Turkish slavery, Russian liberators and other legends
"The myth that Russia has revived us on the map of the world has become entrenched in Bulgarian consciousness. Experts talk about the myths in Bulgarian history."
Bulgarian historiography still fails to offer a critical reading of national history that is accessible to the general public. As a result, historical facts and objective testimonies are still replaced by myths in the cultural memory of the nation. Here is what the philosopher Kalin Yanakiev and the historians Lyudmil Spasov and Hristo Matanov had to say on the subject.
According to prof. Hristo Matanov from Sofia University, Bulgarians find it difficult to trust archives and documented historical facts when they contradict the established public notions of a permanent "heroic past". That is why the attempts of a part of the scientific community to remove the mystical halo of national history are too painful. "I could not even make an abbreviated list of the myths of Bulgarian history. Most of them are the fruit of efforts to make ourselves out to be greater than we were. Immature national consciousness always seeks to inculcate a kind of national grandomania," the historian says, explaining that it is this grandomania that gives rise to historical manipulations. And their popularity in society and in the media means that a gap has opened between people's idealised notions and reality. "As professional historians, we try to dispel entrenched myths, but not infrequently along the way we create new myths. Textbooks and teaching content are not completely cleansed of the legends in Bulgarian history because they pursue primarily educational goals, not the dissemination of knowledge based on documents and objective analysis," Matanov added.
"There was no classical slavery in Bulgaria"
Philosopher Kalin Yanakiev explains in turn that mythologies in Bulgarian cultural memory appeared in the period of national revival. "In the 19th century European nations began to assert themselves. Then, under the influence of national liberalism, they began to look back at their past and construct glorifying or traumatic myths about that past. The aim is to strengthen a fragile national identity. Except that these myths, which were natural for the 19th century, should have long outlived their usefulness after the constitution of nations. In Bulgaria, however, this is definitely not the case," says Yanakiev. According to him, the false national consciousness is based on exaggerations about some glorious medieval or even ancient past and on the permanently inculcated national antagonism towards the self-proclaimed "oppressors".
"There was no classical slavery in Bulgaria. Our Renaissance writers may speak of 'slavery', but it is an emotional category with a literary flavour. It feeds the whole mythology of our liberation and explains the collapse of our national ideals," says Prof. Matanov. But he makes the caveat that when one denies the existence of slavery under Ottoman rule, one should not go to the other extreme: that, you see, life in the Ottoman Empire was wonderful for the Bulgarians. "It is noteworthy, however, that some of the clichés implanted by Russian propaganda continue to circulate in Bulgarian historiography. We should not forget that for longer or shorter periods in the late 19th century and in the second half of the 20th century Bulgaria was directly ruled by Moscow. Mass Russophilia after the Liberation contributed to the inculcation of the suggestions produced by Russian propaganda. For example, about the centuries-old and selfless friendship between Big Brother and the "brothers", as well as the eternal gratitude that Bulgaria owes to its "double" liberators," Matanov says. The historian stresses that Russian propaganda is far from elementary - it relies on veiled methods to push its messages. "The BSP's New TV and its host Velizar Enchev, for example, have set themselves the task of telling viewers that 'Turkish slavery' is pure historical truth, and that denying this metaphor is tantamount to national betrayal. But to suggest that your ancestors were slaves to someone is simply a sign of low self-esteem and national complexes. Only in such an environment can all sorts of historical myths and legends flourish," the historian points out.
The Russian project of securing Bulgaria
His colleague Lyudmil Spasov from Plovdiv University defines the Soviet occupation of Bulgaria in 1944 as the beginning of an even more aggressive mythologizing of Bulgarian history. "Already on March 3, 1945, just five months after the invasion of the Red Army and the waves of mass terror and indiscriminate executions that followed, the puppet government of Kimon Georgiev, under orders from Moscow, convened an All-Slavic Council in Sofia. One of its aims was to proclaim Bolshevik Russia the double liberator of the Bulgarians and the other Slavs. In fact, since the time of tsarism, the pan-Slavic idea of the unification of all Slavic peoples under the Kremlin's scepter has been part of the toolkit of Russian imperialism. While destroying tsarism, the Soviet authorities did not shy away from using the propaganda clichés of the Romanov era. The Soviet Union continued the geopolitical project of Russian tsarism to consolidate Bulgaria, the real aim of which was to create a protectorate in the immediate vicinity of the Straits. For both imperial Russia and all its incarnations have always fought for control of the Straits," Spasov recalls.
The historian also talks about another myth of Soviet propaganda and its Bulgarian heralds: that the Third Bulgarian Kingdom was a "fascist state". According to the official cliché, this is precisely why Moscow participated in the "anti-fascist" September Uprising in 1923 and in the "liberation" occupation in 1944. What the Russian "liberations" had in common, according to prof. Spasov, is that Bulgaria has always paid an incredibly high price to its "liberator" - direct counter-rebuses, plunder of national wealth, occupation and long-lasting enslavement.
The philosopher Kalin Yanakiev believes that Bulgarian historiography makes little effort to educate Bulgarians with the means of a thorough and critical reading of history. "Thus "Turkish slavery" becomes a kind of surrogate self-justification for some negative national traits. Take for example the unproblematic spread of phobias among Bulgarians towards migrants and refugees. The organisers of the campaigns that sow hatred against asylum seekers scare Bulgarians with the Islamic 'threat' to the country," Yanakiev recalls.
"This is a deep delusion"
Lyudmil Spasov explains Bulgarian complexes regarding the country's historical fate this way: unlike Greece and Serbia, where uprisings against the sultan's rule sometimes lasted decades and eventually led to the independent liberation of these former Ottoman possessions, Bulgarian uprisings were very rare and ended in a few days or weeks.
Kalin Yanakiev draws attention to the opposite side of the same problem: Bulgaria does not put enough emphasis on certain facts of history of which Bulgarians should rightly be proud. For example, despite the will and total presence of imperial Russia in the country, Bulgaria carried out the Unification itself and liquidated the Serbian invasion, instigated by St. Petersburg. "In the Bulgarian national consciousness the myth that Russia has reborn us on the map of the world has become established. It prevents us from seeing the true facts of our liberation and the role of Western European civilization in the development of the country. To call the San Stefano accords "liberation", let alone "the birth of a new Bulgaria", is a profound fallacy. The Russian Empire never wanted the emergence of a vast, strong and, above all, independent Bulgarian state. Even today, as under communism, any mention of the contribution of Western and Central Europe to the building of modern Bulgaria remains taboo because of the fact that it casts a shadow over the myth of our selfless liberation from Russia. This malignant legacy is in fact a symbol-credo of all parties and movements in today's Bulgaria that profess Euroscepticism, Eurasian and Slavophile mythologies, thrown at them by the propaganda machine of Putin's regime", summarizes Prof. Yanakiev.