Letter from Sofia

By Myrna Kostash | December 11, 2001

Dear Friends,

A Bulgarian hello and goodbye (I leave very soon for Athens) from the "Denonoshchno" [Day and Night] internet cafe in Shipka Street (named for a famous battle with the Turks – I assume the Bulgarians won it). At this time in the morning it is a tranquil place with the students still in classes up the street at Sofia State University.

Across the street are the "Pitsa Italija" restaurant and the Russian Cultural Centre which looks just like the main Bank of Montreal building in downtown Edmonton. At the other end of the street next to the main university buildings is the Cyril and Methodius National Library.

You remember C & M? They’re the monk-saints from Thessalonika who devised an alphabet for the Slav-speakers of the Balkans and taught them how to read from the freshly-translated Gospels. This momentous event is much memorialized here, out of what I think must be sheer relief at having been made Christians and literate peoples all at once, without having to go through Greek and Roman culture first. Indeed, by being Christianized by the eastern church they also got another good bargain in being able to tap into Hellenic culture via Byzantium which was therepository of Classical philosophy with the fallen Rome out of the picture. Are you following this?…

If I go on about it, it is because I too have been much moved by thinking about this "alphabetization" of the south Slavs (Ukrainians would eventually catch up a few centuries later), especially when I see representations of the event in the churches here. In one church in Sofia, dedicated to Sts. Cyril and Methodius, "the first teachers" and their students, it is depicted as the presentation of the scroll of the alphabet to Kniaz [Prince] Boris, dressed up just like a Byzantine emperor, from the hands of the saints. In a church in Plovdiv, south-central Bulgaria, it is represented as the presentation of the letters to ordinary people – the old man leaning thoughtfully with his chin on his hand, the shepherd in his rough cape, the young mother leading her child forward….I am moved by this sacralization of such a profoundly human achievement, as though there were a continuity of energy between the genius of script and that of Scripture. And of course I am moved time and again by the drama of historical Fate that led from one thing to another and finally to my being in Bulgaria at all: if Ukrainians hadn’t been Christianized through Byzantium and civilized through the Cyrillic alphabet, would it ever have occurred to me this is an important place to visit?

But here I have been, for some 10 days. A few days ago, I saw Elisaveta and Helena, two friends who work at the National Library, Manuscripts and Rare Books Collection, and who assured me – as has everybody else I’ve spoken to – that absolutely nothing has changed for the better since my last visit a year ago. If anything, things are worse. We were sitting in the (unchanged) windowless crypt that is the Library employees’ cafeteria, in a cloud of smoke lit by a wan yellow light, munching on banitsa [cheese pie], and I heard of how, with the new government, the National Library is condemned to the custody of a Minister of Culture whose principal adviser is his wife and who has cancelled the Library’s separate budget, forcing Library administration to beg for funds from the Ministry’s general revenues. (Those of us who work under certain provincial regimes in Canada are familiar with this shell game.) It is humiliating and demoralizing to have to make the case for a National Library in a kind of lottery. In the meantime, there is no money to buy books, increase salaries, or complete the computerization of the catalogues, the employees charged with this task having absconded to the private sector together with their expertise.

*Wednesday, Nov 28, The Sofia Echo* The owner of Hidrat Company, who supplies clients of Daewoo, announced that Daewoo’s Bulgarian office has been racketeering his customers who have bought cars on lease. At the same time, through Plovdiv media, Daewoo accused the Plovdiv-based Hidrat of stealing $240,000 from the monthly payments customers have made for using the cars on lease. As a result of the controversy, 140 people will have to make their monthly payments for a second time if they want to keep their cars…

Meanwhile, over at the National Museum of History, things seem very odd indeed, to the casual-but-interested visitor like myself. This august institution has been transplanted to a distant suburb practically at the foot of imposing Vitosha Mountain, which means that the ordinary public must make dedicated efforts to get there if they don’t have a car. I was taken there by a friend, a university professor with a car, who had not yet seen it herself in its new quarters. The building is the refurbished Conference Centre of the old Communist Party, so you can just imagine its bulk, its grandiloquence, its outsize staircases and salons and chandeliers amid all of which we Lilliputians creep, speaking in intimidated whispers.

Nevertheless, the exhibit rooms are extremely well done, wonderfully lit, the artefacts in open view and tagged in English as well as Bulgarian. Unfortunately, the large wall panel texts – those contributions from curators that "tell the story," as it were and outline its rationale – are only in Bulgarian. Now, given time and enthusiasm enough, I would have laboured through these, but I had no time that day, and my friend provided abbreviated versions of these texts, so it wasn’t until I was well into the Medieval Bulgaria room that I suddenly realized: Hey! What happened to the Slavs in this story?

There are rooms of Pre-History, of Thracians and Greeks and Romans, and then suddenly we seem to be in the middle of hordes of medieval Bulgarian state-builders with no explanation of the great big overlap of the Late Roman and the Early Bulgarian cultures by Slav settlers who are very much in evidence in every authoritative historical account I’ve read of Bulgarian history. Every such account accords with the standard view that the modern Bulgarian nation is a construction of three elements: the Thracians [the west knows them as Illyrians], the Proto-Bulgars from central Asia, and the Slavs. But, hey, presto! in the very official Museum of History, no Slavs! [my friend confirmed with a quick reading of the panel texts]. This is equivalent to telling the history of Canada without reference to Quebec….

I began to smell a plot, not just an oversight, when I learned that the Museum’s Director is the very same historian who has just published a book, "Alexander the Great and the Bulgarians." Good heavens, I can hear you all exclaim, have they all gone mad? Alexander the Great had been dead for almost a thousand years when the Bulgars showed up in Europe.

Now, it’s one thing for the official historians in Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia, to make claims to descent from The Great One (as they have recently been doing, an anthropologist friend tells me here in Sofia): the Slav Macedonian line of descent goes from Alexander right down to the nineteenth-century national revolutionary, Goce Delchov, who made the tyrants tremble, while the Bulgarian line of descent – the argument continues – starts with Ghengis Khan and ends with the last Bulgarian Communist "dictator," Zhivkov. In this version of ethnohistory, the Macedonians are pleased to be Slavs (mixed in with Alex’s Thraco-Illyrian genes to be sure)and to excommunicate the Bulgarians as wild Asiatics. For their part, the "wild Asiatics" are pleased not to have any polluting Slav blood in them, thank you very much: the thesis of "Alexander the Great and the Bulgarians" is that today’s Bulgarians are pure descendents of those parts of the Great One’s army who stayed behind in Afghanistan!

*Canadians Want the Post, Sofia Echo* The Canadian postal services, in addition to the Dutch post, have expressed interest in running Bulgarian Post under a 15-year concession contract, the Transport and Communications Ministry said on Tuesday. The representatives of the Canadian postal services are in Bulgaria for the signing of a memorandum for the provision of…drafting a business plan for the denationalization of the Bulgarian Post…

In the middle of all this kind of talk I was pleased to be invited to give a guest lecture to the "American Studies" students of my friend the professor at the New Bulgarian University (private) and to bash away at Yankee Imperialism, in full entitlement: the lecture was called "America from a Canadian Point of View." I concluded with some considerations about Bulgaria as well, Yankee culture being very much in evidence here (although McDonald’s has bilingual signs): The usual American movies at the cinemas which have displaced made-in-Bulgaria features, the translated bestsellers (including Atwood’s "The Blind Assassin" with the same cover it has in Canada), the Nike "whoosh" logo on sportsclothes. From the window of the restaurant "The Friends" [in English] near Slaveykov Square (named for a great writer) where people bundled up in parkas and mittens offer used books for sale – their children’s storybooks, their old atlases, their classics of Marxism-Leninism as well as computer manuals – I could read the mishmash of shop signs in Cyrillic and Latin script, sometimes in the same message, as in the scrolling digital display for MTI International, whatver that is, promising Professionalism, Reliability [Konkretnost]and Perfect Service.

*Dear Santa, The Sofia Echo* We’ve decided to come up with our wish list ahead of time as it might take a while for things to make their way to Bulgaria from our lovely friend at the North Pole. Dear Santa Klausov: please bring Driving For Dummies; this fantastic new guide would do wonders for many of Sofia’s drivers. It details such important things as stopping at red lights, what a pedestrian crossing is, and why cars should receive maintenance checks more than once every 15 years.

The question of Bulgarian identity is very much on my mind as this formed the substance of most of my interviews and conversations here. I began with a Balkanologist, 50-something Plamen Tzvetkov, who, I was forewarned, is a bit of loose cannon, advocating a view of the origins of Bulgarians that is not substantiated by any serious scholarship, namely that today’s Bulgarians are not formed from any Slavic element, genetically or culturally. In his scenario, the Bulgars came into the Balkans and practised a kind of "genocide" (his word) on the Slavs and Thracians or simply pushed most of them out of the territory . So, the Bulgarians could not have emerged from any "assimilation" by the Slavs since there weren’t any Slavs left around to assimilate them! He does admit, however, that there is a small village near Vidin in Bulgaria may be Slavic because its dialect of Bulgarian shows some Slavic features. I expressed shock and dismay to hear that Bulgarian is not a Slavic language in his view. "As a student," he told me over coffee that dismal winter afternoon, "I came to the conclusion that ‘slavicization’ of the Bulgarians was false and imposed on us for political reasons, i.e. to make us closer to the Russians."

Interestingly, Tzvetkov is not at all anti-Turkish in the sense of denying the long centuries of influence of the Ottoman Empire on the shaping of Bulgarian identity. Those who are, he argues, are the pro-Slavs who are forever anxious to establish their European credentials by emphasising Bulgaria’s long experience as a Christian empire and who then "saved" European civilization by enduring the Turks.

*Sofia black humour: Q: What is Osama bin Laden’s favourite cocktail? A: A double Manhatten.

Or have you heard the one about the new Russian website? www.pentagon.nyet

Speaking of Turks, it was the now-retired social anthropologist, Assen Balikci, formerly at the Universite de Montreal and now living in Sofia, who told me that it is no surprise that so few monuments of the Ottoman era remain in Bulgaria. (I had commented on my weekend visit to the old city of Plovdiv that, while the 500 years of being Greek and Roman seem to be cause for much pride and archaeology in the city – stunning excavations of a Greek theatre and Roman forum – I could see no evidence the Turks had been there at all, except for one still-functioning mosque in the city centre and an Arabic inscription left unmolested on the wall of what had been an Ottoman public building up in the old town.) "Plovdiv was an important Ottoman administrative centre and a typical mixed oriental town in the 19th century," he explained, "with an important population of Greeks and Armenians as well as Turks, with most Bulgarians living in the countryside. When I was a child here, my family had an elderly Greek female servant who didn’t speak a word of Bulgarian. All of the Ottoman buildings in Plovdiv were destroyed including a most rare and remarkable caravanserai [old inn] after Liberation in 1878. There were over 100 mosques in Sofia, hamams [baths] and medreses [Koranic schools.] One mosque remains. No Bulgarian regret has been expressed….We view our identity in front of the Western mirror, we worry about how the West perceives us: are we slavicized Turks or are we in-between without a sure identity of our own or are we just peripheral to the West?"

It was Prof. Balikci who told me I should meet one of Bulgaria’s most interesting and bright young intellectuals, the ethnologist Ilia Iliev. And so I did, in the freezing cafe that university students huddle in near the Library, surrounded by little in-door boutiques selling artist’s supplies and offering picture framing. (In addition, the morning we were there, an aged farmwoman walked around the tables with what looked to be Italian parsley for sale, three stalks at a time.)

These days, Iliev is engaged in field research in small towns and villages, studying "the culture of used clothing" but some years ago he had written a succinct account of the uses and misuses of "ancestors" in current Bulgarian public discourses, including the idea that the warrior Proto-Bulgars from central Asia are the "male" creators of the Bulgarian state, the Slav farmers a mere "female" mass and the artistic Thracians the "mystic priests" of the Bulgarian nation. I asked him how would update his account. "I would add the new emphasis, the new fashion, of the Proto-Bulgars. It’s argued, for example, that the Proto-Bulgars were cleverer than the Slavs and so they were able to learn Slavic and not the reverse, because of course ‘Slavs are stupid.’" As for the notion that Bulgarians are descended from Alex the Great’s army, this has the cunning value of producing – hey, presto! – Bulgarians who are…Aryans. Iliev himself admires the balanced "tri-partite" hypothesis for its "aesthetic" coherence, its inner logic, while those who promote the Proto-Bulgars are "slapdash." The beauty of the model of the 3 constituent elements is that "everybody could identify with one of them."

*Two new Bulgarian movies are playing in Sofia. "Devil’s Tail: A musician has everything, or at least thinks so, but finds himself in a love triangle and sells his soul to the devil. A movie about loving and hurting the one you love at the same time, and believing in God but praying to the Devil." And "Devil’s Mirror"[ what is this? I thought this was on Orthodox Christian country!]: The latest Bulgarian movie leads viewers into the kingdom of prostitutes, drug dealers, customs misappropriations and illegal gambling."

It was a few days later when I was visiting two monasteries in south central Bulgaria that I realized that in none of these conversations about Bulgarian identity did the subject of Bulgarian Orthodoxy come up. Most curious, considering that the Bulgarians were among the very first Slavs to be christianized and their church was a militant (to say the least) actor in the bloody Balkan Wars that finally separated Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that there are fewer than 100 monks and nuns still active in the Bulgarian Orthodox church – and last Saturday in Plovdiv I got to know one of them, the 34-year old monk-deacon Simeon (not his real name).

First we visited Bachkovo Monastery, a once-potent now enfeebled community: just this month 3 more monks died with none incoming to replace them. Nevertheless, it is a popular weekend excursion destination and the grounds were filled with families admiring the old buildings, lighting candles and reverencing the icons in the church, filling up bottles with water from a mountain spring, and viewing the 16th century frescoes in the refectory which include a remarkable series of the ancient Greek philosophers right up there with the Prophets and Church Fathers. ("Socrates was a pre-Christian Christian," said Brother Simeon.) Bro Simeon also pointed out the marble refectory table that was constructed of tombstones of the dead brothers who had lived and died here generations earlier – "so the dead and the living break bread together." But Brother Simeon did not know whether to laugh or weep at the sight of the tethered ewe who, contentedly munching hay, had no idea that she was the recipient of prayers being offered by visitors via the monk-priest who, accepting "donations," passed them on. The sheep is not killed but in almost every other way this "magic" of addressing prayers to her is straight out of the pre-Christian ritual of the "kourban" [still practised for real in some Macedonian and Bulgarian villages] in which a bull is slaughtered and cooked and communally consumed, sometimes for the Feast of St. Demetrius.

We then drove to another monastery little visited except for the annual patron saint’s day, high up in the mountains south of Plovdiv. As recently as two weeks earlier, there was only one resident, an elderly priest of uncommon sweetness whose family lives in the neighbouring village, but them came Brother Ioan, a newly-made monk, to join him, having quit his life as a carpenter for the railroads. And so the two of them are the custodians of this beautiful complex of monastery, church, orchards, and mountain springs of healing water, and they welcomed us into their warm if spartan kitchen, a cast-iron stove hot with the fire of burning olive tree roots, a string of red peppers drying at the window, several cats underfoot, and served us tea made from mountain flowers and herbs they gather themselves from the meadows.

On our way out, Brother Simeon pointed out a particular grave right up against the church wall. It was a Moslem grave, and is the resting place of Mehmet Kehaya, an early-19th century Ottoman administrator in these parts. He had successfully petitioned the Sultan in far-off Istanbul for a charter to protect this Orthodox church from conversion into a mosque, and so, one day when the Janisseries [special Ottoman troops] inevitably came, Mehmet was able to brandish the charter and turn the soldiers away from their destructive business. The local Orthodox were so grateful to him that they buried him in this place of honour alongside their Christian walls. "And to this day," added Simeon, "the local villagers co-celebrate their religious festivals, be they Orthodox, Catholic or Muslim." He said this with pride in their solidarity as neighbours and with a kind of mournfulness that the rest of the Balkan world around them seems to have come unglued from this belief in the essential holiness of other people.

And so endeth my Balkan journey 2001.

My weekly horoscope for Nov 30 – Dec 6, in the Sofia Echo: "This seems like a suitable moment to devote yourself to your family. This seems like a suitable moment to simply spend the weekend reading an interesting book or to solve crosswords."


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