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Conceptualizing the "Recent Past": Witness Accounts and Historiographic Discourse after Major Political Overturns in Modern Bulgaria

Research Project Description and Contribution to CAS ROH Project

Over the last two decades, the notion of the ‘recent past' as an object of historical inquiry has gained particular attention among historians and has posed in new light the issue of discipline's borders, scope, and methods. Guided by several important historical works on this issue, by explorations on the memory resource of history writings, and by new studies on cultural memory and collective forgetting, the pertinence of this notion was especially well outlined after the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the new trajectories of interpreting the past that it triggered. Taken up by a wave of research literature on the totalitarian periods and the post-socialist transitions in Eastern Europe, revisiting of the immediate historical experience clearly outlined the role of witness accounts in the historiographic emplotment of the recent period. Exercising a strong impact on the professional history writing about the decades before 1989, they triggered also a tendency to essentialise the ‘recent past' by reducing it solely to the socialist times. Yet, despite its systematic discussion as a concept in historical writing mainly in the last two decades, the notion of the ‘recent past' has been an object of elaboration in many previous periods and has played an active role in the formation of national myths and heroes, ideological narratives and imagined historical destinies. Thus, the exploration of the notion in contexts stretching further back than its regular positioning by contemporary scholarship may prove an efficient step in understanding different ‘regimes of historicity' in a comparative perspective.

The goal of the current project is to investigate the construction and conceptualization of the ‘recent past' in three different decades of Bulgarian history from the perspective of how witness testimonies and oral accounts have been utilised and transmitted by the emerging new historiographic discourses. The project will carry out a comparative exploration on the interaction between oral accounts and history writing in the first decades following three major events in modern Bulgarian history: the national liberation, the establishment of socialism in 1945, and the end of the communist regime in 1989. Focusing on the problem of memoirs' integration in the historiographic discourse, the project will address core issues related to the emergence of history writing after periods of major political overturns and the elaboration of notions about the ‘recent past' within compressed time limits. The major questions that the project would ask are: 1. How do official historiographic discourses utilise oral history accounts to construct its legitimacy and voice of authenticity? 2. How was this appropriation related to the symbolic construction of the ‘recent past'? 3. How do memoir narratives and witness accounts engender and influence the crystallisation of normative representations of history.

Exploring comparatively the interaction between witness accounts and historiographic discourse in three distinctive periods of Bulgarian history, the project will problematise thus the emergence of new ‘regimes of historicity' as closely dependent on the input of witness testimonies in conceptualising recent historical experiences.

For the achievement of its goals, the project will rely on a wide range of sources and materials: witness accounts, life histories, published memoirs, biographies and autobiographies. Relying on typologically diverse forms and genres of memoir accounts, the project will lay the emphasis upon the interconnection between personal, collective, and professional memories and their characteristic involvement in the realm of official historiography, as well as on their role for the crystallisations of collective memory around a selection of normative events and interpretations. The project does not aim to convey a message about a uniform practice of history writing after major political overturns, but rather, uncover the specificities in approaching the ‘recent past', which, when viewed comparatively, can reveal significant differences in the constructions of ‘transformed identities', especially after major points in historiographic reorientation.

Taking impetus from the idea of collective memory as a major component in the historiographic conceptualisation of the ‘recent past' (and - broadly, following Ricoeur, as a key resource for historical memory), the project will pay attention to narrative forms that are frequently discredited as a historical source and highlight historians' uses of such sources in times past and times present. The project proposed tries to overcome the traditional ‘oral history accounts'/ ‘representations' divide and to see the active interaction between the two in periods after critical points of rupture. A thorough analysis of the memoir elements incorporated in the national historiographic discourse will permit approaching the issue of ‘transformed historical identities' in a novel way, as new ‘regimes of historicity' closely dependent on the shifting notion of the ‘recent past', and also as rooted in what Jack Goody calls the ‘interface between the oral and the written'. To the extent that such recourse of studying historical writing is a relatively unexplored field for Bulgarian scholarship, the project aspires to fill a gap in the existing scholarly endeavors around the ‘contemporary history' and ‘modern identities' in Bulgaria.

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