In Brief

The Spy Who Taught Me: Bulgaria Accuses Julia Kristeva of Cold War Espionage

The Franco-Bulgarian scholar, philosopher, and psychoanalyst has been accused of being a spy for the Bulgarian government in the early 1970s.

Julia Kristeva speaking at the National Library of France in 2016 (photo by Guiness88, via Wikimedia Commons)
Julia Kristeva speaking at the National Library of France in 2016 (photo by Guiness88, via Wikimedia Commons)

At 76, Julia Kristeva is arguably the most prominent living psychoanalyst in the world and a cornerstone of postmodern philosophy. She may also be a former Soviet spy.

Kristeva stands accused of spying on the French intelligentsia for the Bulgarian-Soviet government between 1971 and 1973. The strange and wholly unexpected saga began in late March, when Balkan Insight, a publication covering news in Eastern Europe, publicized an announcement by the Bulgarian government committee charged with disclosing the affiliations between the Bulgaria’s State Security and the Soviet KGB during the Cold War.

Blindsided by the announcement, Kristeva has flatly denied involvement with any such espionage. “The report that I may have been a member of the Bulgarian secret services under the name of Sabina is not only untrue but grotesque,” she told the New York Times. “It damages my honor and reputation and is damaging for my work as well.”

In a statement published on her website last month, Kristeva denounced the allegations at length:

I have never belonged to any secret service — not Bulgarian, not French, Russian or American! These archives are a perfect illustration of the methods used by police in the service of a totalitarianism that I have in fact helped to denounce by explaining in many of my publications how its mechanisms work. Furthermore, I have not offered my support to a regime that I fled, and I have never written reports for it. The fact seems to remain that the still too little understood methods of totalitarian regimes — naming and amassing secret files on people without their knowledge — remain formidably efficient today if we are to judge by the credence given to these files, without there being any questioning about who wrote them or why. Ultimately, this episode would be comical, and might even seem a bit romantic, were it not for the fact that it is all so false and that its uncritical repetition in the media is so frightening.

But the Bulgarian government is backing up Balkan Insight’s claims. The government has taken the unusual step of releasing a dossier on Kristeva that allegedly proves a connection between the famous psychoanalyst and her birth country. The files include a registration card as an agent of Bulgaria’s former Committee for State Security and numerous reports of exchanges between her and her handlers in Parisian cafés and restaurants.

Still, there are significant omissions in the dossier that prevent these files from becoming definitive proof of Soviet spying. First, there is nothing in the files actually written or signed by Kristeva. Second, the existence of such files does little to verify the accuracy of their contents — as Kristeva and her defenders acknowledge.

Intercepted letters and other surveillance items within the dossier could actually prove the author’s point: she was not a spy but was spied upon by handlers who wished they could instrumentalize the public intellectual for Soviet aims. Further, one letter dated November 10, 1984, states why Bulgaria lost interest in Kristeva: “The information she provided is not particularly interesting and she lacks discipline: claiming that she was busy, she would forget meetings or fail to attend them.”

At the height of the Cold War, Bulgaria’s State Security operated a network of nearly 100,000 agents and informers, but it dissolved in 1989 after the collapse of the country’s Soviet regime. Speaking to the French online weekly L’Obs, Kristeva surmises that these documents were released to the public because she wanted to work for a Bulgarian newspaper, and there are apparently rules in the country that demand publishing information on the background of all journalists in the country.

For defenders of Kristeva’s reputation, this may lead to the most convincing argument for her exoneration in the public eye. Basing its mandate on the European Union’s 2009 resolution on European conscience and totalitarianism, which is posted on the committee’s website, the lengthily named Committee for Disclosing the Documents and Announcing the Affiliation of Bulgarian Citizens to the State Security and Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army describes itself as charged with “pulling back the curtain” on the country’s past.

The committee’s website stresses its impartiality:

From the beginning of its mandate, the Committee refused to live up to the expectations to be a judge or a critic. It had the specific task to pull back the curtain and report the truth as it happened. It was left to the audience to choose whether to cheer or jeer the actors dancing on the strings of their SS puppet masters.

Given how the committee presents itself as a defender of objective truth in the Post-Soviet era, the released dossier could be seen as a strategy to delegitimize Kristeva in the eyes of the Bulgarian public before she had a chance to reenter the country’s civic arena as a journalist.

If true, however, Kristeva’s brief involvement with the Soviet authorities would certainly recontextualize the breakthroughs she made in post-structuralism and semiotics. Further, it would repaint how historians view the motivations behind her rock star appearance on the French intellectual scene in the 1970s, becoming quick friends and colleagues with leading thinkers like Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida.

But for now, the Bulgarian public is divided. On the Balkan Insight’s original report, one commenter sympathized with Kristeva, noting that most agents in Eastern Europe were forced to be agents. The choice was not for payments or profits, but for the freedom of crossing borders, visiting family members, and having a passport.

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