Escape From Ignorance and Chalga (Part 2)
Over the last quarter century, the population of Bulgaria has dropped from 9 to 7.3 million people.
Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.
Read Part 1.
You spent a good bit of time in the opposition movement in UDF, Demokratsia, Vek 21. Thinking back now, what’s your impression of the opposition? Are there things that the opposition did really well and others that it did poorly?
There was a lot of enthusiasm but a lot of incompetence, a lack of basic knowledge and concepts. Some of the people were quite idealistic, honest people, but they knew nothing about social development, social structures, social change, how to work with crowds when there are crowds, and how to work with civil society. I now can recount numerous cases of flagrant ignorance, stupidity, and incompetence in the official opposition.
Can you give an example?
Here’s an example close to my editorial practice. Every day hundreds of people — some of them normal supporters of UDF, some of them in some position like regional coordinator or city boss — came to the editorial room of Vek 21. We were in one room, two editors and one assistant and one photographer. They would bring stuff that was unreadable, let alone publishable. Even if I put my best effort into polishing it, it wouldn’t work. It didn’t say anything. There was no message. There was just the eagerness to show off. You couldn’t even explain it to them. I told them that I could work with them, help them. “Nooo, who are you to say this to me? I’m the party leader in Yambol! I want this published! Otherwise I’ll complain to your boss!” There was no boss. He couldn’t complain to anyone. These people were hungry for glory, recognition, to be of importance. They had been so insignificant in their past, and now they saw their chance.
I remember during that strike in late December, some of the bus drivers I was on friendly terms with were coming to talk to me. “Tomorrow, will you give me a job?” they asked. I said, “I’m not becoming a political leader. I’m not doing this for myself!” But they saw an opportunity: if they were friendly with me, one day I’d make them deputy minister or something. I know why they did this. They wanted something better for their kids. Or vanity. Or to have their kids respect them more because now they were someone of importance, not just a plain Jane.
There are many more examples. If I have to be more honest: some of us including myself — and I don’t know if I said this in my first interview — were in favor of shock therapy. I knew nothing about economy, about shock therapy! I must have been influenced by the Polish experience: what Walesa was talking about, the Polish leading experts. I must have been a parrot who heard something and said, “Oh, wow, why not?” That’s an example of my own stupidity, ignorance, and incompetence.
That’s how the UDF lost their position with society, and that’s how people started disliking the opposition. Some of them were obnoxious. I’ll tell you a joke about that. There was this Bulgarian dissident, Radoy Ralin. He was a writer, a smart guy, well liked. He played a double game during communism: tolerated by the communists but at the same time writing some critical stuff about them. One day he comes to our office and he was gloomy, which was unlike him, particularly in those years when he was very optimistic about the changes. He wasn’t himself.
We asked him, “What’s wrong?
And he said, “Things are not going very well.”
We asked, “Why are you pessimistic?”
And he said, “To be honest, the former communists belong in jail. That’s clear. But the new ones, they should be institutionalized.”
Back then I did not pay much attention. But Radoy Ralin must have been smarter than I. He must have seen the truth. The communists were criminals, but the new ones are so incompetent and corrupt that they look and behave like crazy people. That struck me a couple years later as something that I should have understood back then.
Here’s another example. We had two spokespeople for the UDF. One of them was a literary person, a writer, a literary critic, exceptionally smart, a true erudite: Mihail Nedelchev. He knew everything. But he was very vain. He thought he was Louis XIV. The other one was a rough person, Georgi Spasov. Nedelchev was the civil one, Spasov the uncivil one. They would take turns every night on national TV. They had 5-10 minutes to present whatever happened with the UDF: declarations, statements, whatever. They had a guaranteed time, but it could be a half an hour if they wanted. There were no rules. It was a chaotic time. It would come on about 8 pm, around the time of this nightly broadcast for young children. Children would be in front of the TV waiting for their program, and then this Spasov guy would appear. Kids would start crying immediately, that’s how frightful he was! He had no charm, no presence. He was like the devil on screen.
I remember the debates on TV during those first couple of elections. You know the infamous example of how Nixon’s looks during his TV debate with Kennedy probably ruined him: this was much worse. UDFers here didn’t know how to dress. They’d come out almost in their pajamas. They had no manners. When they talked in those debates, they would be gesturing and yelling and fighting. It was horrible. How can you trust the government of a nation to someone who doesn’t know how to behave, how to talk? The Socialists, meanwhile, were better trained. They spoke more eloquently, spoke better, quieter: “speak low, speak slow, don’t say much”. And the opposition people were ruffians. So, when people had anecdotes — truthful or not, and some of them might have been exaggerated or the communist propaganda may have dreamed up some sins of the new people — but people believed them, because it was plausible that these savages would be greedy, corrupt, and incompetent. And we were incompetent. I have to admit it.
When I went to the States in 1990 — you met me just before I left — I learned a lot. But I would have been much better if I had learned all that before the changes, before my initial involvement with the opposition. I was ashamed of some of the things I had done prior to going to Tufts. Did I really say that? Did I behave like that? And I didn’t know that I shouldn’t have done that?
On the other hand, you were working in pretty difficult conditions. One of the big concerns when we were talking in 1990 was the lack of print paper. You told me that each issue was read by five or six people because you didn’t have enough paper.
I had to deliver the Vek 21 paper myself every week. I took it from the printing house in a van donated to us by some Bulgarian émigrés in France, and I drove around the city to deliver it to people, to leave it at clubs, drop it in mailboxes.
Given those conditions, you achieved quite a lot.
Yes, But it wasn’t enough to convince a nation that they could entrust the their future to us, to the then-UDFers. I wasn’t involved in the politics of that. Honestly, I was enticed to become a member of the National Assembly, to be elected, to become a politician. I said, “You can’t mix the two. I can be either a journalist or a politician, and I choose to be a journalist.” So, I declined.
I remember the first and the second elections, all the people lining up at the headquarters of the UDF who wanted to be included in the UDF party ticket. Those people were fighting, hitting each other. They stayed there overnight. They wouldn’t dare go to the washroom, because then they would lose their position in line. It was horrible. They would kill each other to jump ahead in line to be higher on the ticket. It’s unbelievable what people would do to be in power. I know: It happens everywhere. I can’t believe that normal people in their right mind would run for elected position. There has to be something wrong in their value system to go through what they have to go through. What I saw here was much worse: so much humiliation to run for office.
I have a couple of favorite movies that I watch over and over again. One of them is Paths of Glory.
With Kirk Douglas.
He’s being court-martialed, and he says, “There are times when I am ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion..” In those days of rampant democracy, those early stages of the opposition, there were many moments when I went home and I would suffer and I wouldn’t want to go back and I felt ashamed to be a member of the human race — for my own mistakes and for the obvious misbehaviors of others.
Back in 1990, someone in the opposition said to me that ethnic Turks in Bulgaria would represent the path by which Islam and fundamentalism would enter Europe. I quoted that to you and you said, “That’s stupid!” To be honest, you were an exception. I was surprised at the level of nationalism and ethnocentrism in the opposition. Did that surprise you too?
It wasn’t surprising to me because I was a teacher at the beginning of my career. I saw the shortcomings of education in Bulgaria. The EU rewrote the curriculum so that countries like France and Germany or Italy and Germany don’t teach the next generation fanatically about the past, about the glorious battles that they won over the neighboring country. That’s how you encourage nationalism. It’s one thing if young boys of one soccer club fight another soccer club without thinking of historic reasons for them to hate each other aside from soccer reasons.
I saw with my own eyes how Bulgarian history and related subjects induced this hatred in “others,” particularly the Turks. My job as a teacher was in a village that was half-Turkish, half-Roma around Russe in northeastern Bulgaria. I know they’re wonderful people. They were not religious. If they are returning to religiousness, it’s happening at the same time and at the same rate that Bulgarians are returning to the Orthodox Church. When I was a teacher in that Turkish-populated area, they didn’t even have mosques. There is no way that these people could be radical, fundamentalist Islamists. There might be one or two or three, not being able to get educated here, they would go to Turkey or Saudi Arabia, just like Bulgarians go to Germany. One or two of them might go to educational institutions that teach more radical ideas. But they wouldn’t even be aware of the differences in Islam. That’s why I don’t buy it.
When I was a journalist, the Macedonian republic declared independence, and there was a lot of anti-Macedonian feeling in Bulgaria (which still exists today). “They’re stealing our history,” people would say. “They’re actually just Bulgarians!” I even wrote a couple articles, saying that we should just leave them alone. If they feel that they’re different, then they are different. The more you try to stop them, argue with them, and say there’s no such thing as the Macedonian language or nationality, or identity, the more counterproductive it is. They’re a young nation, and they want their new identity.
It’s the same with the ethnic Turk minority. They are not a source of danger unless you antagonize them like they’re antagonizing them now with this stupid court case against the imams. We never learn from the past. We antagonized those people in the 1980s by making a huge issue out of nothing. Luckily, things started to subside, and now they live normally and we live normally and there is no tension any more. But now the nationalists are trying to bring back these tensions.
Were you surprised when you came back from Canada that this issue had still not gone away?
I was. I thought that with time, with membership in the EU, these things would have mellowed. I know they can’t disappear overnight or in 10 years or even 20 years. But I thought that at least you wouldn’t see it at the government level, at the level of national media, I thought it would only be at the lowest level of pub talk or gossip. I was very disappointed that people I considered smart are still wasting their time on this.
I’ve been following the news. I hear that there are some attempts to rewrite history books. There is a huge outcry, and even intellectuals say, “You can’t rewrite history. You can’t say that the Turks are not bad!” We talk about the five centuries of Ottoman occupation as something that ruined the Bulgarian nation. Not at all. You know the joke from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”: what have the Romans ever given us? Nothing. Other than the aqueduct and sanitation, and the roads, and irrigation, and medicine, and education, health, public baths, other than government, other than… All nations controlled by the Romans benefited from the Roman experience.
The same here. The Balkans before the Ottomans came here were savage, fighting tribes that could never develop because of how hostile they were toward each other: brother against brother, Slav against Slav. It was like Europe was, divided into small serfdoms. Thanks to the positive Turkish influence in the first three centuries of their presence here, lots of culture came from the East, from the Arab world, through the Ottoman Empire, through trade, through commercial roads. Every time commerce comes to your ports and crosses your country, something falls out of the cart, and that’s what’s left for you. Look at the Bulgarian language: probably some 20 to 30 percent of the contemporary spoken vernacular still consists of loan words that are of Persian or Arabic or Turkish origin and came into the Bulgarian language through the Ottoman Turkish influence.
How come we don’t appreciate the positive influence of the Ottomans? It’s true that the last 50 to 70 years of the Ottoman occupation were the worst, the empire was falling apart and couldn’t support the army, so the army engaged in pillage. But the worst bandits were the Bulgarian bandits. So much so that the traders from western Europe wouldn’t venture to cross Serbia or Bulgaria. You know the word hajduk? Hajduks were the Bulgarian equivalent of the Greek Klefts. The word kleft itself is exactly the same word that is known to the world from the term “kleptomania.” That’s basically a thief, a bandit, even though they have since been glorified in Balkan folk tradition and history books as rebels: they’d rob anyone who crossed the woods.
There was no caravan of carriages that could go through without being looted or people killed. You had to be very lucky to cross the Balkans without losing half your goods or your life. In the 1860s, they built the first railway between Russe and Varna so that the commercial traffic wouldn’t cross the mountains any more, for fear of the hajduks of Serbia and Bulgaria. They would use ships to Russe — the Danube is not navigable as it gets to the Black Sea — then they would use this railway that was guarded very heavily by Turkish garrisons. Then they’d get to Varna, and then by ship to Istanbul. It wasn’t always the Turks, it was more often our own lazy buggers who would hide in the forests all year long and steal from their own people.
In Serbia, at least some of the hajduks were leaders of resistance against the Ottoman and are considered heroes.
Same here. But most of them were not. As leaders of the resistance, they would fight the Turks, but on the side they would be terrorizing their own population in order to survive.
Did it take a long time for you to decide to leave Bulgaria?
No, it was not long. There were two reasons behind it. I heard yesterday someone on the radio say something very simple, and I thought, “Yes, that’s probably why I left too.” Most people didn’t leave the country because they couldn’t find gainful employment. No, they were running from ignorance and the bad taste of contemporary music, arts and entertainment. Has anyone mentioned the word chalga to you? Well, Bulgarians have been running away from ignorance and chalga.
Back in 1996 or 1997, I had returned from Radio Free Europe, from Munich and Prague. I was also stationed in Sofia as the manager of the bureau here. When Radio Free Europe closed, I had two options. I could do journalism here. But at that time, I would not lower myself to work for any of the media that were operating in this country in the mid to late 1990s. It was horrible. Or I could leave the country.
To get that training at Tufts and the Fletcher School, I had to apply and probably compete with other people who had been nominated. Apart from providing your resume and some samples of your work, I went for a brief interview at the embassy. I also had to write an essay on “press under pressure.” You write the essay and they think about whether you are worth being trained there. I didn’t write a long essay. I only wrote about 3-4 sentences. I wrote, “Like any other thing on earth, press under pressure tends to become flat. With a flat press you can use it as wrapping paper, to wrap someone’s ideas. You can’t use it to support liberal democracy. You can’t use it to educate values. It’s only rubbish wrapping paper and you use it only once and then dispose of it.” Media today in this country is not independent media. It’s just wrapping paper for people who want to use the media to amplify their messages.
So, I could not stay here and work as a journalist. Radio Free Europe was not the best radio ever. My model media, the media I would love to work for and what I most often listen to, is BBC, NPR, even CBC which isn’t quite as good, but still good. Radio Free Europe was not the model of great journalism. But we were pretty good. We were aspiring. Dropping from there to yellow journalism? I wouldn’t do that. I was too proud to do it just for sustenance.
My daughter had already gone to the States to study there. And I only have one daughter. So that was another reason to leave.
If Bulgarians maintain today that they’re running away now because of ignorance and chalga, it was much worse then. Back then, in addition to aggressive ignorance and aggressive chalga, there was too much crime. It was not a healthy environment for any person to be in. I couldn’t stay here, or I would have lost my sanity. I wasn’t here when there was the worst adversity, when there wasn’t food, when they had to line up for milk and bread for their kids. I missed that. I missed that humiliating state. It wasn’t much better, and it wasn’t going to get much better any time soon. I could survive with an expectation of a better world. I could stay and try to help ameliorate the environment. But that just wasn’t feasible at all.
Still, when I left, I did follow the news. I knew that governments had changed, I knew about Tsar Simeon. But I was surprised when I returned about the level of nationalism and anti-Turkish and anti-Roma feelings.
And the popularity of your old friend, Volen Siderov, the head of Ataka.
Say hello to him. And say to him, “Vic asks, when did you lose your mind?” He was my best friend. He drank tons of alcohol in my presence, crying on my shoulder, He was a decent guy even if he wasn’t the smartest guy.
You know how he became the editor of Demokratsia? He graduated from a photography high school. He’s a photographer. During the communist years at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences — it’s called that, but it was just a nomenklatura institute — there’s this institute of literature. People who consider themselves literary critics or knowledgeable about writing all worked there as a team. Volen was their staff photographer. When they were going to publish a new book on the works of a Bulgarian writer, they illustrated the book with pictures of the childhood home of the writer, and Volen prepared the artwork. Volen was a friend of theirs. They drank together.
One form of dissidence back then was drinking. We don’t agree with communism, we can’t fight it, so let’s go and drink and talk about it in the pub! Then probably we’ll forget, and tomorrow we’ll drink again. Some of them, that’s how they fought communism: by drinking. Volen was one of those brave drunkards.
He was part of the team — Aleksandar Yordanov, Elka Konstantinova, Iordan Vasiliev, Mihail Nedelchev, Edvin Sugarev — and all of them were at the same time members of the opposition, about 10-15 people. Right after November and January, all of them joined the UDF. Of course, Volen joined too because he was a friend of ours, it didn’t matter that he wasn’t a literary expert. So when Iordan Vasiliev, who was the first editor-in-chief of Demokratsia, quit the editorial position, they had to appoint someone. Iordan suggested that Volen take over. People wondered: he knows nothing about journalism, he just photographs. But back then, I knew at least three people who are now renowned journalists who came up and said, “I’m an elementary school teacher, but I want to be a journalist.” And they were given a chance. Some of them developed; some of them remained at the elementary school level. But that’s how Volen became a journalistic star. How he became such a rabid nationalist, it beats me. I hope he can explain it to you.
End Part 2.