Monthly Archives: March 2016

Fellow Travelers

Recently I picked up a favorite book, What Am I Doing Here? by Bruce Chatwin, to re-read after many years of its sitting on the shelf. Something caught my eye in an essay on André Malraux: “His flair for personal publicity never deserted him; haranguing meetings of the Front Populaire; dashing with [André] Gide to Berlin to plead for the Bulgarian Communists falsely accused of lighting the Reichstag fire; or irritating a conference of Marxist writers in Moscow with his liberal opinions.”

Wait, Bulgarian Communists, Reichstag fire, I know this story. But how did André 1 and 2 get into the picture? Before I met my Bulgarian husband, learned Bulgarian, and lived in Bulgaria, I imagined all that would happen about 1400 miles west of Sofia in Paris and spent many years unsuccessfully trying to learn French in preparation for living in France. As did, by the way, my Bulgarian husband. And now the French seem to have entered into Bulgarian history in a way I hadn’t expected.

“Curiosity is only vanity. We usually only want to know something so that we can talk about it.”—Blaise Pascal, Pensées

So I had to know more so that I could talk about it.

I knew that in the aftermath of World War I, then known as the darkly hopeful “war to end all wars,” there were many coalitions formed to prevent another such calamity. Anti-militarist, anti-fascist, progressive, leftist, communist sympathizer, Worker’s International member, Communist Party member—adherents of incredibly disparate causes joined in ever evolving, breaking apart, and reforming organizations between the wars.

Andre MalrauxAndre Gide

Malraux (November 3, 1901–23 November 23, 1976) and Gide (November 22, 1869–February 19, 1951) were a generation apart, but fellow travelers both and they had a lot of company.

 

 

Henri BarbusseHenri Barbusse (May 17, 1873–August 30, 1935) was a French novelist and an actual member of the French Communist Party. In January 1918, he left France and moved to Moscow, where he married a Russian woman, joined the Bolshevik Party, and later worked for the Comintern.

 

 

Romain RollandRomain Rolland (January 29, 1866–December 30, 1944) was also a French novelist. The length of his epic work Jean-Christophe, perhaps the principal reason he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915, makes Tolstoy look like a writer of novellas. Of himself, Rolland said, “In politics, he has always been a republican with advanced Socialist sympathies, and internationalist at heart, and, as they said in the eighteenth century, a ‘citizen of the world.’” So he moved to neutral Switzerland in 1914 and did not return to France until 1937.

Malraux, Gide, Barbusse, and Rolland led the World Committee against War and Fascism with prominent thinkers from around the world. When and how Georgi Dimitrov met these men, I haven’t yet discovered, but the relationships he developed were strong enough to call upon from a Nazi jail.

On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag was set on fire and nothing in Germany was ever the same. One month later, Adolf Hitler was the dictatorial sole leader of Germany, the Reichstag arson having paved the way. Georgi Dimitrov was arrested on March 9, 1933. He was 51 and already in declining health. Dimitrov had lived in Germany for ten years. He wrote articles for the Communist International Press Correspondence magazine (1921-1938), published in French, English, and German. He was known, but the Nazis who determined to use him and two other Bulgarian Communists in a pro-Nazi show trial ended up making Dimitrov an international star.

Dimitrov began writing his friends immediately. On April 5, he explained his predicament to Henri Barbusse—the arrest, the ill-health, and “no means to buy the much-needed extra food.” He asks that Barbusse pass on the information to Romain Rolland before signing off “with most cordial comradely greetings.” On April 22, he wrote to Marcel Cachin (September 20, 1869–February 12, 1958), founder of the French Communist Party and Member of Parliament representing Paris and its immediate suburbs. He reiterates his hardships and gives directions for sending him money.

Paraskeva DimitrovaOn May 10, he sent a letter to his mother Paraskeva Dimitrova and sister Magdalena Barumova. Religion may well be, as Karl Marx famously stated, “the opium of the people,” so it is a little surprising that hardcore Marxist Dimitrov wrote, “I—like Apostle Paul…—will bear my cross with the necessary courage, patience and fortitude.”

 

He also felt “rather dejected at being unable to learn anything about the situation in my country. I do not see any Bulgarian newspapers, of course. I read the German papers from time to time, but usually they don’t write anything about Bulgaria.” Ah, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same), I feel similarly when seeing the news here in the United States.

On August 31, he thanked Romain Rolland, expressing his “sincere gratitude for [Rolland’s] categorical statement in defense of [Dimitrov’s] innocence.”

And Yet It MovesDimitrov correctly suspected any lawyer assigned to him by the German court to be more danger than help, and his French friends came through hiring lawyers for him. But the court refused to accept French lawyers and Dimitrov famously defended himself. It is often said that a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client. But Dimitrov’s Leipzig trial was heard around the world and in the end he and his Bulgarian co-defendants were acquitted. He cross-examined Joseph Goebbels. He quoted the law to the judge. He highlighted who benefited from the fire and suggested how and why it was truly set. His concluding speech at his 56th court hearing on December 16 is as full of Communist propaganda as he could possibly fit in. Still, on December 23, Dimitrov was acquitted.

Acquitted, but not released. On February 2, 1934, he was moved to the Gestapo catacombs in Berlin, but allowed visitors. On February 5, he recorded in his diary snippets from an interview he gave to an unnamed American correspondent:

Q: The world is very interested. In America a film is even being made, and so forth. Are you healthy and being treated well?

A: I give no interviews, no explanation, for I am not a free man. I am a prisoner of war; I am a hostage.

Q: Have you given up your Bulgarian citizenship?

A: No! I will never give it up!…I will live another twenty years and fight for communism and then die peacefully.

While still being held by the Gestapo in Berlin, Dimitrov gave an interview published in the February 7, 1934 issue of London’s Daily Express in which he predicted further legal woes, this time in his own country. “When set free,” explained Dimitrov, “I shall not go to Russia. Russia is the motherland of every revolutionary, but I have not lost my Bulgarian citizenship, and I wish to go to my own country. I sent a letter to the Bulgarian Prime Minister, Moushanov, but do not doubt that he will have me arrested at the frontier…”

CODA

  • On February 15, the Soviet government responded to the international Communist hero’s plight by granting him Soviet citizenship. The Nazis, by now wishing only to get rid of him, bundled Georgi Dimitrov off to the airport and sent him to Moscow. He expressed delight upon arriving and Bulgaria promptly took away his Bulgarian citizenship.
  • Henri Barbusse first came to fame with the publication of his novel Le Feu (Under Fire (Penguin Classics)); it won the Prix Goncourt. However, it was published years prior to the Reichstag Fire and was instead about the conflagration of World War I. He died in Moscow having just published a book defending and glorifying Stalin, but is nevertheless buried in Paris’s famed Père Lachaise Cemetery.
  • Shortly before Marcel Cachin died, this “Grandfather of the Communist Party” became the first foreigner to receive the Order of Lenin, the highest decoration bestowed by the Soviet Union.
  • Georgi Dimitrov did not live 20 more years, but only 15. This, however, was enough to return to Bulgaria and model his own repressive dictatorship on the Stalinist cult of personality model.

 

 

 

 

 

Samara / Самара

Вешин

Many years ago, I found myself at a party just outside of Washington, DC, sitting next to a Bulgarian professor of geography who was then teaching at American University. Somehow, I’ve long forgotten how, the conversation turned to my family background and I mentioned that my grandfather had emigrated to the United States from Samara, Russia. “Ah,” said Professor Koulev, “do you know about the Samara Flag?”

I did not.

Samara is bound by the Volga River as it makes a semi-circular curve to the city’s west. The far skinnier and disjointed Samara River snakes its way around and up to the city’s east as if it can’t quite decide which way to go, throwing off bits and pieces of streams as it passes. From Samara, one can see across the Volga the Zhiguli Mountains, after which the Soviets named a car (called a Lada outside the country). Samara is one of the largest cities in today’s Russia and it was a thriving city until the 1917 Russian Revolution. From being known for bread and macaroni factories whose products were made from wheat it not only grew but exported, it became a city of famine in a region of famine in a nation torn apart. By 1921, the famine was so terrible that international relief efforts were organized to try to stave off even more deaths. Then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover sent an emissary to learn the depth of the problem. J.P. Goodrich found empty warehouses, emaciated children, and starving people scrounging for weeds.

My grandfather recalled his mother opening the door to a starving man begging for food. Before she could answer, the man died in the open doorway. He saw someone grab a stray cat in the street and tear it apart for its meat. At least one of his siblings died of starvation. In 1924, his parents left for the United States and two or three years later, he followed with one of his sisters and two of his brothers. But the Immigration Act of 1924 created severe quotas to limit, among others, the number of Eastern European, Russian, and Jewish immigrants and they were forced to live in Mexico for two years until they made it to Baltimore, MD. By then, my grandfather had experienced years of privation before he had the unforeseen novelty of learning Spanish and gaining a taste for spicy food.

About a half century earlier, Russia was in the iron grip of the authoritarian Romanov tzars and a power to be reckoned with. Bulgaria’s plight after its unsuccessful April 1876 uprising against the five-century rule of the Ottoman Empire attracted the attention of Russia’s Tzar Alexander II. The reprisals after the uprising were horrific and all of Europe was outraged. Charles Darwin was one of the conveners of a large conference in support of Bulgaria at St. James Hall. Outside the UK, Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo and others also declared their backing of the Bulgarian cause. Heavy press coverage of the “Bulgarian atrocities” continued through winter 1876 and spring 1877, superseded only by positive coverage of Russia’s military action to free Bulgaria, its “little Slavic brother,” from the Ottoman Empire. On April 24, 1877, Russia had declared war.

Pyotr Vladimirovich AlabinAt this time, former military officer Pyotr Vladimirovich Alabin (1824–1896) was at the head of the civil service in Samara. Alabin urged the citizens of Samara to show solidarity with the Bulgarian volunteers—there being of course no formal army in a country subsumed for so long—fighting the Ottomans. A group of nuns sewed a flag with the Russian tri-color, an icon of the Virgin Mary, and Sts. Kiril and Metodi. The delegation from Samara traveled from Russia through the Moldovan town of Chişinău to Bulgaria’s Stara Zagora where the flag was nearly lost to capture in battle.

handing over the Samara bannerIn a special ceremony, the now somewhat mangled and bloodied flag was handed over to the Bulgarian volunteers in a special ceremony. It continues to be a symbol of Russian-Bulgarian friendship. Whatever the political personalities, systems, ups and downs, Bulgaria does not forget Царя Освободител—the Tzar Liberator, Alexander II.

Russia octopusRussia and Bulgaria both have remembered Pyotr Alabin as well. A museum he established in Samara now bears his name. After the end of the Russo-Turkish war, Alabin was appointed the first governor of Sofia, soon to be named the capital of a Bulgaria independent in all but name. Alabin Street in Sofia begins very near the terminus of Graf Ignatiev Street, named after the Russian count and statesman who, from his post as Russia’s ambassador in Constantinople, schemed behind the scenes for Russia to declare war and tried to negotiate an end that would be most advantageous to Bulgaria. Alabin is not Sofia’s longest or widest street, but it is in the heart of the capital and trams № 4, 10, 12 and 18 all noisily run up and down.

Today the Samara Flag is housed in the National Museum of Military History in the Оборище (Oborishte) neighborhood. I haven’t gone it to see it. But I have walked through the large and beautiful Military Academy Park that begins—or ends—at its doors. The park is very green with tree-lined paths, stone steps, a large gazebo, and a stage for outdoor concerts. Perhaps the solidarity and friendship represented by the Samara flag inside the museum are best exemplified by the peaceful park the soldiers carrying it helped to obtain.

Odd to think how my grandfather traveled so far from his hometown of Samara, Russia to Baltimore, MD only to have a granddaughter marry a man whose own hometown in another country entirely houses Samara’s flag and whose streets represent the plan first conceived by one of Samara’s leading citizens.

 

I Don’t Believe It

The tie between journalism and democracy is longstanding, profound, complex, and confounding. If people are to have the right to vote, they must have sufficient knowledge on the issues that concern them in order to have a viewpoint. They must equally have sufficient knowledge of the politicians vying for office to know which of these represent those viewpoints and thus their interests as citizens.

Recognizing the power of the media, those who are able try to harness that power to their own ends. Recognizing the power of the media, those on all sides and all levels of power distrust it with a level of cynicism that waxes and wanes but has always been present.

media cartoon2

In December 2013, a representative opinion poll on trust in the media was conducted with 1200 adult citizens and showed that only 14 percent of Bulgarians believe in the independence of the media. 60 percent doubt that the media in Bulgaria are free. In the Bulgarian capital Sofia this trust is even lower – only 7 percent think the media are independent.—Foundation Media Democracy (FMD) and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) 2013 survey and annual report on Bulgarian media

 

In 1790, Edmund Burke (no democrat, but a brilliant thinker) wrote about decidedly undemocratic pre-revolution France in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. He noted the organization of society into three estates: clergy, nobility, and commoners. A half-century later, Thomas Carlyle famously wrote:

“Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

and

“A Fourth Estate, of Able Editors, springs up, increases and multiplies; irrepressible, incalculable.”

media cartoon3

The representative survey among 1100 Bulgarians revealed that only every sixth Bulgarian (17 percent) believes in the independence of media in the country.— Foundation Media Democracy (FMD) and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) 2014 survey and annual report on Bulgarian media

 

Since then, we have referred to the necessity of that fourth estate—media or journalism—to the functioning of a healthy democracy. The media reports on the government and those aspiring to be in government so that the citizenry can be informed. Just as important, the media reports on the issues that concern the citizenry so that their government can be informed.

media cartoon4

Only 12 percent of Bulgarians believe in the independence of media. According to a representative survey commissioned by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, trust in the media has further decreased.— Foundation Media Democracy (FMD) and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) 2015 survey and annual report on Bulgarian media

 

Gallup has for decades surveyed Americans’ trust in the media. Understanding that Bulgarians were surveyed on the independence of their media while Gallup has surveyed Americans on their trust in the media, Americans have here little to crow about. The U.S. has had a democratic system and free media since 1776 while Bulgaria has been dipping its toes in these waters since 1989. The United States’ nearly 2½ centuries at fostering both a democracy and a critical, independent and investigative press should have the healthy support of the American public.

media cartoonIn general, how much trust and confidence do you have in the mass media when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly—a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?

In 2014, there was a substantial gap between negative (60%) and positive views (40%). In the 1970s, the percentage of those with positive views was high as 72%.—Gallup September 17, 2014

 

“What is it we all seek for in an election?” asked Edmund Burke. “To answer its real purposes, you must first possess the means of knowing the fitness of your man…”

Elections, of course, are not necessarily a sign of democracy. After all, the People’s Republic of Bulgaria regularly held elections. Everyone who was not comatose voted and the Communist Party candidates (and those closely allied with them) won virtually 100% of the vote. The newspaper Rabotnichesko Delo (Worker’s Cause)—with “Proletarians of the World, Unite!” just above the masthead—was the “organ of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party.” Rabotnichesko Delo, of course, did not at all serve the “worker’s cause,” but only the cause of the Bulgarian Communist Party. It was the essence of propaganda, disseminating information and ideas to reinforce the institution that was at one the Party, the government, and the nation.

media cartoon6It’s not surprising that the recent polls in Bulgaria asked participants about the independence of their media. It’s neither surprising that the powerful are reluctant to give up their control of various media outlets nor that citizens are cynical about that control. It’s not surprising that media dependent on or fearful of the powerful is not media that can play its role as the Fourth Estate. And if Bulgarian media does not cultivate “Able Editors,” is not “irrepressible, incalculable,” Bulgaria cannot hope to have the informed civil society necessary to know the fitness of their leaders, their institutions, and the policies and programs appropriate to address their most pressing concerns.