A Jar, a Blouse, a Letter
In Laurent Binet’s novel The Seventh Function of Language (2015), Julia Kristeva is cast as a spy for Bulgarian intelligence, responsible for the death of Roland Barthes. Last Tuesday, the Bulgarian Dossier Committee, in charge of examining and declassifying communist-era State Security records, announced that Kristeva had been an agent of the First Chief Directorate.
On Thursday, Kristeva denied the allegations, describing them as ‘grotesque’ and ‘completely false’. On Friday, the Dossier Commission published her entire dossier – nearly 400 pages – on their website. Yesterday, Kristeva issued another statement, insisting she had ‘never belonged to any secret service’ and had not supported ‘a regime that I fled’. She criticised the ‘credence given to these files, without there being any questioning about who wrote them or why’:
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.
The dossier consists of a ‘Work’ file (documents attributed to Kristeva), a ‘Personal’ file (documents collected about Kristeva) and forms and cards registering her as a ‘secret collaborator’ (dated 14 November 1969) and an ‘agent’ (21 June 1971). A faint inscription in pencil next to her name on one of the forms says ‘Refugee’: a dangerous status for her to have, especially for her relatives. ‘The contact with our authorities should be kept alive,’ Kristeva’s father advises her in a letter. ‘People should feel that in you and your sister they have grateful, patriotic fellow citizens. Such a contact will make our life here easier.’
State Security divided Bulgarians abroad into two camps: loyal and ‘enemy’ émigrés. A glance at Kristeva’s ‘Personal’ file – three times the size of her ‘Work’ file – reveals that she was under close surveillance from the earliest years of her career. Her private correspondence, her academic and journalistic work and her conversations with other Bulgarians were closely monitored, and information about her family was methodically collected. Sixteen officers worked on her case. The contents of one intercepted package read: ‘a jar, a blouse, a letter’.
Born in Sliven in 1941, Kristeva was first taught French by Dominican nuns in a Catholic convent. After they were expelled from Bulgaria on suspicion of espionage, she was transferred to a secular French school (the English school was open only to the children of party members). She graduated from Sofia University at the top of her class, was active in youth organisations and worked as a journalist for several publications including Narodna Mladej. In 1965 she was authorised to go to Paris to study for one year. But she stayed longer and in 1967 married Philippe Sollers. In 1970, according to a report in her ‘Personal’ file by agent ‘Petrov’, following a successful ‘recruitment talk’ she was added to the ‘agent apparatus’ under the alias ‘Sabina’.
‘In those years, there were only three ways to leave the country,’ a former member of the Dossier Commission told me. ‘You had to be a cop, have a relative in the party, or agree to collaborate with State Security.’ Everyone had a ‘verbovachna beseda’ – a recruitment talk – ‘and many never forget it for the rest of their lives.’ Agent Petrov describes Kristeva admitting she felt ‘a little uncomfortable’ because of her marriage to Sollers: before going to France, she had declared that she had no intention to marry or settle there, and was now afraid that her actions would be negatively interpreted. Petrov reports her as saying that in Paris she has become an even ‘stauncher adherent to socialism because of the trust our authorities placed in her by letting her go to Paris and allowing her parents to visit her’. ‘I asked her if she remembers our conversation in my office,’ Petrov writes. ‘She assured me that she does remember it very well, and indeed had been waiting to be contacted. To that I responded that we are patient people.’
Nothing in the files is written or signed by Kristeva. It seems the authorities expected her to ‘reveal ideological centres in France that work against Bulgaria and the USSR’ and find information about other Bulgarian intellectuals and cultural figures in France, but Kristeva did not write donosi, the personal denunciations that have become a source of painful reckoning for many Bulgarians, or supply any information that could be of use to the security services. By contrast, a classmate of Kristeva’s – alias ‘Krasimir’ – submitted a report describing her as ‘very selfish’ and ‘exceptionally ambitious’, and complaining that she treated him ‘haughtily’ in Paris.
Another agent, later revealed as the writer and critic Stefan Kolarov, says he met Kristeva at La Closerie de Lilas. He asked if she had had a chance to follow developments in Bulgarian literature. She replied that she read some of the poems published in the newspapers wrapped around the jam jars her father sent her, and found them ‘despairingly weak’. ‘They lack even the smallest idea, I couldn’t find even a spark of poetry,’ she is quoted as saying in Kolarov’s six-page denunciation.
Sabina doesn’t denounce anyone. Instead, she tells the agent on her case about a colloquium on Bataille and Artaud, and explains that the left-leaning journal Politique Hebdo isn’t doing well because of its ‘provincial’ outlook. Louis Aragon is getting close to the Surrealists; he is preoccupied by the death of Elsa Triolet; he seems more distant from the PCF. Each piece of information allegedly supplied by Kristeva is accompanied by a ‘check sheet’ with a six-point grading system. Her scores are remarkably consistent: the information is invariably ‘of little value’,‘not secret’; ‘for internal use’ but never ‘confidential’; ‘credible’ and ‘timely’ but often ‘incomplete’.
Agent Lyubomirov, in charge of ‘assigning tasks’ to Sabina, reports that she ‘can be trusted’ and is ‘interesting’ but the information she provided was of little interest or use, and often already publicly available. The same pattern repeats over a handful of reports between February 1970 and December 1972. In May 1973 a decision is made to cease operational contact with Sabina because ‘she doesn’t want to work’, ‘doesn’t show up to the scheduled appointments’ and, along with her husband, has adopted ‘Maoist positions’. That she may have been too busy writing her third or fourth book, editing two magazines, working for Editions du Seuil and becoming the youngest woman to receive a professorship in France at the time, with five hundred people attending her viva in 1973, doesn’t come up in the files, or indeed in the current coverage of the allegations.
‘It’s obvious she wants her parents to come here,’ a report from June 1976 concludes, ‘but she is trying to act in a way characteristic for her – to get something from us without giving anything in return.’ Some journalists have suggested that incriminating files may be missing, but an extensive summary from 1984 concludes that Kristeva was ‘undisciplined’ and ‘excluded from the collaboration apparatus at the beginning of 1973’. After her son is born in 1976 but the authorities refuse to allow her parents to visit, she casually drops into conversation with an embassy official that Philippe may write a letter of protest to Le Monde. When the official interprets this as a threat, she is quick to attribute it instead to her husband’s ‘expansive personality and lack of understanding of the political climate in Bulgaria’.
The dossier is a fascinating document, not just for what it reveals about the crossroads at which Soviet socialism, Western European communist parties and Maoism found themselves in the 1970s, but for the remarkable personal details about Kristeva’s life and thought – even if to read about Kristeva’s doubts about ‘my new role as a housewife’, or learn that she addressed her father as ‘the father’ and sometimes used highly theoretical language even in her letters to him, can make you feel like an intruder or voyeur.
A lot of the debate in the Bulgarian media has to do with semantics: was Kristeva a ‘spy’ or an ‘agent’ or a ‘secret collaborator’? Is the documentation inconsistent or incomplete? It is very possible, according to the former member of the Dossier Commission I spoke to, that Kristeva never knew she was given the alias ‘Sabina’. It was a case name, not a pseudonym, and she never used it to sign any documents. Almost all Bulgarians who managed to leave the country were designated ‘secret collaborators’, without ever being formally drafted, trained or used. (Many of them will remain unidentified, as nearly 40 per cent of the archives were destroyed in 1990.)
As one Bulgarian journalist has noted, we are in the ‘absurd situation’ of forming an opinion of Kristeva based not on her actions ‘but on institutional assessments by State Security – an institution that we denounce as amoral and repressive but at the same time accept its criteria’.