The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania,
1998. xvi, 304 pp.
Index. Tables. Plates. (ISBN 0-271-01713-9).
Reviewed by Donna A. BuchananUniversity of
This informative, absorbing ethnography details the life of agriculture in the northwest Bulgarian town of Zamfirovo during the socialist and post-state-socialist periods, but especially between 1987 and 1997. Based on extensive field research, the work makes several valuable contributions to numerous disciplines (agriculture, anthropology, economics, folklore, history, political science, and Bulgarian, East European, and Slavic Studies, among others). The book's introduction is the most perceptive and astute overview of the transition period and its labyrinthine ideological twists and subtleties that this reviewer has encountered. Artfully, elegantly, and engagingly written, from its very first pages this sophisticated study teases out the paradoxes that permeate contemporary Bulgarian society, and in exacting detail, demonstrates how their analysis reveals the dialectical forces at work in the lives, thinking, behavior, words -- the very identities -- of Zamfirovo's citizens. What is so noteworthy and distinctive about this approach is that, as Creed's earlier publications suggest (1991, 1993, 1995a), it offers "informal sector," "local level," rural responses to the processes of socialism, collectivization, decollectivization, emergent land law, democratization, and political reform that balance and sometimes counter more common top-down, urban-based, intelligentsia-driven depictions of Bulgaria in transition. In other words, Creed illustrates how Zamfirovo's residents “domesticated” these processes -- accommodating State policy in accordance with the needs and constraints of their own households and communities -- in order to make their effects beneficial or at least tolerable (p. 3).
In particular, Creed submits four original premises that greatly facilitate our understanding of state socialism and its post-Zhivkovian manifestations. First, in
a manner reminiscent of Pierre Bourdieu (1977), Michael Herzfeld (1997), and Lila Abu-Lughod (1991), he proposes that socialism must be understood as "lived experience," rather than as a uniform, always determinant, authoritarian construction. Creed's emphasis on daily practice, evidenced through numerous illustrative anecdotes and quotations in the words of Zamfirovo's villagers, is crucially important, because it reveals how everyday citizens variably, creatively, and strategically transform political dictums into normative realities.
Second, he suggests that the essential nature of State socialism was one of "conflicting complementarity." With this euphemism Creed encodes the tension generated by the State's need to weigh complete control of all societal parameters with the conflicting demands such control prompted. The intricate interdependence of political, economic, and social structures under State socialism meant that action taken in one sphere often had far-reaching, unforeseen repercussions in other parts of the system. Importantly, Creed illustrates how even some of socialism's worst aspects, like shortages of goods and services, antithetically proved beneficial to some sectors of the population. His thesis is that over time, clashes between governmental objectives and the problems they propagated lessened the efficiency of State planning remarkably, eventually prompting the events of 1989.
Third, Creed notes that the process of socialist collectivization entailed a "parallel disengagement from agricultural identities" (p. 13). With the onset of mechanized equipment, not only was the number of farm workers reduced, but the State's valorization of industrialized labor caused a general devaluation of all things agricultural and ultimately, of village life, resulting in massive rural-urban migration. Here Creed touches upon a central paradox informing constructions of Bulgarian consciousness: throughout the period of state socialism, at the same time that this parallel disengagement was going on, romanticized images of peasants and village customs were promoted as the major source of national identity on a wide scale. In addition, as Creed shows convincingly, it was villagers' cultivation of individual subsistence plots that kept the country fed during the lean years immediately surrounding Zhivkov's resignation, thereby elevating the value of agricultural activity and countermanding State policy. Fourth, following Baylis (1971) and Taras (1984), Creed shrewdly and refreshingly observes that in the Bulgarian case, "reform itself became an element of communist ideology," and therefore, that "the transition was not a completely
novel idea but the result of the snowballing of reforms under way in Eastern Europe for three decades" (p. 11). This perspective emphasizes that post-1989 life cannot be understood without a comprehensive understanding of what came before. Significantly, it also negates and transcends the unfortunate dichotomization of East European social history into a before and after, "communist" and "democratic" scenario whose emphasis on the transition as a single event, rather than a process, appears frequently in the popular press and academic publications alike.
Indeed, the book's six central chapters are linked through their exploration of various facets of transition. However, Creed is careful to point out that while loosely historical, they should be read as overlapping, producing a multi-dimensional picture of the interplay between political change and the economics of agrarian life. Chapter One, "Rural Transformations," considers the metaphorical link between communism and collectivization, methods used in implementing the latter, and villagers' remembrances of and responses to its policies from the 1920s through the 1950s. The second chapter, "Agricultural Reformations," shows how the continuous agrarian reforms mandated from the 1950s through the mid-1980s -- the New Economic Mechanism, the akord system, increasingly decentralized decision-making, growing opportunities for private plot cultivation, and the "norm" system, whereby workers were paid on the basis of personal production, rather than cooperative profit -- not only presaged, but already engendered many aspects of the transition to come.
The impact of rural-urban migration and fertility decline upon "the socialist transformation of the village and the village transformation of socialism" is the focus of Chapter Three, "Demographic Transitions" (p. 122). Decreasing village populations prompted the government to begin constructing factories in rural areas during the 1960s in an effort to provide alternative careers and induce growth. The effects of this process on Zamfirovo is the subject of the fourth chapter, "Industrial Revolutions." While some of the new enterprises were subsidiaries of the cooperative farm (a cannery, a textile firm, a pharmaceutical packaging workshop), even those completely divorced from it (a cookie factory, a toy factory, an electric motor assembly plant) were forced to accommodate the town's agricultural activities by, for example, providing labor brigades to help in the fields due to a shortage of workers.
Chapter Five, "Informal Proliferations," examines local level solutions to the inadequacies of State enterprise. In Zamfirovo this informal economy, which existed within webs of personal connections and mutual favors (vrazki), included the cultivation of produce, machine knitting, woodworking, sharecropping, weaving, and theft. Informative, entertaining accounts of house construction and weddings elucidate how "the whole system of informal activities" was set "spinning" (p. 200). Interestingly, Creed also demonstrates how such private endeavors not only supplemented insufficient wages and pensions, but even inspired reform in socialist means of production. As shortages worsened between 1988 and 1991 informal economic activity became a matter of subsistence rather than supplementation. "Rural Restitutions," the sixth chapter, surveys and accounts for villagers' ambivalent reactions to post-Zhivkovian politics, decollectivization, and land restitution. Of particular value is its thorough discussion of alterations to the land law (see also Creed 1995b). As a whole Creed demonstrates a stunning and insightful grasp of the systemic, dialectical relationships comprising the Bulgarian political economy, especially those pertaining to rural-urban interaction. This is something that has always impressed me about his writing, and a theme that characterizes virtually all of his other publications (cf. Creed 1991, 1993, 1995a, 1995b). A central tenet of the book is, in fact, to document how villagers' views of political transition differed from those of urbanites, and how their support for or disavowal of political reform in actuality shifted with the transition's ebb and flow. Discontent with the prevailing popular sentiment that the move away from state socialism signified a better life for everyone, he has sought to illustrate the mercurial implications of political change within his field community. Like the work of Katherine Verdery (1983) and Gail Kligman (1988), this is careful, meticulous, thoughtful scholarship -- the kind that gets beyond, behind, and underneath the often glib explanations directed at comprehending the confounding complexities of Balkan societies. The result is a fuller, more textured portrait that will aid our understanding of socialism's reverberations in Bulgarian life through the years ahead.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1991. "Writing against Culture." Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, Richard G. Fox (ed.), Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 137-62.
Baylis, Thomas A. 1971. "Economic Reform as Ideology: East Germany's New Economic Mechanism." Comparative Politics 3:211-29.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Creed, Gerald. 1991. "Between Economy and Ideology: Local Level Perspectives on Political and Economic Reform in Bulgaria." Socialism and Democracy 13:45-65.
________. 1993. "Rural-Urban Oppositions in the Bulgarian Political Transition." Sudosteuropa 42(6):369-82.
________. 1995a. "Agriculture and the Domestication of Industry in Rural Bulgaria." American Ethnologist 22:528-48.
________. 1995b. "An Old Song in a New Voice: Decollectivization in Bulgaria." East European Communities: The Struggle for Balance in Turbulent Times, Kideckel, David (ed.), Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 25-45.
________. 1995c. "The Politics of Agriculture: Identity and Socialist Sentiment in Bulgaria." Slavic Review 54:843-68.
Herzfeld, Michael. 1997. Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State. NY: Routledge.
Kligman, Gail. 1988. The Wedding of the Dead: Ritual, Poetics, and Popular Culture in Transylvania. Berkeley: The University of California Press.
Taras, Ray. 1984. Ideology in a Socialist State: Poland, 1956-1983. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Verdery, Katherine. 1983. Transylvanian Villagers: Three Centuries of Political, Economic, and Ethnic Change. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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