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RAI Research Seminar: Ilia Iliev

May 12 2022 @ 3:00 pm - 5:00 pm



Thursday 12 May 2022 at 3.00 – 5.00pm (BST)  

This webinar will be held on Zoom, to register go here: 


Image: Fresco displayed on the front cover of ‘Траките/The thracians’ by Alexander Fol and Valeria Fol. From WikiCommons

Alexander Fol:
or retro-dystopian ethnology from the margins of Europe: a Bulgarian example

Prof Ilia Iliev (Head of the Department of Ethnology, Sofia University, Bulgaria)

and as discussant Prof Chris Hann (Emeritus Director Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology Halle/Saale; Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)


In the last decades of communism in Bulgaria there emerged an original academic sub-field which interpreted society as being composed of passive masses and carefully selected elites. At its center was the new discipline of Thracian studies, which presented ancient Thracia as a totalitarian dystopia, unlike the popular utopias located in the past. It was inspired by Alexander Fol. In his youth Fol belonged to a small intellectual circle with Julia Kristeva and Tzvetan Todorov, and later became one of the main decision-makers in communist Bulgaria. After the fall of communism, abandoned by friends and followers (including British ones), he offered a new dystopia situated in Ancient Thrace. Instead of state-centered, the latter one was focused on the lonely individual.

This retro-dystopia had repercussions in various fields. It influenced a reform in education, which led to a clear division between elite and mass schools in Bulgaria. Ethnographers looked for hidden messages left by ancient elites and mechanically reproduced for millennia by the masses. Exhibitions dedicated to this imagined elitist and mystical Thracian culture were enthusiastically received in world capitals, including London. Bulgarian intellectuals who did not share the ideas of Marxism, thereby remained loyal to the regime because they did not conceive the possibility of political action or intellectual creativity coming from the masses.

I will argue that in relatively peripheral and closed societies such as we find in Bulgaria in 1970s and 80s, original and strong anthropological theories may emerge, which combine views on human nature and society, practical political reforms and ethnographic research. These original products may become more popular and influential in local societies than mainstream theories originating in global academic centers.


Ilia Iliev is associate professor, head of the Department of Ethnology, Sofia University, Bulgaria. He studied in Sofia University (BA, PhD) and  EHESS, France (MA), and was visiting scholar at Max Plank Institute, Germany, Harvard Univesrsity, USA, and IWM, Vienna. His main publications and research interests are in social history, history of ideas, and anthropology of ageing.   



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May 12 2022
3:00 pm - 5:00 pm
Event Category: