Veneta Ivanova

  • Fellowship year:2014-2015
  • University: University of Illinois Urbana Champaign
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: Modern Europe
  • Dissertation Title: Occult Communism: Culture, Spirituality, and Science in Late Socialist Bulgaria
  • In late communist Bulgaria, Minister of Culture and daughter of party leader Lyudmila Zhivkova, used her extraordinary powers to cast everything-from art to education to science-in the un-Marxist light of occultism. Inspired by her religious beliefs, she initiated large-scale state programs to forge a nation of well-rounded individuals, devoted to spiritual self-perfection, who would ultimately "work, live and create according to the laws of beauty." How could Zhivkova's state-sponsored spiritualism flourish in the materialistic world of communism? What did Zhivkova's foray into occultism mean for late communist political culture, understandings of modernity and science, and sense of national culture? Was this a sui generis Bulgarian phenomenon that can be dismissed as an insignificant aberration? Or alternatively, can it be useful in shedding light on late communism in a larger comparative context?

    My project focuses on how Zhivkova translated her religio-philosophical worldview into state policies, highlighting the socio-cultural context that made their implementation possible. I examine three realms of what I term "occult communism:" Zhivkova's grandiose cultural initiatives; occult religiosity, as exemplified by the special status of the White Brotherhood; and occult science as embodied by the Institute of Suggestology. Using multiple sources (archives, memoirs, oral interviews, television programs, monuments and architecture), I contend that as utopian as Zhivkova's vision was, it was ultimately an attempt to attach a "human face" to the communist project. Consequently, her policies contributed to a certain liberalization of the cultural sphere, to intellectuals' active participation in cultural policy, and to the abandonment of socialist realism in art. Ultimately, I use Zhivkova's occult communism as an entryway to explore late communism in Eastern Europe; and to problematize the relationship between communism, religiosity and science in a larger comparative context.