Tag Archives: Russia

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.

 

What the Red Army DIDN’T Do

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

Sofia Rejects Russia’s Claims About Saving Bulgarian Jews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?