An interview to Kristiyan Kovachev, historian, guest lecturer and PhD candidate from the South-West University “Neofit Rilski” in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria Interviewed by Ana Frangovska, art historian and curator.
Kristiyan Kovachev is a guest lecturer at the Southwestern University “Neofit Rilski” of Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria. He conducts seminars in Anthropology of the Middle Ages, Cultural Anthropology and Theory of Culture. He participated in the organisation and logistics of the conference “Culture, heritage and tourism for small towns” (2019) and was part of the team working on the project “Field archaeological excavations along the route of the Struma Motorway, lot 3.2 …” conducted by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. He has a Master’s degree in “Medieval Bulgaria: State, Society, Culture” from the Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. As a historian whose PhD thesis is related with medieval Ohrid, he is a very relevant interlocutor in the framework of our project “Shared or contested heritage“.
We do have heritage that can evoke different – sometimes difficult or competing – views and emotions, depending on the approach and viewpoint. The challenge of dealing with such divergence lies in the attempt to simultaneously convey these different views and voices when presenting this heritage to the public. Do you agree and do you think that this is an essential task when dealing with heritage and histories that speak to different people in different ways?
Kristiyan: Yes, I think so. I think that this is an essential task that could be solved scientifically – beyond the emotional – by presenting those “alternative stories” (outside the official national narrative) that complement definitions such as “shared history”, “common heritage”, and so on.
Do you engage in cross-border cooperation with professionals from North Macedonia and do you find any difficulties in its realisation?
Kristiyan: Yes, I do. My doctoral thesis is related to medieval Ohrid and I am in constant communication with representatives of the University of Skopje, the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts, the Institute of National History in Skopje, various museums and the Macedonian Orthodox Church. I haven’t encountered any difficulties in our collaboration.
Have you worked on collaborative projects dealing with shared memories and histories?
Kristiyan: Yes. In 2018 I participated in a project related to the study of the process of construction of the popular historical narrative in Bulgaria and North Macedonia.
Can you suggest some new and creative approaches for the presentation of facts relating to shared or contested heritage?
Kristiyan: Firstly, a good approach is to shift the focus – from the great national stories to the daily life of ordinary people – how they lived and thought the world around them. Currently, many researchers tend to focus not so much on the study of politics and wars (glorious victories and great kings) whereas on culture, placing the research focal point on “microhistory.”
Can you think of an example of a case study of shared or contested heritage related to your particular field of interest (ethno-music, history, archaeology, contemporary art, art history etc.) and how would you approach its presentation?
Kristiyan: Ohrid, which I am exploring, is a disputed area between Bulgarians, Macedonians, Serbs and Albanians. Serbian claims to Ohrid provoked Ivan Snegaroff to write “History of the Ohrid Archbishopric” in 1924. Today Ohrid is within the borders of the Republic of North Macedonia. However, Bulgarians (including some historians) insist that Ohrid is Bulgarian territory. In 2019, Albanian flags were placed on key historical sites in Ohrid. All this shows us that Ohrid is a disputed territory. At the same time, however, we can talk about Ohrid in a different way. The cultural heritage of Ohrid, which is a sacred place for Bulgarians and Macedonians, would benefit from a new reading as a “shared Balkan” and “shared European” heritage, without distorting historical facts and without opposing the countries’ interests in their current borders. This would be possible by presenting the “alternative story” – the one that will not divide us as for example, the history of art and culture. However, this could happen by adapting the modern Western conceptions of nations as “imagined communities”” (according to Benedict Anderson) and as a product of the 18th-19th centuries. Excluding nationalist discourse, medieval Ohrid can be seen as a place of contact between East and West, which is also depicted in its image system (frescoes, icons etc.).
How we choose to remember the past and how we choose to move forward are the critical issues of today. What does cultural heritage mean in different national and regional contexts? Who can claim it as theirs, and who decides how it is preserved, displayed, or restored? How to share cultural heritage?
Kristiyan: In a national context, cultural heritage is thought of as something to be proud of. This is a relic left from the past to commemorate the glorious history of ancestors. It is used by the national governments as a tool for the formation of national consciousness, especially among adolescents. In the textbooks they are described as “strongholds of Bulgarian spirit” or “fortresses of Macedonianism”. Excursions are often made there with the task of consolidating the official national narrative in the students. In a supranational context, cultural heritage can unite the communities. In this regard, the attempt of the Council of Europe to develop Cultural Routes is indicative. They act as channels for intercultural dialogue and promote a better knowledge and understanding of European shared cultural heritage.
“Reviewing cultural heritage, a good approach is to shift the focus: from the great national stories to the daily life of ordinary people”
Another method of challenging the national narrative, regarding shared or contested heritage, would be to go from the particular to the universal. Cornelius Holtorf writes: “(…) the new cultural heritage can transcend cultural particularism by promoting values and virtues derived from humanism and a commitment to global solidarity.” What do you think about this?
Kristiyan: Yes, I think so. A good opportunity in this direction is the development of global networks for shared cultural heritage, which will strengthen universal values.
When we discuss about shared or contested heritage the issue of time is essential, and in extreme cases of recent turmoil, the best method for reconciliation might not be to address the past as individually relatable; but rather that the past should hopefully remain in the past. Do you think that this can be implemented into our context?
Kristiyan: I think not. In my opinion, this will be the case as long as the political discourse dictates how to talk about the past. This will be the case until the past ceases to be used by politics to argue current policies.
What signifies the national narratives are that they do not include layers; they are one-sided, often chronological and has a sense of a fixed, static, historical truth, about them, said Anderson in 1991. Do you agree or not and why?
Kristiyan: I agree. In the national historical narrative, there is always a victorious country whose history is presented chronologically in its “rise” to a glorious empire. This historical truth is fixed in the memory of the collective. It cannot be disputed. Any different story (from the established narrative) is perceived as an attempt to falsify the story.
Do you think that being more polyvocal, engaging, diverse, (self-)reflective and participatory may solve some of the obstacles on the way of presenting cultural heritage (shared or contested)?
Kristiyan: I hope so. However, solving these problems must become a cause. And the whole group, in this case the “historical guild”, must be involved in this cause. And its task is not easy – to talk about the past as it is, without additional embellishments influenced by current politics and nationalism. “Sine ira et studio”!
The interview is conducted within the framework of the project “Shared or contested heritage”, implemented by ALDA Skopje and Forum ZFD. The aim of the project is to improve cross-border cooperation between North Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria. The project raises awareness of the role of contested histories and shared cultural heritage for the EU integration processes among heritage practitioners and cultural workers. The content of the interview is the sole responsibility of the interviewee and does not always reflect the views and attitudes of ALDA and Forum ZFD.