A Trip to the Southeast of Bulgaria

April 13, 2008

By Vassil

Part 1 – Too much Culture

There is an old saying, an oxymoron, which is often brought up in conversations in Bulgaria – ‘Too much good is not good!’. My recent trip to Kardzhali, a town in Southeast Bulgaria with a significant ethnic Turkish population, made me wonder – what is behind the increased interest of governments or powerholders in promoting culture? Does the sudden interest in the public good of culture signal tensions, wars and antagonisms?

The town hall of Kardzhali - a marvel of Socialist architecture

I conjured up the image of Plato calling for the poets to be chased out of the city – apparently at that time they were seen as bringing defeat at times of war. The Italian Renaissance flourished with the financial backing of families like the Medicis who were equally sophisticated in their taste for the Fine Arts and in the ways in which they disposed of their enemies. Some centuries later, during the Romantic period in Germany in the late 1800s, there was an unprecedented interested in Gothic warriors, grand Germanic poems and ballads and Superhumans. The two most devastating military conflicts followed in due course.

Of course, I do not think I have an answer like Plato or Stalin, who boarded some of Russia’s most gifted poets and intellectuals on the so-called ‘Boat of Poets’ and expelled them for good, in calling for a ban on culture. I have just observed some things and recalled others which made me want to share this.

My trip to Kardzhali (Turkish spelling – Kirçali) brought up some memories from the eighties. I must have been around four or five, the year was 1987 or 1988. My family, parents and grandparents, duly boarded grandpa’s Trabant and headed for a place called ‘Kardzhali’ which I had never heard of before. I was told that one of our relatives, who had become the director of the local puppet theatre the year before, had invited us to the premiere of one of the plays. My grandfather, a composer, had helped with the music. I do not remember what the play was, I just recall that the theatre was large, perhaps even bigger than its counterpart in Sofia, and recently built. There were many spectators, everything was really well organised. The cultural life, in retrospective, was booming in Kardzhali even if that I could not have made this precise conclusion at the age of five.

Looking back at this time – the cultural life of all Bulgaria was unprecedently taken care of in the second half of the eighties. The so-called ‘National Revival’ process provided the framework. Patriotic sites, commemorating the fallen heroes and marking the battles against the ‘Turkish slavery’ as the Ottoman rule was known, were well-kept and embellished with museums and monuments of often impressive dimensions. The majority of the writers’ and filmmakers’ guild, those whom the Party held dear, made a pretty good living out of ‘patriotic’ novels and movies. The Party’s gazette, Rabotnichesko Delo (a name which I have always had trouble translating, I thing the closest is ‘Worker’s Deed’ but it could also mean ‘Worker’s Work’ which is a tautology or ‘Worker’s Business’ which, however, sounds too capitalist) combined some historical features about the ‘heroic struggle against the Turks’ with reports about the threat to national security posed by the ‘Fifth Column of Imperialism’ – the Turkish minority in Bulgaria.

The patriotic fervour reached to the most ordinary everyday things – even toys. I remember, on a trip to visit my grandparents, who were at that time living in Bratislava, I bought a small yellow Alf toy. I knew the character from one of the few American series on Bulgarian TV at that time and, needless to say, made him my constant companion. Was I disappointed when my grandma belittled Alf with her own souvenir that she kept at home in Bratislava. It was an ugly (to me), disproportionately large (to the friendly little Alf) wood-and-rags toy of a Bulgarian shepherd in traditional costume. My grandma had named him Kalidko after a popular figure from the Communist mythology – a shepherd who was bringing food to the partisans and was shot by the gendarmerie during the war.

As a kid I could not know what was going on. Actually, even many adults could not get the right picture because of the mass propaganda of the regime and the distortion of information. Thinking about it, the scale and character of the propaganda, orchestrated by the Bulgarian Communist Party machine at that time, strikingly resembles the Milosevic campaign in the early 1990s. When I was still in pre-school, enjoying my trips to Kardzhali and Bratislava, one of the most shameful parts of Bulgarian history – perhaps even the most shameful – was taking place. Following some piecemeal repressions and renaming campaigns against the Turkish minority living in Bulgaria, the Totalitarian Zhivkov government decided to proceed with a full-scale renaming campaign. The Bulgarian Communist Party forced all citizens of Turkish origin to change their names and adopt Bulgarian ones. Birth certificates were corrected and grave inscriptions were effaced. Speaking of Turkish was forbidden. People who resisted the campaigns were shot at by police, military and special brigades and some were killed. Others were imprisoned or sent to the re-opened detention camp on the island of Belene. Some 300,000 fled to Turkey when the border was opened in 1989. The policy was one of total subjugation, suppression and expulsion of the ethnic Turks in Bulgaria. /to be continued/

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