Tag Archives: history

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

turisticko-saobracajna-karta1930sRebecca West, brilliant British novelist, journalist, literary critic, essayist, and more, had a long and successful career, but Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia is universally considered her masterpiece. Given my interest in the former Yugoslavia’s neighbor Bulgaria, I have begun to read it. Thankfully, there is a detailed index and much of interest about Bulgaria itself as well as much to compare and contrast with Yugoslavia. The paperback version is 1150 pages.


I’m not sure I’ll finish it. Not true, I’m sure I will not.

Rebecca West.jpgBut the length of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, written in the late 1930s and published here in the United States in 1941, is not what I find difficult. I can complain about the stilted and pedantic dialogue, clearly making the people—real and composite—in this nonfiction narrative mere mouthpieces of the author. I can complain about the highly opinionated tilt of ostensibly objectively presented history. I can complain about the off-kilter and gratingly insistent sensibility about what constitutes maleness and femaleness, and the relative importance of these in the narrative. But what really gets to me is the balkanization of the Balkans.

Dame West does a disservice by her ready reception of Europe’s tendency to categorize the continent’s peoples. Western vs. Eastern, Catholic vs. Orthodox, Austro-German vs. Slav, Serb vs. Bulgar. Page after page, we hear about such things as “the authentic voice of the Slav” and other gross generalizations. And she further emphasizes what is Serb or Croat or Macedonian or Montenegrin or… All this division, all this compartmentalization, may or may not reflect what her travels were showing her. With Hitler on the rise, perhaps the people she met had a heightened awareness of what divided, rather than what united, them. The writer is not herself intolerant, but the insistent message of regional fragmentation plays into the intolerance of the time and adds fertilizer to the soil that Slobodan Milošević tilled so well five decades later.

blgfThat being said, there are wonderful observations and very cogent analysis throughout. There is, after all, reason why Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is considered a classic and still relevant. Here she says of Zagreb in the 1930s something I feel of Sofia today:

“It has, moreover, the endearing characteristic, noticeable in many French towns, of remaining a small town when it is in fact quite large. A hundred and fifty thousand people live in Zagreb, but from the way gossips stand in the street it is plain that everybody knows who is going to have a baby and when. This is a lovely spiritual victory over urbanization.”

Sofia 1930sD

Sofia 1930sB

In a more somber vein, West names the Achilles heel of the region:

“That is very true of all disputes between the Serbs and the Bulgars that are based on historical grounds. Both parties, and this applies not to old professors but to the man in the streets, start with the preposterous idea that when the Turks were driven out of the Balkans the frontiers recognized when they came in should be re-established, in spite of the lapse of five centuries, and then they are not loyal to it. The frontiers demanded by the extremists on both sides are those which their peoples touched only at moments of their greatest expansion, and they had to be withdrawn afterwards because they could not be properly defended. The ideal Bulgaria which the Bulgarians lust for, and nearly obtained through the Russian-drafted Treaty of San Stefano in 1878, actually existed only during the lifetimes of the Tsar Simeon, who died in the tenth century, and of the Tsar Samuel, who died about a hundred years later. The Serbs are as irritating when they regard their Tsar Dushan not only as an inspiration but as a map-maker, for his empire had fallen to pieces in the thirty-five years between his death and the defeat at Kossovo.”

This was written before World War II, before Communism triumphed, and before Communism fell. It is notable that the Yugoslavians continued to be “irritating” until the irritation grew to such lethal proportions that the country fell apart in the most bloody and horrific of ways and now lies in pieces in a European community those pieces cannot yet fully manage to join. Bulgaria somehow moved on, disputing no borders, making no additional territorial claims officially, its people clamoring for no changes nor hearkening back to empires of the past. Bulgarian textbooks do not teach children about “the Turkish yoke,” but of the Ottoman Empire. Bulgarian politicians of any impact—right, left, and center—generally support Bulgaria’s place in the European Union, looking forward and not back.

Rebecca West died in 1983, just three years after Yugoslavian President for life Josip Broz Tito. Had she lived another decade or two, she might have put on her journalist or essayist hat and revisited those Serbs and Bulgars. I would read that in its entirety with great interest.

NatGeo Does Bulgaria

Looking at National Geographic back issues is not only a lot of fun but offers snapshots of a place over time. The National Geographic Society first turned its attention to covering Bulgaria in February 1903. For the next three decades, the magazine’s writers explored Bulgaria’s history, its place in the region, its current development, and its great natural beauty, and they offered assessments of its national character and predictions for its future. The writers too often displayed the prejudices of their time, ascribing strengths and weaknesses to various European and “Oriental races”, and they sometimes offered conflicting assessments. But they also unknowingly provided fascinating historical parallels: what they observed in Bulgaria’s potential and progress after the long period under the Ottomans is often echoed in contemporary Bulgaria’s potential and progress after the long period under Communist rule.
1903 February cover

Bulgaria in the Balkans

  • The next, like the last, battleground of Europe will be the Balkan Peninsula…1
  • In appreciating the progress made in Bulgaria, it must be borne in mind that the country is situated within a very absorbing political atmosphere, which has certainly been a drawback to its fuller development. 3
  • It is difficult to assign exact territorial limits to the Near East; and as for the Balkans, it may be said, as did Dooley of the Phillipines, that before the World War few Americans knew whether they were mountains or canned goods. 6
  • Bulgaria bulks large in Balkan history. In one generation of freedom she made incredible progress and crowned her achievements with exceeding prowess in the First Balkan War.6

Hospitality (or Not)

  • Hospitality is based upon the ancient oriental laws. No stranger is ever turned from the door if he comes in peace. 1
  • Bulgaria may be a brigand land, and there are parts of the southern frontier where it must be admitted we did not feel any too safe, but Bulgarian people as a whole are among the friendliest in the world to the stranger within their gates. 2
  • Unlike most southern races, the Bulgarians are reserved, taciturn, phlegmatic, unresponsive, and extremely suspicious of foreigners.3

1907 October cover


  • Without money, with only a few educated leaders and the mass of peasants illiterate, surrounded by jealous and much more powerful states, their future independence seemed remote, if not impossible of achievement. But the leaders had grit and common sense, and realized that there were three essentials: (1) To educate the people; (2) to grant religious tolerance to all, and (3) to require of every man two or three years’ military training, so that every Bulgarian would be a capable soldier in time of need…today 92 per cent of the male city Bulgarian population between the ages of 10 and 30 can read and write and 74 per cent of the female, and 68 per cent of the male and 18 per cent of the female rural. This is a result which none of the countries, neighbors of Bulgaria and others to the west, can show. 3
  • Youngest among the nations of the Balkan Peninsula to be freed from Turkish domain, it being less than forty years since they threw off the Turkish yoke, illiteracy is less common in Bulgaria than in any other country in that region. In 1880 only one out of ten soldiers in the Bulgarian army could read and write; today only one in twenty cannot…The amount spent for educational purposes in 1912 was $1.20 per capita, as compared with 67 cents in Servia, 50 cents in Greece, 40 cents in Montenegro, and 20 cents in Turkey. 5

1908 November cover

Charm and Beauty

  • ’Why can’t we overnight at Tirnova?’ he pleaded. ‘Von Moltke calls it the most charming spot in the world.’ 2
  • …and, to tell the truth, all Bulgaria is so picturesque one is loth to go through any faster than he must. 2
  • …on [cliffs] perched the town—Tirnova the Beautiful—every house a blaze of color; the roofs of red terracotta shingling; the walls painted over in washed-out pinks and browns; the eaves and cornices set in relief by heavy beams that are browned to black by age. Yellows and blues marked other homes. We stopped to take in the perspective—a second Naples—from the sea—for here, too, the homes are three and even five stories high, a most rare architectural form for the Orient. 2
  • Sofia has been called The Little Brussels, just as Brussels in times of peace was called The Little Paris. 5
  • The country possesses great wheat fields, extensive forests, rich mines—all of which have been made to respond to that patient industry for which the Bulgarian peasant is the model for all his Balkan neighbors. 6
  • The Rhodope, Rila, and Pirin Mountains constitute the outdoor playground of Bulgaria. Where revolutionists used to hide from the Turks, city folks now escape from their cares. Evergreen forests, clear mountain lakes, and dangerous precipices all have their devotees. 7

Tourist Troubles

  • Today, however, I am inclined to believe it is the work of local politicians, in order to give the cabbies of their constituency a chance to make a living at the expense of the stranger. 2

1912 November cover

Progress and Leadership

  • No people have greater cause for satisfaction and honest pride in what they have accomplished during the last 30 years than have the Bulgarians. Their progress in self-government and education since 1877-78, when, with the aid of Russia and Rumania, they threw off the Turkish yoke, is one of the most remarkable records ever made by any people within a similar space of time. Industry, courage, and compulsory education have won for them a position unsurpassed by any country of their size, and have made them in less than a generation a powerful, and perhaps the determining, factor in the settlement of the Eastern question. 3
  • Twenty-five years ago the country had recourse to foreigners for professors, engineers, men of law, financiers, and specialists for all the administrative branches…and for the organization and command of public forces. Now all this work is done by specially educated Bulgarians. There is not a foreigner in the service of the state. 3
  • The resurrection of the Bulgarian nation is one of the wonders of the past century.
  • From the first hour of their liberation the Bulgarians of the newly created principality manifested a strong democratic spirit, and a firm determination to secure for themselves a full measure of political freedom and complete national independence. 4
  • There can be no question that if the Bulgarian people are allowed to develop their country and themselves—and they will do so if they can enjoy the advantages of a long period of peace and satisfactory commercial relations with their neighbors near and far—that the rapid progress of this people in every way will astonish the world, and to say the least, disabuse the minds of many who now think Bulgaria in a more or less semi-savage state and peopled by a race who would rather fight than not. 5
  • [The Russian-Turkish] war was ended by the Treaty of San Stefano, which essayed to establish a big Bulgaria; but, thanks to Disraeli, British influence brought about the Congress of Berlin, and it was a little Bulgaria which finally secured a place at the world’s council table. A lowly place it was, but with splendid courage the Bulgarian set out to make it better, and the story of Bulgarian development in a single generation finds few parallels among modern nations. 6

1915 April cover

National Character

  • The peasants of Bulgaria are industrious, ingenious, and intelligent. Both men and women are of fine physique, capable of great endurance, and few are idle, intemperate, or vicious. 1
  • In the short period of their political existence they have gone through so many vicissitudes that they have become inured to desperate situations. Their tenacity, their shrewdness, their dogged perseverance—the characteristics of an agricultural race—their cool-headed judgment and intuitive sagacity, and—shall we add?—the luck which has hitherto attended them, may once more stand them in good stead. 4
  • This virile, laborious, thrifty, and persevering race has displayed many qualities which entitle it to play an important part in the future history of southeastern Europe. During the thirty years of its troubled existence the young Bulgarian State has made almost phenomenal progress. Education has advanced rapidly; public works have been instituted on a large scale; the country has been covered with a network of railways; wealth has undoubtedly increased, and order has been maintained, often in circumstances of great difficulty…Not withstanding the recent economic crisis, the financial situation compares favorably with that of the sister States, inasmuch as the national debt is proportionately small. 4
  • There is an initiative and a power of organization in the Bulgarians that is unusual in the capricious and fatalistic Orient. Our Bulgarian students had a certain sturdiness, an out-of-doors quality, a sanity which marked them from the fanciful, sentimental, and weaker-nerved girls of some other nationalities. 5
  • The Bulgarians have shown themselves eager for education and for civilization, and their women acquire culture with the ease of the traditional American woman. Often, the daughter of an unlettered peasant, living in a remote village, after some years of schooling will take her place in Sofia or Varna as a teacher, or lady of fashion, or leader in civic betterment. 5
  • Among the more or less formal Thanksgiving proclamations of recent times, surely one of the most arresting was Bulgaria’s ‘Our poverty is our riches.’ A land of homespun may be proof, not only against spiritual, but also economic depression.7

1921 February cover

In 1932, a graduate of Constantinople Woman’s College explained the mood of Bulgaria as the different generations struggled with enormous changes: “…but this seems a confusing time. The old folks seem pessimistic. Perhaps because they are ill at ease. Light living engulfs them, ostentation violates their traditions. The young city folks are living beyond their means. We have long sought progress. Now we can’t escape it. But I have great faith in my country. We are honest, industrious, and eager. In most matters we are tolerant. We have vast reserves of courage and character. “7

1Curtis, William Eleroy. The Great Turk and His Lost Provinces. National Geographic Magazine, February 1903.

2Koch, Felix J. Tirnova, the City of Hanging Gardens. National Geographic Magazine, October 1907.

3Bulgaria, the Peasant State. National Geographic Magazine, November 1908.

4Bourchier, James D. The Rise of Bulgaria. National Geographic Magazine, November 1912.

5Jenkins, Hester Donaldson. Bulgaria and Its Women. National Geographic Magazine, April 1915.

6Moses, George Higgins. The Whirlpool of the Balkans. National Geographic Magazine, February 1921.

7Williams, Maynard Owen. Bulgaria, Farm Land Without a Farmhouse. National Geographic Magazine, August 1932.