Category Archives: Europe

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.

 

Vladimir Ivanov Buzatov / Владимир Иванов Бузатов

Vladimir Buzatov young
“I die for blue eyes.”

We were sitting at the small kitchen table in the one-bedroom family apartment in the Druzhba complex, the table that was folded down after each meal to save space. It was 1991 and Rumen and I were there with his family to get married for the second time, the first being three weeks prior in Washington, DC with my family. I spoke no Bulgarian then, my future in-laws no English. Rumen’s father Vladimir was known as a bon vivant, a charmer. A construction worker who did hard physical labor, building his own cottage atop the mountains of Rebrovo, he was a small man with the physical affect of Pablo Picasso.

At 25, he entertained the beautiful 19-year old Ivanka with jokes and captivated her with his strikingly bright blue eyes. “I die for blue eyes,” my mother-in-law later told me. They eloped based on not more than that, a giggle, and her fear that at 19 she was already an old maid.

Rumen’s younger brother Emil had a girlfriend Luba who was perhaps captivated by Emil’s blue eyes, but was not inspired by them or anything else to show pleasure—certainly not the kind of full-body laughter Ivanka regularly broke into, the kind that makes you laugh even when you don’t understand the words that started her off. But sour-faced Luba was Bulgarian and lived in Sofia while I am American and did not. So perhaps it was that simple calculation that made Vladimir jerk a thumb towards the hallway where Luba stood and then point a finger to me and raise his hand to show a plane flying away. Rumen translated the words for me. I should leave Rumen there and fly away. Luba would be the one to take care of the aging parents.

I was stricken. Rumen explained that it was all a joke, that Vladimir was known for his jokes, but I couldn’t laugh. Vladimir died the following year, having not survived his third heart attack. He never knew that Luba didn’t stay and that I did. That I would move to Sofia with Rumen, would help keep up his beloved cottage, would put up food for the winter as Bulgarians traditionally do, would learn to speak Bulgarian and speak it with the grandchildren not yet born in 1991. I needed more time to appreciate the jokes, to communicate directly without the need for translation, to get to know him. I would have liked to introduce him to his grandson Yoan, who would have looked back at his grandfather with the same blue eyes.

wedding
Sofia wedding, 1991

These are some of the things I know about my father-in-law, with whom I danced at my second wedding to my only husband:

  • He was born February 28, 1932, the youngest of his parents’ three children who survived to adulthood—five died in childhood—and he died years before his two elder brothers.
  • As a child in Kozlodui, he spoke Romanian—Vlashki, it is known in Bulgarian towns on the Danube—as everyone around him did. His mother never spoke Bulgarian and he didn’t learn the national language until he was sent to school. He left after third grade.
  • He brought his bride Ivanka back to his family in Kozlodui, but they were determined to make it to the capital Sofia and within three years succeeded in establishing residency there.
  • His favorite restaurant to schmooze with friends was a restaurant called Grozd, Ресторант Грозд. It’s still in the same place, though the street has been renamed since the Berlin Wall fell and it’s now called Boulevard Tsar Liberator. But the restaurant is not at all the same place he knew, with its English language sign on the front and Caesar salad on the menu.
  • Usually, it was Ivanka’s efforts that brought Rumen to Kozlodui in the summers and kept up the connection to the paternal side. But on rare occasions, Vladi (as his wife called him) brought his son to his parents, taking the ferry from Lom—a town due north of Sofia—and making one portion of the hard Bulgarian salami lukanka and one 50-gram shot of the Bulgarian brandy rakia last the entire journey.
  • There were two families, each with two children, in the Druzhba one-bedroom apartment and Vladi recognized that Rumen could not pursue his education in the prestigious art high school with so little space. He managed to get Rumen a studio in an otherwise abandoned building affiliated somehow with his constuction company employer, promising to provide its janitorial services after hours.
  • When I first came alone to Sofia in 1987 (having defected two years prior, Rumen could not come with me), Vladi took me aside and tearily repeated Rumen’s name and the word добре (good) in a questioning tone. I repeated добре several times, one of the perhaps five words I knew then.
  • Стюардеса
    Stewardess brand

    He smoked a lot, like so many Bulgarian men, Стюардеса (Stewardess) being his brand of choice. After his first, or perhaps it was his second, heart attack, he reported that his doctor had told him to “smoke less.”

  • After our second wedding and just before it was time to leave Sofia to return to our home in Washington, DC, my father-in-law woke up very early and took the train to his beloved cottage in Rebrovo. He could not say goodbye. He died one year and three months later. We got the call in the middle of the night. Almost the last image of him was when he thrust his arms up in exuberant victory as he celebrated his elder son’s marriage. The image after that in my mind was Vladi’s dismay that the Druzhba elevator was broken again and with his weakened heart he would have to walk up five flights of stairs to the apartment.
  • Rebrovo in process
    cottage during its years of construction

    Vladi was found when his neighbor in the created-from-scratch village that a group of largely Sofia residents brought into being from their higgledy-piggledy collection of weekend Rebrovo cottages noticed that a light had been burning all night. That third and final heart attack occurred in the place he built with his own hands over many years and which he loved best. Cleaning the cottage out years later in preparation for its sale, Rumen came across a small bound notebook his father had kept, of the kind with lettered tabs for keeping telephone numbers. On the back pages of the notebook, he had carefully written out several recipes for snails, each recipe labeled “serving for one.”

  • He had requested that he be cremated before internment in the Central Sofia Cemetery. You have to pass Grozd to get there. The urn was placed in a multi-tiered columbarium, like rows of small lockers on one side of a walkway that had actual gravesites lining the other side. This upset Ivanka who thought there would be no peace for Vladi since his remains were “above ground.”

More time. That’s generally what people wish they had after someone’s death, more time. If I had had more time with my father-in-law, I could have:

  • Had conversations with him, a one-on-one relationship that precludes the need for a translator. Because jokes don’t really translate well from one language to another, and I’m fairly good with a snappy retort—now even in Bulgarian.
  • Rebrovo station
    Rebrovo train station

    Learned more, perhaps, about the artistic leanings that were evidenced only in the Rebrovo cottage. The decorative wrought iron railings carefully painted green on the back terrace in echo of the bountiful verdant garden below. The garden itself with its central pathway lined with black currant bushes and the pear trees he badgered Rumen into bringing up by foot on the difficult mountain path from the Rebrovo train station. The green circles set into the white plaster under the overhanging roofline shading the brown wood-framed windows of the never finished second floor bedrooms he intended for his children and guests. Vladi’s elder son became studied fine art and became a graphic designer, his younger a famed fashion photographer. I think they might have gotten these talents from their father.

  • Watched him play with his grandchildren, the kind of play that his own children seem not to have experienced but that Rumen’s younger cousins still remember fondly.
  • Seen a mature relationship develop between him and my husband, who left Bulgaria in his early twenties and so the two never had the opportunity as grown men to know and enjoy each other.

Vladimir Ivanov Buzatov would have been 87 years old at the end of last month. According to World Health Organization 2016 data life expectancy for Bulgarian men is 71, the leading cause of death being coronary heart disease. Vladimir made it to 60. When Emil died at suddenly, improbably, tragically at 41 from smoking-related heart disease, we buried him at the Boyana Cemetery and placed Vladimir’s urn beside him, deep in the ground. It’s very green at the Boyana Cemetery, very close to the ancient Boyana Church with its beautiful, brightly-colored pre-Renaissance frescos. It’s very peaceful.

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 pension 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 washed its hands 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.

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.

 

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.

Judgement in Sofia

In January, I wrote the following:

I have an unwritten rule that my blog will not discuss politics. Not because I do not have strong feelings about various matters political, but because most people do and the possibility of unknowingly giving offense is quite large. Giving offense is unpleasant and unproductive so one should try not to do it, however much politics seems often to depend on that very thing. I know more about U.S. politics than I care to and not enough about Bulgarian politics to form any but the most general of opinions.

But to the extent that we wish our politicians to act ethically, to make and uphold laws against behavior that most would call wrong (e.g., murder, theft, rape), and to straightforwardly and firmly denounce contemptible behavior by those in office, politics is something about which we can all have an opinion. I know quite little about Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and only slightly more about Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, but I took note of their respective reactions to an ongoing scandal highlighting what Radev referred to late last week as “a creeping indulgence of Nazism.”

Prime Minister Boyko Borissov recently formed a coalition government that includes the far right Patriotic Front (sometimes referred to as United Patriots) party, whose leader Valery Simeonov currently serves as Deputy Prime Minister. Simeonov has refused to resign over the scandal of two Patriotic Front members appearing in photographs making the Nazi salute: Deputy Minister for Regional Development Pavel Tenev and Ivo Antonov, an official in the Ministry of Defense. Tenev resigned on May 17. Antonov has not yet offered his resignation. Simeonov dismisses the photos as having no significance or relevance.

After too much time spent silent on the subject, Borissov finally commented on Tenev’s Sieg Heil explaining “it’s human while on business trips to make such jokes.” BNE Intellinews reported that “Borissov assessed that Tenev was the best and the most prepared of all the deputy ministers from the United Patriots, and the scandal is a blow to his career.”

right-wrongWhatever his motives may have been, whatever policies he may wish to forward in other spheres, however much easier it may have been in his capacity as head of state rather than in Borissov’s as the head of government, it is laudatory that Radev for his part did not mince words or equivocate.

“We do not accept the approach where in order to wriggle out unscathed those in power offer evasive commentary about the perpetrators’ professionalism. That [professionalism] is not the issue—do we condemn these phenomena or not? I am buoyed up by Bulgarian society and its reaction. I think that the condemnation of Nazism must be absolutely obligatory.”

Radev went on to criticize the notion suggesting that it is permissible for an ordinary citizen to pull stunts like this, but absolutely forbidden if one enters in government. “We are all part of society, irrespective of whether you are an ordinary citizen or a politician with responsibility. These roles change very fast, especially in our time,” the President declared. And he emphasized, “No one doubts the high professionalism of these people, the problem is a moral one. Whether the representatives in question withdraw themselves [from office] is also a moral choice, one which each must decide for himself.”

good-evilIt seems to me that no matter with which political party or politician one is affiliated, one can appreciate an absolute condemnation of the expression of Nazi ideology or symbols and that such expression has no place and no excuse. And if Nazism in all its forms is widely, frequently, and strongly condemned, such expression will find no safe haven and utterly fail to thrive.

Empire / Империя

I was listening to Terry Gross’s interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick and staff writer Evan Osnos and thinking about the psychology of empire. How does it feel to be the country whose name is imprinted on the empire, be it the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire? How does it feel to be one of the countries involuntarily made part of that empire, be that action by military might or political fiat? And what happens to the psyche of both when the empire, as all empires eventually do, ends?

The interview focused on Putin’s Russia and Remnick astutely noted that the end of an empire, even the end of a particularly dictatorial empire, is not always welcomed by all its citizenry.

“This was experienced not as a triumph by so many, but also as an incredibly disorienting, humiliating passage of history in which the great empire had disintegrated. … An economic depression came along that, for many people, was incredibly painful, like the ’30s in the United States. … A lot of people in Russia, exemplified by Putin, saw this as a crash followed by chaos, followed by poverty.”

Even without experiencing chaos and poverty, many in Britain felt the loss of empire on which the sun never set as disorienting and humiliating. How else to feel when all one’s education taught you to view the world as turning on your very particular axis?

Bulgaria had two medieval empires, but the second one ended in 1396 when the Ottoman Empire used a series of bloody military invasions to conquer it. Bulgaria remained part of the Ottoman Empire for the next 500 years. Even now, many Bulgarians can recall their childhood history textbook lesson on Tzar Simeon the Great (864-927) and the reach of his empire to three seas: the White Sea (Бяло море), the Adriatic Sea (Адриатическо море), and the Black Sea (Черно море).

But of course, it is the far more recent experience of empire that is the psychologically disorienting. From 1944-1989, Bulgaria was part of the Soviet Empire. As with the other “East Bloc” countries, Bulgaria was nominally an independent country, but the Soviet Union both directly and indirectly controlled the political, economic, cultural, and ideological activity. And while many certainly resented such interference, many also had some comfort in being part of something larger. Be it a cult or a club, a family or a tribe, a religious institution or a labor union—most people are buoyed by being a member of a group.

Remnick went on to say of the dissolution of the Soviet Empire:

“I think most Westerners experienced it and many Russian intellectuals and people of the rising, the nascent, middle class and educated people in particular, and people in cities, they experienced it largely as a great passage forward in history. And we forget that even then … a lot of people were made deeply anxious about this.”

Bulgarian intellectuals and those who had been part of what was for many years derided as the bourgeoisie as well experienced the fall of the Soviet Empire and true independence as a shaking off of the shackles and a great step forward. But construction of something entirely new does not immediately follow destruction of the old. Those who stood to lose everything fought to claw back what they could…and often far more than they had had previously. Corruption and poverty and uncertainty produced nostalgia for the very shackles that had tied them to stability and consistency. Anxiety can be debilitating and it’s natural to reach for what seems to be the cure. Much of Putin’s popularity in Russia may well be based on his ability to soothe that after-Empire anxiety for many of his countrymen.

Bulgaria’s anxiety was in party soothed by being a joiner, first of NATO and second of the European Union. One can be glad to now be part of that vaunted EU club, but still feel humiliation at being always referenced as the poorest member, the corrupt member, the suspect member, the member one doesn’t wholeheartedly welcome into one’s house.

russian-tankSo it is not altogether surprising that Bulgaria has voted for a president that had a career in the military and is considered “pro-Russia.” It is not surprising that various extreme candidates promising all sorts of certainty garner more votes than is healthy for a still nascent democracy. It is not surprising that people to whom empire was for 45 years a promise before abruptly being taken away should yet feel unsettled. What do Bulgarians just now reaching adulthood feel about their country’s place in the world? Do they see their world turning on a particular axis or is empire for them as historical a notion as the 20th century their parents lived through?