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Half a Century since the Establishment of the Institute for Historical Studies at the BAS

Georgi Markov

        Historically speaking, half a century is very little time unless it is full of important events, but it is quite enough provided it was made worthwhile by creative effort. At the age of fifty one can openly admit one’s mistakes and oversights. This is ever more necessary for a scholarly centre which has been metaphorically likened to a spring of remembrance and wisdom. It is not possible to give an account of the Institute of History’s history on a few pages, therefore I am going to take upon myself the responsibility of a giving a summary of it.
        We, the historians, are well aware of what transience and permanence are, of how seemingly important events and people fade away into oblivion the further they become removed in time. Few are the works that outlive their authors; degrees are forgotten in diplomas. However hard they try to make their unbiased judgments from the pinnacle of the ever-growing pile of the years that have passed, researchers are not able to detach themselves from the circumstances of the times they are destined to live in. While the ancients had their Muse Clio and held history in high esteem as an art, until recently history used to be defined as a “socio-political science”, to avoid saying “ideological” one, as some of our critics do. However, let us be more lenient with delusions and aberrations, because the scholars of history, besides “writing a history” of past times, live in their own time and are influenced by those who are “making history”.
        Now, a brief pre-history. On March 27, 1938, a Committee on Publishing the Sources of Bulgarian History was established at the Historical–Philological branch of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, with the following members: Academicians Gavryl Katsarov, Petar Moutafchiev and Petar Nikov. Their first and foremost task was to collect and publish the sources of Medieval Bulgarian history. The Managing Council of the Academy allocated 180 000 levs annually, which was substantial funding at the time. With the Statute for the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Humanities and Arts endorsed by Decree № 29 from April 18, 1490 the investigation of Bulgarian history was once again set as priority and the task of “collecting and publishing the sources of Bulgarian people’s history” was commissioned once again. Therefore, the establishment of the Institute of History dates back before World War II.
        The beginning was difficult indeed, because it was set in the years of the “cultural-revolutionary purge” in the name of the imposed Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist ideology, which severed the natural continuation between generations of scientists. The deliberately imposed “de-fascization” turned into forceful sovietization of society and social sciences. The elimination of “Great Bulgarian chauvinism”, defined as “fascism on Bulgarian ground”, was manifested in the notorious “marxization” of historical science – “the achievement of a struggle which won’t be waged over a couple of weeks or months”: “Thus, our historical knowledge will be able to fulfill its duty, i.e. to provide the guidelines for action”.
        This “action” was unleashed in meetings of the party, ill-intentioned reports, fabricated accusations and humiliating “self-denunciation”. Intentionally assigned political labels ruined people’s lives. In March 1946 the professors in the Historical-Philological Faculty of the University of Sofia were grouped in the following categories: “unpurged fascists – 3, adherents to the Fatherland Front – 9, oppositioners – 3, having fluctuating opinion – 9”. In accordance with Georgi Dimitrov’s directions, a noisy campaign was launched for “cleansing of the poison of fascist ideology”, which was announced as “the foremost task of our new historians”. Therefore, they had to begin “from scratch”.
        The excessive “quotationism” may be explained as an attempt to circumvent the omnipotent censorship at the time. Any doubts in “the most scientific methodology” provoked indignation in the style of Valko Chervenkov in the National Assembly (June, 1947): “Stop picking on historical materialism! You don’t know the last thing about it.” Even the most tentative attempt of contradiction would be branded with the fatal “fascist” label. Therefore, when reading lines from those times not so long ago, I am always willing to make the condescending suggestion that our colleagues didn’t actually mean what they wrote.
        According to the Statute for BAS from 11 February 1947, the Academy underwent major restructuring, and many research institutes were established. Under the decision of the Managing Committee from 6 March 1947, an Institute for Bulgarian History was established at Historical–Philological Branch, and the Committee for Collecting and Publishing the Sources of Bulgarian History went on with its work within the Institute’s structure. Academician Ivan Snegarov was appointed director of the Institute on 16 May 1947. In October 1947 there were only five people. Despite the stifling political atmosphere fifty years ago, the Institute was initiqted and it managed to outlive that atmosphere and to develop in the future.
        In 1948 a plan for the scientific activity at BAS was introduced, according to which the newly formed Committee for New Bulgarian History was commissioned to publish the series "Documents of the History of the Bulgarian National Liberation Movement from Rakovski to the Liberation" [Документи за историята на българското националноосвободително движение от Раковски до Освобождението]. The Department of Ottoman Studies collected and published Turkish Sources of Bulgarian History and the Department of Medieval Studies focused its effort on Old Greek, Byzantine and Latin sources. The Department of General History concentrated on Bulgarian–Russian relations.
        At the Meeting of the “workers on the historical front” with Valko Chervenkov as the chairperson (March–April 1948), a vow was taken to “clean the Augean stables of bourgeois historiography” and to put it “on genuinely sound and scientific foundations” via “the decisive elimination of the reactionist trait in it”: “Great Bulgarian chauvinism has shown its cloven hoof, obviously to remind us that we are considerably lagging behind on the historical front and that our patience has been intolerably great”.  The ideological “class” and “single-party” approach was imposed as an obligatory and incontestable model. The “materialistic” concept of history was defined as “progressive”, and the “ideological” concept was severely stigmatized.
        Academician Snegarov made the participants in the meeting familiar with the activity of the four Departments (of Medieval, Ottoman, New Bulgarian and General History) of the Institute headed by him, whose purpose was “to study and objectively reveal the historical experience of the Bulgarian people, to shed light on the regularities of its development, not with an ascetic attitude towards contemporary life, rather with a keen and active attitude towards the present and future development of the Bulgarian people”. He argued that the duty of the Bulgarian scholars of history was to develop their science “into a science as exact as” biology because Stalin was positive about that. At the same time, the science of history was numbered among “sociopolitical” sciences, making it available for the execution of “social commissions” and faithful to the “party spirit in science”.
        Carrying out the resolution of the Fifth Congress of the Bulgarian Communist Party to write a Marxist History of Bulgaria, the Institute for Bulgarian History offered a plan and a team of authors to be approved by Politbureau on 3 December 1949. Vassil Kolarov, Valko Chervenkov, Anton Yugov and Todor Pavlov were the “editors in-chief”. Chervenkov, however, disagreed: “BAS was commissioned to write a History of Bulgaria by Comrade Dimitrov himself. Appointing the authors is entirely an internal affair of BAS. The plan (design) of the History and then the material which will have been written have to be given to the Central Committee (CC) for approval. We have to hurry. The deadline – 1951 – is far enough away”. "History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks). A Short Course" was regarded as the “paragon of Marxist–Leninist work of history”. Despite the orders, the two volumes of the History were delayed for three or four years (1954–1955), and the trial-copies were discussed in the Institute of Slavic Studies at the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
        In the first half of the 1950s the most widely used slogan on the “historical front” was Georgi Dimitrov’s precept: “We have a need for our own Marxist philosophy of our history as bread and air”. The breach with the “anachronisms of bourgeois–ideological methodology and of Great Bulgarian chauvinism” erased many events and people from history. “The little contributions” of “bourgeois” historians, “particularly from the time before their fascization”, might be used provided it was “based on historical materialism”. Quite a few works were written in that spirit, being restricted by the directive to give unilateral and biased treatment of important problems from the multilayered past. Crippling censure is evident on each page, suggesting the involvement of non-historians.
        The multi-volume edition "Sources of Bulgarian History" [Извори за българската история] has been of major importance for the research work of the Institute since its pre-history, and has been published in the form of a number of series: Greek Sources of Bulgarian History (12 volumes), Latin Sources of Bulgarian History (5 volumes), Turkish Sources of Bulgarian History (8 volumes), Hebrew Sources of Bulgarian History, Czech and Slovak Sources of Bulgarian History, etc. The publication has been extremely well accepted both domestically and internationally. It has been frequently used as reference source in significant works of history, and is available in major specialized libraries in European, Asian and American countries.
        The Institute was growing rapidly in terms of its structure and staff members. In 1952 the Jewish Scientific Institute was included in the Institute, followed by "Botev–Levsky Institute" in 1960. The same year the Institute was given the name Institute for History. There were 5 departments now: Old and Medieval Bulgarian History, New and Contemporary Bulgarian History, History of the Relations of Bulgaria, the USSR, and the Socialist Countries, Byzantine and Oriental Studies, Sources and Bibliography of Bulgarian History. The number of fellow researchers was increased from 14 in 1951 to 42 in 1960. Academician Dimitar Kossev was their director from 1950 to 1962.
        Publishing the sources continued to be a major task for the Institute, followed by topics concerning the sociopolitical relations in the Middle Ages and the Revival, working-class and socialist movements and the struggles against “monarchist–fascist dictatorship”, as well as “the construction of socialism”. In 1953 the journal Historical Review [Исторически преглед] became the scientific and theoretical organ of the Institute, and its Bulletin [Известия] (30 volumes) developed as a series for publishing lengthy works.
        The majority of the monographical studies were dedicated to contemporary Bulgarian history. While with the Middle Ages it was possible to circumvent ideological dogmatism, it was increasingly difficult to overcome this kind of difficulties with the progress in time, especially with the turn of the 20th century. However, in contrast with the hard times of “the purges”, at the beginning of the 1960s the scholars of history were at least able to pass some things over in silence, and they weren’t forced to write something which ran counter to their views. Therefore, let us bear in mind the year of publication of the books and articles we read.
        The second revised and extended three-volume academic edition of History of Bulgaria overcame to a certain degree the rigid scheme of “the commission by the Fifth Congress” by using the achievements of the publication of the sources and the findings of the study of important topics from Bulgarian history. The shortcomings were growing in number with the gradual movement into contemporary times when ideologization and politization rendered the explanation of complex historical phenomena as simplified rules, which required the implementation of “the most scientific methodology”. The “bleak” past was summoned to contrast the “blissful” present and to instill confidence in “the bright future”.
        In 1964 the core of the Institute of Balkan Studies was formed from the "Byzantine and Oriental Studies department". The Institute for History celebrated its twentieth anniversary with 48 fellow researchers, who worked in the following departments: “Old and Medieval History of Bulgaria”, “Revival”, “New History of Bulgaria”, “Contemporary History of Bulgaria”, “General History”, “Scientific Information, Bibliography and Documentation”, as well as Committee of Methodology and Historiography. Academician Hristo Hristov was the director of the Institute from 1962 to 1989.
        Tracing down and publishing the sources of Bulgarian history continued to be a major task for the Institute, followed by the “study of many major problems and topics”, the findings of which were published in collections and monographs. The struggle “against the distortions and falsifications of Bulgarian history” was added to the “struggle against bourgeois ideology”. Although “Bulgarian nationalism and chauvinism” were considered identical, the national spirit started to penetrate our native history alongside party-ideological propaganda.
        The Institute’s endeavour to compile a multi-volume "History of Bulgaria" was of exceptional significance for the development of the Institute for History, as well as for the historical science as a whole, and was acclaimed and approved with a decision of Politbureau of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party from 21 May 1968: “The nine-volume history of Bulgaria has to be written in consistency with Marxist-Leninist methodology, based on all scientific research done so far and on considerable source and documental material. It has to reveal fully and comprehensively the difficult though heroic journey of the Bulgarian people from Antiquity to the present day, its incessant struggles against foreign slavery and oppression, for freedom and independence, for social progress, and the contribution of our country to the treasury of world culture”.
        There was a provision to strengthen the Institute in terms of organization and staff with a view to carrying out “miscellaneous tasks of scientific and political nature”. Besides the additionally provided staff places, the decision obliged the Municipality of Sofia “to provide suitable premises” until a building of the Institute was constructed.
The multi-volume history was dedicated to the 1300th anniversary of the founding of the Bulgarian State, and the Institute would develop under the sign of this anniversary for many decades.
        Considerable funds were allocated to the tracking of valuable sources of Bulgarian history in countries near and far to be used by many generations of researchers. The greater number of research scholarships provided the opportunity for a new generation of historians, whose dissertations were freer from ideological bias, to find their way into science. The scope of the popularization of the Institute abroad was widened through publications in foreign languages, particularly with the launch of "Bulgarian Historical Review" journal in 1972. The international congresses of historical sciences on Slavic and Balkan studies have been regularly reported in the series "Etudes Historiques" (14 volumes). The journals "Byzantinobulgarica" and "Auxiliary Sciences of History" (“Помощни исторически науки”) attracted the interest of a wide reading public. The Institute maintained international relations predominantly with the East, with a greater opening to the West. It is difficult to enumerate the occasions on which the members of the Institute participated in international congresses, conferences and symposia domestically and abroad.
        The multi-volume "History of Bulgaria" (seven volumes printed, the eight one is currently in the press) is one of the most significant achievements of Bulgarian historical science. It is the product of the joint effort of the most renowned historians of different generations and reflects the achievement of Bulgarian studies domestically and abroad. The volumes published so far, covering the centuries from Antiquity to modern times, have summarized the best achievements of scientific research over the past decades and years, and volume 8 is devoted to events from 1903 until the end of World War I. The multi-volume History of Bulgaria contains many significant achievements in terms both of facts and conceptualization. In its beautifully printed volumes politics, economy, religion and culture are treated comprehensively and multiaspectually for the first time. This monumental work deals also to a different extent with the history of political parties, governments, regimes, foreign policy, the development of the National Issue, the social and state-political structure of the country. This publication is very well accepted domestically and abroad.
        Despite the financial difficulties of publishing such an expensive and valuable series, the Institute of History will continue to view this as its main research task, which joins the efforts of many historians. Certainly, due to the controversial and sensitive events from World War I onward, new periodisation, structure and teams of authors and boards of editors would establish themselves. We don’t need methodology as much as we need conscience and objectivity so that the past be never altered again with a view to the necessities of the present. Historians shouldn’t serve politics, they should teach it the morals of history.
        The celebration of the 1300th anniversary of the foundation of the Bulgarian State effected a boom in historical literature. National and international scientific events found a broad response in society, moreover without the heavy ideological burden despite persisting censorship. The comparison with the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s allows us not to be pessimistic and biased when it comes to development of both historical process and historiography. The participation pf a great number of research associates from the Institute in two international congresses on Bulgarian Studies (1981 and 1986) was recorded in a series of volumes, and, more importantly, accompanied with discussions that had not been possible before. It won’t be an overstatement to state that the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s was “historians’ time”, with all reservations attached to this definition.
        The years of the "perestroyka" heralded the final shattering of ideological chains. It was no longer possible to command the “historical front” in an overt and blatant manner via decisions taken by the congresses, plenums and conferences of the party. The “class-and-party approach”, the forbidden topics, the “convenient” and the “inconvenient” truth all lost their dominance irretrievably. Now the influence of the East was beneficial for Bulgarian historians, i.e., as the saying goes, they had “let the genie out of the bottle”. A great number of historians, especially the younger ones, were inwardly ready to welcome the change. Academician Mito Issussov was the director of the Institute from 1989 until 1992.
        We, the scholars of history, are supposed to be best able to anticipate the dawn or the end of an era, sensing common features and singular characteristics. We are currently not enough removed from the tumultuous year of 1989 to be able to analyze it holistically and to get to the depth of events. Some speak of a “change of the system”, others – of a slow and painful “transition”. In any case, that was the turn of two eras, and these were interesting times, regardless of how difficult they were, because the social energy that had been unleashed, although being a destructive force, was beginning to realize what its real function was, and was setting out to construct. [So far, the Institute had been “for History”, now it becomes “of History”?]
        In accordance with the reform in BAS, the Institute of History was accredited in 1993–1994, and was given a new structure consisting of 7 departments: Medieval History of Bulgaria, History of the Bulgarian People from the 15th to the 19th Centuries, New Bulgarian History, History of Bulgaria after World War II, Bulgarian Ethnic Territories and Communities after 1878, History of the World and International Relations in Contemporary and Recent Times, Auxiliary Sciences of History and Informatics. The total number of the employees at the Institute is currently 118 people.
        The dismissal of staff members was painful but inevitable. The harsh economical conditions of the crisis required a shift from quantity to quality, which applied both to the scholars themselves and to the content of research projects. The most valuable acquisition for the authors was the freedom of speech and the press. The problems that ensued were the result of the difficult adaptation to market economy, when publishing was hindered by financial instead of political obstructions. Nevertheless, the notorious “grey wind”, which was rather a whirlwind, eventually subsided, and the best-quality works made it through strong competition and were able to see the light of day.
        The science of history requires the union and concentration of the knowledge and effort of many specialists, all of whom are competent in the field of their professional interest, and all of them dedicated to service of the Bulgarian people. The variety of creative enquiry and achievement was not an obstacle but a stimulus for the development of the Institute of History as a major center for research of the centuries-long past of the Bulgarian people and of its modest though singular contribution to world history. The significance of the truthful interpretation of the past and the preciousness of historical experience justify both the preservation and the adjustment of the Institute with respect to the irreversible processes going on in society. The complicated conditions for the survival of science in general at a time of all-embracing crisis exacted the break of the long-encouraged habit of waiting for funds and tasks to come “from the top”. As a legal person, the Institute has gained social and international recognition of its singular character. The Institute of History is a major and permanent scientific unit for fundamental and specialized research. It coordinates the research in the field of historical science in the country and trains specialists in particular scientific fields. The works of its scholars have been recognized domestically and abroad. In view of the high professionalism of its scholars, the Institute of History should be recognized as a national center for historical research.
        Both society as a whole and the science for the past are burdened with the past. The past fifty years left their controversial legacy in our native historiography. The natural continuity with the preceding “bourgeois” legacy, which didn’t fit in the mould of official ideology, was severed for a long time. Now that we have learned from the dismal experience of “the cultural revolution”, we have become wise enough to be able to sift out the nutrient grain from the chaff of propaganda, for which the science of history is “policy directed to the past”. Overcoming the impeding ideologems liberated scientific research both thematically and in terms of content.
        The fate of the Institute of History is part of the future of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, therefore its research associates and employees work whole-heartedly to preserve it and gain recognition for it. It is of paramount importance for society to feel the necessity for the existence of the Institute of History as a repository for the people’s memory and a hearth of patriotism. The moral gratification will then be stronger than material and day-to-day hardships.
        Many of our colleagues are no longer among the living, but their works remain with us. Let us remember them with the best of the years we spent together, and let us try to forget, at least for today, the quarrels, the misunderstandings and the forgivable human mistakes; when we look at them from the height of these fifty years, they have shrunk so much that they are hardly visible.
        Not willing to use the trite word “staff”, I choose to congratulate all the fellows of the Institute with its anniversary, who are a community of creative personalities, each one with his or her own character and interests in scientific research. It is only natural that the skill and the contribution of everybody can’t be at one and the same level, but let each and everyone of us contribute in his or her own way to our mutual home of science. I wish health and happiness to you all and to your families, and success in your creative projects, less worries and more happiness, and let it be so for the coming fifty years.

Sofia, 1999