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.
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.
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)
- 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)
- …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)
- 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.