Monday, 24 September 2012

Balkania Pt. 8: The city of wisdom…?

world-map sofia


This update is a momentous one for Uncle Travelling Matt for since the last we have passed 10,000 pageviews, something I hoped at best to accompany in a year and certainly not in under ten months. Since this blog started back in November last year, it has grown steadily each month with visitors from around the globe. So, thank you all, I am glad you are enjoying it, please keep sending me your feedback and, most importantly of all…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

My Flickr album of this trip

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?



Sofia (2)

On my last day in Bulgaria I rose exceptionally early feeling miserable indeed. Early mornings always make me feel terrible but the realisation that I had failed yet again in my quest for an alcohol-free night in Bulgaria was hitting home seriously. Yes indeed, I had to get out of this beautiful country, for love it though I did, my liver couldn’t take anymore.

The journey to Sofia was not a long one and it featured a trip over the Petrohan Pass which, according to Ward, is the highest point in Western Bulgaria. It would have been spectacular if only someone would have cleared just a few of the trees so that some sort of view could be glimpsed; as it was, all I got was a sea of foliage.

I booked myself onto the next train to Serbia but it did not leave until one which meant that I had several hours to kill in the capital. That sounds alright in theory but the truth is that I’ve been to Sofia many times before and I don’t really like the place. It’s a grey, dismal, soulless city with little of historical interest beyond the central core, it only being a provincial town before the 19th century and after that made into some second-rate copy of Vienna, (and alas, the real thing didn’t do that much for me either when I went there).

I decided to walk to the centre where there is at least a little to see – a mosque, some stones that belonged to a Roman gate, an old market hall and a couple of ancient churches – so I sat off through the dusty, nondescript streets. As I walked I reflected on how Sofia reminds me somehow of Tirana, the Albanian capital, and yet Tirana is somewhere that I really like.[1] Sofia is as if God has taken Tirana and somehow sucked all the colour, zest and life out of it and replaced it with grey, leaving only a naff copy of the original. Indeed, the highlight of my entire walk from the station to the centre was heading down one street and finding it to be a dedicated CSKA[2] neighbourhood with scarves tied around the phone lines above the street and a soft toy with ‘КУР’[3] written across it hanged from one of the lampposts.

It comes to something when football hooliganism is seen as the highlight of a city.

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 256

Death to all teddies!

I viewed my churches, mosque and Roman stones with passing interest and bought some souvenirs for friends in the market hall and then returned to the grand precincts of Sofia Central to catch my train, the international express to Belgrade. A grand terminal and a grand-sounding train but when I got to the platform the reality did not match up to the image for it was just two coaches long, (one Bulgarian, one Serbian). I sat in the Serbian coach, (as the Bulgarian one was a sleeping car), which had stickers of Ratko Mladić[4] stuck all over the windows and doors and, sandwiching myself in-between other passengers laden with boxes and bags, we began our journey.

The scenery going out of Sofia was non-descript but just before we reached the border, near the town of Dragoman, there was something that caught my eye. Written on a hillside with stones in absolutely enormous letters was a gigantic medal and the words ‘1885-1985 СЪЕДИНЕНИЕ НА БЪЛГАРИЯ’.


Part of the Monument to the Unification of Bulgaria on a hillside near Dragoman. The other part of the monument is a gigantic medal, similarly sized, several hundred metres to the left.

Later research informed me that this was Slivnitsa, the site of a decisive battle in 1885 between the Bulgarians and the Serbs leading in the Serbo-Bulgarian War. The reason that the site is commemorated by such a stunning memorial is that the war was sparked off by the Act of Unification between the Principality of Bulgaria and the then-Ottoman province of Eastern Rumelia in the autumn of 1885. This rectified one of the main injustices felt by the Bulgarians from the Treaty of Berlin whereby Southern Bulgaria, which had been liberated by Bulgarian, Russian and Romanian troop during the Russo-Turkish War, was allowed to stay within Ottoman hands, albeit with some autonomy, and was given the name of Eastern Rumelia. After a nationalist takeover of the governor’s residence in Plovdiv, (the capital of Eastern Rumelia). Unification was declared on 6th September, 1885. Whilst the major European Powers grudgingly accepted this, the other Balkan nations were less than impressed, (since it made Bulgaria the most powerful country in the region), and so on the 14th November, the Serbs declared war, a war in which they were soundly defeated only a fortnight later by a Bulgarian army that was smaller and had no one higher than the rank of captain to command it, (the Russian generals that had won the Russo-Turkish War had all returned home and the Bulgarians hadn’t trained anyone up yet). The only major battle was Slivnitsa, dubbed the ‘Battle of the Captains versus the Generals’ and it was a battle in which the 30,000 or so Bulgarian troops defeated the 40,000 or so Serbs, largely through the virtue of their superior, Krupp artillery. That battle led to the Bulgarian victory of the war and the effective confirmation of the earlier Act of Unification, hence that Act being commemorated on the battle site.


A famous painting of Prince Alexander of Bulgaria commanding his troops at the Battle of Slivnitsa. In reality he arrived as the battle was almost over.

Well, that’s all the official story and doubtless there’s much veracity to it, but to me there is also another sub-plot here, connected more with the 1985 date than that of 1885.

That sub-plot was one that I’d seen evidence of throughout my trip and through all my previous visits to Bulgaria. It is a story that, like Dervla Murphy’s ramblings through Siberia, both annoyed and inspired me. It was the story of Bulgarian nationalism in particular and Balkan nationalisms in general and it intrigued me because it has had such a profound impact on the region.

Take this monument for example. It commemorates a great victory, against considerable odds, which led to the reunification of a state that had not existed for five centuries. All in all, good reasons to build a monument but why build it so big and on a hillside facing the main road and rail routes to and from Serbia or, as it was when the monument was built, Yugoslavia? As I said before, the date 1985 is just as important as 1885.

During the 1980s the communist regime in Bulgaria was in trouble. After much initial economic growth during the fifties and sixties which raised the living, educational and cultural standards of the population beyond all imaginings, the economy, like that of its Soviet big brother, began to stagnate and those standards were becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. The regime, whose legitimacy had always been a tad shaky, was getting worried. There were rumblings Solidarityesque rumblings from below and the changes of Glasnost and Perestroika from the USSR and Zhivkov’s government felt that they needed a way to demonstrate their legitimacy and to raise spirits amongst an increasingly dissatisfied population. Traditionally in such situations, a socialist turns to the mantra of the proletariat overcoming the bourgeoisie, but these days the middle and upper classes were the socialists and capitalist exploitation was by and large unknown amongst the masses, as opposed to socialist restrictions on freedoms which were familiar to all. The other faithful old standby was to appeal to memories of the war, but this too had only limited appeal in a country that had been largely by-passed by the conflict and whose population was now mainly too young to recall even that. Instead, the main rumblings of discontent when it came to foreign policy was Bulgaria’s slavishly close relationship with the USSR and that was a relationship bequeathed by the war. So if no war appeals and no class consciousness, where could Zhivkov et al turn to?

Their solution was to accelerate a trend that they’d flirted with on and off since 1944 and that was – despite it being antithetical to classical Marxism – an appeal to national pride. The friendship with the Soviet Union was presented as the natural continuation of that age-old brotherhood with their fellow Slavs, (the word ‘Orthodox’ quietly dropped these days), who paid with their lives to give Bulgaria its freedom, (see monuments to both the liberators of the 1870s and the Red Army in 1944 plus place names such as Druzhba and Tolbukhin[5]), whilst the current regime were presented as the natural successors to Levski, Botev et al, rebels who had fought for the people against the Turks, (see countless monuments across the country, the awarding of literary awards for sycophantic dross like Mercia MacDermott’s ‘The Apostle of Freedom’ and place names like Gotse Delchev[6]), and also others afterwards who had fought against monarchist/capitalist/fascist oppression, (see monuments to the 1923 Uprising and place names like Mikhailovgrad). But beyond that, Zhivkov worked hard to demonstrate how his communist regime was in fact the legitimate successor to every successful Bulgarian regime throughout the entirety of history. That was most notably demonstrated during the absolute orgy of celebrations that the state laid on to commemorate the (rather un-noteworthy) event of the 1,300th Anniversary of the Founding of the Bulgarian State[7] which culminated in a great big show of ceremony around the gigantic concrete wedge on the hillside above Shumen.

And to me that slogan on a hillside near Slivnitsa built only four years after the monument at Shumen falls into much the same category. It is not just a commemoration of a victory against the Serbs in 1885; it is also a confirmation in stone of the glory and legitimacy of the communist regime that built it in 1985. In that year both Bulgaria and Yugoslavia had socialist regimes but that was about all that they did have in common. In 1948 Tito fell out with Stalin and in 1955 Yugoslavia split with the USSR completely and started to steer its own path, still socialist, but Non-Aligned and thus open to both West and East. It was a path that brought them unprecedented wealth and development, so much so that by the mid-1980s, Yugoslavia had living standards almost akin to those in Western Europe. In contrast, Bulgaria had stayed more Soviet than the Soviets themselves and this had resulted in a steady stream of money from Moscow to Sofia which had funded much of the country’s national development. By the eighties though, this money was drying up and it was clear than Bulgaria was seriously lagging behind its neighbour to the west. The communist government knew this and it hurt them and to me, when I gaze upon that monument at Slivnitsa, visible to every Yugoslav and Bulgarian travelling between the two countries, it has been built to say ‘We were different then and we’re different now; then you appeared stronger than us, but we defeated you; now you again appear strong but never forget that we beat you once and we will do so again!’

And looking at it in 2011, in a sense that Zhivkov never intended, (and would have been horrified by), one has to say that it many ways that has come true.

It all sounds a little paranoid and desperate doesn’t it? Well, if was. The 1,300th Anniversary of the Founding of the Bulgarian State, the hero-worship of Levski et al, the Great Excursion, the Revival Process and all the other manifestations of Bulgarian nationalism by the communists were acts of a desperate, illegitimate regime using any way it could, no matter how morally dubious, to cling onto power. And as we all know, ultimately, at the end of the decade, they failed. But despite that failure, the legacy that they bequeathed was a potent one.

Communism left a lot to Bulgaria. When I first visited, my primary fascination with the country, (ok, my secondary fascination; at nineteen in a country like Bulgaria, the local ladies will always come first…), was exploring as much of that communist legacy as possible and then refuting many of the misconceptions about it. I believed then – and I still do believe now – that communism was not the unmitigated disaster that it is usually painted as being. True, it collapsed economically towards the end, but the 1950s saw incredibly high growth rates. True, the communists restricted personal freedoms, but they also dragged the country into the 20th century. The Bulgaria that they inherited in 1944 had a largely peasant population that was mostly illiterate. The country that they left in 1990 was urban and amongst the best educated in the world with a literacy rate that its southern neighbour in the EU, Greece, could only dream about. No, all was not bad indeed.

And likewise too, politically there had been much good. Nationalistic Bulgarians angered me with their tales of hanged heroes like Levski, but what of Georgi Dimitrov who set fire to the Reichstag or Peshev, the socialist MP who saved the country’s Jews from Hitler or Marx himself who taught that capitalist oppression who taught us all that it is fundamentally immoral for the rich to oppress the poor? How can your partisans compare with such figures and how can you even be a nationalist when you see what it is doing, ripping your previously wealthy and successful neighbour Yugoslavia apart at the seams?

Over the years though, and particularly during this trip, I began to realise that things are never so clear cut. Study the Ottoman Empire and Bulgarian nationalism becomes more comprehensible, but more than that, study Bulgarian communism and one realises that they were primarily the ones responsible for dispensing such poison throughout the land. They drenched the population in the myths of Marx and the nation, but the short sharp shower of the 1990s washed the former clean away. The stains of the latter however, proved to be much harder to shift.

But with a new generation growing up who have never experienced communism and who instead are exposed fully to Western liberal attitudes, then things are changing. The grandiose monuments of Shumen and Slivnitsa would never be built today even if there was the cash to spare. After all, in 2011 there is no need to either shore up an illegitimate regime or to piss off passing Serbs. And that is one enduring change in the country that I sensed strongly, time after time, after my long absence of eight years. It’s a change in mentality, a shift to a more realistic, humane and less dangerously romantic view of the world.

And as my train thundered towards the border, that was a great cause for hope in the future.

Next part: Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…


[1] See my travelogue ‘Albanian Excursions’.

[2] CSKA, (or more accurately, ‘TsSKA’), is the ‘Central Sporting Club of the Army’ (ЦСКА – Централен Спортен Клуб на Армията). They are Bulgaria’s biggest and most successful football club, having won the league title 31 times and the national cup 20 times as well as appearing in the European Cup semi-finals twice and the Cup-Winners Cup semis once. Their rivals are the country’s number two team, also from Sofia, Levski with 26 league titles and 26 cups. They are the old police club and the game between them is called the ‘Eternal Derby’.

[3] КУР (Kur) – lit. shit.

[4] The former Bosnian Serb general who had just been captured a month before and taken to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague, charged with being being both the Siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica Massacre.

[5] The communist era name for Dobrich. Marshal Tolbukhin was the Red Army commander who liberated/conquered Bulgaria.

[6] Gotse Delchev was a freedom fighter in Macedonia, (an area now split between Greece, Bulgaria and the country that calls itself Macedonia. Delchev had the added appeal of being also claimed by the Serbs as one of theirs and so by naming a town after him, the Bulgarians were reinforcing the view that he was their rebel and no one else’s. Whoever he did belong to, he wasn’t very successful: he died in a skirmish in 1903 after being betrayed by local villagers.

[7] Except that it may not have even been that. The date 681 was chosen because that is the first time that a Bulgarian entity is mentioned in the chronicles of Byzantium although of course, one may have existed for years before.

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