Tongue-twister has defined Bulgaria's community spirit for 200 years
Travel outside Bulgaria's big cities and a particular building will attract your attention. Prominently located in the central square of villages and towns, usually with a grand staircase, a heavy colonnade and a decorated pediment, it radiates importance. It is usually well maintained. Posters for concerts and travelling theatre shows cover the notice boards by the entrance, and a steady stream of people come and go through the only unlocked door (a long-standing tradition in Bulgarian public buildings is to design an entrance with three or five doors, and to keep all of them closed except one). There might be a café, as well. However, sometimes this building is empty, abandoned, derelict, just like the town or village where it happens to be located. Ragged posters for performances are long gone, and fresh death notices for recently deceased local residents cover its dusty glass doors, which are all closed and barred.
What are these buildings? The Bulgarian chitalishte is not only difficult to pronounce for non-native speakers. It is also very difficult to define. Literally, it means "reading place." But in reality it also means a library, a community house, an amateur theatre, a meeting place – all at once. Translating it into English is difficult as the institution of a chitalishte does not exist in the English-speaking world. Something similar does exist in Germany, where it is called Mitbürgerhaus, and in Denmark, the great Danish institution of the medborgerhus.
The library of the chitalishte of Gumoshtnik village
Chitalishte, plural chitalishta, is a great Bulgarian tradition. It appeared under particular circumstances, played a specific role in the life of the nation, and remains an institution that is as important as it is often neglected by the general public.
It all began in 1848, when a teacher in Lom, a town on the River Danube, arranged his personal library in one of the school rooms, and opened it to the public. He put a sign above the door: chitalishte, or reading place.
Alternatively, it all began on 30 January 1856, in Svishtov, another town on the Danube, when four teachers opened a public "chitalishte with museum" in the house of a prominent merchant. Its library was stocked with 800 donated books, and 42 Svishtov locals pledged money for more books in Bulgarian and other languages, newspaper subscriptions, the collecting of antiquities, and also the funding for promising Bulgarians to study abroad, plus book publishing and distribution.
Within months, chitalishta began to appear all over the Bulgarian lands, from the Danubian Plain to the Valley of Roses, to Macedonia.
The chitalishte of Kalofer, named after revolutionary Hristo Botev, is in a building constructed during the overhaul of the town's centre in the 1970s. The chitalishte itself was established in 1869
Lom and Svishtov continue to disagree whose chitalishte started it all. Yes, Lom was the first, but it did not start a mass movement as Svishtov did. However, what is more important is why these institutions appeared in the first place.
In the 1840s-1850s, after almost five centuries of Ottoman domination one of whose results was isolation from the rest of Europe, change was finally in the offing through the Bulgarian lands. The Ottoman Empire was slowly starting to modernise, and many Bulgarians were gripped by an urge to define their sense of who they were. Largely small-time farmers and artisans, they lacked official representation, but were energetic and confident enough to create their own organisations. They had self-governing municipalities and opened local schools offering a modern curriculum. Yet, they craved for more – especially the Bulgarians living along the River Danube. As they travelled to and traded with Central Europe they were exposed to innovations and new ideas in many areas of life – from business to education to media and entertainment. They wanted to bring these back home.
Light, as the chitalishte of Shipka is called, was established as early as 1861. It is now housed in the old school as its own building is in danger of collapsing. The local community is trying to raise money for renovation, but so far they have failed
The mass opening of chitalishta after 1856 was part of this trend. Bulgarians needed spaces to meet, read books and newspapers, discuss politics (and even revolution), and enjoy newly imported European theatre and music.
When the Bulgarian state was eventually restored, in 1878, chitalishta remained a much needed provider of culture and education to the Bulgarian nation that was in the process of rapidly modernising itself. Their names, such as Enlightenment, Progress, Spark and Perseverance, reflected the ideals their communities cherished. Tellingly, the chitalishte in Suhindol, a major vintners hub, was called... Sobriety.
In 1899, the community of Kazanlak broke new ground when it built special premises for its chitalishte. A year later, Bulgaria's first opera, A Poor Woman, premiered on its stage. Soon, this chitalishte boasted a choir, a museum and an art gallery. Today, it is the largest institution of its kind in Bulgaria.
Established in 1927, the chitalishte of Gumoshtnik is still operational. Yet, no villager remembers the last time it hosted a cinema screening or a theatre performance
When the Communists took over, in 1944, chitalishta had to adapt to fit into the new, overregulated society. State funding and control replaced community initiative and local donations. This meant more money for the construction of new chitalishta buildings (most of the chitalishta you see today date from this period) with well-stocked libraries and stages for theatre performances and movie screenings. This also meant centralised control over their activities and the promotion of propaganda for the Socialist order. Chitalishta in towns and larger villages would often have an amateur theatre troupe and ballet, music and even foreign-language classes for children. A folklore troupe was a must, promoting a sanitised version of Bulgarian traditional music and dance, which were dying out in the villages due to migration to the cities, and the active discouragement of "backward" traditions.
Despite these changes, chitalishta remained a pillar of community life, particularly in smaller places where there were no libraries, theatres and cinemas to compete with.
Established in 1868, the chitalishte of Svezhen claims to be the oldest village chitalishte in Bulgaria
The collapse of Communism, in 1989, hit chitalishta hard. State funding dried up. People started to migrate not only to bigger cities but also abroad. In the worst affected communities, chitalishta with decades-long traditions had to shut down. Their libraries were dispersed, their once gilded stages became ghostly ruins. Where chitalishta remained open, they had to resort to survival strategies such as renting out spaces for cafés, restaurants and Internet clubs.
And yet, chitalishta are still around. They are funded by local municipalities, although donations of money or books for the library are always welcome. Many still have a folklore troupe in the best tradition of Communist times, although some have become more interested in authentic folklore and the revival of rites that have been largely forgotten since the mid-20th century. For the children there are art, piano and English-language lessons. The most ambitious have an amateur theatre troupe, but most of the time their stages are quiet, or rented to travelling companies, chalga stars or election campaigns. Movie screenings are no more.
The chitalishte of Kovachevtsi is named after the village's most famous son, Stalinist dictator Georgi Dimitrov. It was built in his memory and has an exhibition dedicated to him
In some villages, chitalishta double up as senior citizens clubs. Elderly folk come there to chat with friends, have a cup of tea and some biscuits, and to see their grandchildren in the United States or the UK on the library computers.
For almost two centuries, chitalishta have evolved with Bulgarian life, providing culture, education, entertainment and much needed human contact to anyone who needed them. What started with enthusiasm in the 19th century continues its life in the 21st, a good example of how local tradition can overcome the restraints of changing political systems and the chronic lack of funding.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners