A Comradeship for a Professor’s Legacy: ABF’s Communist Posters
Back in 1910, conflicting interests over the commercialized selling of Alaskan coal mines turned into a public polemic between Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester of the redefined U.S. Forest Service and the then-serving 27th United States President William Howard Taft. The president answered by firing Pinchot, eliciting a flood of outrage from the press. To this day the case remains a rare moment of leadership criticism which saw an open refutation to a U.S. president‘s decision by a head member of his own administration.
Today, a trans-centurial parallel seems appropriate.
The recent taking down of the communist poster exhibition in the ABF building proved to be the catalyst for a similar administrative discord against a presidential ruling. For the first time in recent years an AUBG department filled a letter of disapproval against a call by the AUBG president. Dissonance of standpoints quickly escalated into a protest as students and the Department of Politics and European Studies (POS/EUR Department) faculty locked horns with the university’s former President Kulinski, asking for the permanent re-installation of the exhibition. Part of a series of events in the Fall 2014 semester, Nov. 9, the curated posters were a donation from the late Dr. Cosmina Tanasoiu and university students, serving as a display of the communist-era propaganda and a nuisance reminder to the Berlin Wall’s Eastern Bloc reality.
Victoria Antonova and Tijana Stojanovic, AUBG graduates and former members of the European Society Club, were the two most active pioneers who coordinated student actions at the time.
“The idea [celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall] sounded great to me since the fall of the wall was such a significant milestone that had major implications for the entire world but also the region in particular, making the establishment of AUBG possible,” said Antonova. “Cosmina suggested some interesting ways to mark the anniversary, for instance, by constructing a wall on campus and then tearing it down. Apart from the activities that were organized [the Styrofoam Berlin Wall in the ABF building, the communist posters exhibition and the movie screenings] there were many other events that required collaboration of several student clubs, such as the Political Science Club and the Documentary Club, the POS/EUR and JMC departments and different university bodies, such as the Events office and the Panitza Communist Series.”
Part of the communism remembrance event, the exhibition posters were the only props to remain as an enduring physical memory of the AUBG community efforts of that day. The display included at least 27 posters put up on the walls around the Admissions office entrance at the second floor of the ABF building. Despite the organizers’ intentions to position an inscribed plaque with a description of the display’s nature and its permanency, no such accreditation was added to the exhibition. Written by Provost Emilia Zankina, the text read the following message:
“This collection of communist propaganda posters reflects the ideology and aesthetic of communist regimes, as well as the image of the regime they wanted to portray to citizens. In addition to their propaganda purpose, posters were used to inform, educate, and mobilize the population. While they may appear comic and cartoon-like to contemporary audiences, they were the reality for millions of people living under communist rule who were not exposed to the usual advertisements that flooded the space on the other side of the ‘Iron Curtain’.”
In a distinctly contrasting claim, former President Kulinski affirmed that the communist posters display was first intended as a temporary exhibit, a conscious decision by all volunteers involved.
“There is a very valid point … that the American University in Bulgaria cannot permanently associate itself with communist art,” commented Kulinski. “People need to understand that when something temporary becomes permanent, then it sends a signal about the identity of the university.”
He further expressed concern for the dissonant impressions of AUBG’s everyday reality that posters leave on all incomers to the ABF building. Kulinski also noted of the Board of Trustees ‘ incomprehension of the posters’ value at a specific regular meeting in 2015.
“It raised eyebrows,” said Kulinski. “We were scratching our heads [on] why do we have communist propaganda in the American University in Bulgaria.”
As the events unfolded, the Department of Politics and European Studies emailed Kulinski with a joint statement of disagreement of his imposed call to take down the exhibition. The letter expressed a mixed mood of frustration with the zeal of the decision and its suddenness as well as discontent for removing an honorable donation of their dear Cosmina Tanasoiu.
“As a chair of the Department of Politics and European Studies, I wrote to the president to express our strong concern about the unceremonious removal of the posters,” said Dr. Ivelin Sardamov.
“I find it troubling because it says that this person or persons doesn’t understand why the posters were there and what they meant to many members of the community and did not even care to find out … or it says that this person or persons did understand all this and still acted,” commented Political Science Professor Robert Phillips.
In a backlash to Kulinski’s top-down micromanagement and his negotiating diplomatic lingo on the issue, Adel Zabbarov, a second-year student and one of the strongest advocates for the re-exhibit of the posters, initiated a community-wide petition asking for a repeal of the presidential decision to remove the display. The initiative quickly found a mass of support to the posters’ reminder cause to the “tragic mistakes of the past” and the “incentive to stay truthful to the democratic values and traditions”. The petition was signed by a total of 439 supporters of the appeal.
The protest reached its nexus on Feb. 27, after the creation of an organized event for the posters re-installation, in parallel to the intensified talks of the Student Government, the POS/EUR department and interpersonal communique of Zabbarov with the former president.
Steps were soon made towards a compromised resolution. Just days before the launch of the event on March 1, that would have taken students on an inquiring search for the physical emblems’ location, the university’s chief decision-maker agreed to retrieve the posters to the ABF building. The conditions for the re-exhibit enlisted proper labeling of the exhibition as a temporary display and its further exhibit on a road tour to museums and other institutions in memory of the late Dr. Tanasoiu, an initiative that would likely be undertaken by the Sofia Platform organization. Questions nonetheless remain on the validity of the suggestion. Despite the ambition, the collection of posters in its entirety depicts a un-authored art which is not original but an exposition of selected communist placards.
On March 12, the communist posters finally found their way back on the walls on the second floor of the ABF building. Although still unknown whether the Active President Steven Sullivan will accord to the community’s voicing for the exhibit’s long-lasting term, the display is expected to remain untouched for the following months. As of now the exhibition’s permanency will continue to hinge on the AUBG community’s continuous backing.