New Directions in the Scholarship on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution: Memory and the Transnational Impact 60 Years After

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In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech before the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in which he denounced Stalin’s “cult of personality” and condemned some of the crimes of the Stalinist era – notably, the mass terror of the 1930s – thereby destroying the myth of Stalin’s infallibility.  News of Khrushchev’s “secret speech” spread throughout Eastern Europe and contributed to the Polish reform movement, including protests in Poznań (June 1956) and the “Polish October,” which led to a brief period of liberalization.  The events in Poland inspired student demonstrations in Budapest, which swelled to a mass protest on October 23, 1956. After a delegation of protesters attempted to enter the Radio Budapest building to broadcast their demands, the secret police (Államvédelmi Hatóságor) opened fire on the crowd. Protesters responded in kind – the ensuing revolution spread throughout the country and forced the collapse of the government. However, Soviet forces entered Hungary in early November, brutally suppressing the Hungarian resistance.

On October 21st, 2016, an international group of social scientists and humanities scholars met to discuss the impact of 1956. “New Directions in the Scholarship on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution: Memory and the Transnational Impact 60 Years After” was organized by Richard Esbenshade and Zsuzsa Gille (UIUC) and co-sponsored by REEEC, the Department of Political Science, the Center for Global Studies, and the European Union Center. By exploring the causes and consequences of the Hungarian Revolution in ethical, political, and transnational contexts, presenters revealed its far-reaching influence and persistent relevance, demonstrating the importance of continued research on the events of 1956.

Peter Kenez (History, University of California at Santa Cruz) discussed the relationships between the leading members of the Hungarian communist party – known as the Hungarian Working People’s Party (Magyar Dolgozók Pártja) from June 1948 to October 1956 – in the months before the revolution. He highlighted a divide within the party between the “communist hierarchy” (Stalinist party leaders) and “those who opted for the reform direction,” the main difference being that “no one in the communist hierarchy ever said, ‘I made a mistake.’” Kenez focused particularly on the moral trajectory of the Stalinist leadership: “None of these characters who behaved so badly actually joined the communist movement for careerist reasons… How did they become so rotten?” One explanation he offered was that four of the most prominent party leaders (including Mátyás Rákosi) spent several years in Moscow during the Stalinist purges, a “bad education” that “taught them all the wrong lessons.”

Also focusing on ethics, Emanuel Rota (Italian and French, UIUC) argued that the events of 1956 led to a “crisis of morality” within the international communist movement. If Khrushchev was right that Stalin was someone who made mistakes – and, by extension, that the higher-ups didn’t “know better” – then party members were morally responsible for their actions: “that was something we did.” Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalinism also undermined the pretext for an all-pervasive intelligence service: “As long as Stalin remains attached to this idea that ‘the war is coming,’ espionage becomes a way of being. Once you take away the enemy and espionage remains, cynicism becomes a possibility.” According to Rota, the Soviet repression of the Hungarian uprising marked “the end of a crucial founding myth of the communist experience: the myth of revolution.”

Because the Soviet Union was the paradigm for communist parties internationally, the repression of the Hungarian Revolution “sparked an anguished debate in the international left,” according to David Ost (Political Science, Hobart and William Smith Colleges). However, Ost noted that it “mattered less and mattered differently than similar movements in 1968 [i.e. the ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia] and 1980 [i.e. the Solidarity movement in Poland].” Alluding to the fascist Arrow Cross Party (1935-45) and Hungary’s alliance with Germany during World War II, he argued that the 1956 uprising was tainted by the “temporal proximity” of fascism. In Ost’s opinion, Hungary also failed to “matter more” to the West because of the Soviet acquiescence to the (apparently similar) events in Poland.

International attention was also deflected away from the Hungarian Revolution by the contemporaneous Suez War (or “Tripartite Aggression”) in Egypt. Ken Cuno (History, UIUC) discussed the origins of the conflict in “a century of [French and British] colonial domination, at the center of which was the Suez Canal.” In response to a withdrawal of American funds for the construction of the Aswan high dam – itself an act of retribution for the 1955 announcement that Egypt would begin importing weapons from Czechoslovakia, a “neutralism” that the Americans “regarded as a paler form of Communism” – Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, which had been controlled by French and British investors since 1875. After this decision, which was “highly popular within Egypt and in accordance with international law,” the French and British “immediately began preparing for war, in order to seize back ‘their’ canal.” The conflict that ensued prevented the American government from interceding in Hungary, according to then-Vice President Richard Nixon: “We couldn’t on one hand, complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser.”

The transnational context of the revolution was also discussed by Árpád von Klimó (History, Catholic University of America) and Stefano Bottoni (History, Hungarian Academy of Sciences). Von Klimó spoke about the conflicting narratives surrounding two World War II-era atrocities: the mass killings of several thousand (mostly Serbian and Jewish) civilians by Hungarian troops in January 1942, known as the “Novi Sad raid” or “Újvidék massacre,” and the mass killings of thousands of (mostly Hungarian) civilians by Tito’s army in 1944. Noting that these atrocities were highly politicized, especially “when the communist regimes in Hungary and Yugoslavia based the legitimation of their authority on anti-Fascist narratives and interpretations of the war,” he contended that the 1956 “anti-Stalinist revolution… made it even more difficult to propagate the original Stalinist narrative about the war.” Bottoni argued that party leaders in neighboring Romania were able to exploit the events of 1956 for their own political agenda. He contended that the Hungarian Revolution served as a pretext for “limiting the cultural rights of [Romania’s] most sizeable ethnic minority, the Hungarians.” Mass trials in Romania in the late 1950s targeted ethnic minorities for “social crimes” (e.g. hooliganism) as well as political offenses, and “the ‘classic’ Stalinist-type structure was gradually replaced by a similarly rigid dictatorship, but one with a ‘more national’ complexion,” which continued until the fall of Ceauşescu’s government in 1989.

Taking a different approach, Maya Nadkarni (Anthropology, Swarthmore College) highlighted the revolution’s “shifting role in Hungary’s politics of memory” by examining the official commemorations of its 40th, 50th, and 60th anniversaries in Budapest. She remarked that although the memory of ’56 divided Hungarians along political lines, it “represented a shared trauma” for everyone. In 1996, the then-dominant Hungarian Socialist Party (Magyar Szocialista Párt) pushed through a bill declaring Imre Nagy – the reform-minded communist who became the leader of the 1956 revolutionary movement – a martyr. By 2006, however, the memory of 1956 had been largely coopted by a right-wing narrative, becoming a symbol of “struggle against oppressors” rather than “a contested legacy against various political opponents.” Additionally, the broadcast of another “secret speech” (in which then-PM Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted that his party had lied to the electorate) sparked protests, which morphed into riots. According to Nadkarni, the protesters and their right-wing media observers “deliberately drew links” between their actions and those of 1956, in an attempt to adopt the ethical “unimpeachability” of 1956. Despite this unrest, the MSP were obligated to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the revolution: they tried to evoke a generalized nostalgia for the socialist era which would “enable people across the political spectrum to find common ground,” using the memory of ’56 as an abstract “shared heritage” in order to “avoid uncomfortable parallels between itself and the past regime.” In 2016, Nadkarni observed a relative lack of emphasis on 1956, possibly because of the absence of the MSP as a political enemy, Viktor Orbán’s conservative Fidesz party having dominated Hungarian politics since a landslide victory in 2010 (which Orbán called “the revolution in the voting booth”). She noted that the rhetoric has shifted “from anti-communist to anti-EU,” a “fight for freedom” centering on national sovereignty.  Illustrating her argument with different “technologies of memory” – including monuments, TV ads, and museum exhibitions – Nadkarni demonstrated how the memory of the revolution has been variously interpreted and employed by political actors in postsocialist Hungary.

In support of the continuing research on the Hungarian Revolution, Kit Condill (REEES, UIUC) provided an overview of pertinent resources at the University of Illinois Library and elsewhere. He noted that, although the modern period isn’t the main focus of the U of I Library’s Hungarian collection (which is much stronger for the pre-1918 period), the Library is particularly strong on Russian (i.e. Soviet) sources on the revolution.  Kit also recommended the Hungarian National Library, which provides digitized versions of several Hungarian newspapers of the period, as well as the National Bibliography of Hungary: “Hungary is one of the contenders for the prize of… ‘best national bibliography’. They are excellent in recording every single thing that’s ever been published.”

Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2016-2017 academic year for the study of Russian.

New Directions Lecture: Mark Steinberg, “Leaping into the Open Air of History: The Russian Revolution and the Utopian Imagination”

On September 1st, Dr. Mark Steinberg, Professor of History, Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the Center for Global Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign delivered the first New Directions lecture of Fall Semester. The lecture, “Leaping into the Open Air of History: The Russian Revolution and the Utopian Imagination,” examines ideas surrounding “utopianism” as seen through the works of three radicals during the Revolution and the early Soviet era: Alexandra Kollontai, Lev Tolstoy, and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Dr. Steinberg during Q&A

Dr. Steinberg during Q&A

The title for the talk comes from a quote from Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, where he says in his On the Concept of History, “The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution.” This adapts the Marxist metaphor of the kingdom of necessity as it changes into the kingdom of freedom. Utopia can be understood in three ways according to Dr. Steinberg, the first is Utopia as a critique of the present, citing German Marxist Ernst Bloch, when he states that the impulse towards utopia is an impulse to venture beyond, that is towards the “not yet”. The second is Utopia as the critique of knowledge of the possible and the impossible. Again, Steinberg looks to Bloch, where the ocean of possibility is that much greater than the customary and the possibility of reality. The final way that Utopia can be understood is Utopia as critical knowledge of time. This means that utopian time is considered as separate from the conventional understanding of time itself. Utopian time is time that is stepping out of the time of reality onto its own path.

Using these understandings of utopia, Dr. Steinberg looked at the influence of utopian ideas on the work of Kollontai, Trotsky, and Mayakovsky. Kollontai adopted Marxism and the possibility of utopian ideals through the realization of the utmost possibilities in earthly reality. While different from Kollontai in ideas and understanding, Trotsky’s understanding of utopianism is that the people of the present cannot hear the sound of the future, where the utopia lies. He disagreed with the Marxist idea that utopia can be realized immediately, saying that only with time will it arrive. Mayakovsky, according to Dr. Steinberg, found that they (the revolutionaries) must destroy the old to make way for the new, the utopian ideal.

Overall, Dr. Steinberg makes the point that while maybe the realization of these utopian ideals never came to fruition, the leap towards such a future and such a world is significant enough for historians and those studying the Russian Revolution to draw our attention. The importance of this point lies not only in the contents of the argument he has made here, but also, if not more importantly, in the grand gesture towards the past and the significance and implications of attempts for change, regardless of their successes or failures. In what was a fitting lecture to kick off the 2016-17 academic year, Dr. Steinberg demonstrated the power of the attempt to change history.

Nicholas Higgins is a Masters student in the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include the development of identity separate from the Soviet identity during Glasnost’ and Perestroika, the current relations between Russia and its neighbors, especially Russia’s relations with Ukraine. He received his B.A in Philosophy and Russian, East European, & Eurasian Studies from Miami University of Ohio in 2015. He is currently working on his Masters thesis, which is attempting to adapt Søren Kierkegaard‘s model of faith into a political and social model that could represent the political and social nature of the late Soviet era.

Alumna Rebecca Mitchell Awarded W. Bruce Lincoln Prize from ASEEES

Rebecca Mitchell

Rebecca Mitchell

Congratulations to Rebecca Mitchell (PhD in History, 2011) on receiving the W. Bruce Lincoln Prize from the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES)! The prize is awarded for an author’s first published monograph or scholarly synthesis that is of exceptional merit and lasting significance for the understanding of Russia’s past, published in the previous two years. Rebecca is Assistant Professor of History at Middlebury College, where she teaches courses on the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the relationship between music and power in history. Her book is entitled Nietzsche’s Orphans: Music, Metaphysics, and the Twilight of the Russian Empire (Yale University Press, 2016).

To view the original announcement from ASEEES, please see

New Directions Lecture: Faith Hillis, “Europe’s Russian Colonies: Tsarist Émigrés and the Quest for Freedom in Nineteenth-Century Europe”

Professor of Russian History Faith Hillis, University of Chicago

Professor of Russian History Faith Hillis, University of Chicago

On March 3, 2016, Professor Faith Hillis (University of Chicago, History) gave a REEEC New Directions lecture entitled “Europe’s Russian Colonies: Tsarist Émigrés and the Quest for Freedom in Nineteenth-Century Europe.” Her lecture was part of the research she is currently conducting for a forthcoming volume on Russian émigré communities in Europe in the 19th century. Hillis is also the author of Children of Rus’: Right-Bank Ukraine and the Invention of a Russian Nation (2013).

According to Hillis, in the 1860s, there was a “sudden explosion” of movement from the Russian empire to central and western Europe, a phenomenon which she attributes to the spread of railroads and rise of “political ferment” within Russia, as well as to increasingly liberal admission policies in Western universities. By about 1870, distinctive “Russian colonies” had emerged in Western Europe, the largest of which were in London, Paris, and Geneva. These colonies “tended to coalesce in inexpensive and rather dire neighborhoods on the urban periphery.”

The most populous group in such colonies was made up of university students, including many women: according to Hillis, a full 90% of the first cohort of female university students in Europe were Russian subjects. There were also a significant number of political dissidents in such communities: “leaders of liberal, socialist, anarchist, and radical terrorist groups were all operating in exile” in Russian colonies, as were many nationalist activists, promoting Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, and Armenian causes.

Russian colonies were “strikingly complex and diverse” in terms of origin: in addition to émigrés from Moscow and St. Petersburg, there were “strong contingents from… the Caucasus and Ukraine,” and “more than 50% of students came from within the Pale [of Settlement].” Non-ethnic Russians, and Jews in particular, were much more likely to emigrate, mostly due to increasing discrimination in the Russian empire (e.g. the introduction of a numerus clausus in the 1880s). According to Hillis, these colonies “served as microcosms of the empire, condensing its diversity into very small districts.”

Hillis attributes a “spirit of openness, exchange, and improvisation” to Russian colonies, which allowed them to “evolve into spaces in which residents tried to reimagine the ways in which humans could live.” Experimentation with different modes of society, such as “communal living, wealth redistribution, and self-governance,” was a common practice. Russian colonies also generated campaigns for women’s emancipation: many female students were “radical utilitarians who scorned bourgeois norms,” and they became Europe’s first generation of female professors. Projects for national emancipation and Jewish liberation also emerged.

Initially, these émigrés enjoyed popular support in Europe—they were idealized as “freedom fighters” struggling against tsarist despotism. The colonies inspired left-wing Europeans, many of whom saw the new models emerging from them as inspirations for European society. However, there was a growing rift between the Russian colonies and the Russian state, particularly in the wake of the 1881 assassination of Alexander II. The head of the Russian secret service, Piotr Rachkovskii’, undertook a sustained campaign to turn public opinion in Europe against the colonies and their residents. According to Hillis, Rachikovskii’ even masterminded bombing plots, supplying radicals with materials and then tipping off the local police. He also established a press agency which published propagandistic articles and pamphlets, which “insisted that the revolutionary movement [in Russia] had been conjured up by Jews, and… that Jews were a similar existential threat to western Europe.” A rumor emerged that Jack the Ripper, then terrorizing London, was himself a radical Russian Jew.

Such efforts to manipulate public opinion were ultimately successful, undermining asylum laws first in Switzerland, then in France, then in the United Kingdom (in the Aliens Act of 1905). New emigrants were increasingly met with oppression in the Russian colonies, which led to increasing radicalism: “Bolshevism was literally created in these communities.” According to Hillis, World War I marked the formal end of Russian colonies—émigrés were expelled en masse, and an era of experimentation and exchange between Russia and western Europe came to an end.

Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2015-16 academic year for the study of Russian.

New Directions Lecture: Igor Fedyukin, “Prozhektery: Educational Innovation as an ‘Administrative Enterprise’ in Russia from Peter I to Putin”

IMG_1116On February 18th, 2016, Professor Igor Fedyukin delivered a lecture entitled “Prozhektery: Educational Innovation as an ‘Administrative Enterprise’ in Russia from Peter I to Putin.” Fedyukin is Associate Professor of History at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He has also worked as a reporter and editor at several prominent Russian newspapers, and he served as a deputy minister of education and science of Russia from 2012-2013. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow for the 2015-2016 academic year, and is currently working on a monograph on the emergence of modern schools in the first half of the 18th century in Russia during the reign of Peter the Great.

Fedyukin began by characterizing the prevailing narrative of educational history in Russia as one of the state’s creation of schools based on military need: by training officers, sailors, and engineers, the creation of schools also created highly educated armed forces personnel. Such institutions were established by the state in accordance with imperial decrees, and were run by government-appointed officials. When these schools began to emerge in the 18th century, however, there was no government ministry or official bureaucratic apparatus in place to oversee their creation. Instead, this process is attributed to the grand design of Peter the Great. Peter is often envisioned as an “entrepreneur-in-chief,” a ruler who “put things in place” and was responsible for their design (and Fedyukin acknowledged that in some cases, his instructions could indeed be “unimaginably detailed”). According to this view, these new educational institutions emerged through Peter’s personal vision and command.  Fedyukin points out a serious flaw in this narrative: although Peter was indeed “a great enthusiast of learning,” he didn’t write very much about schools.

Peter is famous for his 1714 decree on the establishment of “cipher schools,” in which he ordered that nobles should be instructed in mathematics before being allowed to marry. The experienced official tasked with enacting this decree complained to his superior, writing, “This decree is obscure [mrachen] and without many of the conditions that should be there in order for us to implement it.” In this and other educational decrees, Fedyukin argues, Peter failed to provide the details which are needed to bring any such broad vision to fruition.

This gap, “between Peter’s broad enthusiasm for learning and those nitty-gritty details which have to be defined” in order to build a new institution, created the room for people to pursue different strategies. “Some people saw an opportunity for self-promotion, to invent jobs for themselves and their clients, to grab resources and authority.” Fedyukin calls such people “administrative entrepreneurs,” and he argues that the institutions of the early modern state came into existence through their efforts.

Administrative entrepreneurs had to act beyond their official duties; they dealt with “novel problems,” and therefore had to propose “novel solutions,” mobilizing and combining resources in new ways. According to Fedyukin, Peter wasn’t very good at supplying his educational initiatives with continuous funding (wryly adding that “maybe [Peter] wasn’t unique in that sense”), and he had no pool of qualified teachers from which to appoint personnel. Instead, such tasks fell to administrative entrepreneurs, who invented new administrative structures and relied on their “informal connections in the administrative domain,” which allowed them to redistribute resources, find buildings, etc. In this context, the state was not an actor in the creation of educational institutions, but rather a structural framework in which administrative entrepreneurs could pursue their projects.

As an example of this process, Fedyukin discussed the 1715 establishment of the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg, the first school of its kind in Russia. Its founder and director was a Frenchman, “the Baron de Saint-Hilaire.” By tracing the records of Saint-Hilaire’s life through various archives, Fedyukin uncovered the fascinating story of an ambitious con artist. Saint-Helaire, born “Joseph Hilaire,” was a onetime French merchant who fled to Portugal after being convicted of insurance fraud, became involved in the War of Spanish Succession, and eventually reinvented himself as the “Baron de Saint-Hilaire, a Flemish nobleman.” He arrived in St. Petersburg in 1715 and proposed (among other things) the idea for the project of a naval academy to Peter.

Fedyukin stresses that he is not suggesting that Peter was indifferent to learning—however, “in no sense did Peter actually set up and establish a school.” Rather, the Academy was set up by Saint-Hilaire, who “found a way to exploit Peter’s general interest in learning and get a job for himself with a very nice salary.” According to Fedyukin, almost all of the educational institutions founded in 17th-century Russia follow a similar model—they were initiated by specific individuals asking the tsar for permission to teach, for resources, and for patronage.

Fedyukin sees interesting parallels between these Petrine-era “administrative entrepreneurs” and the process that occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He concluded by describing his narrative as “a conscious attempt to create an alternative, liberal narrative of the history of education in Russia… driven not by the modernizing state, but by individual actors and entrepreneurs.”

Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2015-16 academic year for the study of Russian.

Visiting Scholar Highlight – Sang Chul Park

Prof. Sang Chul Park

Prof. Sang Chul Park

REEEC Welcomes Professor Sang Chul Park, a visiting scholar for the 2015-2016 academic year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Prof. Park graduated from Seoul National University with a major in Russian History.  He lived in St. Petersburg for two years (1996-1998) while working on his Ph.D. dissertation, which examined the political thought of P.A. Stolypin, a monarchist minister who was assassinated in 1911. Prof. Park lectured at several institutions in Seoul before accepting a position at Chonnam National University in 2005.  He has taught courses on Russian History, Historical Principles, the History of Western Civilization, and Reading and Understanding Western Historical Sources.

Currently, his research is focused on the history of Russian politics in the early 20th century, particularly in the pre- and post-World War I era.  He is interested in how the Russian government of the time responded to military defeat and social opposition.   Specifically, he is examining the response of liberal Russian political parties (such as the Kadets) to the war, especially in their support for “L’union sacrée” and their involvement in the Progressive Bloc.  He is also interested in how major government figures like I.L. Goremykin and A.V. Krivoshein conceived of autocracy.  According to Prof. Park, Krivoshein held that the interests of the Russian people were not identical to those of the tsar, a belief which foreshadowed those of the ministers involved the February Revolution.

In part, Prof. Park’s interest in Russian history was sparked by the military dictatorship in South Korea when he was a student in the 1970s.  He says that many students at the time asked the question, “How can we enact political change?”  Specifically, his interest in Russian history stemmed from questions of revolution and reform, and their applications for the political situation in South Korea.

Prof. Park first came to Champaign-Urbana in 1994.  He cited the U of I Library’s Slavic collection as a major reason for his decision to return.  Over the next year, he plans to continue his research, audit courses on Russian history, and attending as many REEEC-affiliated events as possible.  His personal goals for his sabbatical include traveling around the Midwest and experiencing American culture and academic life.

Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2015-16 academic year for the study of Russian.

From Occultism to Science: Suggestology and Parapsychology Under Communism

On April 7, 2015, Veneta Ivanova, Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of Illinois, delivered the REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture entitled “From Occultism to Science: Suggestology and Parapsychology Under Communism,” which  discussed the scientific study of parapsychology, the investigation of paranormal and psychic phenomena, in socialist Eastern Europe. Beginning in the 1960s, parapsychology came under increasing scientific study in several Eastern European countries, especially Bulgaria. Consequently, the number of centers studying telepathy rose. These parapsychology centers combined the cultural and spiritual spheres with hard science. In her lecture, Ivanova sought to address the following questions: How could spiritual science be pursued in a socialist materialist system? What were the social, cultural, and political causes of spiritual science’s rise in the 1960s? What is the relationship between communism and parapsychology?

Veneta Ivanova giving her REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture

Veneta Ivanova giving her REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture

In October 1966, a parapsychology lab opened in Bulgaria, which aimed to scientifically explain telepathy and clairvoyance. It later expanded into a national scientific group, the world’s first dedicated to the scientific study of suggestion. Vanga, a famous Bulgarian clairvoyant, became an important subject of the lab’s study. The lab’s scientists daily examined her brain functions and her processes of clairvoyance.  In addition, Vanga was the first clairvoyant, of any country, to be on the state payroll. Though visitors to Vanga came from all social classes and backgrounds, local, regional, state, and Communist Party authorities had priority access to the lab’s services, specifically consultations with Vanga. The rising popular demand for her services underscored the institutionalization of parapsychology in Bulgaria, where the state funded and actively participated in it. Belying socialist Bulgaria’s officially atheistic and materialist doctrine, a close spiritual bond came to exist between the practitioners of parapsychology and high government officials, including Lyudmila Zhivkova, the daughter of Bulgarian Communist Party leader Todor Zhivkov. Visits to Rupite, a village in southeastern Bulgaria where Vanga lived, became part of the official delegation. Such privileged access meant it became almost impossible for ordinary citizens to consult with Vanga. Although the government openly sanctioned parapsychology, Bulgarian intellectuals proclaimed to be close friends with Vanga to indicate their cultural sophistication and their dissidence of state materialism.

According to Ivanova, the late 1960s was a key period of the nationalization of Vanga, linking her to the state. She simultaneously became  a subject and an object of scientific inquiry. Not only did Vanga become an important figure, but the 1960s, in general, was a period of heightened popular interest in parapsychology as well as spirituality, mysticism, occultism, and the paranormal – all part of a burgeoning New Age movement.  Although scientific studies on psychic phenomena occurred in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe much earlier in the 20th century, they stopped in 1937 in order to emphasize materialism. The Cold War provided a crucial context for reviving psychical research in the 1960s. The study of parapsychology was an area where the socialist states, especially Bulgaria, were more advanced than the West. Moreover, Ivanova pointed out that in late socialist Bulgaria, the doctrine of philosophical materialism, once a crucial part of communist ideology, was only paid lip service. There was a considerable degree of openness and debate permitted in discussing parapsychology, which appealed to the general public. Under communism, research on parapsychology flourished and became consolidated; the standing of parapsychology became solidified. Ivanova argued that the growth of scientific establishments studying parapsychology happened so rapidly because the interest in the field fell in a favorable environment. Many people regarded parapsychology as a legitimate science that did not run counter to material science. It was linked to physiological laws and operated according to laws of behavior. Furthermore, during the 1960s, the study of telepathy occurred within mainstream science and appeared in traditional scientific journals. The majority of scientists supported the study of telepathy, and scientists from all over the world attended symposiums and conferences on parapsychology in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Even Bulgarian schools used suggestology for pedagogical applications, and it became the primary method of instruction.

However, by the 1970s, public access to extrasensory perception (ESP) research closed in the Soviet Union. Bulgaria continued studying parapsychology, but attitudes had noticeably shifted. The discourse turned westward, emphasizing the strategic potential (such as collecting intelligence) of parapsychology. Anxiety about the military and strategic uses of ESP, particularly since the West deemed Soviet and Eastern European knowledge of parapsychology as superior, led to vigorous research in the United States and Western Europe. Stanford University, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the U.S. Department of Defense were some places that conducted the research.

Ivanova’s lecture was a fascinating and compelling study, challenging the assumption that socialist Eastern Europe was only concerned about the material world. She contextualized the growth of both the study and appeal of parapsychology in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe, particularly its connection to state authority. She analyzed the political, social, and historical reasons for how parapsychology became an important feature of late socialist life.

Stephanie Chung is a Ph.D. Candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests are in Soviet literature and culture, Russian women’s writing, and Czech literature. She received her B.A. in Plan II Honors/Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies in 2007; and her M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 2009 at the University of Texas at Austin. She plans to write a dissertation on Soviet women’s memoirs as literary and media texts.