Category Archives: Europe

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?

You Say Да, I Say Нет

kick-meLast week The New York Times published an articled entitled “Bulgaria Grows Uneasy as Trump Complicates Its Ties to Russia.” Given the media’s only rare nod to Bulgaria, it’s not surprising that journalists do not have sufficient acquaintance with its history to elucidate just how longstanding the Russian complications are. Thus the article has the following:

“With one foot in the West and the other in the East, Bulgaria has long engaged in a delicate balancing act…Countries like Bulgaria have spent decades balancing East and West, and playing one off the other.”

Well, there is nothing deceptive or untrue about that—except that the balancing has been going on for nearly four decades plus a century. Russian Tzar Alexander II is famed in Bulgaria as Alexander the Liberator since under his reign the 1878 victory in the Russian-Turkish War won Bulgaria its autonomy after five centuries of Ottoman rule. The autonomy was welcome, but Russia’s “little Slavic brother” felt compelled by circumstance and pressure by all and sundry to immediately perform its balancing act. It had to, as the treaty between the Ottoman Empire and the Great Powers immediately had Russia (Treaty of San Stefano) battling Germany and Great Britain (Congress of Berlin) for control of Bulgaria’s new borders.

An enormous equestrian statue and monument to Alexander the Liberator is in Sofia’s city center directly opposite the National Assembly. But from 1878 to 1944, Bulgaria’s own tzars, prime ministers, politicians, and opinion leaders leaned variously eastward, westward, or kept the two sides guessing as to which way the Bulgarian wind was blowing.

Of course, the 1944-1989 period had no balance given the Soviet control over all of Eastern Europe. After the fall of communism, Bulgaria joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Partnership for Peace program in 1994 and became a full NATO member in 2004. General Hastings Lionel “Pug” Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, famously declared that the organization’s goal was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Notwithstanding German membership since 1955, Bulgaria clearly was thinking along the same lines as Lord Ismay in positioning itself with Western Europe and the United States, and thereby making a bid to “keep the Russians out.” Balance.

Language has played a role, both symbolically and as a matter of orientation. French and German were the leading foreign language choices in the early decades of the nation’s new autonomy. During communism, learning Russian as a second language was compulsory in Bulgaria as in the rest of Eastern Europe. Since 1989, the number of Russian speakers has declined and English has become the compulsory foreign language in the public schools.

Russia is not, to say the least, indifferent to the loss of its influence. It may well keep Bulgaria in its sphere by threat of economic punishment, but it certainly wants as well to solidify the emotional ties of Slavic brotherhood and religious connection.

In the heart of Sofia, there is an informal but well-used skateboard park set next to a very large monument to the Soviet army erected in 1954. The steps of the Monument to the Soviet Army (Паметник на Съветската армия) provide a convenient viewing area for both the audience and waiting skaters. This monument arouses strong emotions on opposing sides: keep it and get rid of it.

%d0%b2-%d0%ba%d1%80%d0%b0%d0%ba-%d1%81-%d0%b2%d1%80%d0%b5%d0%bc%d0%b5%d1%82%d0%beOn June 11, 2011, anonymous artists one night painted the bas relief sculpture on one side of the memorial. The bas-relief shows heroic Red Army soldiers moving forward. After the brightly colored paint job, the bas-relief showed the soldiers remade into Captain America, Superman, Wonder Woman, Santa Claus, the Joker and Ronald McDonald. As a final touch, large black capital letters spelled out “in step with the times.” The Russian government protested vigorously and indignantly at this shameful insult and the bas-relief was cleaned. A short documentary of the incident was later made and shown in a 2013 film festival in Poland. The monument has been repeatedly painted since—each time as a commentary on Russia power and influence either past or present.

Yet many Bulgarians are nostalgic for the Russia/former Soviet Union they know and with which they have an affinity, and uncomfortable with the West that often pressures changes they feel ill-equipped to make. They simply don’t feel in step with these particular times. Hence this past November they voted for an air force officer—the candidate of the Bulgarian Socialist Party—who made clear he wished to lean more towards Russia than the country had been leaning. Nevertheless Rumen Radev chose both in the 1990s and in the 2000s to further his military studies in the United States rather than in Russia.

Thus The New York Times quoted new Bulgarian president Radev as saying, “We have a clear road map to follow, [s]taying in the E.U. and staying in NATO. But at the same time, we have a deep historical relationship with Russia.”

Indeed. To repeat the NYT article, “With one foot in the West and the other in the East, Bulgaria has long engaged in a delicate balancing act.” It appears that this balancing act will continue many decades into the future.

Not About Politics

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.

I have lived both in Washington, DC and Sofia, Bulgaria, and so I know it is quite possible to live in a country’s capital and focus on the day-to-day of one’s family and friends, of errands and long walks, of work and leisure, of outings and of hours spent at home with a mug of tea and a book.

cartoonOur Bulgarian friends in Bulgaria often comment longingly on what they see as the absence of corruption, the rule of law, the lack of mafia influence, etc., etc. present in the United States. Our Bulgarian friends in the U.S. often comment to their children that here success doesn’t turn on one’s connections, that money doesn’t buy power, that this country, America, is a “normal country.”

I feel less sanguine about these assertions made on both sides of the pond. I am not full of happy talk about Bulgaria’s endemic corruption and other problems, but I am not sure anymore what constitutes a “normal country.”

politics-is-not-about-moneyOne doesn’t have to be a Christian to be familiar with Pope Gregory I’s famous list of seven deadly sins (седемте смъртни гряха). Not surprisingly, there is at least one website devoted to them. And also perhaps not surprisingly, the seven deadly sins seem fairly good descriptors of the current state of political affairs—or at least of the politicians.

  1. Lust (похот)
  2. Gluttony (чревоугодие)
  3. Greed (алчност)
  4. Sloth (леност)
  5. Wrath (гняв)
  6. Envy (завист)
  7. Pride (гордост)

So it seems at this juncture that the horizon of “normal” may be receding in one country while hazily if haltingly nearing in another. There is reprehensible behavior everywhere. One should call out that behavior loud and clear not merely in places it’s seen as entrenched, but in places it is trying to establish itself as a standard.

george-carlinFor myself, I can say that I am not feeling particularly proud of the United States right now, and wrath is getting the better of me too often. When not wrathful, despair over the naked and undisguised lust, gluttony and greed for power has some days made me quite slothful. I feel, therefore, a bit envious of our cynical Bulgarian friends. Their pessimism is so second nature that they manage just to get on with it and live their lives. Mine, and that of so many of my American friends, is an excruciating and galling thing—and however cynical we are it doesn’t seem enough to keep up with developments.

Perhaps we need to live in Bulgaria again, and soon. We’re certainly thinking about it.

albert-einstein

Happy New Year / Честита Нова Година

I often feel that I am supposed to be having a lot more fun on New Year’s Eve than I am actually having. If you stay home, it seems like just another evening and it’s easy to fall asleep before that magic midnight moment when the old year becomes the new. If you go out to some event, it seems that you’ve spent far more than you’ve gotten in return. Once we planned a quiet dinner and a classic movie with another couple and that made it easy to meet expectations. Too often, though, the big day is upon us all too soon and without the necessary planning.

Once in Sofia, though, our friends Nasso and Dessi suggested we spend New Year’s at Spaggo at 9 Dr. Peter Beron Street near the National Palace of Culture. We had been to Spaggo several times with them before and loved it. It was, at least for Rumen and me, a unique place because it had what Bulgarians refer to as a детски клуб (children’s club) on the second floor. You simply take your children to the second floor, sign an exceedingly brief form relieving Spaggo of obligation should your children injure themselves, and go back downstairs to enjoy the company of other adults and very nice mostly Italian cuisine.

The children are cared for and entertained by young, energetic, and very caring young women and the entire floor is a playground with soft play equipment, arts and crafts, and child-sized tables and chairs. You can send meals up to the children or having them eat downstairs and go back up again. They’re happy because they can be children and you’re happy because you can be adults with names and not merely parent-policemen moderating behavior and encouraging more salad before dessert. The fee for the children’s club was so minimal I’ve completely forgotten what it was. The value was, of course, incalculable.

Many times Rumen and I thought how much families in the United States would appreciate such a restaurant. Not a family restaurant, not a chain, not dull food, but an actual adult restaurant with ambiance, good food, AND a place for children. We imagined what a draw it would be, but at the same time knew that in the United States it would be simply impossible. Either the lawyers would make it prohibitive or the cost of the childcare would.

So when Nasso saw that Spaggo was planning a New Year’s Eve celebration complete with multi-course meal and DJ, we were in. We made reservations, chose our courses from the prix-fixe menu, and told the children they definitely were staying up past midnight (naps for all being the requirement).

The children now being old hands were eager to get to the second floor. We adults enjoyed a wonderful meal, danced like we hadn’t in years, and tried a few karaoke numbers with one of the waitresses happily accompanying me to the tune of “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash. Yes, Happy 1972 for a few musically nostalgic moments. Four-year old Yoan came down to see how we were doing, and immediately saw the possibilities of a microphone and a bigger audience than heretofore imagined. He promptly rattled off the entirety of “Twas the Night Before Christmas”—stunning his Bulgarian audience, most of whom very likely had no idea what hit them—concluding with “and to all a good night” before triumphantly running upstairs for more games and face-painting.

dessi-new-yearsmallSpaggo is no longer on Petur Beron Street, but they have other locations and are still offering the adult and young alike New Year’s Eve meals and entertainment. For that, and many other reasons, I wish I were celebrating the holiday in Sofia. Wherever you may happen to celebrate, whether in ways large or small, Happy New Year! Честита Нова Година. За много години!

The Balkans / Балканите

toonpool.com Tchavdar Nikolov2

 

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

politicalcartoons-com-christo-komarnitski

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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