Monthly Archives: July 2015

NatGeo Does Bulgaria

Looking at National Geographic back issues is not only a lot of fun but offers snapshots of a place over time. The National Geographic Society first turned its attention to covering Bulgaria in February 1903. For the next three decades, the magazine’s writers explored Bulgaria’s history, its place in the region, its current development, and its great natural beauty, and they offered assessments of its national character and predictions for its future. The writers too often displayed the prejudices of their time, ascribing strengths and weaknesses to various European and “Oriental races”, and they sometimes offered conflicting assessments. But they also unknowingly provided fascinating historical parallels: what they observed in Bulgaria’s potential and progress after the long period under the Ottomans is often echoed in contemporary Bulgaria’s potential and progress after the long period under Communist rule.
1903 February cover

Bulgaria in the Balkans

  • The next, like the last, battleground of Europe will be the Balkan Peninsula…1
  • In appreciating the progress made in Bulgaria, it must be borne in mind that the country is situated within a very absorbing political atmosphere, which has certainly been a drawback to its fuller development. 3
  • It is difficult to assign exact territorial limits to the Near East; and as for the Balkans, it may be said, as did Dooley of the Phillipines, that before the World War few Americans knew whether they were mountains or canned goods. 6
  • Bulgaria bulks large in Balkan history. In one generation of freedom she made incredible progress and crowned her achievements with exceeding prowess in the First Balkan War.6

Hospitality (or Not)

  • Hospitality is based upon the ancient oriental laws. No stranger is ever turned from the door if he comes in peace. 1
  • Bulgaria may be a brigand land, and there are parts of the southern frontier where it must be admitted we did not feel any too safe, but Bulgarian people as a whole are among the friendliest in the world to the stranger within their gates. 2
  • Unlike most southern races, the Bulgarians are reserved, taciturn, phlegmatic, unresponsive, and extremely suspicious of foreigners.3

1907 October cover


  • Without money, with only a few educated leaders and the mass of peasants illiterate, surrounded by jealous and much more powerful states, their future independence seemed remote, if not impossible of achievement. But the leaders had grit and common sense, and realized that there were three essentials: (1) To educate the people; (2) to grant religious tolerance to all, and (3) to require of every man two or three years’ military training, so that every Bulgarian would be a capable soldier in time of need…today 92 per cent of the male city Bulgarian population between the ages of 10 and 30 can read and write and 74 per cent of the female, and 68 per cent of the male and 18 per cent of the female rural. This is a result which none of the countries, neighbors of Bulgaria and others to the west, can show. 3
  • Youngest among the nations of the Balkan Peninsula to be freed from Turkish domain, it being less than forty years since they threw off the Turkish yoke, illiteracy is less common in Bulgaria than in any other country in that region. In 1880 only one out of ten soldiers in the Bulgarian army could read and write; today only one in twenty cannot…The amount spent for educational purposes in 1912 was $1.20 per capita, as compared with 67 cents in Servia, 50 cents in Greece, 40 cents in Montenegro, and 20 cents in Turkey. 5

1908 November cover

Charm and Beauty

  • ’Why can’t we overnight at Tirnova?’ he pleaded. ‘Von Moltke calls it the most charming spot in the world.’ 2
  • …and, to tell the truth, all Bulgaria is so picturesque one is loth to go through any faster than he must. 2
  • …on [cliffs] perched the town—Tirnova the Beautiful—every house a blaze of color; the roofs of red terracotta shingling; the walls painted over in washed-out pinks and browns; the eaves and cornices set in relief by heavy beams that are browned to black by age. Yellows and blues marked other homes. We stopped to take in the perspective—a second Naples—from the sea—for here, too, the homes are three and even five stories high, a most rare architectural form for the Orient. 2
  • Sofia has been called The Little Brussels, just as Brussels in times of peace was called The Little Paris. 5
  • The country possesses great wheat fields, extensive forests, rich mines—all of which have been made to respond to that patient industry for which the Bulgarian peasant is the model for all his Balkan neighbors. 6
  • The Rhodope, Rila, and Pirin Mountains constitute the outdoor playground of Bulgaria. Where revolutionists used to hide from the Turks, city folks now escape from their cares. Evergreen forests, clear mountain lakes, and dangerous precipices all have their devotees. 7

Tourist Troubles

  • Today, however, I am inclined to believe it is the work of local politicians, in order to give the cabbies of their constituency a chance to make a living at the expense of the stranger. 2

1912 November cover

Progress and Leadership

  • No people have greater cause for satisfaction and honest pride in what they have accomplished during the last 30 years than have the Bulgarians. Their progress in self-government and education since 1877-78, when, with the aid of Russia and Rumania, they threw off the Turkish yoke, is one of the most remarkable records ever made by any people within a similar space of time. Industry, courage, and compulsory education have won for them a position unsurpassed by any country of their size, and have made them in less than a generation a powerful, and perhaps the determining, factor in the settlement of the Eastern question. 3
  • Twenty-five years ago the country had recourse to foreigners for professors, engineers, men of law, financiers, and specialists for all the administrative branches…and for the organization and command of public forces. Now all this work is done by specially educated Bulgarians. There is not a foreigner in the service of the state. 3
  • The resurrection of the Bulgarian nation is one of the wonders of the past century.
  • From the first hour of their liberation the Bulgarians of the newly created principality manifested a strong democratic spirit, and a firm determination to secure for themselves a full measure of political freedom and complete national independence. 4
  • There can be no question that if the Bulgarian people are allowed to develop their country and themselves—and they will do so if they can enjoy the advantages of a long period of peace and satisfactory commercial relations with their neighbors near and far—that the rapid progress of this people in every way will astonish the world, and to say the least, disabuse the minds of many who now think Bulgaria in a more or less semi-savage state and peopled by a race who would rather fight than not. 5
  • [The Russian-Turkish] war was ended by the Treaty of San Stefano, which essayed to establish a big Bulgaria; but, thanks to Disraeli, British influence brought about the Congress of Berlin, and it was a little Bulgaria which finally secured a place at the world’s council table. A lowly place it was, but with splendid courage the Bulgarian set out to make it better, and the story of Bulgarian development in a single generation finds few parallels among modern nations. 6

1915 April cover

National Character

  • The peasants of Bulgaria are industrious, ingenious, and intelligent. Both men and women are of fine physique, capable of great endurance, and few are idle, intemperate, or vicious. 1
  • In the short period of their political existence they have gone through so many vicissitudes that they have become inured to desperate situations. Their tenacity, their shrewdness, their dogged perseverance—the characteristics of an agricultural race—their cool-headed judgment and intuitive sagacity, and—shall we add?—the luck which has hitherto attended them, may once more stand them in good stead. 4
  • This virile, laborious, thrifty, and persevering race has displayed many qualities which entitle it to play an important part in the future history of southeastern Europe. During the thirty years of its troubled existence the young Bulgarian State has made almost phenomenal progress. Education has advanced rapidly; public works have been instituted on a large scale; the country has been covered with a network of railways; wealth has undoubtedly increased, and order has been maintained, often in circumstances of great difficulty…Not withstanding the recent economic crisis, the financial situation compares favorably with that of the sister States, inasmuch as the national debt is proportionately small. 4
  • There is an initiative and a power of organization in the Bulgarians that is unusual in the capricious and fatalistic Orient. Our Bulgarian students had a certain sturdiness, an out-of-doors quality, a sanity which marked them from the fanciful, sentimental, and weaker-nerved girls of some other nationalities. 5
  • The Bulgarians have shown themselves eager for education and for civilization, and their women acquire culture with the ease of the traditional American woman. Often, the daughter of an unlettered peasant, living in a remote village, after some years of schooling will take her place in Sofia or Varna as a teacher, or lady of fashion, or leader in civic betterment. 5
  • Among the more or less formal Thanksgiving proclamations of recent times, surely one of the most arresting was Bulgaria’s ‘Our poverty is our riches.’ A land of homespun may be proof, not only against spiritual, but also economic depression.7

1921 February cover

In 1932, a graduate of Constantinople Woman’s College explained the mood of Bulgaria as the different generations struggled with enormous changes: “…but this seems a confusing time. The old folks seem pessimistic. Perhaps because they are ill at ease. Light living engulfs them, ostentation violates their traditions. The young city folks are living beyond their means. We have long sought progress. Now we can’t escape it. But I have great faith in my country. We are honest, industrious, and eager. In most matters we are tolerant. We have vast reserves of courage and character. “7

1Curtis, William Eleroy. The Great Turk and His Lost Provinces. National Geographic Magazine, February 1903.

2Koch, Felix J. Tirnova, the City of Hanging Gardens. National Geographic Magazine, October 1907.

3Bulgaria, the Peasant State. National Geographic Magazine, November 1908.

4Bourchier, James D. The Rise of Bulgaria. National Geographic Magazine, November 1912.

5Jenkins, Hester Donaldson. Bulgaria and Its Women. National Geographic Magazine, April 1915.

6Moses, George Higgins. The Whirlpool of the Balkans. National Geographic Magazine, February 1921.

7Williams, Maynard Owen. Bulgaria, Farm Land Without a Farmhouse. National Geographic Magazine, August 1932.

The Quotable P.J. O’Rourke Cites Bulgaria

Wikipedia says that television show 60 Minutes says that The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations shows that P.J. O’Rourke is the most quoted living man between their covers. So I’m going to quote Mr. O’Rourke and then use the power of the blog for the riposte.

book cover

In chapter one, “The Death of Communism,” of his 1992 book Give War a Chance, Mr. O’Rourke crows “A huge totalitarian system with all its tanks and guns, gulag camps and secret police has been brought to its knees because nobody wants to wear Bulgarian shoes.”

I do not disagree that communist goods and services left an incalculable amount to be desired, and the desire for good quality belongings played a not insignificant role in communism’s demise in Eastern Europe. But I thought I might interest Mr. O’Rourke in an update on the Eastern [Shoe] Front. I have four pairs of Bulgarian shoes. Not just purchased in Bulgaria, but произведено в България (made in Bulgaria). Actually two pairs of high boots and two pairs of low heels. Admittedly they need polishing, but that’s my fault and shows how much I wear and love them.

Bulgarian shoes

I get compliments on them from Americans wearing shoes “made in China.”

Here’s another quote from the same chapter of the same book by the same Mr. O’Rourke: “For all the meddling the Communist bloc countries have done in banana republics, they still never seem to be able to get their hands on any actual bananas.” A cogent, funny observation and so true. Even in 1991, I remember see a long line of people waiting to get their hands on some really brown and unappealing bananas while several American missionaries capitalized (a pun, as it were) on their captive audience to “bring god to the Bulgarians,” who have been a largely Christian nation since the year 864. Now bananas are in every little corner market and are eaten on a regular basis without exciting any comment—or American missionaries at the cash register—whatsoever.


I’m writing a travel memoir about Bulgaria. Mr. O’Rourke, would you be willing to read my manuscript? I promise to give you permission to quote me as you see fit.

произведено в България

Note to Greece: “Those Who Do Not Learn History Are Doomed to Repeat It”

Bulgarian lev gains currency in Greece as euro exit looms,” said the Financial Times on July 9. Nearly 20 years ago, the idea that the lev was even good for the Bulgarians was laughable. Then Greek products and companies were flooding Bulgaria and it was Bulgarian banks that were failing. Now it seems that it is the Bulgarians who have something to say about Greece’s stewardship of its economy and the need for financial discipline. The extreme turnabout brings back memories of living in Bulgaria during its financial crisis in the mid-1990s.


In June 1995, my husband and I moved to Sofia for a two-year stint. The exchange rate was 66 Bulgarian leva to one U.S. dollar. We settled ourselves in my mother-in-law’s living room and oriented ourselves in our new jobs. I began my personal quest to learn Bulgarian. I started a habit of reading whatever signs I passed. Unfortunately it was too late to see the sign that my husband had loved as a symbol of the unintended, the black humor present in communist societies. A classic example of communist black humor: Man shouts, “Brezhnev is an idiot!” He gets sentenced to 15 years, five years for insulting the Soviet leader and 10 years for betraying a state secret. The sign my husband saw for many years in Sofia was on the front of the psychiatric hospital and it read: “Our Purpose Is Communism.” By 1995, there was a satirical show on national television full of such black humor and at the end of two years, I was laughing too.

We were disappointed that the Bulgarian Socialist Party (the Bulgarian Communist Party with a name change) was in power. On the other hand, we were willing to be hopeful about its 36-year old leader, the new Prime Minister Jan Videnov. Videnov was no rebel. He joined the Bulgarian Communist Party at age 24, after having graduated first from the English high school in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, and then from the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations where he added Arabic to his facility in Bulgarian, Russian, and English. Not a rebel, not a democrat, but possibly, it was hoped, at least a pragmatic and effective technocrat.

We made an offer for a tiny studio apartment. We were ready to pay the leva promised, when seller and buyer together were faced with the reality of Act 16. It turned out that the seller had not yet obtained Act 16, a certificate from the municipality that would attest that the property was the seller’s to sell, that the property had project approval, and that it was indeed to be used as a residence as promised. We could not finalize the sale without this precious document and it took many months of the poor seller making fruitless trips to the municipal office before we hired a lawyer. The lawyer went to the municipal office and said “What do you want to put your stamp on the certificate?” The answer was “Perfume.” The lawyer took one bottle of Bulgarian perfume and one bottle of French perfume, returning from his mission with the stamped Act 16 certificate. Unfortunately for the poor seller, nearly one year had gone by. The lev was worth less than half what it was when we signed the contract. We felt so bad that we voluntarily paid considerably more leva in the end though we still sacrificed many less dollars.

That perfume caper is an example of the low-level corruption seen with depressing frequency and sameness in so many countries, but corruption in Bulgaria managed to infiltrate every level of society. Bulgarians were already cynical about their their institutions and even about their fellow citizens, but it was a cynicism that could never quite keep up with the reality. The mafia then was so blatent and omnipresent that it inspired a peculiar form of patriotism. Waiting at a Druzhba busstop one morning, I heard one pensioner say almost boastingly to his friend, “Our mafia is worse than the Italian mafia.”

Jan Videnov

Jan Videnov quickly proved that he was in no way an effective technocrat. By 1996, there was no bread. For Bulgarians, a meal is not a meal without bread. No one would think of wasting even the smallest heel of a loaf because “it’s a sin to throw away bread.” Now the sin was the government’s mismanagement of the wheat crop. Predictably after bread disappeared from the market, it became nearly impossible to find flour to make bread at home. I went from store to store and from market to market, and when I saw flour at the Rimska Stena (Roman Wall, and yes, there is one) market, I discovered my inner hoarder and bought four one-kilogram packages. The Associated Press noted on May 15, 1996: “In the latest sign of a deepening economic crisis, a flour shortage has forced hundreds of bakeries across Bulgaria to close this week.” The AP added “The Socialist government of Premier Zhan [sic] Videnov is grappling with the most severe economic crisis since the end of Communist rule six years ago.”

Yes, Jan Videnov was grappling and his cadre of Communists-cum-Socialists was grasping. The new Privatization Agency was painfully slow in its work, but rumor muttered that it was crackerjack in its ability to channel ownership to the usual suspects. No one had any faith that the shares offered to the average citizen would be worth anything. The Communist Elite were now the Socialist Elite. The grain reserve was half empty; rumor also had it that grain had been sold on the foreign market to the benefit of the usual suspects. Then slow reform plus little to no regulation of the banking sector made us forget about what we put in our mouths and focused us on what we had put in the bank. Which was no longer there. We received pennies on the dollar as did Bulgarians all over the country. Many people seemed to be reading Zakonut na Murfi (Murphy’s Law) on the bus.

Законът на МърфиЗаконът на Мърфи в Ефир

By January, Videnov and his government had achieved a noticeably high level of inflation. The burning question everywhere was whether we were now experiencing hyperinflation. People talked about it obsessively. We stuffed our salaries of stacks of leva in bags, bought as much food as we needed for the next few days, and immediately exchanged the rest for dollars. Shelves in grocery stores started emptying and no one could say when they would be restocked. The little produce on hand was limp and unappetizing. When I asked when oatmeal would be available, I was told, “the oatmeal factory closed.” When my mother-in-law had to buy a new refrigerator, the prices on all the appliances were in German marks with a handwritten sign indicating the exchange rate of the hour. By January 1997, the lev was 3000 to the U.S. dollar, inflation was 300%, and the nation was as one in considering this hyper—just two months later inflation had passed 2000% according to the IMF’s quarterly Finance & Development.

The nation was also as one in considering that Jan Videnov and his compatriots had to go. Strikes ensued. Demonstrations broke out. We went out too, day after day, as Rumen joyously shouted along, “Cherveni Boklootzi” (“Red Trash”). The crowds were enormous, massing in front of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and were mostly peaceful. But one day, as we walked across the park to join the demonstrators, we saw riot police running and we began to run too. Angry demonstrators were storming the National Assembly, throwing rocks at the building and smashing the cars of Jan Videnov’s Socialist legislators while their owners cowered inside. It was frightening, but not more frightening than experiencing the country’s economic collapse. On February 11, the Bulgarian Socialist Party agreed to hold early parliamentary elections on April 19 and a caretaker government was put in place.

It has not always been smooth sailing, Bulgaria is still labeled as the poorest country in Europe, and the life is a struggle for too many. But the Currency Board that stabilized the lev in July 1997 has remained strong, debt is the fourth lowest in Europe, and Bulgaria’s politicians have held the financial austerity line. It’s a shame that Greece a short drive or train ride to the south has taken no lesson from Bulgaria’s experience, but despite that “Bulgaria Ready to Help With Greek Humanitarian Aid, PM Says.”