Category Archives: Bulgaria

The Lost Generation / Изгубеното Поколение

Soon they will all be gone, those in Bulgaria that I think of as the Lost Generation. For the sake of argument, let’s say that these are Bulgarians born in the 1930s as both my in-laws, now gone, were. Born after the cataclysms of the First World War and both Balkan Wars, they were children during Tzar Boris’s royal dictatorship preceding World War II and the fascist-friendly government during that war. They reached the age of majority in the early Stalinist years of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and fully inculcated with the carrots and sticks Communist rule used to maintain power. Promises were made to them.

Promises of stability, promises of education for the children, of apartments with running water and toilets, of employment. Promises of paid vacations, vaccinations for the children, of subsidized transportation, of retirement (at age 55 for women and 60 for men) with pensions well deserved for a lifetime of serving the nation as it moved along the historically inevitable path to full Communism. It was perhaps a deal with the devil, but it was truly the devil they knew and the deal had just enough in it that—occasional purges and ever-present restrictions aside—it was worthwhile keeping any doubts to oneself and voting to keep it all going, particularly as voting for the Party list was compulsory. Retirement to the village or cottage in the provinces, tending one’s garden, and buying treats for the grandchildren with the promised pension would be a better life than their parents ever had. The middle class and the classic Communist bogeyman “bourgeoisie” did not feel the gains proffered outstripped the losses, but their numbers were small relative to the peasantry to which my in-laws belonged.

So, a new generation arose, if not exactly Communist members as envisioned by the leadership at least sufficiently compliant in a Communist dictatorship. Not the best of all possible worlds as incessantly assured, but better enough—if only just—as promised.

But then came 1989 and the Promise Keepers fell from their perch. When the Berlin Wall fell, so did the pseudo-economy the Wall had leaned hard against to prop up and keep vertical. What happens when all the social influences and all the pervasive messages stop? What happens when all the beliefs and behaviors that have been carefully cultivated and practiced one’s whole life are no longer desirable? “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man,” said Aristotle. At 56 and 51, my in-laws were not only well past seven years old but nearing their pension years. My father-in-law passed away only three years later, but my mother-in-law lived until 2013.

пенсионер в протестDespite limited education and 51 years of experience that prepared her for an entirely different life, she managed to adapt to her new world and to enjoy it tremendously. But she was the exception that proved the rule. With a son and daughter-in-law living in the United States, she established residency in the U.S. She worked as a nanny even with her minimal English ability, earned her own money, saved, and lived in our house while maintaining a largely independent life. Her new world was a continent and ocean away from her old. Living mostly here, she was able to designate her tiny Bulgarian pension for the utilities in the Sofia family apartment where my brother-in-law continued to live.

Most pensioners, however, struggle. Few pensioners in few countries feel that their monthly check is sufficient and Bulgaria itself is home to a fair number of British pensioners living there precisely because their UK pensions buy more than back home. At least one UK retirement planning company advises clients of precisely this strategy.

But for a Bulgarian receiving a Bulgarian pension, the situation is far more fraught. To cover the basic costs of food, medical care, and utilities is not possible for many. And even that presumes that one’s house or apartment is fully paid for and never needs the slightest repair, to say nothing of needing a new pair of shoes or winter coat.

париThose that wish to increase their income by working longer will find it almost impossible. Employment for older people trained for jobs that may no longer exist in a world that they could not have foreseen is unlikely. To increase the stability of a pension system weighted down by too many recipients and too few contributors, the full retirement age has been inching up for years. By 2024, men will receive a pension at age 65 and women at age 63. And while less than 3% of pensions will benefit from the proposed pension ceiling increase next summer to 1200 leva, almost 40% are receiving the ceiling basement of 200 leva—100 euros—per month. Even were Bulgaria a model citizen of good governance, it is difficult to see how today’s open economy can fulfill the promises made yesterday by a closed, subsidized, centralized one that controlled all prices.

състемата ни умива
The system has washed its hand of us.

One’s pension is supposed to correlate in some calculable way to the employment sustained and salary earned over one’s lifetime. But the work was done in one world and the pension received in entirely another, and the calculations lost meaning and value. One’s life satisfaction and meaning in retirement is supposed to correlate in some calculable way to the life led before. But this calculation in fact has led to a contradictory product. Nearly everything a member of Bulgaria’s Lost Generation observes today is logically the opposite of all s/he held dear—or at least held to be conforming to reality in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria—throughout life. The low pension may be insignificant in filling material needs, but that is only one measure of deprivation. For people born in the 1930s, the collapse of the 45-year old Communist system caused an existential crisis of self-worth and loss. What is the significance of a life spent in a dead and repudiated system?

 

Poor, Poor Bulgaria

It’s the Poorest Country in the European Union, phrasing promulgated decisively if not precisely. Or sometimes the moniker is Poorest Country in Europe. Either way, the appellation is clearly considered absolutely indispensable to journalists writing about Bulgaria. Even when—in fact, despite when—these words have absolutely nothing to do with the subject at hand, say, when headlining an article on Bulgaria’s admirable wealth of women in the tech world.

It is exasperating to read one or the other of these phrases printed just before or after the word “Bulgaria” in virtually every instance that “Bulgaria” is deigned to provoke journalistic interest. What on earth does “the poorest country” mean? You certainly won’t be enlightened by the article itself—we are clearly meant to accept and understand what is meant without explanation of how this apparent poverty is measured or by whom. It merely fits a sort of post-1989 narrative of Eastern Europe or the Balkans generally or Bulgaria specifically. It presumes an easy path to understand the entirety of the country in all its complexity by placing it in a piggy bank filled with only a handful of pennies. It announces the absence of responsible journalism with critical thinking skills and imparts to the reader the shoddiest of reportage without actual information. It is, in brief, a sort of propaganda.

I certainly wouldn’t argue that Bulgarians generally have a lower standard of living than in the Scandinavian countries. Or that infrastructure is less than ideal. Or that many healthcare facilities aren’t in dire need of upgrades. Or that Bulgaria has not for years been suffering a brain drain that puts a terrible drag on the country’s ability to grow and prosper. And so on.

But poverty can be measured in vastly different ways by individual countries and transnational organizations, by economists and sociologists and political scientists, by people’s sense of their own lives and well-being. What exactly is being measured when Bulgaria is called “the poorest country’? Is it the average—knowing that average itself is a highly imperfect, often deceptive measure—daily income? I remember when I first lived in Bulgaria that Bulgarians often asked me about my salary in the United States. I demurred, because I knew that salary alone explained nothing; the cost of rent, food, clothing, healthcare, transportation, and taxes had to be set against income for any numbers to be meaningful. Telling me how much a Bulgarian makes in a day as compared to a German is worse than telling me nothing because it purports to give me information and instead gives me a distorted data point that misinforms.

Is home ownership being measured? Bulgarians own their own homes in strikingly high measure exceeded only by several other Eastern European countries. And that doesn’t include the great number who additionally own a weekend cottage in the mountains or a seaside vacation spot or a house in the family village. Of course one can be a homeowner and have so little income that impossible choices have to be made between heat and prescription medicine and food. Impossible choices so many Americans make each month in a “rich” country.

Perhaps “the poorest country” is being examined macro-economically in regards to its national debt, pension funding, currency stability, or inflation. In all of these, Bulgaria compares favorably to other European countries and in some cases leads by example.

Access to health care, education, transportation? All systems needing more funds invested, facilities modernized, personnel better paid—that is without question. But the systems are there, funded regularly if not optimally, and Bulgarians have access to all despite the inadequacies. As important as the social safety net provided by the government is the social safety net provided by extended family. Bulgarians in the city can provide funds to buy shoes or home repairs for their village relatives and those in the village provide their all local, all organic food to take back to the city. How can the cost of such food be measured? It figures nowhere, because no one is counting.

And then there are the myriad non-monetary measures. Bulgarians, notoriously pessimistic and cynical in the best of times, might be stymied by Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, but they value leisure time (working to live vs. living to work) to enjoy Bulgaria’s natural beauty and cultural expression. These are dimensions of a country’s wealth that enrich the lives of its citizens.

I have no objection to calling out Bulgaria’s weaknesses, or those of any other country for that matter. There are pensions so terribly low that they cannot be stretched to meet the most minimal needs. There are salaries too low for young people to move out of the parental apartment and lead independent lives. Too many people exist on the margins. But simply pointing a rhetorical pen to casually label Bulgaria as “the poorest country” tells us nothing. It’s lazy, it’s ignorant, and in many instances it’s just not true.

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Bulgarian EmbassyThe Government of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, defunct for nearly three decades, remains the posthumous owner of Bulgaria’s embassy in Washington, DC. So says the city’s real property tax database in a neat if entirely inadvertent fulfillment of the aphoristic certainty of death and taxes. All the same, the tax payment side is less than assured. The proposed assessment for the 2019 fiscal year is $5,931,630, up $44,100 or less than 1% over the prior year. It’s a moot point, though, since foreign missions don’t pay tax on their property unless there is the highly unusual case of lack of reciprocity.

Aleko Konstantinov.jpgRecords show that Kate Willard Boyd (1864-1940) owned the house cum embassy, perhaps inheriting it from her parents Caleb Clapp Willard (1834–1905) and Allie C. Jones Willard (1836–1874). Caleb owned and operated the Ebbitt Hotel as well as acquiring a lot of downtown property. His older brothers managed the still operating Willard Hotel. During the Civil War, author Nathaniel Hawthorne said the Willard “may be much more justly called the center of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House, or the State Department…” When iconic Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov visited the city in 1893, he strolled down down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House and passed the Willard Hotel on his way to see the Capitol, declaring “The city of Washington, if not the prettiest, is at least one of the prettiest cities which I saw in Europe and America.”

Kappa Sigma flag
Kappa Sigma Fraternity flag

Kate married John Covert Boyd (1850–1927), surgeon and medical director for the United States Navy, one of the incorporators of the American Red Cross, and one of the founders of the Kappa Sigma Fraternity. On March 27, 1951, having inherited the house from his mother Kate, Walter Willard Boyd and his wife Ruth sold it to the three-year old State of Israel for $170,000. Nearly thirty years later, on November 16, 1981, the State of Israel sold it in turn to the People’s Republic of Bulgaria for an unknown amount. Just one day shy of nine years later, Bulgaria’s National Assembly voted to change the name of the country to the Republic of Bulgaria and removed the red Communist star and state emblem from the flag. It seems to be taking the District of Columbia’s Recorder of Deeds quite a bit longer to make the adjustment to the fall of communism.

 

The purchase of the building by Bulgaria from Israel may have been incidental in 1981, but the countries are connected in a way that is far from inconsequential. Fascistic and aligned with Nazi Germany Bulgaria may have been, but it was one of the few countries to have saved the Jewish population within its borders from the death camps and it established diplomatic relations with Israel at the country’s founding in 1948. Bulgaria had cut off diplomatic relations nearly 15 years before signing the deed for its new embassy, but Israel had not forgotten the country’s wartime efforts. By 1981, the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem had already recognized eight Bulgarians as being among the Righteous Among the Nations, including Dimitar Peshev who in 1943 was vice chairman of Bulgaria’s National Assembly. When he died alone in 1973, he had been forgotten by his countrymen but not by Israel.

 

On November 13, 2013, an article entitled “DC intersection renamed for Bulgarian who saved Jews” appeared in The Times of Israel. The Council of the District of Columbia had “symbolically designate[d] the intersection of 22nd and R Streets, N.W., in Ward 2, as Dimitar Peshev Plaza.” Were any of the principals involved in the effort to honor Peshev in this way were aware of the embassy’s previous owners?

In November 2016, I wrote a post called Degrees of Separation describing how surprisingly often objects and events seemed to connect to Bulgaria. But in following the trail of the Bulgarian embassy in DC, the words of French philosopher and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin may be more apropos:

“Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”

The white, red, and green colors of the Kappa Sigma and Bulgarian flags. The hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, the family that owned both it and the house that became an embassy, and a Bulgarian author who found himself on that same avenue nicknamed “America’s Main Street.” Bulgaria’s purchase of its embassy from the State of Israel decades after—despite its dominant politics—its successful efforts to save the country’s 48,000 Jewish citizens from Nazi death camps. Dimitar Peshev’s recognition by Israel’s Yad Vashem. DC’s symbolically naming the intersection closest to the Bulgarian embassy as Dimitar Peshev Plaza. Surely not everything converges, but it’s delightful to discover how very much does.

Lamartine in Bulgaria

Many years ago in graduate school, I took a course that required each student to have a subscription to the renowned and self-described “authoritative” British weekly magazine The Economist. I don’t recall what the professor’s purpose in such a requirement was, but for me the unexpected benefit was reading about the world—and in particular the United States—from a non-American vantage point. I understood then how different the view of a country, its history, its current events, its people could be from the outside looking in. Enlightening and sometimes even salutary. Perhaps my writing about Bulgaria offers that sort of vicarious vantage point for Bulgarians. And this sort of prism disperses even more light on the subject when the author is writing not only from another place, geographically and culturally speaking, but from another time.

Lamartine House PlovdivPlovdiv is said to be one of the oldest cities in Europe and has seen many peoples— invaders and locals—call it their own. Next year it holds pride of place as the European Capital of Culture and will surely welcome many who have never visited before and who will jot down observations and take pictures that will be instantly conveyed to a wider audience. Some of these might wander the Old City and take note of a house built in the classic Bulgarian Renaissance (1762–1878) architectural style called the Lamartine House.

Lamartine stampAlphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine (October 21, 1790-February 28, 1869) was poet, historian, writer, and statesman. An aristocrat whose parents remained loyal to the monarchy after the French revolution, Lamartine both headed the provisional government of the Second Republic and sympathized with the plight of the working class, predicting that it would rise up in rebellion. That he wrote about such things while Karl Marx was still studying art history, translating Latin classics, and writing love poetry to his fiancé no doubt was met with approval by the Communist government that allowed the house to be named after him—and even circulated a stamp featuring the house shortly after their takeover of the country.

This despite the fact that Lamartine didn’t own the house, live in it, or even stay there for more than three days during the summer of 1833.

What allowed that 1833 three-day stay to last beyond the momentary impression of a French traveler passing through town is that Lamartine wrote a book, Travels in the East, Including a Journey in the Holy Land. Given Lamartine’s fame, it was quickly translated into other languages. He did not write much about his time there (see text beginning on page 164 in the link above), but he wrote enough of Bulgaria to endear himself to Bulgarians. He entered Bulgaria on his return journey from his eastern travels and described the three days in Philippopolis (as Plovdiv was then known) as “passed…in the enjoyment of the agreeable hospitality of M. Maurides, in going through the environs, and in exchanging visits with the Turks, the Greeks, and the Armenians…The position of the town is one of the most beautiful that can be imagined…”

What likely was Lamartine’s most enduring gift to Bulgaria was his identification of its people, already more than 400 years an unwilling dominion of the Ottoman Empire, as Europeans. Seeing themselves as closer to the Christian West than a subjugated people of the Muslim East, Bulgarians were actively forming the nationalist sense that would form the basis of serious indendence efforts. It no doubt was reassuring and uplifting to be told that peasants they might be, but of the sort seen in the Western Alps. “They are quite the same as those of the Swiss and Savoyard peasants…I have witnessed rural dances amongst the Bulgarians, exactly the same as our villages in France.” And he pleaded their cause; “they are quite ripe for independence..The country which they inhabit would soon be a delightful garden..” He praised the mountains (“very similar to those of Auvergne”), though he gave Sofia short shrift. “There is nothing worthy of remark in the town.” And if you look at photographs of Sofia and Plovdiv taken around 50 years later, you can see why the latter impressed Lamartine more than the former.

 

Пловдив около 1878-1880
Plovdiv, circa 1878-1880
Пловдив в центъра “Куршум хан”, 1895
Plovdiv, 1895

So enduring are Lamartine’s words that the Sofia News Agency published an article in 2012 entitled Lamartine’s Hardworking, European Bulgarians as though to reiterate, in this time of persistent European refusal to allow Bulgaria into the Schengen area, that Bulgarians had their European bona fides given weight nearly two hundred years ago by a French icon. A Western icon, by the way, who admired the East, famously writing “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul” and “If greatness of purpose, smallness of means, and astonishing results are the three criteria of a human genius, who could dare compare any great man in history with Muhammad?”

Sufficient French travelers wrote their impressions of Bulgaria that that Engin Deniz Tanir was able to write an entire doctoral thesis, The Mid-Nineteenth Century Ottoman Bulgaria from the Viewpoints of the French Travelers, on the subject. But for Bulgarians, Lamartine holds a special place as one of the earliest. And Sofia citizens hold nothing against him for finding nothing worthy in their city; they named the French language high school in the capital, Alphonse de Lamartine.

френска гимназия

Bottoming Out Birthrate, Again and Again

Recently I came across an article entitled It’s a Small, Small World: The fastest shrinking countries on earth are in Eastern Europe. Countries throughout Europe (as well as others such as Japan and Russia) have long bemoaned their declining birthrates. This particular article struck me because Bulgaria is cited as “the world’s fastest shrinking country.” Tomas Sobotka of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital comments that such shrinkage comes on the heels of an already striking contraction of the Bulgarian population from just under 9 million in 1989 (the country’s historical high) to 7.1 million in 2017. “That’s a massive population loss, unprecedented in peace times,” he explains.

bassinetsBut concerns about falling birthrates in Bulgaria did not begin with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the wrenching political, economic, and social changes that followed. In February 1989, when no such changes could be foreseen, the Bulgarian monthly The Woman Today published an interview with Professor Minko Minkov entitled “From Now We Consider: 2005 and Beyond.” The article focused on the declining birthrate then and followed up a similar interview. Here is the first question and answer from that February 1989 interview:

Q: Professor Minkov, in an interview with The Woman Today three years ago, you said that in 1985 Bulgaria will have reached its lowest birthrate level—13.3 per thousand, and the lowest natural increase in population growth, 1.3 per thousand. How does the demographic picture look today?

A: Such a birthrate and natural increase we had in the beginning of the 1980s and then actually, effectually, truly, it was the lowest in the demographic history of the country. Now however it is still lower (during 1987, 12.9 per thousand), and with increasing mortality has reached 12 per thousand, ensuring a minimal natural increase of 0.9 per thousand, or in absolute numbers 8000 people.

We have to point out that, based on preliminary data from the first quarter of 1988, the picture is not optimistic—the results for the first half of 1987 repeat. We expected that after 1986 as women born after 1967 entered their fertile years, the results will improve but unfortunately so far no such phenomenon can be noticed. Something more. Projections show that if the current birth rate is maintained, the population will start declining after 2005, reaching 8,369,000 by 2060.

maternity hospital
Maternity Hospital

As pessimistic as Professor Minkov found the picture, it proved to be not nearly pessimistic enough. The population did not start declining after 2005 but instead the very year after the interview. Far from falling to “8,369,000 by 2060,” the population is already down to approximately seven million today and projected to be 5.4 million by 2050. The United Nations Population Division has all the data available in its World Population Prospects 2017 files, interactive data, maps, and graphs.

1989 may have been the high before the looming negative rate of natural increase (currently at -6.0 per thousand), but it represented only the beginning of the national angst over the dearth of babies. By 2013, Darik News reported—as Professor Minkov did for the 1985 year—“We have hit the bottom in birthrate (Ударихме дъното по раждаемост). In 2015, the daily paper 24 Chasa headlined an article “A drastic drop in birth rates for the first quarter is reported” (Отчетоха драстичен спад в раждаемостта за първото тримесечие) and opened with the statistic “A drastic decline in birth rates in Bulgaria is reported for the first three months of the year. Nearly two thousand fewer babies were born in comparison with the first quarter of 2014.” It was the daily newspaper Trud’s turn in December 2016. “Antirecord for birthrate in 2016 (Антирекорд по раждаемост през 2016 г.).

total fertility rate mapOn February 8, 2018, Trud wryly headlined yet another birthrate story “The Demographic Crisis Isn’t From Yesterday: The Population of Bulgaria Is Aging, the Majority of Bulgarian Women Are Pensioners” (Демографската криза не е от вчера: Населението на България застарява, повечето от бълкарките са пенсионерки). After acknowledging that the subject was perennially a subject of public concern and conversation, author Sultanka Petrova said “if we want to finally get positive demographic results in Bulgaria and stop this demographic failure, we need a new type of demographic thinking and a rationalization of processes. And the most important thing is to stop the populist talk on the subject and get on with the task.”

Oddly enough, that’s almost verbatim what Professor Minkov said nearly three decades ago. Ms. Petrova went on to say “That is why we need to focus our efforts on stabilizing the two-pronged family model rather than on a sharp rise in birth rates.” Professor Minkov went on to say “The first urgent need should be to stop the process of erosion of the two-child model and to create conditions for young families to be able in time, even in the first years of marriage, to implement their reproductive plans.” As the French say, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The French birthrate is declining steadily as well, by the way, despite the two-child model that is so pervasively idealized that Mr. Sobotka of the Wittgenstein Centre wrote an article entitled “Two Is Best? The Persistence of a Two-Child Family Ideal in Europe.”

I am not a demographer, sociologist, or statistician so I make no claim to expertise on this issue. But as a layperson reading the articles, for general and scholarly audiences alike, it seems clear that falling birthrates confound countries around the world—the United States too has a declining birthrate—no matter their historical experience, religious affinities, ethnic make-up, political structure, ideology, or fertility incentives. Human beings generally want to live as well as they are able to devise. Where possible, they attain the highest education available to them, seek the jobs with the highest income available to them, establish relationships and housing that are as stable as they can make them. And all of this is generally acknowledged to be positive not only for the individuals concerned but for the development of the societies in which they find themselves. And all of this takes time.

Do we want as a society to encourage people to delay childbearing until they feel independent and ready, and thus encourage the lower birthrates that inevitably are the outcome? Do we want to encourage young people to have children before they are  emotionally and economically ready to provide for them and thus cut off the new parents’ ability to realize their own potential?

аз съм българчеAt one point in the 1989 The Woman Today interview, there is this question and answer:

Q: During the last few years a number of documents have been published to promote birth rates. What are the most important positive results after their entry into force?

A: It’s true that there is no small number of decisions adopted in the demographic policy sphere and overall their guidelines and aspirations are correct. The trouble comes from the fact that a significant part of them do not “work.”

What will “work”? In Bulgaria’s case, the most pressing need may not so much be the creation of more Bulgarians, but keeping the Bulgarians they already have living within the country’s borders. Outbound emigration is generally the province of the young—as is of course the birthrate—so perhaps an effective policy for the one will have a positive impact on the other. But I am not an objective observer. I like Bulgaria. I want it to thrive. For me, for my children, and for the grandchildren those Bulgarian pensioners are longing for.

Women’s Rights Are Human Rights (though perhaps not in Bulgaria)

One might think that even the most conservative-minded, religiously-guided, risk averse, and cautious would find nothing objectionable in the idea that one half of humanity is as worthy of protection from violence and discrimination as the other. In spring 2011 in Istanbul, the Council of Europe put forth a document simply titled Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. It defines violence against women “as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination against women and includes all acts of gender‐based violence that result in, or are likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

Council of EuropeThe Council of Europe has 47 member states, covering virtually the entire continent of Europe. The Convention was open for signature, ratification, and entry into force by the member States, the non-member States that have participated in its elaboration and by the European Union, and for accession by other non-member States.

Turkey, not generally considered the leader in socially progressive causes, was the first to ratify. An additional 27 countries followed. They represent a wide variety of religious identity, fervor, and impact on the body politic; dominant political ideology, democratic experience, and stability; and history of government-supported and legally-enshrined gender equality:

  1. Albania
  2. Andorra
  3. Austria
  4. Belgium
  5. Bosnia and Herzegovina
  6. Cyprus
  7. Denmark
  8. Estonia
  9. Finland
  10. France
  11. Georgia
  12. Germany
  13. Italy
  14. Malta
  15. Monaco
  16. Montenegro
  17. Netherlands
  18. Norway
  19. Poland
  20. Portugal
  21. Romania
  22. San Marino
  23. Serbia
  24. Slovenia
  25. Spain
  26. Sweden
  27. Switzerland

Who signed but never ratified? A smaller group that equally represents a wide variety of religious identity, fervor, and impact on the body politic; dominant political ideology, democratic experience and stability; and history of government-supported and legally-enshrined gender equality:

  1. Armenia*
  2. Bulgaria
  3. Croatia
  4. Czech Republic
  5. Greece
  6. Hungary
  7. Iceland
  8. Ireland
  9. Latvia
  10. Liechenstein
  11. Lithuania
  12. Luxembourg
  13. Republic of Moldova
  14. Slovak Republic
  15. Macedonia (FYROM per Greece)
  16. Ukraine
  17. United Kingdom

* To be fair, Armenia just signed the Convention on January 18, 2018 and it is possible ratification will come without delay.

walk a mile
domestic violence hurts everyone / violence against women doesn’t make you more of a man

There are not two sides here. One either supports full human rights for women, or not. There are some surprises, at least for me, as to who chose what side. Why, for example, did the United Kingdom sign in June 2012 but more than five years later has yet to ratify?

None of the countries that signed in 2016 has ratified, but for one of these—Bulgaria—the reason is now apparent, public, and distasteful. Reuters has reported that “Bulgaria’s ruling party on Thursday delayed a vote to ratify a European treaty designed to combat violence against women in the face of opposition from religious and political groups who said it could promote moral decay.”

Yes, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has somehow found “moral decay” in protecting women from violence, but not in the violence itself. The Mufti Office proclaimed that “gender topics are dangerous, bottomless traps,” but the trap of gender discrimination is apparently acceptable. The far-right United Patriots propagandize that the Convention forces the introduction of “school programs for studying homosexuality and transvestism and creating opportunities for enforcing same-sex marriages,” though no such language appears anywhere in the 81 articles detailed in the Convention. The Bulgarian Socialist Party shamelessly reversed decades of ideology insisting on the equality of women by now vigorously rejecting the “[promotion of] changes in the social and cultural patterns of behaviour of women and men with a view to eradicating prejudices, customs, traditions and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority of women or on stereotyped roles for women and men.”

Mendes Bota, General Rapporteur on violence against women and Political Co-ordinator of the Parliamentary Network “Women Free from Violence,” did not mince words in the Handbook for parliamentarians provided for those attending the Istanbul session:

This Convention is necessary, and long overdue.
Not to support this Convention would be a concession to violence.
Not to support this Convention would be a crime.
Not to support this Convention would be yet another crime against women.

bulgaria_flagIt is my hope that before Bulgaria’s term as EU president concludes, the country has properly informed its citizenry about the Convention’s true language and purpose, knocked sense into its contrarian ministers, and finally done what is necessary and long overdue. Bulgaria needs to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

 

My Country, My Bulgaria / Моя страна, моя България

We spent the New Year’s holiday with Bulgarian friends in New York. Lubo and Vessi have lived in the United States since 2003. They’re educated, were already fluent in English when they arrived, live well, are successful, don’t regret their decision to immigrate. Vessi translated for me during my first visit to Bulgaria in 1987 so our friendship has a long history.

In the years just before and just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Communism throughout Eastern Europe, I noticed a difference in the attitudes of Bulgarian immigrants to the country of their birth. If they had immigrated long ago and thus it had been years—sometimes decades—since they had seen Bulgaria, their break was entire. They identified with Bulgaria, but as one identifies with long deceased relatives or one’s own early childhood. A handful of recipes, an affiliation with a small Bulgarian Orthodox congregation that rented space from an established Greek or Russian Orthodox church, a holiday remembrance. Politics had made the living country anathema and as a practical matter a place to which there was no return, even for a visit. Some actively and vociferously railed against the Communist government that forced them to abandon Bulgaria, but most were well enough ensconced in the United States that apathy had set in. Feelings did not run high. Even those children who had been given Bulgarian names out of a sense of nostalgia or pride often couldn’t speak their father or mother’s mother tongue.

Those who immigrated not long before the political changes had made no such final break. They had barely become fluent in English before the day came when they could buy a plane ticket to Sofia to visit the parents or cousins or friends who had remained. They gorged on the summer tomatoes that have no superior, spent hours in cafés, visited old haunts, and showed photos of their new lives. They enjoyed being princelings bearing gifts from abroad. As the years went on, their parents became regular visitors to their American homes, taking care of grandchildren and forming their own communities of pensioners who despite having little to no facility in English had become international travelers crisscrossing the Atlantic with regularity. Recent immigrants could tie the two halves of their lives together, the Bulgarian and the American flowed mostly seamlessly; it was easy to spend summer vacations there and live here, easy to keep one’s hand in the Old World while holding two passports. One could fondly plan to spend retirement years in Bulgaria, with Social Security payments dependably being direct deposited into an FDIC-insured bank account.

But Vessi and Lubo represent a third group, Bulgarians who celebrated the fall of Communism while still living in Bulgaria. People who had long resented the totalitarian regime and held out hope for change. People who felt immeasurably disappointed that the road was rocky and were disheartened to find, again and again, that much of what corrupted and shaped society survived the cataclysmic political change. Corruption, petty and large, received—then and now—most of the attention if not effort to substantively address, but there were other irritants named bureaucracy, mismanagement, greed, ignorance, envy, a stark realization that the problems were great and the gap yawning and the resources small and enough blame to go all around. And if the blame was endemic, then correspondingly the Bulgarian people were the problem and the solution could nowhere be found.

So as at other dinners, after the children had finished and left the table for more scintillating activities, our longstanding debate carried on. We, my husband and I, expressed optimism, our fond memories of living in Bulgaria and our hope to do so again. We pointed out the strengths both historically and currently. We argued there was much to be proud of—literacy surpassing all the Balkan countries as early as World War I, ability to engage diplomatically with Turkey after five centuries under the Ottoman Empire, nationalism that never descended into the dark and vicious racialism of Romania and Yugoslavia, fiscal stability since 1997, tourists raving about the country’s natural beauty and hospitable people, and progress, however maladroit, that nevertheless inched Bulgaria ahead.

Vessi countered our optimism with pessimism about the state of Bulgaria and its people; such pessimism may be said to be endemic as well, as I wrote in August 2015. A Bulgarian, she insisted, can’t tolerate seeing his neighbor do well. A Bulgarian would rather pull her colleague down than rise up to meet her level of achievement. There was little to be proud of and much to despise. She had no desire to go back and felt there was nothing to go back to. Yes, we had enjoyed our adventure living there for two years, but that was due to my being American. I was treated differently, she asserted. Having not grown up there, I couldn’t know, could never sense, the rot that would always pervade any attempt to gain momentum.

It’s a debate that has no end. My status as an American doesn’t mean I look at Bulgaria with rose-colored glasses, but it does mean I carry no baggage. I quite naturally have no resentments because I have suffered no injury. But then again, my husband has both baggage and injury. He defected in 1985, but still has much the viewpoint that I do. Perhaps Vessi reflects what Ivelin Sardamov called The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Puzzle of Bulgaria’s Transitional Pessimism. Perhaps it is easier to forge a new life and fully commit to that life if one not only closes the door firmly, but barricades it with a crossbar in the manner of a medieval castle.

Along with the pork loin and roasted vegetables, there was shopska salata on the table. After dinner, we took turns in an improvised karaoke night. On one of Vessi’s turns, she chose the Emil Dimitrov classic “Моя страна, моя България” (“My Country, My Bulgaria”) and on another turn the Bulgarian national anthem, “Мило родино” (“My Motherland”). She sang quite loudly, drowned the rest of us out it must be said, and perhaps she sang with some forgiveness. Честита нова година. Chestita nova godina. Happy New Year.

 

 

 

 

What the Red Army DIDN’T Do

Russian embassy in Sofia attempts new spin in row on claims Soviets rescued Bulgarian Jews from Holocaust

Sofia Rejects Russia’s Claims About Saving Bulgarian Jews

For those in the Kremlin who might need a refresher course in history, the facts are as follows:

  • The deportation of Bulgarian Jews requested by Germany was cancelled in May 1943.
  • The Red Army entered Bulgaria in September 1944 providing “moral” support for a communist coup rather than acting on moral imperative to save Bulgaria’s Jewish population from the death camps.
  • The Red Army stayed until 1947 to ensure the communist government in Bulgaria was firmly established.
  • Far from having any role in the survival of Bulgaria’s Jewish citizens, the Soviet Union proceeded to suppress information about the rescue given the need for historic revisionism. After all, no credit of any kind could be given to its enemies of former government, church, and king; they were demonized as the bourgeois, the class enemy, the bloodsucker, the fascist—the propaganda was creative, pervasive, and endless.

The Russian Orthodox Church has a long history of strident and even malignant anti-Semitism. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church does not. Nor does Bulgaria as a whole; though of course there is anti-Semitism present, it represents a small and disapproved of sentiment. Such tolerance is not of recent vintage.

According to Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abrevaya Stein in their article “Sephardic Scholarly Worlds,” the tolerant atmosphere in Bulgaria was such that Chief Rabbi of Sofia Marcus Ehrenpreis at the turn of the 20th century envisioned founding a Jewish University in Sofia to be populated by Sephardic scholars from throughout the Balkans. By 1940, the Jewish population had grown to 50,000, just under one percent of the total population. Despite siding with Germany in World War II as it had so disastrously done in World War I, and despite the institution of both work camps and anti-Semitic laws modeled on the infamous Nuremburg Laws in Germany, Bulgaria—with no Red Army in sight—managed to prevent the deportation of the Jewish population within its official borders.

This was not at all due to the pro-Nazi cabinet, but to the efforts of Dimitar Peshev, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly of Bulgaria as well as Minister of Justice, and of the leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, particularly Metropolitans Stefan and Kiril. Peshev’s actions merited the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Yad Vashem Memorial Museum in 1973; Metropolitans Stefan (Stoyan Popgueorguiev) and Kiril (Konstantin Markov) received the same honor in 2001 for their heroic and unflagging interventions. The Bulgarian population generally supported their efforts, with individuals and small groups pleading the case for their fellow citizens. Metropolitan Stefan famously admonished Tzar Boris III in a telegram “Know, Boris, that God watches your actions from Heaven.”

The Red Army—it would go without saying but Kremlin spokesperson Maria Zakharova and her bosses apparently need it said—has not merited the adjective “righteous” in the matter of Jewish rescue. Zakharova, who decried those who are “unfortunately, completely unaware of the glorious pages of their own history, let alone anyone else’s” is completely unaware of the irony of such a statement coming from the mouth of someone promulgating historic revisionism.

How was it possible for a nominally fascist government, state-supported church and majority Christian population in Bulgaria to defy the Nazis in a way comparable in all of Europe only to Denmark? Certainly the countries surrounding Bulgaria proved themselves all too willing to engage in the virulent anti-Semitism for which Nazi Germany proved so ably a leader. It might have been because, through habits formed during Ottoman rule, Bulgarian Jews were thoroughly integrated into Bulgarian society, but on the other hand Germany itself had one of the most assimilated Jewish populations in Europe.

Boris IIITzar Boris III, himself of German descent, seems to have spent a good deal of time dodging German demands for deportation. Josef Goebbels wrote in his diary that Boris was “cunning like a fox.” Cunning Boris was entirely willing to deport to the death camps the entire Jewish population of Thrace and Macedonia, which were under Bulgarian control, but he drew the line at “his” Jews, hedging that they were needed for road maintenance.

Almost certainly, Boris made the politically expedient rather than the humanitarian choice given domestic and international opinion in 1943. But he felt sufficiently pressured by Bulgarian public opinion—as opposed to any influence of the Red Army—not to take the ultimate steps to satisfy Nazi demand and that means that the majority Christian population in the main thought of their Jewish neighbors as fellow Bulgarians.

Frederick B. Chary devoted his book The Bulgarian Jews and the Final Solution, 1940-1944 to the detailed recounting of the Bulgarian Jewish experience during World War II and concluded “Bulgarian anti-Semitism in the thirties was imported and concentrated in a few relatively small organizations…On the whole, Bulgaria had less anti-Semitism than other countries of the western world; and, moreover, an important section of the Bulgarian intelligentsia had developed the idea that its country was not anti-Semitic and that this tolerance was something in which to take pride.” Indeed, the German ambassador to Sofia, Adolf-Heinz Beckerle, bemoaned the fact that the average Bulgarian “does not see in the Jews any flaws justifying taking special measures against them.” The sheer quantity of anti-deportation protest throughout the Bulgarian body politic—state, church, civil society—was decisive in its success at saving its Jewish population.

The Bulgarian body politic, that is, not the Soviet Red Army.

Extra, Extra, Read All About It

Bulgaria is not one of those countries that are regularly seen in U.S. news media outlets. Considering that news organizations often seem to conflate bad news with news worthy of coverage that may well be a good thing. Bulgaria is not collapsing from debt burdens or desperate from natural disasters or reeling from civil war or fomenting ethnic cleansing.

But just the same there is news coming out of Bulgaria that has made its way through the ether and a good bit is either interesting or just sheer fun. Here is a sampling.

Rosen DaskalovA Bulgarian businessman who opens up about his finances to a journalist? Apparently Rosen Daskalov is such a Bulgarian businessman. He somehow merged his adolescent go-kart experience with his education as a mechanical engineer to make a whole greater than the sum of its automotive parts. Sin Cars has a very specific market—and a name that one really can’t forget—and seems ready to compete for more than media attention.

impunity indexBulgaria has a lot to answer for—and improve—in terms of transparency, corruption, and the effectiveness of its judicial system, so it was somewhat surprising and rather encouraging to see it rank quite well on 2017 Global Impunity Index. So well in fact that only Croatia did better and the United States was rather far behind. Impunity was held to have three major dimensions: security, justice, and human rights. Though the MSN coverage focused on the bad actors, and in fact on the very worst actor, it does as well note Bulgaria’s happy place with the good guys.

Bulgaria is the archeological gift that keeps on giving. It sometimes seems impossible that land that has been traversed and settled and resettled since ancient times can still be revealing relics from the past, but in fact there is a great deal still being uncovered. A site near Балей (Baley) near Vidin in northwest Bulgaria has been studied for over four decades, but recently discovered gravesites revealed Bronze Age pottery circa 1400 BCE. Meanwhile at the other side of the country and at the bottom of the sea, the Black Sea Maritime Archeology Project (Black Sea M.A.P.) has been investigating shipwrecks dating from Hellenistic to medieval times. Some of the ships were found erect and seemingly ready to sail, albeit nearly 6000 feet below the surface.

Bulgaria ChinaIn February 2016, I wrote a post focusing on China’s Great Wall car company in Bulgaria. I did not know then that when some Chinese business leaders were scouting Bulgaria to build a modern convenience within the country, others were scouting an ancient bacteria to bring back home—Bulgarian yogurt. Lactobacillus bulgaricus apparently translated well into Chinese. Now there is a Chinese-Bulgarian Yogurt Festival in the village of Momchilovtsi, Bulgaria, and one visitor from Shanghai asserts “There’s two things every Chinese knows about Bulgaria—yogurt and roses.”

From the newest of the new back to the ancient and the ancient appreciated anew, there is, ahem, some good news coming out of Bulgaria. If you hear of other good news, please do share

Back in the Summer of 1960, Part 2

Summer is winding down, but as a Kitchen Traveler you can always be on vacation. Here are a few more Bulgarian recipes from a long-passed summer. As in the last post, Bulgarian recipes of a certain era combine precise metric measurements with a trust that the cook somehow just knows what to do in the way of quantity or oven temperature. Is the “spoonful” a teaspoon or a tablespoon? Only the cook knows. How hot should the oven be? Only the cook knows. How long should the cookies be baked? Until they are done, of course.

And recommending the use of a lemon was pure fantasy since the home cook had no way in 1960 to find a lemon in the market and only once yearly—on the New Year’s holiday—were oranges to be found. The vanilla was and continues to be sold dry in packets, each one being roughly the equivalent of one teaspoonful liquid vanilla extract. By the way, the last line in the Drunken Peaches recipe is not my editorial, but is on the original recipe. Clearly, the recipe was well tested by the publisher.

But my favorite in all these recipes is the measurement provided for baking soda, “the edge of a knife soda for bread.”

Remember that no matter what the recipe includes or excludes, all jars of preserves should be boiled for ten minutes with the water level one inch above the lid before allowing them to cool and be stored.

Drunken Peaches

Ingredients:
2 kg (4½ pounds) sugar
2-3 cups water
3 kg (6½ pounds) peaches, not too ripe, skins removed
½ liter (2 cups) grape rakiya

Directions:
Simmer the sugar and water to form a thick syrup. Place the whole peeled peaches in the syrup. When the syrup returns to the boil, use a slotted spoon to remove the peaches and let them cool. Layer in jars peaches, a little of the syrup, and a little of the grape rakiya (or other fruit brandy), repeating until the jars are full. Cover with parchment paper and cap the jars tightly. Let mature 5-6 weeks. It has a good taste.

Дренки (pronounced “dren-key”) is the fruit of the cornel cherry, a relative of the dogwood. The fruit is small, red, and quite sour. The cornel cherry is native to Eastern Europe. When living in Bulgaria, I used it as a substitute for cranberries at Thanksgiving so you can probably do so the other way around if you wish to try out the recipe below and don’t happen to have a few cornel cherry trees handy.

сироп от дренкиCornel Cherry Syrup

Ingredients:
2 kg (4½ pounds) cornel cherries
1 kg (4 cups) water
1½ kg (3¼ pounds) sugar
½ teaspoon citric acid (or 1 tablespoon lemon juice)

Directions:
Mash the cornel cherries and leave them to ferment together with the pits for 24 hours. The next day, strain through a sieve, and then again through a cloth into a pot. Pour in water, add sugar, and boil until the mixture reaches the desired thickness. Add citric acid (or lemon juice).

татлииSyrup Pastries

Ingredients:
¼ kg lard or butter
1 egg yolk
4 tablespoons yogurt
2½ flour
½ kg (1 pound) sugar
2 cups water
vanilla or lemon rind

Directions:
Cream lard or butter together with the egg yolk. Add the yogurt and flour. Mix until you have a soft dough from which you make walnut-sized balls. Lightly press them with a grater with which lemons are grated; arrange them on a greased baking sheet and bake. While still hot, pour over a syrup made by boiling sugar and water flavored with vanilla or lemon rind.

I translated “ванилички с мармалад” as vanilla sandwich cookies as they literally are called “little vanilla ones with marmalade.” Such an endearment provided the same translation challenge from Bulgarian as translating my brownie recipe from English for my Bulgarian friends.

ваниличкиVanilla Sandwich Cookies
with Marmalade

Ingredients:
200 grams (7 ounces) butter
4 tablespoons powdered sugar
3 cups flour
1 egg
1 egg yolk
rind of 1 lemon
juice of ½ lemon
the edge of a knife baking soda
additional powdered sugar for rolling
2 packets vanilla powder

Directions:
Cream the butter and sugar. When the butter is foamy, add the egg, egg yolk, lemond rind, lemon juice, and baking soda. Mix everything well until there is a smooth dough. Roll the dough to a thickness of ½ cm (just under ¼ inch) and use a rakiya glass to cut out circles, arranging them on a greased baking sheet. Bake in a hot oven until lightly browned. While still hot, stick them together two by two with marmalade or jelly. Roll them in powdered sugar, flavored with two packets of vanilla. It’s good if the sandwich cookies are left overnight in order to soften.

Quince can be very difficult to find even when seasonal, and upscale markets who do sell them do so at a price that this oft ignored sister of the apple family shouldn’t have to bear. Last fall, I had an outdoor market vendor stab the air and venomously accuse the quince of a blight that would kill her apple harvest. Putting even one or two peeled and cut up quince to a pot of applesauce adds flavor. If you can find a few pounds, quince jam is easy to make and store.

сладко от дюлиQuince Jam

Ingredients:
1 kg (2¼ pounds) sugar
300 grams (1¼ cups) water
1 kg (2¼ pounds) quince, peeled and grated on the large size of a box grater
water to which 1 packet citric acid (or 1 tablespoon lemon juice) has been added
citric acid (or 2 teaspoons lemon juice)

Directions:
Boil a syrup from the sugar and water. Into the hot syrup the prepared quince. In order that the peeled quince do not brown as you grate them, let them sit in the water and citric acid (or lemon juice). Boil the jam at high heat until the desired thickness. Before pouring into jars, add additional citric acid or lemon juice.