Sunday, 25 September 2016

Clueless in Bulgaria

It is all too easy, for the average Brit, to be clueless in Bulgaria.  The Bulgarian language is, initially at least, impenetrable. What Greek roots it shares with English are obfuscated by the Cyrillic alphabet and the absence of Latin roots afford the uninitiated Western European no easy comfort. However, there is much more to the cluelessness than language and alphabets.

One might say that Western Europe’s inheritance from the Roman Empire is taken directly from Rome whereas much of the cultural and religious heritage of Eastern Europe stems not from Rome but from Byzantium.

If the above is true, we Westerners have missed out on much of what Byzantium had to offer and so a trip to Bulgaria is always going to be a source of interesting differences.

For example, the monks of Western Europe brewed wines and beers, but in the Orthodox monasteries of the East, rakia and vodka were preferred. And rakia, unlike spirits in Western Europe, is drunk at the beginning of the meal rather than the end, so the alcohol rides an uncluttered highway, straight into the blood stream, from an empty stomach. You take the hit harder and faster.

If you have been hit with a sledgehammer, you are less likely to object to eating tripe.

Fear, East and West

The West has often looked East to find an embodiment for its fears.

It is no coincidence that Bram Stoker, worming his way through the Whitby library more than a century ago, had an Eureka moment when he came across stories of a Rumanian thug called Vladimir Dracul, also known as Vlad the Impaler, prince of Wallachia and a member of the noble house of Draculesti. From there to the titillating gothic horrors of Dracula, that tapped straight into a rich seam of Western fears of the East, there was but one leap of imagination.

Colourful, albeit nasty, Rumanian counts have been replaced these days by a new generation of airbrushed, young adult vampires, but in Eastern Europe, Vlad is by no means dead.

If David Cameron had replaced his pin striped trousers for combat fatigues and stripped off his shirt for a photo shoot that shows him flexing and squatting manfully beside a river running through a forest, he would have been evicted from 10 Downing Street long before Brexit and long before the howls of derision petered out.  But when Vladimir Putin did exactly that, posing as the Pan-Slavic alpha male, modelling an ideal of empowered masculinity, he tapped straight into an undercurrent of what flows though the collective psyche of his constituents, or at least half of them: if you want to impale, impregnate and spawn, shout the photographs, here is the recipe.

Obviously, a gross generalization and blatantly unfair. But in rural Bulgaria, it is not unusual to see young (and not so young) under employed males milling around outside corner shops dressed in Putinesque combat fatigues, with short-cropped Putinesque hair and Putinesque musculature. A heavy pall of not-quite-living-up-to-their-own-expectations hangs over these little gatherings.
So what? Youths hanging out in aimless harmony is also a common sight in Western Europe. But would you, for example, see British youths modelling themselves on a foreign leader, such as Barack Obama? It is much more likely that they would be aping pop stars or footballers: for Western kids, the problem of identity and manhood is not driven by a sense of national humiliation.

So in the absence of benefits of EU membership, Putin will continue to hold a powerful allure for potentially angry young men. Rural Bulgaria is poor and underdeveloped. In Kalofer, a small town in the Valley of Roses (that figures in no tourist guides I have seen but where we stayed for four nights), nothing much happens. Ancient Ladas rust on the roadsides in the interminable and pathetic wait to become collector items for rich foreigners, a donkey clip clops wearily down the cobbled street pulling an oversized cart, old ladies in black hobble past avoiding eye contact, a young buck fixing his battered Volkswagen Polo’s electrics banters to a young girl walking by.  She smiles archly, but doesn’t lose her stride.

Young, frustrated men in Bulgaria will no doubt feel that the status quo affords them little to be proud of in themselves.  The conquering hero of a Russian Crimea, by contrast to his Western detractors, knows how to reach this receptive audience.

There is another twist available to Putin’s publicity campaign:

Frustrated male pride implies a sense of injury and humiliation, the blame for which is all too easily pinned to the arrogant, affluent, successful and culturally insensitive West.

Putin is the living proof that a brotherhood of Slavs resents the success of the West as much as the West feels a gut lurching, innate fear of the East.  At a time of reckoning (and certainly at the time of writing), all the West has to offer is a shabby promise of prosperity, whose credibility has been seriously dented since 2008.

So was it a good idea that Bulgaria was made part of the EU and NATO, a status that duty binds us to defend them like our own, even when a large percentage of the population may not want ‘defending’? 


Bulgars and Bulgaria

On arrival in Bulgaria, the first thing we did was to visit the National History Museum, located on the lower slopes of the hills above Sofia, in what was previously the palatial residence of the Communist ruler.

By Western standards, it is a small history museum.  However, one aspect of the museum provided a very distinct impression of the Bulgarian national character: for 500 years, the country was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. However, in the National History Museum of Bulgaria, there is not one reference to the Turks.  This denial of 500 years of history points to a deep trauma and lasting bitterness. Which in turn points to weakness, or at least a lack of self confidence.

This cannot have been always the case, as there was twice such a thing as the Bulgarian Empire, that rivaled Byzantium as a power in the region.

This was news to me. Our travels around Bulgaria only reinforced this sense of ignorance. On the first floor of the Museum, there was an exhibition of Bulgarian traditional dress.  In these dresses there was a clear Middle Eastern influence, which one might think comes from the Turks.  However, the Bulgars (a semi-nomadic Turkic people, according to originated in Asia. Then, in the 7th century, Slavic tribes moved into the area, again from the East, followed by the Mongols in the 13th Century who eventually subdued them. Somewhere in between, the Bulgarians fitted in two empires, but still it is clear that there are plenty of Asian influences predating the Turks.

At this point I have to declare that the more I read about Bulgaria, the more my notions fragment and the more shocked at my ignorance I become. The dynamics and history of the Eastern end of Europe are simply not in my cultural baggage nor in my general knowledge. I doubt very much that I am unique in this regard.

So, when trying to understand the place, the best option is probably to try to answer simple questions.

For example:

When, if ever, did Bulgaria become European? 

The Bulgars arrived from Asia; the Slavs from somewhere in Western Asia; the Mongols came charging across the steppes from the Far East and conquered what is now Bulgaria, then fizzled out; the Byzantine Empire came and went a couple of times; and then came the Turks and the Ottoman Empire.  All of these successive waves are Asian, not European (you would have to go back to the times of Ancient Greece to the Thracians to find a tribe with whom the rest of Europe shares any cultural heritage). Therefore, the Bulgarians are Europeans more by an arbitrary quirk of geography than any ethnic or cultural heritage.

The Turks were finally kicked out in 1878 by the Russians who, by that time had become fairly European in outlook (they spoke French at the Tsar’s court), so 1878 is probably the best answer to the question of when Bulgaria became European rather than Asian.

1878, as in 136 years ago, the same time as Argentina ethnically cleansed the Pampas of native Indians. A blink of the eye in cultural terms. However, most of these tribes that I am saying were Asian (with the exception of the Mongols), were still Caucasian, ie, they came from no further East than the Caucasus mountains between the Black and the Caspian Sea.  As white races are often referred to as Caucasian, it begs the question where Asia ends and Europe begins. However, these racial classifications dissolve into a blur the more you read about them and they also lend themselves all too readily to racism, as in white skin good, not white skin bad.  So best to steer clear when not in full command of the facts.

Going back to Bulgaria and its identity:

The campaign to oust the Turks was fought not so much by the Bulgarians themselves, as by the ‘Eastern Orthodox Coalition’, led by Imperial Russia. It sounds about as nasty a war as wars can be: battles were brutal and bloody and the embittered and traumatised Bulgarians had little mercy for their prisoners.

After leaving Kalofer, we travelled through the Shipka Pass across the Balkan Mountains on our way to Tryavna. The Balkan Mountains split Bulgaria East to West in two, and the Shipka Pass was therefore a vital route for reinforcements for one side as much as the other.  It was consequently the scene of one of the most decisive battles of the war. The brutality and carnage of the battle (August 1877), is an untold story as far as I am concerned: I know nothing about it. Given the dramatic, suicidal savagery with which it was fought, and its geo-political importance, it has to rank up there with the Normandy landings in European history. Yet we (as in the average Western European) know nothing about it.

I found a quote in describing the Russo-Turkish war that points to the fact that Russia’s injured pride about lost territory is nothing new:

“The Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 was a conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Eastern Orthodox coalition led by the Russian Empire and composed of several Balkan countries. Fought in the Balkans and in the Caucasus, it originated in emerging 19th-century Balkan nationalism. Additional factors included Russian hopes of recovering territorial losses suffered during the Crimean War, re-establishing itself in the Black Sea, and supporting the political movement attempting to free Balkan nations from the Ottoman Empire.”

At the Southern end of the Shipka Pass, we visited the Russian Orthodox Shipka Church, built by the Russians after the war as a memorial to the battle.  In the basement, I found a plaque (translated into English) that stated:

“This church was built to commemorate the everlasting fraternal friendship between the Russian and Bulgarian peoples.”

The EU and NATO should take note.

Battlefield Bulgaria

You might think that Bulgaria has enjoyed, over the centuries, a privileged position as a trading route between East and West but that has turned out to be a curse rather than an advantage.

A series of Thracian tombs from ancient times, built near Shipka bear witness to economic and cultural development that was probably the result of huge prosperity based on trade.  The Bulgarians call this region their Valley of Tombs but this golden age of empowerment did not last.  Long enough for a cluster of 20 tombs to be built, but no more.

There were also two Bulgarian empires, but they didn’t last either. Ultimately, there were always, it seems, larger forces at play.

For most of its history, Bulgaria has been a battlefield where foreign wars are waged: wars between East and West, Islam and Christianity, Capitalism and Communism.  As in Jane Austen novels, the names change, but the story is much the same. 

Bulgaria is once again a pawn. This time the players are Europe and Russia. For a couple of decades, the EU has successfully eroded Russia’s potential influence and power, by bringing the defunct Soviet Union’s satellite states into its fold. Now it is Russia’s turn to be on the offensive, gobbling up regions where they have an ethnic majority. It might well take a war to even try to stop them.

So, if push comes to shove, would Bulgarian loyalties lie with Europe or with Russia?

Our Bulgarian guide was not at all certain.

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