to pass it on to anyone.

People who combine humanity

Well, we're still alive. But where do we actually stand after more than twelve months of war? Yes, Europe has become more defensive and steadfast in its support for Ukraine. And my home country, Bulgaria? It fluctuates. Sometimes it says: only technical assistance for Ukraine, not a single cartridge. But then we learn from the German media that our small and poor country has delivered large quantities of arms and ammunition to Ukraine at a very difficult, even fateful moment for Ukrainians. Well, secretly and for a good price, but still…

Solidarity demonstration for Ukraine in the Bulgarian capital Sofia on 02/24/2023

And we also have people like Manol Peikow. A man who bundled the energy of thousands of citizens willing to donate and, I think, in a European comparison, I think he probably delivered the most power generators to Ukraine. The drive of people like Manol is a sign that we have a huge potential of humanity and meaningfulness here. You have to say that out loud!

Suppressed mass murder

Unfortunately, there is also the opposite, we must not turn a blind eye. While Bulgarian rescue workers, volunteers and doctors are helping out after the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, while Manol and the Bulgarian donors are sending many trucks with generators to Ukraine, there are also the other Bulgarian trucks. Loaded, even crammed with living human beings, packed close together. Trucks that have already turned into moving sarcophagi halfway. The news about those 18 people who suffocated in a secret truck bed in Bulgaria – that was actually a mass murder! – went down without a word in the media. She offered no sympathy, let alone shock. Just because the victims weren't Bulgarians?

On February 17th, 2023 near the Bulgarian capital Sofia, 18 dead people – refugees – discovered in an abandoned truck

In the Bulgarian case, the last months of war and catastrophes can also be told like this: about the trucks. The ones who have delivered military aid, generators, clothes and food for people in need across several borders. And the others who secretly smuggled people across the borders. And corpses. So the crucial question for us is: Are we ready to stop these “other” trucks? So, are we ready to wake up? Are we ready to institutionally and humanly point the finger at corruption? On the corruption outside, but also on the corruption within ourselves.

But what does that have to do with the war? A lot more than it seems. Because the sleep of society gives birth to dictators. And they give birth to war and disasters. No society is immune to it. Neither does ours. Especially not ours.

Georgi Gospodinov (b. 1968) is the most translated contemporary Bulgarian writer. Among other things, he is the recipient of the Angelus Central European Literature Prize (2019) and the Jan Michalski Literature Prize. His last novel “Time Refuge” was translated into 17 languages ​​and nominated for this year's Booker Prize.

Translation: Alexander Andreev