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The Bulgarian Turn

February 14, 2013 ·

Not even the intelligentsia in Bulgaria are immune to the siren song of the new nationalism to which more and more Europeans are susceptible.

Not even the intelligentsia in Bulgaria are immune to the siren song of the new nationalism to which more and more Europeans are susceptible.

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

When I visited North Korea in the late 1990s, I ended up having the longest conversations with my interpreters. When you’re an infrequent visitor to that benighted country, it’s not possible to travel freely and talk to whomever you like. You invariably spend a lot of time eating and drinking with the people who have been vetted to interact with you. One of my interpreters had spent several years in New York City, could sing You Are the Sunshine of My Life, and spoke fondly of Jewish delicatessens. It was fascinating to talk with him, but I would never equate his opinions with those of an average North Korean.

On my recent trip to Bulgaria, in contrast, I could of course go anywhere and talk to anyone. But here too I had some very in-depth conversations with my interpreter, Vihra Gancheva, and these proved considerably more representative than my discussions with my North Korean guide. What I found particularly interesting was her evolution over the years toward a greater appreciation of Bulgarian ways. She didn’t go so far as to proclaim herself a Bulgarian nationalist. She preferred the designation “patriot.”

Our discussion was sparked by a meeting with Volen Siderov, the controversial leader of Ataka, an unabashedly populist-nationalist party. When we walked out of the meeting, Vihra remarked that he seemed much more sensible than she’d expected. I was surprised. She was a well-read intellectual who knew a great deal about the world outside Bulgaria. She did not, in other words, strike me as a natural constituent of Ataka. But it would be a mistake to assume that Bulgarian nationalism – or patriotism, as some would define their belief system – has no appeal for people who might otherwise appear to be cosmopolitan.

I asked Vihra if she thought there had been an increase in nationalism over the last two decades. She believed there had been. “If you had asked the question 20 years ago, I was a victim of Western influence back then,” she said. “I loved everything Western and hated everything Bulgarian. I was so ashamed at how Bulgarians worked and even attitudes toward hygiene (well, I’m still ashamed about hygiene). But back then I wanted to embrace everything Western. And now I realize that this shouldn’t have happened because we have our own way. We should try to learn, but we should not forget where we come from.”

She continued, “This rise of nationalism is, I suppose, a reaction to this, a shift in the opposite direction from what happened in the 1990s. I think it’s a natural thing.”

Interpreters translate language. But they also translate culture. Here, Vihra Gancheva interprets a certain cultural shift that has taken place since 1990 that might be called “the Bulgarian turn.” 

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall? 

Surprisingly when I thought hard about it, I couldn’t remember when I heard about the Berlin Wall falling. Information wasn’t coming so quickly to us back then. I remember hearing rumors about it. But I didn’t actually believe them because communist propaganda was very strong at the time. And I didn’t trust rumors. I thought they were just deliberate rumors.

Besides, I was not interested in politics at all. I was 23. I was in my third year at university. I was as far as possible from politics or anything related to news. It took me about 10 days to become completely hooked. I embraced the whole thing. It didn’t happen immediately because I was busy doing other things.

When I came home on the 10th of November in the evening, my mother told me that Todor Zhivkov was forced to step down or he was ousted. I wasn’t impressed. I said, “They’ll replace him, it’s not a big deal.” Incidentally it was meant to be not a very big deal. I believe it was a coup d’etat. At that time, I hated this idea because I don’t like conspiracy theories. I don’t like imagining a bunch of crooks sitting around a table like Greek gods deciding the fate of the nation. I thought it was something that we had earned through street protests and rallies. But 20 years on, I realize that this was not the case. It was a coup d’état, and it had been organized for several years, maybe since the mid-1980s.

There was a point when the Communist Party thought that things were getting out of hand. They were not prepared for the hatred that poured out at them. They thought that they could control everything, as they did in Russia perhaps and are still doing. But the hatred from the Bulgarian people was so strong that there were street fights because someone called the other person “comrade,” even though people were just saying it out of habit. Even the choice of words placed you with the Communist Party or against it. People accused each other of being members of the Party.

I remember being so excited about it all. I stopped going to school. I only went to school to see the list of rallies and decide which one to go to. I remember when Demokratsia newspaper was being printed. It was not sold in kiosks because the kiosks were run by the establishment. People stood at corners selling the newspaper. I remember getting up early just to buy it. I bought so many newspapers, and I still have them somewhere at home. The articles were so interesting, so cleverly written. It was an enlightenment that I went through.

My grandfathers were both members of the Communist Party — since the 1930s when it was progressive to be a communist, when it was about liberating the people, the workforce, social welfare. One of my grandfathers was expelled from university for communist propaganda. He was even sent to a kind of prison in Greece. My parents were among those few who refused to become members of the Communist Party. It was a great honor to be invited. And if you refuse, it’s weird. But my parents found some excuse. It was a problem for their career afterwards, but they survived.

For me, it was never an option because I hated the meetings. It was such a waste of time, such a cliché, all those set phrases that the communists used. There was a “military movement of the children” that was like the Boy Scouts but with communist propaganda. The communists were very clever to invite the more active children, the conscientious pupils who wanted to progress in life, to become leaders of these organizations. As one of these pupils, I was also invited. I was bored to death! I couldn’t stand it. But at the time, when you’re so young, you can’t protest. I’m not a fighter. I was just bored. For me, communism was something to be endured.

On the other hand, I was so scared by the threat of a war that I thought that the collapse of communism would mean World War III. Years later when I realized that the Americans were living in fear of Russia, I laughed. There’s this poem — Xotyat li Russkie Voyni? – Do the Russians Want War? – by Yevtushenko. For me this was laughable, but now I realize that there was some reason for this fear. But anyway, I lived in fear and I remember when SALT II was signed, I was worried: will they sign it? Will there be peace?

Communists were there to be endured. My idea at the time was that we should just live our lives trying not to cross their paths. Later I realized how brainwashed I’d been. I knew nothing about the concentration camps. Of course I knew about Belene, but I thought this was only a problem for the first years after the war. I had no idea that these things were still happening — probably because my family and my immediate friends were not affected. I trusted the police completely. I trusted them more than I do now! I was definitely not politically minded.

But when this process started and I started reading and realizing the way things were, I was really shocked. I hated the Communists so much. When I hear good things said about the Party, about the leaders, it just gives me the creeps. Although I must admit that they are well-educated, smooth talkers. The former prime minister from this party, he was a much better educated and sophisticated person than the current prime minister. But the previous government was one of the worst. It made so many mistakes. Though some people say that it introduced some economic benefits through the taxation process that benefited anyone but the poor who are their electorate.

In 1989, we realized that anyone could become a politician. Before that politics was a place reserved only for the political elite, for the communist bourgeoisie. Then, in 1989, there was such turmoil that anybody could make it. This is also a bad thing too, because a lot of people ended up as politicians without being prepared in any way. They were not even good professionals. On the other hand, there were some good professionals who became politicians and made policies.

After the elections of June 1990 my hopes were crushed very quickly. There was a famous rally of one million people on Eagle’s Bridge. I was there and so excited and full of hope, and I was sure that Bulgaria would become like Austria in a couple years. The next day was election day. And then we realized that the Communist Party would be in power and everything would be the same. I remember going to the party headquarters of the UDF on Rakovsky Street, and I sat there with hundreds of other people on the pavement and we were in a stupor. I didn’t cry, but I felt as if someone had died. It was so sad and hopeless and stupid. I was angry, but mainly I was disappointed.

Were you tempted at that time to join the City of Truth?

Yes, from the ideological point of view. But I didn’t do it because I wasn’t ready to sacrifice my comfort at home. I was not much of a revolutionary. I went there every evening and spoke to people and signed petitions. I did whatever I thought I could. But I didn’t join. Surprisingly, none of my friends joined. We were all excited about it. We worried that the police would come and chase them away, but nobody decided to live there.

When you think back to 1989 and 1990, do you think this shift came along just at the right time personally for you?

Yes, it came at the right time for me to appreciate it fully. Honestly, if I had been younger, I wouldn’t have been able to understand it much. If I had been older, I would have been cynical about it. I was very open. I embraced it. I reveled in my naiveté. There were so many people who said, “Don’t believe these guys. They’re the same. They are only thinking about their own gain.” But I didn’t want to listen. I believed them, although I didn’t join a party. Party life is not something that I’m after. I never joined a party, never even considered it. Maybe that’s my nature. I prefer to be an observer than an activist.

How about your parents? How did they react?

Luckily, we were on the same side. We went together to rallies. We discussed things at home. We cursed at the communist propaganda on TV. We were worried about whether there would be enough paper for Demokratsia. I say “luckily” because there were families where this was a major problem. I can understand that this could be a serious problem. Even nowadays, when I meet people, I try to ask a question quite early on — not whether they support the Communist Party, it’s not that simple any more — but to understand what kind of frame of mind the person has, to know where to place them. Maybe this is prejudice. I have friends who vote for the Bulgarian Socialist Party. I don’t like that part about them. I accept them, but with reservations.

Did you think about going abroad after your disappointment? Did you talk about it with your circle of friends?

All the time. This was the topic that everyone was discussing. But I don’t think any of my close friends actually left. First, we didn’t have exit visas, but then exit visas were dropped in the 1990s, quite early on. I wanted to travel. When I went to Bratislava in the early 1980s I had a cultural shock because it was so much better than Bulgaria in terms of goods. My consumerism was stirred for the first time. I went to a stationery shop and I said, “I’m not leaving here!” I loved everything about it. Even Slovakia was better off back then.

Travelling around was something we cherished. I still can’t say that I’m widely travelled. I wish that I could say that. It’s a matter of money, mainly. Of course we talked about emigration. Surprisingly 20 years on, this is still a hot topic at dinner parties, between friends. It’s still an issue because Bulgarians keep emigrating in new waves every couple years. This is very sad. One million people from the active population, ambitious people with professions, have left the country. It’s very sad. It’s one of the worst outcomes of the changes.

And I still have friends who are seriously talking about leaving. But I don’t think they’ll ever do it. In order to emigrate you have to sever all the ties with the past. And I don’t think we’re ready for that. I’m middle class. I’ve always been. And I don’t want to become an immigrant. I don’t even want to work abroad, well, maybe for a couple years, but only if there’s a time limit on it. Maybe I’m too much of a nationalist, I don’t know. And I think I have too much here to give up. Those people who are poor, who have no family relations, who have no jobs, for them, it’s easier to emigrate. I have a good life here. Why should I give it up? 

Do you feel any pride about staying behind?

I don’t know. The pride of being here to endure…

Or to help build the country?

Actually this is an interesting discussion. The Bulgarians who emigrated always say that only the ones who are no good stayed, and we who stayed say that those with nothing to lose left. This is a never-ending discussion. There’s no clear answer to it. Maybe I am proud. If I had emigrated, I would have felt uprooted and lost, because only a few years after leaving your country you feel neither with your own people nor with the people of the other country. This is the way I was raised. I’m not much of a cosmopolitan. I would love to travel for a year in the United States, for instance, this would be a life’s dream. But living there, settling down? I can’t imagine myself doing that.

It’s interesting that you don’t consider yourself much of a cosmopolitan. But your job is very cosmopolitan.

Yes, it is. And it’s getting even more so. Maybe the upbringing that I received during communism, all this patriotism that was instilled in us, is strong in me. I have a love for the Bulgarian language. I can’t imagine my children speaking Bulgarian with an accent. I think that this is disgusting. So many Bulgarians speak English to their children just so that they don’t learn Bulgarian. And I think this is outrageous. I have an interest in other nations, which is one of the characteristics of being cosmopolitan. But apart from that….Maybe I like Bulgaria too much.

That’s a good segue into your evaluation of how much Bulgaria has changed or hasn’t changed since 1989. What score would you give it, on a scale of one to 10, with one being dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

I would say 6, even though I was deeply disappointed. Still, after 2000 and after Bulgaria joined the EU, things changed for the better here in many ways. Bulgaria is a better place to be. The cities look better. The highways look better. So, I think that we are on the right track.

But things in Bulgaria are moving very slowly because this is our mentality, which is the result of our 500 years of Turkish occupation. We have the Turkish occupation and the Russian occupation to use as excuse, but I think the Turkish occupation was the worst. It just changed Bulgaria completely forever. We are slow, we don’t make decisions. The decision-making process in Bulgaria is absolutely corrupt. Nobody wants to commit to a decision. They always push decisions upward. And then the prime minister has to decide simple, silly things. And things don’t happen because the prime minister can’t do every single thing in the country. People don’t take responsibility. They just sit back and wait for the storm to pass. We just kill time and wait for the problem to hit the bone, as we say. Once the bone is hit, then we might be stirred to action.

As far as my personal life is concerned, I would say 6 or 7 because I think first of all, one should be thankful for what one has — for being healthy, for having a job, for being able to express freely what you think. I didn’t say 10 because there are a lot of things in life that I didn’t do. As I said, many of my classmates are millionaires, and I’m far from that. 

How would your life be different if you were a millionaire?

I don’t know! I think that money corrupts. I don’t want to be a millionaire. One of the problems in Bulgarian society nowadays is that we allowed ourselves to be corrupted by money. But it’s inevitable. Once the market economy starts commanding things, consumerism comes in and money comes into play. In the past, in communist times, it was considered bad taste to ask someone about money, to ask even about how much you paid for these shoes. We never asked that question. Nowadays, it’s become much more common to talk about salaries, about debt, car prices. I don’t like this. It’s definitely a drawback. And I’ve become a person whose life is ruled by money too, as much as I dislike it. Of course I could have become like a hermit and lived in the mountains, and I’m sure I would have planted potatoes. But I’m not that kind of person. So I don’t want to be a millionaire.

There is no free lunch, you know. It’s a trade-off. Even if you don’t make your hands dirty with some illegal business – because millionaires in Bulgaria are not really self-made — you should work very hard. And perhaps I don’t want to work that hard.

And how about the future of Bulgaria, on a scale of one to 10 with one being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

Having in mind what the Mayans predicted for December 21, 2012, I prefer to think positively. I hope that my life will turn for the better. I have no way but to hope. I think that’s the right frame of mind. If you’re down, you can only go further down. So, 7. Maybe I’m too naive but I think that being naive makes you closer to childhood. If you’re too cynical — though I’m quite cynical too — but if you’re cynical all the time, it makes you old.

On several occasions you’ve said that maybe you’re a Bulgarian nationalist. You love the language. You like living here. Presumably you know a lot about Bulgarian history…

Not as much as I should.

If you were talking to a fellow Bulgarian, would you call yourself a Bulgarian nationalist?

Maybe not a nationalist, but a Bulgarian patriot. In the past, we distinguished between being a nationalist and a patriot. I still think I’m a patriot rather than a nationalist. Progress in life doesn’t depend on your genes or your nationality. It depends on the chances that you are given in life and on some gifts that should be allowed to evolve. But I like Bulgaria and I’m very sorry that it’s developing so poorly.

Do you feel like there has been an increase in nationalism in Bulgaria?

Yes, I think so. If you had asked the question 20 years ago, I was a victim of Western influence back then. I loved everything Western and hated everything Bulgarian. I was so ashamed at how Bulgarians worked and even attitudes toward hygiene (well, I’m still ashamed about hygiene). But back then I wanted to embrace everything Western. And now I realize that this shouldn’t have happened because we have our own way. We should try to learn, but we should not forget where we come from.

This rise of nationalism is, I suppose, a reaction to this, a shift in the opposite direction from what happened in the 1990s. I think it’s a natural thing. When you give too much liberalism to one group, the other group wants its own position back. It’s always a trade-off. I think that given what happened with the Roma population over the years, nationalism was inevitable. Even people who had no frame of mind of the sort became nationalists after seeing what happened. We have nothing against anyone provided they pay their taxes and are law-abiding citizens.

Is there something today that you do that, 22 years ago, you would have made a choice to do in a Western way?

Maybe it’s my frame of mind not so much what I do. Well, I read Bulgarian books today, which I didn’t do in the past. Twenty years ago, I only read the English or American books that I could get hold of. But this was related to my job, my studies. Maybe I don’t hate the Bulgarian style so much. I’ve found something charming about it. Back then, I was definitely against it. I was keen to become totally different: to work totally hard, to adopt a different mentality just to be different. Now I realize that it’s not possible, not necessary, and it can’t happen. 

And your decision-making skills?

I’m very bad at decisions. I try to imagine myself in both ways and I can’t. I definitely put things off until the last moment, just like the Bulgarian that I’m proud to be! But there are some things that I feel strongly about. The nuclear power plant, for instance.

Yes or no? 

Definitely not. I’m an environmentalist too. My father said if everyone was hesitant like me, mankind would still be in the primordial soup.

You’re a freelancer. Was there a point at which you left an office job to become a freelancer?

I worked for the government for a day and a half, as an interpreter for the minister of energy. That was my charity work, and I was done with it. I’ve worked other office jobs, with very strict, long hours. I was lucky to land a corporate job in 1991. It was my first employment, and I learned a lot there about corporate culture.

But one should find the office environment that corresponds to one’s age and frame of mind. A fresh graduate can work hard, do long hours. But as I grew older, I decided I needed more freedom. I became a teacher for a private school, teaching English to adults. I enjoyed that freedom. Then I got back into business. I became a freelancer in 2005, which is not very long ago. But I can’t imagine myself back in an office. I hope that the crisis will not get that bad to force me to do it. 

How is the situation in Bulgaria for freelancers?

It’s quite bad because the demand is not very high and the supply of translators and interpreters is very high. It used to be great in 2007, but then we joined the EU, which changed the kind of work we were supposed to do. Then the crisis started, and companies stopped having trainings and workshops and conferences. They just reduced these activities to the limit.

Do you consider yourself a European? 

Yes, I would say that I’m a European. I’m proud of Bulgaria’s history, especially the ancient history. Back then, Bulgaria was a European power. No question about it. Culturally, Bulgaria was quite strong too. I’m okay with being European.

How do you feel about Bulgaria’s integration into Europe? Did you have the same hopes around that as you did in 1989-90?

As for the European Union, we also had high hopes, but it came too late. Of course I realize that Bulgaria and Romania were not ready to join. We were let in for political reasons, mainly to sever our links to Russia. And I think that this has saved us. Knowing our sentiments toward Russia, we would have always been their satellite. We still are. We are the Trojan Horse of the Russians in the EU. Everyone says that, it’s not a secret at all. And I’m sorry about that, but that’s the way things are. People here just like the Russians.

The Lukoil gas stations are very nice.

The owner of Lukoil is a good friend of the former Bulgarian president and of the current prime minister: he’s friends with everyone. I think that a lot of things can be explained with that.

As far as the EU is concerned, some cynics said that now that Bulgaria is in the EU, the EU will collapse. It didn’t look like that in 2007, but now one starts wondering if this might not happen quite soon. It’s good for us to be placed within certain limits, for rules to be imposed on us. We tend to wander off because we’re so undisciplined.

On the other hand, the EU is so bureaucratic. If you consider how much money is wasted, even on the translation of documents. They translate every single directive into Gaelic. This is ridiculous. In a time of crisis, why not invest this money into something more normal? I don’t think the EU is very productive, the way it is dealing with the crisis. But we have no other choice. So I’m glad that we joined the EU, although we were not ready to do it. But I don’t want us to join the Shengen area because I don’t want so many immigrants to come and live in Bulgaria. We have a lot of people to give social assistance to, even without the Africans or Asians coming here. 

Even though Bulgaria’s population has lost 1.5 million people…?

Yes, but these are the working people who left. I realize that Bulgaria is very sparsely populated. I realize we can’t be a vacuum for long. Bulgaria is a beautiful country, with a beautiful climate, beautiful food. We will be populated by somebody. But we should work on bringing over the ethnic Bulgarians living in Moldova. There’s a large group living there that’s not doing very well in terms of their ethnic rights. The Macedonians are also welcome, of course!

Sofia, September 30, 2012