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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.

Nothing New Under the Bulgarian Sun

Time may pass at a fixed rate, but the velocity of history is ever swifter and ever more incomprehensible. Consciously or unconsciously, we seem to exercise some level of control or sanity or comprehension by repeating patterns of history, behavior—even ways of thinking. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun,” goes the famous line from Ecclesiastes, even as the earth appears to revolve ever faster around that sun.

The Balkan Trail

Some weeks ago, I blogged on how National Geographic writers in the early 20th century 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. Two books published almost just one year apart over a century ago do much the same. Frederick Moore’s The Balkan Trail was published in 1906. Harry De Windt’s Through Savage Europe: Being the Narrative of a Journey (undertaken as Special Correspondent of the “Westminster Gazette”), throughout the Balkan States and European Russia was published in 1907. Neither focuses solely on Bulgaria, but each gives ample space to the country.

Through Savage Europe

Like the National Geographic writers, Moore and De Windt are primarily journalists. And like their fellow early 20th century National Geographic journalists, they were not shy about their prejudices nor were they loathe to generalize about the peoples and countries they encountered. And yet, “The newspapers are making morning after morning the rough draft of history.” It is striking how many of Moore and De Windt’s observations demonstrate the repeating patterns of history. This is particularly apparent in Bulgaria’s relationship to Russia, Russia’s continual attempts to dominate Slavic peoples, and Bulgaria’s search for an identity that will smoothly meld its Western and Eastern influences, associations, and leanings.

Then Tzar Nicholas II of Russia, Now President Putin of Russia

  • Bulgarians of intelligence and education put little faith in the promises of the present Russian government, But Russia holds a fast grip on the masses of the people, the peasants are grateful for their deliverance, and many of the politicians are open to bribery. (Moore)Nicholas hunt
  • When the Bulgarians began to show an independent spirit and diplomatic connections with Russia—which assumed the form of a dictatorship on the part of the boasted liberator—came to be severed for a term of years, that ‘interested’ Power adopted Servia as its ward, and is still at work disciplining the other little country that dared to dispute its honesty of motive. Russia among the Balkan States does a work similar to that of the Sultan in Macedonia; she aids the weak to rival the strong, fosters their jealousies, and maintains a dominant influence on the distress she begets; and, unlike the Sultan, she does this in the guise of Christian sympathy. (Moore)
  • Putin hunting…they have realized, since the Treaty of Berlin, that Russia is an infinitely harder taskmaster than the indolent, easy-going Turk. And it says much for the national grit of Bulgaria that she has generally held her own against the intrigues and threats of the Powers that be at Petersburg. (De Windt)

The Crossroads of East and West

  • The Bulgarians are anxious to be classed with the people of the West, and they strive hard for civilization, though a streak of Eastern origin sometimes displays itself. (Moore)
  • east-west
  • The new Palace and “Sobranié,” or House of Parliament, would grace any European capital, and so would the hotels, theatres, restaurants, street cars, and electric light. Everything here is more up-to-date than in Belgrade…Sofia has been called a “little Brussels,” and it certainly resembles the latter… (De Windt)
  • …this is a land of contradictions. For instance, the man who drove us to our hotel from the station was an essentially modern Bulgar who, as far as dress was concerned, would have walked unnoticed up Regent Street, and who was a loquacious and full of information as a Maltese guide. Indeed he was up-to-date on every subject…And yet his wiry little pair of ponies were adorned with the necklets of blue beads as amulets against the “Evil Eye,” any allusion to which was strongly resented by their driver. (De Windt)

Yup, there is nothing new under the Bulgarian sun.