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Self-Immolations in Bulgaria – an Intertwined Personal and Social Trauma

Tina Schivatcheva

Plamen Goranov (20.10.1976—03.03.2013)

On the 1st of May another Bulgarian victim of self-immolation passed away. Since the beginning of 2013 six people self-immolated inBulgaria, and their desperate acts further ’enflamed our sleeping society’ [1].  Traumatic events demand a response that recognizes their impact rather than one that moves rapidly to forgetting the trauma or incorporating it into existing narratives.  The politicization of the traumatic experiences also demands a refusal of the easy categories and hitherto accepted agendas, and calls for seeking new analytical paradigms, exploring the political cognition of affect.  As the personal trauma, which resulted in the violent taking of one’s life, expanded into social trauma, it should motivate the social re-consideration of the concepts of socio-political co-experience, and also the undertaking of new analyses of the relations between the citizen and the society.  Thus, the attempts to try to understand the multi-layered meaning of the acts of self-immolation, necessitate taking into consideration the ethical dimensions of the political, wherein ‘we are implicated in each other traumas’ [2].

Transition and trauma: An enduring socio-political crisis

The individual histories and the private experiences of poverty, hopelessness and desperation are defined by the social history of an enduring political and economic crisis.  In terms of economic development, after the economic catastrophy of the 1990s, the Bulgarian economy recorded 10 years of robust growth, prior to the start of the world financial crisis.  But then, economic recovery and investment have been restricted to certain big cities and certain regions, leaving other regions behind – an uneven development process which has led to an acute regional disparity and marginalization of certain parts of the country.

The processes of post-socialist economic transformation entailed social transformation, resulting in a dramatic rise in the physical and social displacement of large social groups.  Radical and extensive privatization and economic restructuring, however necessary, have led to systemic impoverishment.  Bulgaria’s social crisis has been measured at 23-years in duration; 23 being the length of the post-socialist period.  The persistent socio-political and socio-economic crisis has traumatized the social consciousness.  As elsewhere in the former Eastern Block, ‘crisis imagery obtained overtones of finality and timelessness, and the crisis itself was re-imagined from a temporary developmental challenge into an all-embracing and a-historical condition,’ [3].  Many have called the situation in Bulgaria a ‘national catastrophy.’  The resulting ‘catastrophic’ breakdown in both meaning and trust is a social event. Therefore, the private-public trauma expressed by the self-immolations is also a form social criticism.  This is a critique of a society in which the number of malls far exceeds the number of non-commercial public buildings.

The crisis of life and death

Freudian approaches to theorizing trauma perceive it as a double telling, the oscillation between a crisis of death and the correlative crisis of life – two stories which are both incompatible and absolutely inextricable [4].  The ‘story,’ told by the personal choice of self-immolation, is one of particularly painful suffering, with which to end one’s life.  The public way via which the suicide takes place also tells a story of social protest; the suffering is meant to engage and move society; the crisis of death intends to generate some form of social response.  Thus, the crisis of death simultaneously tells a story about the crisis of life, inextricably lived as both an individual and social experience.Some psychologists have sought to explain the phenomenon as the ‘quest for heroism’ [5].  However, the self-immolations can also be considered as a desperate plea for help.  Passing out of the isolation, imposed by a traumatic event, can take place, only via the process of listening by another [6].  Thus, the acts of self-immolation tell a story of suffering and desperation, thereby forcing the seemingly indifferent polis to listen, and in this way to renew and re-create itself as the polis, ‘civilem communitatem’ of citizens, rather than as a loose collection of transient individuals.

The ethical perspective of ‘events’ and ‘situations’

Alain Badiou links the emergence of a particular ‘truth’ to a particular ‘event’ – the events of self-immolation uncovered the previously untold truths of the Bulgarian quotidian existence.  Thus, the tragic self-immolations of the Bulgarian spring draw attention to the ways in which the notions of ‘events’ and ‘social truths’ function within the contemporary socio-political structures.  There is a foundational repositioning of political subjectivity, attendant to the ‘events,’ theorizes Badieu.  Certainly, a new political subjectivity – that of ‘the martyr,’ ‘the victim’ has emerged, thereby causing a shift to the rest of the political subjectivites of the Bulgarian political pantheon.  New practices of citizenship, social and political commemoration, as well political ethics have emerged, leading to greater unity of the polis in the acts and expressions of mourning.

In Badiou’s philosophy, events are also juxtaposed with situations.  Arising sporadically from situations, events are explosive; they transform situations and shape new ones. The disruptive views of the present that they provide have the potential to form an allegorical link between individual aspiration and societal transformation.  In the eyes of the media the lives of the Bulgarian victims of self-immolation were reduced to and magnified by one event: their acts of self-immolation.  The lives of desperation, that the victims have lived, have thus been converted into ‘events,’ transforming one situation of complacent public acceptance of the status quo, into a disruptive call for social action.

Consequently, as a result of the self-immolations, a new ethical vintage point enables the citizen to re-position itself vis-à-vis the representative institutions of the state, and the Bulgarian political class.  This new vintage point is symbolized by a new monument, which has now been added to the Bulgarian political landscape.

One of Bulgaria’s tallest monuments

The visual scene and its various representations are some of the key elements in the complex individual and social processes of meaning and lived experiences.  The view of the Bulgarian political landscape is now disrupted by a new commemorative monument, located in front of the office of the city of Varna’s mayor, at the place, where Plamen, one of the victims, self-immolated. This monument was created not by a sculptor, but by the citizens of Varna.  Some brought rocks, others – flowers.  A pile of rocks, covered with flowers, above which is flying the Bulgarian flag now marks the place, from which Plamen made his last political message.

In the flat and snowy Arctic landscapes, regions with little natural landmarks, the escimos construct out of rocks the ‘inukshuks.’  ‘Inukshuk’ means ‘something, which acts and fullfils the function of a person.’  These are piles of rocks, which are seen from afar, and which help the orientation in the monotonous whiteness.  The pile of rocks in Varna, commemorating Plamen, now reminds the mayors of Varna about their responsibilities towards the people who have elected them into power.  The pile also helps to find the right direction in Bulgaria’s political landscape.  It is one of Bulgaria’s tallest monuments.


 [1]. ‘The self-immolations show the need to change for the better,’, (17/03/2013),

[2]. Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1996), p. 24.

[3]. Shevchenko, Olga, Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow, (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 2008), p. 11.

[4]. Caruth, 1996, p. 7.

[5]. Lazarova, Irina, ‘The self-immolations fill in the lack of heroes,’ Pressadaily, (23.03.2013),Д-р-Ирина-Лазарова:-Самозапалванията-запълват-липсата-на-герои

[6]. Caruth, Cathy, Trauma Explorations in memory, (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 5.

Photo credits under Creative Comons:

Photo credit of the photo of Plamen Goranov: Teodor Nikolov
Photo credit of the pyramid of flower and rocks, commemorating Plamen Goranov: Stanqo.

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