Bulgaria Says French Thinker Was a Secret Agent. She Calls It a ‘Barefaced Lie.’

The hundreds of pages of documents include Ms. Kristeva’s supposed registration card as an agent of Bulgaria’s former Committee for State Security and extensive reports of alleged conversations with her handlers in Parisian cafes and restaurants between 1971 and 1973. But there is not a single intelligence-related document written or signed by her.

In an interview on Thursday, Ms. Kristeva vigorously dismissed the accusation as “fake news” and a “barefaced lie” — “mud being slung at me,” she said, by unspecified people who wished her harm.

After the release of the dossier, she reiterated her denials in an interview on Friday. She had never been approached by anyone claiming to be a State Security agent, she said emphatically, and certainly never agreed to collaborate.

“These allegations are completely false,” she said, speaking in French. “I find it quite extraordinary that the commission, which read these allegations, never thought that the secret services could have been lying.”

To Ms. Kristeva’s defenders, the case is murky, recalling something out of Franz Kafka — or perhaps one of her own murder mystery novels, which mix racy conspiracy plots with heady metaphysical speculation.

“Everyone is trying to keep an open mind, but nobody who knows anything about her or her work believes this,” said Alice Jardine, a French literature professor at Harvard who is writing an intellectual biography of Ms. Kristeva.

Instead of showing that Ms. Kristeva was a spy, she added, the dossier — which also includes intercepted letters and other surveillance of Ms. Kristeva — shows “how she was targeted and spied upon.”

In Bulgaria, where opinion is divided, the case has stirred debate about what counts as collaboration and the reliability of the state security archives.

Some have argued that Ms. Kristeva might have spoken to agents without realizing it. Others have called the evidence insufficient and have expressed doubt about the fairness of the procedure for branding someone a collaborator. (On Friday, after the release of the dossier, the commission announced that its website had been attacked by hackers.)

Martin Dimitrov, a Bulgarian political scientist at Tulane University who has written about State Security, said the documents do seem to show that Ms. Kristeva knowingly, if not enthusiastically, shared information on French intellectual and political life with the agency.

But her handlers, he noted, frequently complained about her lack of commitment, and in 1973 dropped her as an associate after deeming most of the information she provided “of little interest.”

“Was she a spy? State Security thought so; she says otherwise,” Mr. Dimitrov said. “This raises a question that is more moral than legal: Namely, who is a spy?”

Ms. Kristeva was born in Sliven, Bulgaria, in 1941, to Christian Orthodox parents. In the recent documentary “Who’s Afraid of Julia Kristeva?” she describes arriving in Paris in late 1965 to study literature on a French government scholarship, with the equivalent of $5 in her pocket.


The commission took the unusual step of posting online the entire dossier on Ms. Kristeva.

Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By 1971, the year of her alleged recruitment, she was established and well-connected enough to be deemed a useful source of information by State Security. She was writing prolifically and was part of a group of politically engaged intellectuals around the avant-garde journal Tel Quel, including the critic Roland Barthes, the novelist Philippe Sollers (whom Ms. Kristeva married in 1967) and the philosopher Jacques Derrida.

The radical politics and intellectual glamour of that generation of French intellectuals were sent up in Laurent Binet’s recent novel “The Seventh Function of Language,” which imagined them as theory-addled James Bond wannabes embroiled in a conspiracy around the death of Mr. Barthes (who, in real life, died in 1980 after being hit by a laundry van).

In one scene Ms. Kristeva coolly confesses to murdering Mr. Barthes. There are also numerous deaths by poison-tipped umbrellas, a riff on the famous case of the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, who was assassinated in London in 1978.

The spycraft described in Ms. Kristeva’s dossier is far less dramatic. In January 1971, she reportedly asked to give testimony only orally, rather than in writing, and her handlers, who are identified by code names, agree.

In multiple reported meetings between that year and 1973, Ms. Kristeva allegedly offered information on French political and intellectual figures, Arab progressive movements, Bulgarian émigrés and other subjects, most of which is deemed “of little interest.” (Among other things, she reports back on a Bulgarian national who had a stomachache.)

The operatives expressed dismay when Ms. Kristeva and Mr. Sollers signed a petition in Le Monde in 1972 protesting repression in Czechoslovakia. By that time, the Tel Quel group, like others on the French left, had broken with the pro-Soviet French Communist Party in the wake of the crushing of the Prague Spring, and turned toward Maoism.

According to the dossier, the agency formally released Ms. Kristeva from the ranks in 1973 after handlers cited frustration with her “completely pro-Maoist” politics and her general lack of commitment. But operatives continued to communicate with her as late as 1978 with the hope of reactivating her.

At various points in the dossier, she is described as requesting travel permission for her parents, who were still in Bulgaria, and sister, who was in France on a limited visa.

In 1976, after she wrote a letter to a government office complaining that her parents were not allowed to visit their new grandson in Paris, a document reads: “Sabina is employing the same tactics once again — trying to get something from us without giving anything in return.”

In the interview on Friday, Ms. Kristeva acknowledged that she had known Vladimir Kostov, a former Bulgarian spy who is described in one document as having met with her in France in the 1960s to “psychologically prepare” her for possible work as an agent, and who some have suggested might also be behind one of the code names in the dossier. (After defecting, Mr. Kostov survived an apparent poison umbrella attack in the Paris Metro in 1978.)

But she said she was unaware that Mr. Kostov — whom she had worked with at a newspaper in Bulgaria, and recalled encountering again in Paris around 1974 or 1975 — had worked with State Security.

As for the commission, she said it had put too much trust in the story the dossier told. “They saw it as a document, and not as a manipulation,” she said.

Since 2007, when the state security files were opened, there have been questions about material that may have been redacted, destroyed or manipulated. Hristo Hristov, a Bulgarian journalist who has written extensively about the state security files, said that parts of Ms. Kristeva’s dossier appear to have been removed, but that the documentation that remained was persuasive.

“She was clearly aware who she was meeting with and what kind of information she’s providing,” Mr. Hristov said.

That the file contains only accounts of Ms. Kristeva’s alleged oral reports, and nothing written or signed by her, was not unheard-of, said Ekaterina Boncheva, a former journalist who has been a member of the commission for more than 10 years.

“The important fact is that she has a registration card” as an agent, she said.

Since the fall of Communism in 1989, Ms. Kristeva has been vocal about her harsh judgment of the former Bulgarian regime.

On Thursday, she reiterated her belief that her father had been “involuntarily assassinated” in 1989 in a Bulgarian hospital where, she said, “experiments were carried out on the elderly.”

She mentioned her 1991 novel “The Old Man and the Wolves,” a postmodern parable about a professor who is the only person to speak out about sinister animals that begin arriving in a sleepy Eastern European town, and who then dies in a hospital after his artificial lung is disconnected.

With the release of the dossier, Ms. Kristeva said, she felt like the old man’s daughter, who uncovers evidence of conspiracies she cannot untangle.

“But fortunately, freedoms exist and we can talk,” she said. “I am going to keep siding with freedom of speech.”

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How an Outraged Europe Agreed to a Hard Line on Putin

“I can’t think of any previous occasion when so many countries have coordinated on expulsions,” said Ian Bond, a former British diplomat in Moscow, adding that for many of the smaller countries, “it’s the first time since the Cold War that they’ve even expelled one Russian diplomat.”

Russia is always a tricky issue for the European Union, given its critical role as an energy supplier to the Continent, as well as the divided opinion among leaders on how confrontational, or not, the bloc should be with Mr. Putin.

But the March 4 poisoning in Salisbury, England, of the former Russian spy, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, crossed a line. British authorities say they were exposed to the nerve agent Novichok, marking the first use of a chemical agent on European soil since before the Second World War.

The brazen nature of the act was too much for European officials to ignore.

“This is an intelligence operation carried out with intelligence capacity with weaponized, weapons-grade chemical agents,” one senior European official said. “It has taken matters to an entirely different level.”

Alluding to Russia’s earlier aggressions in Ukraine, the senior official added: “Russia keeps violating international law in Crimea and Ukraine and unwritten rules on nonintervention, and now there is the use of nerve agents in Britain.”

In Britain, Mrs. May had already expelled 23 Russian diplomats earlier this month, while members of her cabinet spoke in increasingly strident tones against Mr. Putin. Her remarks last Thursday night seemed to stiffen the spines of other European leaders.

Mr. Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany were prominent supporters of Mrs. May’s call for action, having planned tactics with Britain before the dinner. The French had provided the British with technical assistance on analyzing the poisoning case and come to the same conclusion. And when the Franco-German couple agree, others tend to fall into line, even if grumpily.

The decision was finalized Monday morning, as European Union ambassadors met in Brussels to describe what each country was prepared to do. A statement was prepared for Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, at a meeting in Bulgaria, and the result was extraordinary — 16 European Union countries had agreed to expel one or more Russian diplomats, and others, like Ireland, were considering joining.


The entrance of the Russian Embassy in Prague. The Czech Republic said Monday that it would expel three embassy staff members.

Michal Cizek/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Europeans have gotten used to the fact that between one-third and one-half of all the Russians at Western embassies, the European Union and NATO are working in intelligence, the official said. But Russia has now made that impossible to ignore.

There was satisfaction in Brussels over the outcome, with even Hungary, which has warm relations with Mr. Putin, agreeing to expel a Russian diplomat. Greece and Cyprus, with close ties to Moscow, were unwilling to do so without a smoking gun, and some small countries, like Malta, did not want to lose all representation in Moscow and risk breaking relations entirely.

Austria was disappointing to some, refusing to expel anyone now that the far-right Freedom Party controls the Interior Ministry.

Bulgaria, which is currently holding the bloc’s rotating presidency, begged off, citing the need for neutrality, though its ties to Moscow are clear.

“We all back Britain’s position,” Prime Minister Boiko Borisov of Bulgaria said on Friday. “While there is high likelihood, but no evidence, we cannot decide on the matter.”

The Czech Republic, which expelled three Russians, was a particularly interesting case, because the messaging was divided, even as Russian media outlets had suggested that the nerve agent could have come through there.

Acting Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Monday, “If our ally is in a serious situation and asks for help, we should come forward.”

“Russia has crossed all limits when it declared that the poisonous substance Novichok might have come from the Czech Republic,” he added. “It is a complete lie and we strongly deny it.”

But the country’s more pro-Russian president, Milos Zeman, opposed the expulsions. In a statement, he called on the country’s intelligence services to examine if Novichok was ever made or stored in the country — even though government officials have denied it.

The Italian reaction troubled some, given the negotiations going on for a new government after the strong showing of populist parties in the recent election. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League party, is an ally of Mr. Putin and criticized the expulsions.

“To boycott Russia, renew the sanctions and expel its diplomats doesn’t resolve problems, it aggravates them,” he wrote on Monday after Italy announced it would expel two Russian diplomats. “Dialogue is better. I want a government that works for a future of peace, growth and security. Am I asking too much?”

In Brussels, some officials said the coordinated expulsions proved that European solidarity can transcend even Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, known as Brexit, or the acrimonious negotiations over that decision. Others disagreed, yet Monday’s expulsions were clearly a win for Mrs. May.

In her statement to the House of Commons on Monday, Mrs. May said she had argued to European colleagues “that there should be a reappraisal of how our collective efforts can best tackle the challenge that Russia poses following President Putin’s re-election.”

She singled out France and Germany, adding: “In my discussions with President Macron and Chancellor Merkel, as well as other leaders, we agreed on the importance of sending a strong European message in response to Russia’s actions — not just out of solidarity with the U.K. but recognizing the threat posed to the national security of all E.U. countries.”

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