Under Communism, the Bulgarians saw their national mythology blossom. Now it flourishes
The average English person will cheerfully admit ignorance about history. Bulgarians, by contrast, will queue up to tell you their version of their country's past. However, it seems no accident that in bookshops the now bulging history section adjoins those about mysticism and the esoteric. After the Communist drought Bulgarians find themselves willing guests at a dubious feast.
Picking up books at random I discover that Bulgarians built the pyramids before they travelled east of the Urals; that Bulgarians inspired the Inca civilisation; that the tomb of the Goddess Bastet can be found near a small town on the Turkish border; that the EU is just the last in a succession of Vatican-Jewish-Communist-Turkish plots – take your pick! – to destroy Bulgaria.
Most of the more sensationalist stuff reflects two popular views of history. One is the Vile Conspiracy Theory in which evil forces have undermined the Bulgarians' country. The other is the Deplorable Tribe Theory which states that Bulgarians have only themselves to blame. Bulgarians have no difficulty in expressing both views in one breath.
What an incredible transformation since I worked as a teacher in Burgas under the Communist regime! In 1978 I found myself scouring bookshops, seeking a simple history of Bulgaria, to no avail. The books that did adorn shelves seemed unsullied by human hand. There would be a couple on the founder of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Dimitar “Grandpa” Blagoev. Glowing accounts of Georgi Dimitrov – the hero of the Leipzig trial, head of Stalin's Comintern and Bulgaria's first Communist boss – were always available. Two shelves were devoted to the memoirs of Communist partisans and the top shelf contained 20 volumes of Todor Zhivkov's speeches.
Thus I found no mention of Bulgaria's colourful medieval history, or the nineteenth century nationalist struggle – indeed very little about Communism preceding Zhivkov's rise to power. There was a noticeable mixture of pride and shame when a year later a biography of national hero Vasil Levski appeared in the shops. The author was not a Bulgarian – but the idealist British Bulgarophile, Communist Mercia Macdermott.
In conversation, Bulgarians were naturally very reticent about recent history and their knowledge of earlier years depended largely on historical films and novels. The greatest blot on the Bulgarian national landscape was their 500-year domination by the Ottoman Empire. This period was known alternatively as the Turkish Yoke or the Turkish Slavery.
Bulgarian suffering during the Turkish Slavery was seen as unique in world history. My mention of other imperial experiences was treated with contempt. “At least the Irish had been ruled by a civilised nation”. That, I am sure, was a great consolation during the potato famine! Yet in Koprivshtitsa, I used to wander the streets looking in awe at the rich Bulgarian cloth merchants' houses. These houses were decorated inside by the best Bulgarian woodcarvers and contained artefacts from across Europe. They were built at the same time as the Irish potato famine by Christians who, unlike the Irish, had been allowed to practice their faith freely. They lived amid a culture of hygiene and social responsibility, which was at least partly Turkish. This contrasted strongly with the European experience of continuous war and hunger.
Yet the Communists enjoyed reducing 500 years to a series of disembowelments. It particularly suited Todor Zhivkov, panicked by the implications of a new UN human rights initiative in 1984, who decreed that the significant Turkish population living in Bulgaria were not Turkish, but in fact Bulgarians. In this year, Anton Donchev's book and film Splitting Times heavily featuring impalement, and Alan Parker's The Midnight Express occupied TV and cinema screens for weeks. Mercia Macdermott was dispatched on a nationwide lecture tour to add international authority to the campaign. This paved the way for the notorious renaming process whereby Hassan and Ferdiney were forced to become Ivan and Donka. Speaking Turkish in public places was banned.
Living in Bulgaria at this time gave me an extraordinary lesson in propaganda. The Turkish-speaking population had hitherto been regarded with respect, seen as honest, loyal to every government – the backbone of Bulgarian agriculture. As rumours spread of shootings in Turkish villages, the campaign against them went into overdrive. I was told by intelligent people that the NATO Turkish army was massing on Bulgaria's borders and that the Turkish population was just waiting to rise up and murder their Bulgarian neighbours.
This may seem strange in the current climate in which every government contains a prominent Turkish presence. Back in 1984 it was very different. I remember having my bags searched at the airport to ensure I was not carrying a copy of the Qur'an and reading notices forbidding the use of foreign languages – such as Turkish. However, the power of this indoctrination still resonates today, particularly among Bulgarians frightened to travel to Turkey. Those that do so are astonished at the warmth of their reception, particularly from Turks who emigrated in 1989 and for whom Bulgaria will always seem their natural homeland.
However the Communist anti-Turkish story lives on in the world view of Ataka, the extreme nationalist party that sees the EU as heading a conspiracy to destroy the Christian Orthodox state.
Many myths flourished during the Communist era – the same myths repeated now in print. As part of the Vile Conspiracy Theory, most Bulgarians know there is no such thing as coincidence. Thus it is impossible for a notable individual to die a natural death. There are facts unknown to any non-Bulgarian historian. Wartime King Boris must have been poisoned by Hitler because he refused to deport Bulgarian Jews. Georgi Dimitrov could not possibly have died as result of alcoholism. He too was poisoned – by Comrade Stalin. Ludmilla Zhivkova, the reputedly reformist daughter of Todor Zhivkov, must have been murdered by the KGB. Her brain haemorrhage could not possibly have been linked to an earlier car crash.
Similarly as part of the Deplorable Tribe Theory most Bulgarians know that every great national leader has been betrayed by his own people from Tsar Kaloyan to Vasil Levski; from Hristo Botev, to Stefan Stambolov.
So when you feel you need to listen to intense monologues full of amazing connections, just draw up a barstool and pose an innocent historical query. For a whole night's combination of drink and startling stories, just ask about the Macedonian Question.