WHY DO SO MANY BULGARIANS LOVE RUSSIA?

by Anthony Georgieff

Truth, lies, manipulated history and conspiracy theories confound citizens

"Russophiles" in Sofia express their support for Putin

In the 1990s and early 2000s Bulgaria, a former East bloc country, was an enthusiastic applicant to join both NATO and the EU. Twenty years later the initial enthusiasm has waned. There are now parties with sizeable, albeit still politically insignificant, support that demand a Bulgarexit, first from NATO and then from the EU. Their declared "love" for Russia is being echoed even by people who approve of NATO, the EU and the West in general.

Thrusting down the throats of ordinary Bulgarians the usual concoction of truths, half-truths and lies, amply peppered with conspiracy theories, the Vazrazhdane, or Revival, party of Kostadin "Kostya Kopeykin" Kostadinov makes hay on something so deeply ingrained in the Bulgarian collective consciousness that it has become a part of the nation's national identity. It is love for Russia and things Russian.

Love for Russia? Why should a country that prides itself on having a 1,300 years history in Europe, that once spread onto three seas, that gave birth to a plethora of poets, writers, opera singers, artists and Hristo Stoytchkov feel any love for Russia? What has the current Russian Federation, the former Soviet Union and tsarist Russia further back done to make several generations of millions of Bulgarians love them?

The answer, unfortunately, is still blowing in the wind. Love, just like going to the ballot boxes in modern times, cannot be explained with logic and common sense arguments. It is a sentiment, like the love between two adolescents, that defies reason. Husbands and wives love each other not because of any down-to-earth arguments but because of sometimes very complex feelings, inclinations, desires and conceptions collectively known as, well... love.

To understand the complexity of the Bulgarian love for Russia one needs to look into the background. Because it consists mainly of manipulated history and many years of propaganda, that's where the real dog lies buried.

First, the obvious truths. The modern Bulgarians are but very remotely related to the modern Russians. Many centuries ago some Slavs, who may have come from what is today's Russia, did mingle with the proto-Bulgarians and the Thracians, to form what would later become the Bulgarian nation. But to claim that those Slavs were related to the modern Russians, the myth of the "fraternal nations," as propagated by the Communists is like to claim the modern citizens of London are "brothers" to the modern citizens of Caen. This "fraternal" nations myth is one the mainstays of the Communist-era propaganda, whose roots are so deep that they have withstood even 35 years of democracy and liberal thought.

Then comes the language. The Bulgarian language is probably the easiest in the Slavonic language family because it lacks the intricate case systems of Czech, Slovenian, Polish and Russian. Notwithstanding that, basic Russian, unlike Czech or Polish, is readily understandable even by Bulgarians who have never studied it.

And of course the Russians, like the Bulgarians, North Macedonians, Serbs etc use the Cyrillic alphabet. It was created in the Bulgarian kingdom in the 10th century and was based on the Glagolitic, itself created by two Byzantine monks who had been commissioned by the Byzantine emperor the previous century, to forge an alphabet to give to all Slavs living around the empire in order to better control them.

To claim there is anything else that links modern Bulgarian with modern Russian would be superfluous. But the fact remains that Bulgarians of most educational levels can understand some Russian without any prior instruction. It is like Danes being able to understand Norwegian, and vice versa.

Aside from the ideas of ethnicity and common linguistics, the historical bit, as can be expected in the Balkans, is a lot more complicated.

Up until 1877-1878 the majority of Bulgarians did not care very much about Russia. Nominally, Bulgaria did not exist as it was a part of the Ottoman Empire.

Tsarist Russia fought many wars with the Ottomans over many reasons, the chief of which was it wanted to gain access to the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. As it consistently failed – not only because the Ottomans were better warriors but because the Western powers were wary of expanded Russian influence in southeastern Europe – it went on with its belligerent campaigns.

One of the major achievements of Russia's policies in the Balkans came at the end of the 1768-1774 Russo-Turkish war. Then, at a small village called Kucuk Kaynarca, currently in northeastern Bulgaria, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great concluded a peace treaty with the Ottomans by virtue of which Russia became the "protector" of all Christian nations within the Ottoman Empire.

What does a "protector" of Christianity in a multiethnic, predominantly Muslim empire spreading from today's Morocco to today's India mean? For the actual Christians in the Ottoman Empire, it meant very little. Russia did not do anything to "protect" them whenever they did need protection. But it meant a lot for Russia because it used its status acquired in the Kucuk Kaynarca Treaty of 1794 to justify its future campaigns in the Balkans.

One such campaign, the 1877-1878 war, resulted in the partial liberation of Bulgaria. From then on Russia and its forces deployed in the newly liberated Bulgarian lands actively opposed, in many cases through subterfuge and intrigue if not by hard power, any Bulgarian attempt to establish its independence within its historical borders. Bulgaria's unification, in 1885, was opposed by Russia. So was Bulgaria's Declaration of Independence, in 1908.

The perceived "continuity" between tsarist Russia, which "liberated" Bulgaria from the Turks in the 19th century, and the Soviet Union, which invaded Bulgaria in 1944, is one of the mainstays of Communist-era propaganda. The historical fact is that the Bolshevik Red Army annihilated whatever renamed of the Russian Imperial Army in the 1910s and 1920s

Following the Great War, which ended with significant territorial and human losses for Bulgaria and in which Bulgaria and Russia were on opposing sides, the newly-fledged Soviet Union started a campaign of Communist subversion. Soviet Bolsheviks trained Bulgarian Communists, including Georgi Dimitrov, in anything from propaganda techniques to urban warfare. Russia incited, but never helped, the September 1923 rebellion against the government, which ended in bloodshed and prompted a period of "white terror."

In the 1930s Georgi Dimitrov, who would later become Communist Bulgaria's first leader, headed the Comintern, whose chief aim was to export Bolshevik revolution abroad.

The Kingdom of Bulgaria again backed the wrong horse in the Second World War. Its alliance with Nazi Germany led it to declare a "symbolic" war on the United States and Britain. However, Sofia never declared war on the Soviet Union, which did not stop Moscow from conducting warfare against Bulgaria without having actually declared it.

The big breakthrough came in September 1944. The Red Army invaded Bulgaria and supported the Communist coup, which paved the way for Bulgaria's quick transformation into a hardline Stalinist state. Since then, the Russians have been represented as "eternal brothers," the Bulgarian-Soviet friendship had been going on "for centuries," was bound to continue for many more centuries, and so on and so forth.

Russian and Soviet history, the Russian language, history of the Communist Party of the USSR were obligatory subjects in school and university curricula. While Bulgarian science was isolated from the rest of the world, Bulgarian scientists were quick to be given any scientific idea or discovery, in some cases completely false, coming from the Soviet Union. All institutions of the Bulgarian state were modelled on and subservient to the Russian originals. Local Communist Party committees and organisations were supplemented by special Bulgarian-Soviet friendship clubs. Soviet music was pitched against "decadent" influences from the West, for instance jazz. The whole of Bulgaria strove to, and in many cases succeeded in becoming, a would-be candidate for an extraterritorial Soviet republic.

This was felt particularly strongly in the economy. The whole of the East bloc, including Bulgaria, never felt any major world events – for example the 1973 Great Oil Crisis, because the Russians were pumping petrol at very low prices. Bulgarians drove Soviet cars, watched Soviet-manufactured colour TV sets, listened to music on Soviet turntables, and... got along by happily going along with the Communist Party-organised mass rallies.

Communism collapsed in 1989, but much of the sentiments for Russia, the heir to the USSR, remained. In 2024 you can hear even young Bulgarians, who have no personal experience of Communism and hardly know what the Soviet Union was about, express positive opinion not only of the Russian people as such, but also of Russia's current tyrant, Vladimir Putin.

Unfortunately, when it comes to love, common sense arguments are bound to fail. Perhaps plenty of fresh water has to pass under Bulgaria's bridges to make many Bulgarian understand that the world in 2024 is not what it used to be in 1974, that Russia is no longer willing to provide almost free oil, and that the years of ruthless pro-Russian propaganda have taken their toll not only on the past generations but also on those that are yet to come. This is the kind of stuff that Kostadin "Kostya Kopeykin" Kostadinov and others before him make their political fortunes on.

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