The dossier of subject no.1218 : a Bulgarian anarchist’s story by Alexander Nakov [Review]

Review of the autobiography of a veteran anarchist militant who survived the prisons of both fascism and Bolshevik rule, before helping relaunch the Bulgarian anarchist movement in the 1990s.

Alexander Nakov is a veteran of the Bulgarian anarchist movement. The ‘dossier’ of the title is the report on him from the secret police. It’s one of those police reports that anarchist historians love: ‘He has all the working class virtues except loyalty to the Party’ is the subtext! Born in 1919, Nakov can claim to have got his secondary education in fascist prisons and his higher education in Bolshevik ones. Nakov (along with the bulk of Bulgaria’s anarchist movement) is an anarchist communist: communist as in ‘From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’. He uses ‘Bolshevik’ for statist ‘Everything for the party’, big-C Communism.

Despite everything, Nakov comes across as a very modest person. Like most anarchist autobiographers, he’s driven to use this opportunity to record the names and fates of his comrades. He’s had a full life, but isn’t interested in making himself a hero. For example, the most memorable part of his time with the partisans at the end of the second world war is him telling his friend, Pencho Raikov, ‘never to volunteer for actions as he had not done military service.’ (p26)

If you’re interested in anarchist history, you’ll find this a fascinating read. We should all be grateful to those who’ve put the hard work into making this English edition happen: Mariya Radeva for her translation, Rob Blow for the editorial work, Nick Heath for his historical introduction and Black Cat Press for printing and publishing it. Rescuing a movement from historical oblivion is no small job, so get a copy.

If I was going to write a short review, I’d end here by agreeing with Rob Blow that Alexander Nakov is ‘an inspiration and shining example’ (p.xvii) but I’d like to go on a bit more. This book is valuable for showing the Bulgarian movement in context as it appeared to a protagonist. For example, the Esperanto and temperance movements were strongly connected with Bulgarian anarchism under both the fascist and bolshevik regimes, and also offered a place of retreat in times of repression. We need to remember that anarchist movements look different under different conditions.

This is a very human and down-to-earth book – literally in this great example of mutual aid. When Nakov comes out of the punishment cells in the Bolshevik concentration camp of Belene, ‘The comrades greeted me with food, but when we went to hoe the sunflowers, I was unable to keep hold of the hoe. I survived thanks solely to the mutual aid among us anarchists, which has always been not only a simple human principle but a well-organized practice. One comrade stood on my right side, another stood on my left, and as they hoed their lines, they hoed mine too.’ (p52)

I also enjoyed his account of working in a railway repair workshop: they have to have skilled workers get anything done, but Nakov is an anarchist serving a term of exile. Says the manager: ‘It’s as if you’ve fallen from the sky. So, I’ll give you work but it will have to be off the books because you are prohibited.’ Then, Nakov has to be put right by the workers that if he increases the estimate of how long each job will take, they’ll not be scrabbling quite so hard for their daily bread… (p71, 72-3). I think anyone who’s ever worked might find those solutions familiar.

The funniest part (which is also very illuminating) is in an appendix about Nakov’s home village. Stanko is the Party-appointed Mayor (and tax collector) who’s not universally loved. He goes off to Sofia for an operation, and someone gets their revenge by sending a telegram claiming he’s died. Off go the Regional Committee to bring the body home, but they end up having to bring the living Stanko back so that the funeral preparations can be cancelled. ‘While the villagers thought that Stanko had died, they made merry all night in the pubs. The next day, when they discovered he had not actually died, they drank all night, but this time from sorrow.’ (p132).

These ordinary moments illuminate how the anarchist movement worked – and connected with other people. Nakov is also able to reflect critically on his own motivation, recognising that ‘the excitement of youth, revolutionary romanticism and the impulse towards giving and receiving support and solidarity’ (p1) started him on his life in the anarchist movement seventy years ago.

The dossier of subject no.1218 bring Nakov’s (and Bulgarian anarchism’s) story up to date with the return of the movement after 1990. The path is not always smooth, of course, but it gives you food for thought about how different generations of anarchists work together.

The final word should go to Alexander Nakov himself, defining the political idea that has guided his life:

Quote:
‘Is anarchism the resistance of the free human being against any form of dictatorship? Is anarchism the defence of the idea of brotherhood, justice, mutual aid and human dignity? Yes, this is anarchism. That is why anarchism will always, even in our money-conscious times, have its followers.’ (p95)

The dossier of subject no.1218 : a Bulgarian anarchist’s story by Alexander Nakov, translated by Mariya Radeva, edited by Rob Blow for the editorial work, foreword by Nick Heath

Edmonton, Alberta : Black Cat Press, 2016 ISBN 9781926878164 http://blackcatpress.ca/Nakov.html
Originally posted at http://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/pk0qmv

Posted By

Kate Sharpley
Jul 3 2016 13:29

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  • Is anarchism the resistance of the free human being against any form of dictatorship? Is anarchism the defence of the idea of brotherhood, justice, mutual aid and human dignity? Yes, this is anarchism. That is why anarchism will always, even in our money-conscious times, have its followers.

    Alexander Nakov

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Comments

Battlescarred
Jul 3 2016 14:26

it's a great book. Buy it!

Serge Forward
Jul 3 2016 22:07

The review is much appreciated. I'll be organising a meeting on this at the Anarchist Bookfair and I'm hoping to maybe set up a Skype link with Alexander if we can. Though I'm also aware October is a relatively long way off.

Serge Forward
Oct 31 2016 14:49

Report from the London Anarchist Boookfair meeting, 29th October 2016.

The meeting started with a few technical hitches, so while a couple of more techie-minded AFers dealt with computers and Skype connections, Rob Blow gave a brief introduction to veteran 97 year old Bulgarian anarchist, Alexander Nakov, and also gave a little background information to the publication of this English translation of Alexander’s memoirs, Dossier of Subject No 1218.

Once connected, the bookfair meeting was linked via Skype to Alexander’s home in Bulgaria, with book translator Mariya Radeva acting as interpreter. Alexander responded to a number of questions that had been collected in advance from an earlier request both on Libcom and with members of the Anarchist Federation in Britain. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to record the meeting so what follows is a precis of Alexander’s responses.

Alexander told the audience that he became an anarchist in 1936, having been initially influenced by the Spanish revolution. He talked about the relative strength of the historic Bulgarian anarchist movement, particularly during the 1930s and 40s, which part of the country it was strongest, the involvement of women in the movement and how it had deep roots among the working population, from the village level to the cities.

Alexander also talked about his imprisonment in both fascist and later Stalinist prisons and concentration camps, making it clear that his and his comrades’ survival there depended on the ongoing solidarity and mutual aid between the anarchists. For example, he told us that any food parcels that got through to any one of them would always be shared out between comrades.

He also mentioned about his health being seriously weakened after spending time in the prison’s punishment block. His weakness meant he could not complete his work quotas. However, failure to meet work quotas would have sent him straight back to the punishment block, which in turn, would have further worsened his already poor state of health and would have soon resulted in his death. In this instance, Alexander mentioned the time, when he had just returned from the punishment block, in very poor health, how other anarchists stood either side of him and propped him up, thus allowing him to pretend to be carrying out his digging work while his comrades covered for him and made up his work quotas.

Aside from time in prison, Alexander mentioned the time he was exiled to a Turkish-speaking part of the country, where anarchism was relatively weak and where he was placed a long away from his anarchist comrades. Although not anarchists, the Turkish-speaking villagers there showed immense solidarity in their own way. So, when the police asked the locals about Alexander, wanting to know the kind of things he had said and done, the local people would only say nice things about him but then straight away, would go and repeat to Alexander exactly what the police had been asking about him.

It was forms of solidarity and mutual aid such as these, as well as a deep commitment to the anarchist cause and its revolutionary ideas that, despite frequent repression and imprisonment, enabled Alexander to keep his morale and convictions high enough to keep up the struggle.

Eventually, all those at the Bookfair meeting bade an emotional farewell to Alexander and Mariya. The meeting then continued with a interesting and detailed talk by Nick Heath on the history of the Bulgarian anarchist movement and the Federation of Anarchist Communists in Bulgaria (now the Federation of Anarchists in Bulgaria - FAB).

On a personal note, I have to say, this was one of the most poignant and emotional meetings I have ever attended in my life. Alexander Nakov is the last of his heroic generation; a legacy of a time when anarcho-communism in Bulgaria was a mass movement, deeply rooted in society, a movement in which countless militants faced massive repression, yet who sacrificed everything for the revolutionary cause.

Rachel
Nov 1 2016 10:17

Thank you for this post Serge.
The other day I read the London Review of Books of a review of a biography of a Jewish woman surviving underground in Nazi Berlin. The review mentions that in 1942 when she followed her lover to Bulgaria she found an entirely different atmosphere of open resistance to persecution of Jews. I realised I knew nothing about this and thought to read something about the history of the movement in Bulgaria. Glad to hear about this book and the meeting.

Serge Forward
Nov 1 2016 11:08

Yes, as part of the axis, the monarcho-fascist government had difficulty carrying out nazi instructions to persecute Jews in Bulgaria due to widespread popular opposition and resistance. I believe very few Jews were deported to the death camps as a result and "the Bulgarian people" get an honourable mention at Yad Vashem. Not that Alexander's book covers any of this as he was in prison in Skopje (then part of "Greater Bulgaria") through most of the war years - until he participated in a mass break out followed by a spell with the partisans.

Entdinglichung
Nov 1 2016 11:16

the Bulgarian regime did however nothing to stop the deportation of more than 11000 Jews from Bulgarian-occupied territories in Greece and Yugoslavia