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.
At 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.
In 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 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.