As an American who has lived in Bulgaria shortly after the fall of communism and who has dedicated his career to researching, teaching and writing about the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Professor Scarboro surely brings a unique perspective to the subject of the Cold War. Still, he says, “I often learn more from my students that they learn from me (…) and I am really interested in meeting the students at AUBG and hearing what they have to say.”
Read our interview with Professor Scarboro to learn more about his academic background, the connection he sees between the liberal arts education and Dostoevsky’s “accursed questions” and what can Cold War teach us about the present day.
You have already been involved with research about Bulgaria. Could you tell me a bit about that?
I have been coming to Bulgaria for a long time now. I first came in 1996 and I lived in Haskovo teaching English at the math school there. Strangely enough, when I was there, I brought students from the math school to AUBG in 1997 to look at the university and consider going there. I have an experience with AUBG going back that long. When I came to Bulgaria, I wasn’t thinking about a career in history, but I fell in love with the country and the place. One of the things I find most exciting about Bulgaria is the questions that it raises about the nature of history.
After spending two years in Haskovo, I went to the University of Illinois where I got my PhD in history writing about what I call the “Socialist Good Life” in Bulgaria in the 1960s and 1970s: or how the communist system in that period promoted their idea of what a life well-lived was and how did people internalize, transform, resist these very programs.
I looked at several things: The Brigadier movement, the creation of socialist realist art and its promotion in the 1960s and 1970s, the connection between Haskovo and Tashkent in the Soviet Union and the internal tourism movement. I looked at how those programs were meant to design a society and how it worked. That became my professional work for the last 20 years. I am in Bulgaria now and besides teaching at AUBG, I hope to work on a project for my third book, which will be about the time of transition in Bulgaria, about how this understanding of the socialist good life transformed after the collapse of communism. I want to look at all the ways this was again understood, internalized and transformed through Western institutions that arrive in Bulgaria in the 90s, and one of them will be AUBG.
While I am here I am hoping to look in the archives at AUBG and think about how AUBG saw its mission, how and why students came to the university, what they learned, how they changed the institution, what their expectations were. I also want to look at things like the Peace Corps and people like myself: what was I doing in Bulgaria, what was I trying to learn, what did I learn, how did the experience change me. Those are the kind of questions I am interested in, and I feel so grateful that AUBG is a place where I will be able to pursue them.
You are teaching history at King’s College in Pennsylvania. Is your focus Balkan Studies?
Somewhat yes. It is a small college, I think in some ways even smaller than AUBG. I teach world history. There are moments when I teach a class on Eastern European history, so I don’t get to do the Balkans particularly, I do Russia and Soviet history, and I do this class on the Cold War that I’ll be bringing to AUBG in the fall.
What are your teaching methods? I remember taking prof. Castagneto’s class on the Cold War as a student a few years ago and we watched some films from that era.
Well, I do show a lot of movies. I taught [Cold War] this last year at King’s College, and we showed the Soviet film Little Vera, Apocalypse Now, a movie called The Act of Killing about the Indonesian genocide. I have looked at professor Castagneto’s syllabus for the class and it’s fantastic. Although my approach will focus less on the United States and more on both Eastern Europe and what comes to be called the Third World.
I am really, really interested in how the so-called peripheries of The Cold War outside of the Soviet Union and United States experienced the war. I will try to pay particular interest to Bulgaria because it is a place that is near and dear to all of us at AUBG but also, I think, because it is emblematic of some of the big questions that the Cold War asks. What is a life well lived? What is the rule of consumption in modeling this good life? How does culture play out? Films and novels are going to be central to those questions.
I like my teaching style to be dialogic. There’ll be a lot of discussion. I expect the students to be active learners. I often learn more from my students that they learn from me, so I want to hear what they have to say, what they think. I am particularly excited to be teaching this class outside of the United States, because that will, I think, give me a point of view that is not usual and is very important. We often lose sight of how people external to our world understand these questions. I am really interested in meeting the students at AUBG and hearing what they have to say.
What are your favorite topics to teach?
I love the Cold War. I love teaching Eastern Europe. I love Soviet and Russian history. One of my favorite classes to teach recently — and this is maybe a little strange – is a class just on Bob Dylan. Thinking about how Bob Dylan was trying to get his arms around the American experience. Thinking about him as somebody who is answering the question about what it means to be an American. That might give you some insight into the way I teach, I want to think about how culture reflects some of these larger questions. I love to teach and I am excited to do it in Blagoevgrad.
Outside of your work and teaching, what are your interests or hobbies?
I think, like every professor, I love to read. I love music. I love traveling. I am very excited to be able to see and reacquaint myself with Bulgaria. I have not been in Bulgaria in three or four years and I am glad to be back. I am here with my daughter now and my wife and son will be here at the end of the month, and we’re just excited to get reacquainted with old friends and rediscover old places that we love and maybe find some new ones.
Could you tell me more about the Fulbright U.S. Scholar program that has sent you here?
As a Fulbright U.S. scholar, I will spend half of my time on teaching at AUBG and the other half working on research for my next book. I was supposed to be here last year, but COVID changed those plans. This is actually my second Fulbright. I was on a Fulbright in 2002 doing research for my dissertation. It is a great program, it is very generous, there is a great network of scholars and institutions and AUBG has worked closely with Fulbright over the years. There is a strong relationship there and I am excited to be a link in that chain. I am hoping to use this as an opportunity to connect with people in my field. I already know Professor Markus Wien from the History and Civilizations department at AUBG; we have worked together in the past. I want to meet many other faculty and students at AUBG. I think that one of the main goals of the Fulbright Program is to foster these kinds of both academic and professional but also personal connections.
What is your own educational background, what have you studied?
It kind of makes me really feel old but I went to a small liberal arts college somewhat like AUBG in Ohio called Kenyon College. I graduated there with a degree in History and Philosophy in 1995, and then I spent two years in Bulgaria. When I graduated from college I wanted to see another part of the world and experience another culture. Those were the two best years of my life in many ways. I then decided to go to graduate school to University of Illinois where I worked with Balkan scholar Keith Hitchins and historian Maria Todorova. Then I graduated with my PhD in 2006 and I had been at King’s College ever since. I guess I have been at Kings for 15 years.
I suppose you are a fan of liberal arts.
Why is that?
There are both personal and, I guess, pedagogical reasons for this. My father was also a Professor. He went to a liberal arts college. He made it clear to me growing up, that I was going to go to a liberal arts college. And I don’t think that I understood why that was important until I went to a liberal arts college. I think it’s fundamental to just what education is supposed to do, to teach you to think critically and broadly, to be able to approach questions from many different disciplinary perspectives, to understand things from a historical perspective, to analyze using culture and literature and be acquainted with the scientific methodologies.
What I tell students when they come to Kings, which is also a liberal arts college, is that liberal arts teaches you to ask life’s big questions, what Dostoevsky called the “accursed questions.” I would strongly encourage my kids to pursue a liberal arts degree for just that reason: it prepares you to be fully human, to really engage in those big fundamental questions from a broad perspective. As an added bonus, it prepares you well for a career afterwards. Whatever career path you go into, whether it’s going to med school or starting a business, you know to be able to think clearly and critically, to argue persuasively, and that’s really what it’s all about. We can get no better foundation for that than the liberal arts.
Why do believe it’s important to study Cold War now? What can it teach us or perhaps warn us about?
This is a question that historians always get, right. I think studying ancient history can tell us things that are very, very important, but I think one of the things that make the Cold War important is that we are still living in the world that the Cold War made. We’re in Bulgaria, we’re living through the period of transition. It’s 30 years now, more than 30 years and we’re up and we can’t understand what that means unless we understand our antecedents. Why do we live the way we live, why do we value the things that we value? These are all things that have their roots in the Cold War, both good and bad. The Cold War was a terrible time, terribly dangerous, isolating in many ways. But we can’t understand the present, both in Bulgaria and in America, without thinking about the Cold War.