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:
‘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