Lecture by Veneta Ivanova (Panteion University of Social & Political Sciences) with the topic "Occult Communism: Culture, Science and Spirituality in Late Socialist Bulgaria"

Veneta Ivanova is a Research Fellow at the “Unit for Balkan, Ottoman and Post-Ottoman Studies” of the Research Centre for Modern History at Panteion University for Social and Political Sciences, Athens. She was a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the College of William & Mary (2018–2019) and Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute (2017–2018). She is a historian of Eastern and Southeastern Europe who obtained her PhD in 2017 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research centers on the interplay between socialism, occultism, religion, science, and utopia in twentieth-century Europe. Together with Augusta Dimou and Theodora Dragostinova, she is the co-editor of collective volume Re-Imagining the Balkans: How to Think and Teach a Region (2023, De Gruyter Oldenbourg).

This lecture explores the unlikely infusion of state-sponsored spiritualism into the materialist ideology of Bulgarian late communism. In the 1970s, Minister of Culture and daughter of party leader Lyudmila Zhivkova initiated grandiose state programs to inject the “occult” into Bulgaria’s national culture, art, science, and even political philosophy. Inspired by her Eastern religious beliefs, she sought to “breed” a nation of “all-round and harmoniously developed individuals,” devoted to spiritual self-perfection, who would ultimately “work, live and create according to the laws of beauty.” How are we to explain such a paradoxical lapse into state-sponsored spiritualism in a milieu dominated by materialism as a philosophy and way of life? How did Zhivkova’s occultism inform and transform Bulgarian late socialism? In pursuit of these questions, the lecture reconstructs Zhivkova’s theoretical apparatus, and demonstrates how it was translated into a large-scale aesthetic-spiritual utopia, which posited art, culture, aesthetics and spirituality as a way to revamp the entire communist project. As utopian as Zhivkova’s vision was, her policies contributed to the liberalization of art and culture in a period that has long been associated exclusively with stagnation and decay.