Category Archives: Balkan

Mr. Miller and the Balkans

You wouldn’t think that a 19th century academic self-professedly interested largely in the French and Italian states established in Greece after the 1204 Fourth Crusade would write The Balkans: Roumania, Bulgaria, Servia and Montenegro. But Oxonian medievalist and academic William Miller did exactly that, and the book was simultaneously published in Britain and the United States in 1896. By the third edition published in 1923, Mr. Miller had added “with new chapter containing their history from 1896 to 1922,”—very near to journalism’s “first rough draft of history.”

Miller was a busy man, on his own crusade “to present English readers with a concise account of the history of the four Balkan States”—concise running only a little shy of 600 pages. In 1923, he also revised and enlarged and published a new edition of another of his books, The Ottoman Empire and its successors, 1801-1922. Being a rev. and enl. ed. of The Ottoman Empire, 1801-1913. There is, necessarily, considerable overlap in the two books, given that the Ottoman Empire included a good portion of the Balkan countries for centuries. But as Miller points out, his work “is the result of many years’ study of the Eastern Question.”

The books of course show their age. But even more they show their continued relevance. The “Eastern Question” has been temporarily supplanted by the Brexit conundrum, but the Balkans—its list of countries ever growing and shrinking according to the time and the listmaker—are perennially a geopolitical topic of interest.

“The mutual jealousies of Bulgarian and Serb, the struggle of various races for supremacy in Macedonia, the alternate friendship and enmity of the Russian and the Turk are all facts, which have their root deep down in the past annals of the Balkan lands.”:
The three-decade unwillingness of Greece to concede even the name “Macedonia” to the former Yugoslav and now independent nation just over its border has come to an end, but many Greek citizens remain resentful. Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria fought two Balkan wars in large part over Macedonia. Miller’s observation needs no updating.

balkan-troubles-cartoonHe’s still relevant not only about regional enmity over Macedonia, but of realpolitik in and between Russia and Turkey. Bulgaria’s independence from the Ottoman Empire was due to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, but that was merely the last of more than two centuries of wars between these same two protagonists . Each fought to expand their spheres of influence in both Europe and Asia. Each simultaneously envied and despised Europe, wished both to be accepted as European and to override European cultural influence with that of their own. Each now continues to play their own version of the Great Game rivalry, alternating fight and cooperation as they try to match and to override Europe’s power.

“At Tilsit Napoleon actually drew up a scheme of partition, by which Bulgaria and the two Danubian Principalities were to be assigned to the Russians.”
In 1807, Napoleon had a plan to divvy up Bulgaria with spoils going in part to Russia; that Bulgaria in its entirety was still very much under the Ottoman Empire and that its people wanted independence rather than be a pawn in a different empire was incidental. He met with Tzar Alexander I on the River Nieman, the border between Russia and what was then Prussian territory. Napoleon and Alexander ate, chatted, and were so physically affectionate they inspired a commemorative medallion, brunette and blond hair brushed forward, sporting matching stiff orange collars. 137 years later, Churchill met with Stalin in what was then the Soviet Union and jotted down what he later called his “naughty document”—the Eastern Question of the Balkan nations for them thus resolved. No commemorative medallion was issued, Churchill and Stalin shared not a hug, but merely a smile, and Churchill kept the incriminating piece of paper.

Today is no different. The West and Russia continue to vie for influence, though outright territorial agreements without the presence of the parties most affected are not the current strategy. Current Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has suggested, in masterful and ominous understatement, that “Europe is facing an unhealthy situation” as NATO and the European Union have expanded eastward. Russia has not forgotten how Austro-Hungary and Britain overruled the Treaty of San Stefano with the less favorable to the region Treaty of Berlin.

map-1878-treaty-of-berlin-2“The chief motive of British opposition to the treaty was the conviction that the ‘big Bulgaria’ of San Stefano would be merely a Russian province, a constant menace to Constantinople, and a basis for a future Russian attack upon it. The idea of the late Sir William White had not then gained acceptance in England, that our true policy in the east is the formation of strong and independent Balkan states, which would serve as a barrier between Russia and her goal…close observers of the attitude of the Bulgars during the [1877-1878] war might have noticed that the ‘little brothers,’ whom the Russians had come to free, were very glad of freedom, but had no desire to exchange one despotism for another.”
Much of Bulgaria’s history as an independent nation after 1878 has been spent balancing the geographic, ethnic, and language closeness of Russia with the political, developmental, and cultural benefits of Central and Western Europe. To fully align with one or the other would have proven too dangerous to such a small country. Then Churchill consigned Bulgaria to the Soviet Union and for 45 years it was essentially a vassal state. Now again independent, Bulgaria must therefore again conduct its historical balancing act. Russia proffers energy, NATO and EU membership furnish the ballast for stability. Bulgaria’s government may be corrupt, the country may be poor, but its leaders and nomenklatura know very well that Putin is a “Big Brother” despot and thus remain firmly in Europe’s camp.

William Miller was not immune to the prejudices of his time and class. He all too easily labels Europe’s eastern populations as second-class “Orientals”. “Oriental” in this parlance ascribing a foreign identity forever outside the real and eternal European family and therefore backward, not quite fully evolved: “These were the signs that progress in Oriental countries, if rapid, had its drawbacks, and that there was much of the old Adam still latent beneath the surface of their European civilisation.” Even in this negative aspect, Miller shows his relevancy. Such prejudice is still in the fore in Brexit and discussions around a two-speed Europe. Still Miller’s two books are not merely chock-full of history, but offer observations that underline Shakespeare’s famous truism, “What’s past is prologue.” One need not be—and should not be—fatalistic about the region (the vastly different experience of the various Balkan countries since 1989 is instructive). Still it wouldn’t be a bad idea at all for William Miller to have some current readership.

 

Judgment on Deltchev

The southeastern Europe country controlled by the “People’s Party” is never named in the late Eric Ambler’s international political thriller Judgment on Deltchev, but there are more than a few teasing details that make Bulgaria the plausible center of events. The novel focuses on a Stalinist-style show trial. I don’t know if Ambler ever visited Bulgaria, though I think it’s unlikely, but his titular character’s name—Yordan Deltchev—is certainly a Bulgarian one.

Трайчо Костов
Traicho Kostov

The fictional Yordan Deltchev is portrayed as a decent man, one who has a sincere sense of public duty and an admirable moral center. The unfortunately factual Traicho Kostov served as President of the Council of Ministers and General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party. He was ruthless in destroying the opposition and perceived enemies, until on November 30, 1949 he was himself targeted by his Communist compatriots for destruction. His December show trial predictably found him guilty and sentenced to death. Purges of “Kostovites” quickly followed. The Press Department of the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry published The Trial of Traicho Kostov and His Group essentially concurrent with the proceedings. I saw a copy on a shelf full of books left by our landlady in a Sofia apartment we rented a few years ago, but you can find your own on Amazon should you take an interest. Perhaps Eric Ambler read it. Perhaps he saw the show trial covered in The New York Times, which published articles on the trial throughout, or in the British press.

Judgment on DeltchevAmbler’s awareness of the Kostov trial seems likely, though it was sadly far from the many show trials conducted in the post-war years. His first post-war novel is in fact Judgment on Deltchev published in 1951. The breadcrumbs large and small hinting at Bulgaria are found throughout the book. Page numbers shown are taken from the 2002 First Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Edition of Judgment on Deltchev.

  1. The Officer Corps Brotherhood secret and murderous network that Deltchev is accused of leading has an impact on society that the very real Вътрешна Македонска Революционна Организация (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization or IMRO) had in Bulgaria. Like the Officer Corps Brotherhood, the IMRO used terrorism as a tactic and the government’s repeated crackdowns eventually reduced the network to operating on the margins.
  2. The Agrarian Socialist Party of the book might be any of the agrarian parties found throughout Europe and in a handful of countries outside the continent (in the United States, the Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party is an active and important force in state politics). In parallel with the Agrarian Socialist Party and the People’s Party in the book, however, the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union was a leading political party vying with—and then ultimately losing to—the Bulgarian Communist Party.
  3. “South Eastern Europe,” “Balkan,” “river valleys east of the Yugoslav frontier (page 11): In 1951 when Judgment on Deltchev was published, “South Eastern Europe” might have included Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Yugoslavia. Greece features in the book and so may be excluded. A country east of Yugoslavia can only be either Romania or Bulgaria.
  4. “try going down to Greece” (page 18): It’s clear from the action of the book that a train “down to Greece” is a short journey, therefore ruling out Romania.
  5. “Until the spring of 1940 when his country had joined two of its Balkan neighbours in coming to terms with the Axis” (page 24) and “pro-German government” (page 25): Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia joined the Axis between November 1940 and March 1941.
  6. “Aleko’s hand?” (page 35): “Aleko” is a Bulgarian name. As noted earlier, so is that of the titular character Yordan Deltchev.
  7. “Hotel Boris” (page 46): Boris III of Bulgaria was Tzar of Bulgaria from 1918 until his death in 1943.Борис III
  8. “plum brandy”: Whether called slivovitz in Yugoslavia (and the countries that formed from Yugoslavia’s break-up) or rakiya in Bulgaria, fruit brandy is the most common spirit.ракия
  9. “Dimitrov at the Reichstag” (page 70): This is a passing mention, but Bulgarian Georgi Dimitrov became internationally famous when on trial in Leipzig he successfully defended himself against Nazi charges of burning the Reichstag to the ground. He was then free to become a despicable dictator of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria in 1946.Георги Димитров
  10. “blue enamel plates” (page 73): I can’t speak to address identification marks in mid-20th century Yugoslavia or Romania, but to this day blue enamel plates with the address number mark buildings in Sofia.номер адрес
  11. “a man named Kroum” (page 145): “Kroum” is the name of a medieval Bulgarian monarch whose name appears in every Bulgarian elementary school child’s history book. Shoutout to J.K. Rowling who gave her star Bulgarian Quidditch player the name Victor Krum in her wildly popular Harry Potter book series.Хан Крум
  12. “Rila” (page 146): This is the name given to a criminal in the book, but is in fact a mountain range in southwestern Bulgaria. It is also the name of arguably the most famous monastery in Bulgaria and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.Рила
  13. “Maria Luisa quarter” and “Pazar” (page 148): The heroin addict and Officer Corps Brotherhood member Pazar lives in the Maria Luisa quarter. “Pazar” means market in Bulgarian and the largest and most well-known open-air market in Sofia then and now is the Женския Пазар (Zhenski Pazar), two blocks from main street Maria Luisa Boulevard.Женския пазар
  14. “beneath the tiles of the stove” (page 154): In the corner of some old homes in Bulgaria, there is a ceramic stove that radiates constant heat for long periods without adding additional fuel. The ceramic tiles are not merely utilitarian, but often beautifully colored.
  15. “Serdika Prospek” (page 204): Serdika is the ancient name for Bulgaria’s modern capital Sofia and thanks to archeological work remains of the ancient city can still be seen.Сердика

So how good is Judgment on Deltchev as a novel of political intrigue if you care nothing of references to Bulgaria, intentional or otherwise? Ambler is, as his New York Times obituary said, generally credited with having raised the thriller to the level of literature.” John Le Carré considered him “The source on which we all draw.”

Judgment on Deltchev is not considered one of Ambler’s best, but as I have not read any of his other books I cannot judge on that basis. My criticism is not of the plot, the scene setting, the intrigue, or—for the most part—the realism. There is no preposterous deus ex machina that swoops in to save Deltchev from being hanged. But the characters distinguish themselves from each other solely by name, physical description, profession, and political standing. The copious dialogue, however, makes all of them—whether they are speaking Bulgarian, English, or German, no matter their social status or educational level, whatever their profession—sound precisely the same. That dulls the book to a monotone voice. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a bad introduction to this well-reputed author and I was glad to read a novel set in “South Eastern Europe,” even if Ambler didn’t intend the action to be set in Bulgaria. But there are an awful lot of coincidences.

Letters to the Editor / Писма до Редакцията

Last month, I wrote a post on the grande dame of Bulgarian woman’s magazines, Жената ДНЕС (Zhenata DNES/The Woman TODAY). While working on a longer essay on Zhenata DNES as it was published in 1960, I thought I would offer some tidbits from the January-April issues of that year. However much things have changed the world over since 1960, much does—as the saying goes—stay the same.

The Letters to the Editor column is not offered in every issue, but the Zhenata DNES editorial staff clearly take the time to guide their troubled readers with lengthy and detailed responses. Here is a letter from a 19-year old who has fallen in love with an older, married man. The answer is quite firm about how she must proceed.

What to do?

I love a married man with two children. He also loves me. He and his wife haven’t understood one another for many years. He says that he agrees to divorce, but is scared that I am unable to care for his children who he loves very much. But it’s not like that. I love the children, I constantly think of them and him. I often walk to the school in order to see them without them knowing.

In spite of being 19 years old, I think that if I become their mother I will look after them as one should and I will love them even more. But the father of the children sees my love and now is hiding himself. He says that he has to break off everything. But I can’t do that and am even more infatuated. B.I.B–Pleven

Answer

When a love is wrongly directed, it ordinarily carries more regrets and grief. Naturally at your age, you should come to love some appropriate for you young man. When you connected with this married man with two children, of course you hoped that he would marry you. You hoped, but not he as well. Now that your relationship has deepened and he is faced with the need to decide, he starts to pull back. So think for yourself—did this father really just now notice that he has two children and that you won’t be able to raise them? This is simply a specious pretext to break a frivolously started connection that already weighs on him.

Even if you were to marry this man, the situation is not going to be a happy one. The two children are already older, students, presumably the difference between you and them is no more than ten years. They will never be able to forget the mother who gave birth to them. For them, no matter how old you grow, you will always be the “the other woman” who drove Mama from the home.

Now it seems to you that you will never be able to go on without this person. But time will pass, your mind will ease, you will forget, and you will be satisfied that you didn’t take a mistaken step in your life.

The editors include reader letters raising a wide range of topics, many quite sensitive. Communist countries took pride in promoting women’s equality in the workplace and in the professions, but ideology tended to leave the domestic front untouched. In practice, this meant that women could work all day as doctors, factory floor managers or building railroad lines, but still be expected to cook the meals and do the laundry. Whether in 1960 Bulgaria, there was still somehow an ethos of empowering women in their personal lives is hard to say, but the editors at Zhenata DNES not only legitimize their readers’ desires to take their lives into their own hands but urge them to take action.

One reader wrote in desperation of the terrible physical abuse she endured from her husband and the admonition of all around her that divorce was too shameful to consider. The editors at length advise her that while marriage required a spouse to compromise to some degree, in no way did it require one to tolerate abuse; she should ignore those around her, obtain a divorce, and live a life worthy of her. Another young wife married at age 15 and left school, but enjoys books. However, her husband hates books, maintains that wives don’t need them, and forbids her to read. In a lengthy and detailed answer, the editors encouragingly explain that books are valuable and for everyone—not simply the well educated. They propose a strategy in which the wife should try to find out her husband’s interests (say, metallurgy or agriculture) and get books for him to read either on his own or by the two together, thereby gradually acclimating him to the value and pleasure of reading.

A related column offers readers the opportunity to ask health-related questions to be answered by a doctor. The idea that purging the body provides health benefits didn’t start with today’s celebrities, but has gone in and out of fashion since perhaps time immemorial. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the older brother of the Corn Flakes™ inventor, presided over a sanitarium whose aim was to cleanse patients of the toxins in their bodies—chief among the methods used was the application of many enemas. European wellness culture had its own love of the purge and the cleanse, so it’s not surprising that one1960 Zhenata DNES reader asked, “Is it harmful to frequently use laxatives?” “Yes,” firmly said the doctor Zhenata DNES had answer such questions, “instead drink mineral water containing sulphur, for example the Sofia mineral water.”

A Communist country can have an uneasy relationship with the idea of material possessions. On the one hand is the idea of communal and national ownership, on the other the belongings of an individual. One the one hand is the idea of raising the standard of living to meet or exceed that of the capitalist West, on the other is the ability to produce products that can accomplish just that. A periodic Zhenata DNES column promotes household items that a woman cannot really run her household effectively without. In one issue, “Необходими помощници в домакинството” (“Necessary helpers in the household”) begins:

The more kitchen pots and utensils a homemaker has at her disposal, the more pleasant and easy her work will be, the less time she will use in preparing food, and the better hygiene requirements will be met…

No brand names are being proffered, but the message is clear—you need to buy more things so your life will be better. Were state factories making those vaunted kitchen pots and utensils? Could they be found in state stores in enough quantity? Could my mother-in-law, in 1960 living in one room with my father-in-law and using a communal kitchen, even find a place to store more than an absolute minimum of household goods? If readers submitted such questions, Zhenata DNES didn’t find it politic to publish them.

Degrees of Separation

It’s not exactly true that all roads lead to Bulgaria. It’s perhaps not even true that there are six degrees or less of separation between everything else in the world and Bulgaria. But it is true that I often find myself thinking about or surprised by steps that seem to inexorably lead to Bulgaria.

Here’s an example. My husband has seasonal allergies. My son has seasonal allergies. I silently pooh-poohed my husband’s request to get local honey to help alleviate allergic sensitivity, but gave the idea a bit more credence when the pediatrician said it just might help. I should have had more faith in my husband, I know. But whether I believed it or not, the search for local honey was—forgive any unintended food pun—fruitless. And as I browsed the honey on offer at the supermarket, at Trader Joe’s, at Whole Foods, I thought how easy this would be if we were in Bulgaria. We would visit relatives in Kozlodui who would certainly press upon us jars of their own honey. Or walk down Graf Ignatiev Street in Sofia and buy a jar or two from one of the many women coming in from the villages to sell their wares. Or come upon a hand-lettered sign on a main road fronting a small stand with jars of honey when coming back from some trip or another.

 

Allergy→Local Honey→Bulgaria

 

Another example borne from the first. Thinking about honey naturally makes one think about bees. The first time I was ever stung by a bee, I was less than four years old. I don’t think I remember the sting on my finger at all. But I remember the aftermath because we were at the zoo and my physician father knew that sugar can draw out the bee sting’s toxin and reduce pain and swelling. Thus cotton candy was bought for the purpose and a strip wound around my finger. I ate it right off. A new strip was wound. I ate that one off too. I don’t know how often this was repeated, but either the sugar on my finger or the sugar in my mouth took the pain away. The second time I was stung, I was ten or twelve and it was my own fault for presuming that the bee floating in the swimming pool was dead when instead it recovered full and vindictive energy the instant I cupped it in my hand to throw it out of the water. The third incident was the first time I was taken to Kozlodui in 1993. A young cousin was taking us on a walk in the center of town. She was eager to question me about all things American. “Как е хамбургер на англиски?” (“What is hamburger in English?), she asked. I had just answered “hamburger,” when a bee stung me on the thigh. She felt badly. Neither ice nor захарен памук (cotton candy) was available. The pain passed. I’ve returned to Kozlodui many times, but never been stung there again.

 

Honey→Bee→Bee Sting→Bulgaria

 

The Washington Post newspaper awards “Pinocchios” for lies, egregious and not so egregious, as part of its campaign Fact Checker series. Perhaps regrettably, the noses of politicians so awarded do not seem to grow with every lie they tell. After the fall of communism in the East Bloc, expatriate George Ganchev returned to his native land and started a political party called the Bulgarian Business Bloc. He ran for president three times, quite unsuccessfully, but did win a seat in parliament. Early this year, he announced his fourth bid. On the BTV channel he proclaimed, “I am running for president, because I can’t look at what is happening here. For me it is an honor to be a Bulgarian, that’s why I am 26 years in my fatherland.” He proposed as his running mate a general accused of embezzlement, but Ganchev called him a hero. In 1994, Ganchev was much in the news, perhaps as much for the novelty of his anglicized first name and right wing views as for anything else. Though one can’t discount the attention-attracting power of his twin passions of fencing and theater combined with entitling his party a “Business Bloc.” No experience in government service in Bulgaria, the UK, or the U.S.—in all of which he has lived for extended periods. The satirical television program Kanaleto pounced. Periodically a Pinocchio puppet would appear, with a clear resemblance to the big man with his Hitlerite facial hair. The puppet would appear to quote Ganchev and his nose would grow and grow. Perhaps The Washington Post would have done well to give such a pictorial. Despite his name recognition and his long years striving for votes, George Ganchev and his Christian Social Union party received only 0.73% of the vote on November 6.

 

The Washington Post→Political Candidates→Lying→Pinocchio(s)→Bulgaria

 

Less than six degrees of separation between almost anything and Bulgaria. Surprising how often that happens.

The Balkans / Балканите

toonpool.com Tchavdar Nikolov2

 

The Balkans. The highest peak in the Balkans is Musala in Bulgaria. The U.S. State Department has a Balkan region policy that includes Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia but not Bulgaria. Politics, semantics, diplomacy.

politicalcartoons-com-christo-komarnitski

 

The Balkans, geographically speaking, is also referred to as the Balkan Peninsula, easternmost of Europe’s three great southern peninsulas. The Encyclopaedia Britannica lists the countries therein as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia. The Encyclopaedia Britannica also confesses that, “There is not universal agreement on the region’s components.”

 

Even the Balkans, it seems, can be balkanized. Goodbye to Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Southeastern Europe and hello to the Western Balkans—though, strangely, there doesn’t seem to be the corollary one would expect in references to the “Eastern” Balkans. The United Nations and the European Commission both have programs and reports and round tables on what’s being done and not done in the Western Balkans. There is a web portal devoted to this new piece of an old region. It’s aptly titled European Western Balkans, though that does beg the question of what other continents may contain a “Western Balkans.”

The Oxford University Press’s dictionary defines “balkanization” as Divide (a region or body) into smaller mutually hostile states or groups. The term was coined to describe what happened as the Ottoman Empire, the “Sick Man of Europe” was giving out its last gasps and all its bits and pieces found their long-lost nationalism in making aggressive territorial claims on the other bits and pieces. Two Balkan Wars ensued as did World War I.

condenaststore-com-the-balkansThe Balkans, in whole or in part, geographically, historically, diplomatically, semantically, west or east—what really does that name tell us? Any story it might tell is disingenuous, because even when it was coined it described a past and not a present, let alone a future. And because whenever it has been used, it has meant different things to different people who all imagined they understood the same single and true story behind it.

 

The Balkans. Using this term is like talking about Africa. What can one say about an entire continent that has any real meaning? What can one say about the Balkans that has any real meaning? And yet people will go on and talk about Africa in a way they do not ever seem to talk about North America.

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke famously about “the danger of the single story…The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” The single story promulgated again and again about the Balkans is that it is tribal, war-torn, with bred-in-the-bone hatreds from time immemorial. The Balkans, as Adichie lamented about Africa, are spoken about as one single, seething mass—a single story.

For me, this blog To Bulgaria and Back in large part aims to do the opposite. I try to tell many different stories about a single “Balkan” country, Bulgaria. If you have stories to tell, please do share them.

ww1-cartoons-raven-hill-punch-magazine-1915-09-29-263

The Baths / Баните

When my husband was growing up in the concrete panel block apartments of Druzhba, his family of four had to share their small apartment with another family of four. The families didn’t know or even like each other, but the People’s Republic of Bulgaria in its wisdom decided that this would be best. The People’s Republic of Bulgaria made such wise decisions regularly. As questioning authority was ill-advised and as no one on high particularly cared about the comfort of the much vaunted working class, eight people remained in a one-bedroom apartment for well over a decade until, at long last, the other family was moved to a different apartment. By then my husband was an adult and was essentially a squatter in a colder water studio with no bathroom or kitchen.

For all those years of unasked for communal living, my husband’s family of two parents and two children had the kitchen and the bedroom. The other family of two parents and two children had the living room and the bathroom. They shared the toilet.

Централна баня

So once a week my husband’s family trouped off to Sofia’s Central Mineral Bath. His mother went to bathe and socialize on the women’s side and he, his father, and younger brother went to the men’s side. The Central Mineral Bath was completed in 1913 and continues, at least on the outside, to be a building of true beauty.

 

Unfortunately, my first trip to Bulgaria in 1987 was a year too late in the Central Bath’s working life; it had been closed in 1986 due to its poor condition.

For centuries prior to this building, however, the natural thermal mineral waters were valued and the 16th century Banya Bashi Mosque next door was built in part so that Muslims could more easily make their required ablutions before prayers. And even more than a millennium before the Ottomans, the Romans extolled the waters of Sofia, then called Serdika. Reportedly, Serdika was such a favorite with Constantine the Great (reign 306-337) that he declared, “Serdika is my Rome.”

Many times my Grandma Lil recounted how her Old Country mother, born somewhere in the far eastern portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had difficulties with her legs. Wrapping them tightly with lengths of cloth did not offer enough relief. Something was swelling, something was aching, and the only correct and known to be sure cure would be found in the healing mineral baths of old Europe. So I have a respect for the power of mineral baths, even if I don’t necessarily believe they can cure all ills.

баня ПанчаревоFrom time to time, my in-laws also went to the baths at nearby Pancharevo. Bulgaria has been known since ancient times for its wealth of thermal mineral waters and Pancharevo is just one more of these. My husband and his family would make a day of it, first going to the Pancharevo Baths and then spending time picnicking and relaxing by the lake steps away.

I’ve been to the Pancharevo Baths several times and, despite the now decrepit building, bathing in this ancient way puts you in another space and time like nothing else. You cannot but relax and release tensions as you go through the time-worn rituals of cleansing and soaking.

Leah at 2риболов

Once we took my then two-year old daughter to Pancharevo. There was a drought that year and the lake, artificially made by damming, was virtually dry. Those that liked to fish after a bath or picnic were out of luck that year. When we lived in Bulgaria 2010-2012, we discovered that Pancharevo had transformed. Two wonderful outdoor pools had been constructed and filled with the thermal mineral water. One pool has a depth and slide that accommodates young children while the other a depth (and bar) that accommodates adults. It’s a thoroughly luxurious feeling to lie on a lounge chair in, say, October and warm yourself in the natural hot pool. It’s not cleansing like the baths, but it’s rather nice all the same. The original baths, looking quite forlorn though still operating, must be passed to reach the new pools so you in fact can combine old and new and do it all. There’s a spa as well with all the expected services, though we didn’t try it. You can lunch at the restaurant, picnic on the grass by the lake, or just pull sandwiches out of your bag to munch by the pool. Much time has passed since my in-laws went there, but you can still spend the day enjoying yourself at Pancharevo. And you can take the bus—I think it is bus line №1—straight from Sofia.

баня ДобринищеWe spent a few days one winter in the small town of Dobrinishte, about two and a half hours south of Sofia. One of the attractions for me was the mineral baths. Particularly in winter, the idea of soaking in a hot mineral bath has a powerful pull on the imagination and the body. The baths in Dobrinishte are in a large building fronted by extensive grounds and a circular garden surrounded by a stone path leading to a central entrance. Once inside, signs alert you to the water’s mineral composition, temperature, and the chronic diseases/complaints aided by bathing in the water (e.g., arthritis, sciatica, eczema) as well as those aided by drinking it (e.g., nephritis, hepatitis, colitis). My daughter and I left the males in our party to their side while we entered on the women’s. None of us admitted to any of the listed diseases.

Much ritual is involved at such a place. Yelena Akhtiorskaya in Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel
describes it recreated by Russian immigrants in Brighton Beach: “A full-blown conversation…was frowned upon. The process demanded respect. The banya experience was ritualistic, sacred. An air of immense gravity was brought about by the sense that one’s ancestors had been heating their bones in the same way for millennia.” Mineral baths are not reserved for the well-to-do or the occasional treat, but an ancient practice for all that has continued today uninterrupted.

My daughter and I undressed in the large anteroom and put our things into the lockers provided. Locker is perhaps a misnomer since there were no locks. We then entered the women’s bath with our soap, shampoo, sponge and towels, wearing nothing but our flip-flops. These are known as джапанки (japonki) in Bulgarian as they mimic traditional Japanese sandals. Wearing them is a necessity to prevent slipping on the wet tiled floor and to avoid the unsubtle censure of ever-present older women who frown on bare feet and who would not hesitate to call you out on any real or perceived departure from ritual. After washing ourselves at one of the taps continually feeding hot mineral water into the knee-high basins that lined two sides of the room, we carefully stepped out of our flip-flops and entered the bath.

We were among several mother-daughter pairs there on both occasions that we went. Bathers from small children to the elderly quietly washed and soaked, periodically chatted softly, and often closed their eyes in the bliss of absolute and total giving in to the warmth of water and the steam rising all around. At ten years old, my daughter found it impossible to quietly soak in what seemed to her the biggest bathtub in the world. It was hard to maintain a Zen state while counting how long she could hold her breath under water “one more time, Mama, one more time.” And still, it was a wonder to soak in a hot mineral bath while all around the bathhouse snow was piled six feet and higher.

 

 

 

 

The Former Neighbors

Years ago, a former neighbor picked us up from the Sofia airport to drive us to my husband’s family apartment in the Druzhba complex. This former neighbor and his wife use to live just above my in-laws. They had a telephone line for many years before my in-laws were granted one. They had spiffy new appliances and had considerably remodeled their one-bedroom apartment, precisely the same one my in-laws had one floor below. Misho worked the same construction jobs as my father-in-law, but they had never had to share their apartment with another family as my in-laws did, even though they had one child and my in-laws had two. Even their Moskvitch car had new floral seat covers. Not everyone lived the same in the egalitarian worker’s paradise. Several years after the changes of 1989, the neighbors bought an enormous new apartment in a brand new building in a nice neighborhood closer to downtown.

They were nice people, the neighbors. When my husband defected in 1985, Rumiana could hear my mother-in-law crying for him and came down to comfort her. For years, my in-laws relied on their telephone. My husband would call from DC and the neighbors would run downstairs to tell my in-laws to come up to talk. In 1991, we arrived for our second wedding, having had the first with my family in the U.S. My father-in-law had suffered a series of heart attacks. The elevator in their entrance was broken and he laboriously walked up the five flights. The bottom had dropped out of the Bulgarian economy, the stores were empty, the markets had only a few limp vegetables, and food ration coupons were used for the first time. Though it was mid-June, it was unusually chilly, gray, and rainy. Rumiana brought down a big pot of mushroom soup for us. Then Misho and Rumiana acted as our кумове (witnesses/sponsors) at the wedding, an important role that presumes they will stand as godparents of the children to come later.

When Misho picked us up from the airport in 1993, it was warm and sunny and just the way June in Bulgaria should be. Misho was clearly energized. He drove so fast I had to grip the door handle to keep upright. He continued to drive this way as he wove through the Druzhba market, thrusting his arm out of the window and gesturing to the vendors presiding over their full stands. “Peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers,” he cried joyfully. “We have everything now, everything!”

By then, Misho and Rumiana were ensconced in their new apartment. Rumiana showed us their large, white, heart-shaped bed in the master bedroom and the second bedroom for their grown son. They were sweethearts still, having been married since their late teens.

In 1995, we moved to Bulgaria for a two-year stint. I began learning Bulgarian. It was not smooth sailing. Misho and Rumiana had rented out their old apartment above my in-laws and I’m not sure we saw either of them more than once or twice. When in 1996, her younger sister was married, Rumiana took me aside during the restaurant reception and told me that while the other guests would eat from a pre-decided list of dishes, I was given the honor of order of ordering from the menu. “All these years and now we can talk to each other directly without an interpreter,” she smiled.

With my father-law now gone and Misho and Rumiana living more than a floor away, the contact dwindled. Though we visited Bulgaria for extended stays multiple times over the years, I don’t remember seeing them again. Our daughter was born in 2001. In our interfaith marriage, we decided against a christening and so Misho and Rumiana were not called to their traditionally-appointed task. My mother-in-law stayed in contact and so I knew that Rumiana was chronically ill from diabetes, from a lifetime of heavy smoking, from a cholesterol-heavy diet, from perhaps all or none of these. She was in and out of the hospital. She died at age 53.

We weren’t close. I didn’t see her often. She wasn’t a mentor to me or someone with whom I had a lot in common or someone who said or did memorable things. But when I have mushroom soup, I think of Rumiana every time. Every time.

 

Sheep / Овци

When I first went to Bulgaria to meet my future in-laws, I saw flocks of sheep. This was in 1987 in the capital Sofia as we drove from the airport to Druzhba, one of the many concrete panel block residential apartment complexes you see throughout Eastern Europe.

Sofia before independenceBuilding truly began in Sofia after independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 and has not stopped so it was and is not in any sense of the word an agricultural center. And yet, between the main roads leading from the airport to Druzhba or from Druzhba to the city center, there were large grassy areas on which I could clearly see shepherds grazing their sheep. They came from the small villages surrounding Sofia that had not yet been absorbed in the city proper, but they don’t come anymore. Perhaps the shepherds and their sheep, together with their villages, have disappeared. The young people leave, the old pass one. Villages in Bulgaria, like the world over, are abandoned, emptied, ghost villages.

 

Долно ОзиривоMy husband was born and raised, mostly, in Sofia. His mother is from the mountain village of Dolno Ozirivo (Lower Ozirivo). Dolno Ozirivo was never large. Even in my mother-law’s childhood, there were not enough children to support a school beyond the primary grades, though this might have been due less to the sheer number of adolescents than to parents pulling them out of school to work on the village’s subsistence farms. Dolno Ozirivo might, in our lifetimes, become a ghost village. When I first went there in 1993, however, it was still soldiering on. The houses were virtually all inhabited. There were still children being raised there. There were chickens and goats and sheep.

 

Баба Кана и козлеWe were there for the annual village holiday. Every family slaughtered and roasted a sheep to celebrate. Kept awake all night by a sheep continually bawling, we disgruntedly hoped that it would be the one chosen. Rumen’s uncle had been the village baker until market forces entered the village and the bakery in Gorno Ozirivo (Upper Ozirivo) was the one that survived. So Voicho (Uncle) Vancho became the village slaughterer. Voicho Vancho was Khrushchev in appearance, thick-set, balding, with large, thick-fingered hands. He sat down with Rumen to drink a glass of the Bulgarian fruit brandy rakiya. “I’m going to hell,” he told him. Rumen asked him why. “Because I slaughter all the sheep.” Rumen tried to reassure him; after all, each village family paid him for the service and we were all quite willing to eat the resulting roasted meat.

“But I’m the one who takes their souls,” Voicho Vancho sadly mourned.

 

Връбка и магареRumen spent his earliest years in Dolno Ozirivo and parts of many summers. He remembers his Voicho Lazar tenderly raising his lambs and emotional over each slaughter or sale. Once I saw Voicho Lazar setting out with his donkey cart to sell two sheepskins. I took a photo of the donkey with Rumen’s cousin. Voicho Lazar treasured it for years. Many people in the village had sheep and goats for both milk and meat, and in warm weather the men took turns gathering them together into one flock to drive into the mountain grazing areas for the day.

 

Whether you go to a small independent corner grocery or to one of the larger supermarkets that are now sprinkled throughout Sofia, you find a large range of dairy products. For each—milk, yogurt, sirene (white cheese)—there is a variant made with sheep’s milk. Feta cheese is made throughout the Balkans, but in 2005 the European Union high court decreed feta cheese a traditional Greek product whose name deserves legal protection. Bulgarians continue to produce their own sirene, which others then blithely translate as feta without concern for court decisions. Sheep’s milk sirene is a favorite.

 

My father-in-law is from the far larger village of Kozlodui set in the Danubian plain. Rumen’s Diado (Grandfather) Ivan spent much of his time with the village sheep. Like Dolno Ozirivo, he was the shepherd of a flock made up of his own sheep and those of other villagers. There were two or three such flocks, each with a pair of shepherds responsible for them. From April to perhaps September or October, he lived with a flock of around 300 in the common grazing land, working with another village shepherd and their dogs. Periodically, people would bring them additional food and supplies. They always had meat at hand, though, and the joke ran something like this: “Whose sheep is missing this week? Was it a fox/wolf/boar?” Diado Ivan and his fellow shepherd lived in a hut until winter weather brought them back to the village. In Kozlodui, the sheep were then dispersed to their owners to be housed in barns and yards, feeding on hay, corn, and bran until the grass grew again.

 

Not all the sheep were collected for summer grazing. Undoubtedly some ewes were kept by their owners for milking and tended along with the chickens, pigs, and female goats (also milked). Rumen’s Strinka (Aunt) Sanda kept goats for their milk. Once she sent us off back to Sofia with a two-liter bottle of goat milk. Rumen and his brother had polished it off before we even got on the bus. And once, my then four-year old son Yoan and I were helping out, carrying buckets of water to the pen while Strinka Sanda limped along with her cane. She laboriously sat down on a stool and milked the goat, who then with unerring judgment kicked the bucket over so that the milk ran in streams until disappearing altogether in the dry summer earth. Strinka Sanda heaved herself up, patted Yoan’s head, and told him there would be no glass of goat milk to drink today.

 

When my in-laws got married in Kozlodui, they received a valuable wedding present of matching sheepskin jackets, beautifully tailored and worn wool side in, skin side out. When I knew them, my father-in-law’s was long gone and my mother-in-law’s jacket was a sleeveless vest dyed a dark blood red. She wore it in the often chilly Druzhba apartment kitchen keeping her arms free and torso warm while she cooked.

 

By the time Rumen was visiting his paternal relatives in Kozlodui, his grandfather had stopped taking out the flocks. Instead he worked with Rumen’s Baba (Grandmother) Stana tending the garden, chickens, vineyard, corn, and general household chores. He often played the kaval, the wooden flute traditionally played by shepherds. Each time she heard it, Baba Stana was enraged at the work stoppage this clearly implied. She would stomp over, grab the kaval, and throw it in the fire. Rumen remembers Diado Ivan calmly beginning the search for an appropriate piece of wood and settling with his knife to carve a new kaval.

 

Diado Ivan still enjoyed tromping around the meadows and taking long walks away from the noise, houses, and fenced-in yards of the village. He would take Rumen with him carrying a string bag containing bread, homemade sirene, an onion, tomatoes, peppers, and a pear. They would find a place to sit, and Diado Ivan would take out his knife, this time not to carve a kaval, but to carefully peel and cut off bite-size chunks of pear for grandfather and grandson to share for their dessert.

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.