Nothing New Under the Bulgarian Sun

Time may pass at a fixed rate, but the velocity of history is ever swifter and ever more incomprehensible. Consciously or unconsciously, we seem to exercise some level of control or sanity or comprehension by repeating patterns of history, behavior—even ways of thinking. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun,” goes the famous line from Ecclesiastes, even as the earth appears to revolve ever faster around that sun.

The Balkan Trail

Some weeks ago, I blogged on how National Geographic writers in the early 20th century 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. Two books published almost just one year apart over a century ago do much the same. Frederick Moore’s The Balkan Trail was published in 1906. Harry De Windt’s Through Savage Europe: Being the Narrative of a Journey (undertaken as Special Correspondent of the “Westminster Gazette”), throughout the Balkan States and European Russia was published in 1907. Neither focuses solely on Bulgaria, but each gives ample space to the country.

Through Savage Europe

Like the National Geographic writers, Moore and De Windt are primarily journalists. And like their fellow early 20th century National Geographic journalists, they were not shy about their prejudices nor were they loathe to generalize about the peoples and countries they encountered. And yet, “The newspapers are making morning after morning the rough draft of history.” It is striking how many of Moore and De Windt’s observations demonstrate the repeating patterns of history. This is particularly apparent in Bulgaria’s relationship to Russia, Russia’s continual attempts to dominate Slavic peoples, and Bulgaria’s search for an identity that will smoothly meld its Western and Eastern influences, associations, and leanings.

Then Tzar Nicholas II of Russia, Now President Putin of Russia

  • Bulgarians of intelligence and education put little faith in the promises of the present Russian government, But Russia holds a fast grip on the masses of the people, the peasants are grateful for their deliverance, and many of the politicians are open to bribery. (Moore)Nicholas hunt
  • When the Bulgarians began to show an independent spirit and diplomatic connections with Russia—which assumed the form of a dictatorship on the part of the boasted liberator—came to be severed for a term of years, that ‘interested’ Power adopted Servia as its ward, and is still at work disciplining the other little country that dared to dispute its honesty of motive. Russia among the Balkan States does a work similar to that of the Sultan in Macedonia; she aids the weak to rival the strong, fosters their jealousies, and maintains a dominant influence on the distress she begets; and, unlike the Sultan, she does this in the guise of Christian sympathy. (Moore)
  • Putin hunting…they have realized, since the Treaty of Berlin, that Russia is an infinitely harder taskmaster than the indolent, easy-going Turk. And it says much for the national grit of Bulgaria that she has generally held her own against the intrigues and threats of the Powers that be at Petersburg. (De Windt)

The Crossroads of East and West

  • The Bulgarians are anxious to be classed with the people of the West, and they strive hard for civilization, though a streak of Eastern origin sometimes displays itself. (Moore)
  • east-west
  • The new Palace and “Sobranié,” or House of Parliament, would grace any European capital, and so would the hotels, theatres, restaurants, street cars, and electric light. Everything here is more up-to-date than in Belgrade…Sofia has been called a “little Brussels,” and it certainly resembles the latter… (De Windt)
  • …this is a land of contradictions. For instance, the man who drove us to our hotel from the station was an essentially modern Bulgar who, as far as dress was concerned, would have walked unnoticed up Regent Street, and who was a loquacious and full of information as a Maltese guide. Indeed he was up-to-date on every subject…And yet his wiry little pair of ponies were adorned with the necklets of blue beads as amulets against the “Evil Eye,” any allusion to which was strongly resented by their driver. (De Windt)

Yup, there is nothing new under the Bulgarian sun.

11 thoughts on “Nothing New Under the Bulgarian Sun

  1. 1) when you say “Consciously or unconsciously, we seem to exercise some level of control or sanity or comprehension by repeating patterns of history, behavior—even ways of thinking.” I believe we continually repeat our mistakes throughout history but are getting better at handling them. World War 2 will NEVER happen again to that level but there are still atrocities happening in the world today. I remember listening to a Wayne Dyer talk and him mentioning a story a woman wrote about self improvement. It went like this:
    Chapter 1

    I walked down the road, never saw what was coming and fell into a hole. I was angry, bitter and blaming. It took me a long time to get out.

    Chapter 2

    I walked down the road, I a saw the hole, I fell in. I was angry. How could anyone leave a whole this size here? How come they did not fix it? Why don’t they have it blocked off . . . It took me a long time to get out.

    Chapter 3

    I walked down the road, I saw the hole and I fell in any way. This time I knew it was of my making. This time it took very little time for me to get out.

    Chapter 4

    I walked down the road. I saw the hole. This time I walked around the hole and continued on down the road.

    Chapter 5

    I walked down a new road.

    I believe world politics is stuck between 3 and 4.

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  2. 2) ” Russia’s continual attempts to dominate Slavic peoples”
    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA ! I know it is no laughing matter but it is true. I really feel like Russia needs to get with the times. Bulgaria really wants to be seen as fully European country. I got that feeling when i moved here and saw all the european flags…i think they also just want to develop their nation and economy too.

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    1. The evil eye idea is widespread and seems to have eternal life. When my daughter was just two, we were in a small village and of course I was carrying her around and admittedly showing her off. An old baba told me what a beautiful baby I had and then spat full in her face to chase off the evil eye who, hearing the compliment, might be tempted to steal her beauty or otherwise do her ill.

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  3. 4) Okay i will be honest Sofia DID remind me of Brussels when I saw it BUT I STILL feel it has a lot of developing to do. Infrastructurally and also in its attitude to foreigners…but that is just in my opinion and experience.

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  4. 5) I really like how you write. Are you a writer ? Also I asked my Bulgarian teacher how you say black person because i often hear people say “Cherena” around me, like the word black but he said he finds that rude and prefers a word that begins with an “N”…I said I never want to be called anything with an N unless you are spanish. Which is the most politically correct word ?

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    1. Thank you so much for the compliment. I am completing a travel memoir about Bulgaria and will attempt to find a literary agent in the next month or so. The polite word for a black person is, so far as I’m aware, негър – much like the French or “negro” in English. Unfortunately for English ears, the pronunciation sounds far too much like the “n” word for comfort.

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