The line above is part of the ballade of paradoxes, or *Ballade Du Concours de Blois, by 15th-century French poet Francois Villon (1432-1463). One translation here, an alternative one with parallel French text here. In Bulgarian, which boasts a superb translation of Villon, the title of this ballade is translated as “A Ballade of the Reverse Truths,” and indeed, it is exactly this.
With all the caution that must accompany such statements, I have to say this – I believe this line goes a long way toward explaining the specific Bulgarian mindset that may be the underlying reason of all our troubles of at least two centuries back.
It is essentially this – we have an inferiority complex which grows stronger by each subsequent national failure. In the same time, we’re as proud as lions and refuse to consider our own role in our fate, which causes this fate to repeat itself time and again. On top of this, we have chosen to feed our exorbitant pride with a fixation on our past of slavery, which tag we have quite masochistically awarded to many hierarchical political or religious structures we’ve been part of.
Thus, we boast a rich herbarium of slavery – Ottoman slavery, a concurrent Byzantine ecclesiastical slavery, a pre-Ottoman Byzantine political slavery, a Russian post-liberation slavery, and a Soviet slavery. As I write this, we’re seriously pondering adding EU or refugee slavery to the collection. Too bad that we fail to recognise the only actual slavery we’re suffering from – the slavery of our collective Bulgarian mind which cherishes or invents facts but does rather poorly at drawing conclusions.
If you’ve followed by blog with any regularity, you’d know that this is not the first time that I’m writing on this. What’s prompted me now, is the soul searching I have been doing since Easter, when I thankfully discovered the works and opinions of Mr. Georgi Todorov, theologian, journalist and former editor of The Church of Bulgaria Gazette (Църковен вестник), a publication that has been in constant print since 1900. I realise that Mr. Todorov is a human, meaning opinionated and fallible, but still, his books, interviews and articles have offered me a glimpse of the meaning of centuries of Bulgarian history that nobody else has offered me before. Come to think of it, that’s not surprising at all, as opinions running against the grain of our national egoism, cult and ideal are the ultimate taboo.
According to Mr. Todorov and in line with what I’ve already hinted at, what’s wrong with us, Bulgarians, is that we lack intellectual maturity, we’re passionate, and can’t think. Thus, we’re in a very bad position as politicians, politics being a science of making the most of what’s possible. What’s even more wrong with us, is that we’re arrogant and refuse to see and acknowledge our mistakes and repent for them, which means stop making them and start doing the opposite. Thus, we experience failure over and over again, and each failure strengthens in us our self-perception of innocent victimhood, sweetened by pride in ourselves and hatred for our enemies.
There isn’t a living Bulgarian past the age of seven, who won’t tell you that the holy trinity of slavery, liberation, and freedom holds a special place in the Bulgarian mind, national character, and literature. Nevermind that the younger generations are so far removed from that reality that they don’t understand either its language, or the motivation of its protagonists, many of whom not older than 30, meaning they should be easy to relate to today.
What adds to the general incomprehension is that these protagonists are treated almost as saints and martyrs by textbooks and most of the scientific literature, and many historians have made careers out of reciting mind-blowing details of who went where, wrote to whom, said what, did what, took note of what, ate what, and so on. What not many have ventured to publicly suggest for fear of stoning, however, is that – while not for a moment downplaying our heroes’ paramount impact on our history – we should take a break from idolising them to realise something.
And it is this – these 19th-century heroes of ours, both those inside Bulgaria and those in exile, were indeed the best we had, but they were also semi-literate youths, passionate, short-tempered, and influenced by the revolutionary utopia visions and the rise of the nations that swept across Europe in the 19th century. What they did with the April uprising and all the plotting against the Ottomans, was a revolution against a legitimate power, which entailed subversive action and (documented!) murders of innocent people (Bulgarian co-nationals if this is important) on suspicions of treason. Revolutionary organisations are not states, they don’t hold trials and don’t administer justice on the presumption of innocence, so arbitrariness is simply how they act, the end apparently justifying the means.
The end, however, is a man-made idea that obviously considers itself more important than the imperative to not kill other humans. However, if we disregard imperatives, being allergic to a hierarchy of any kind, then anything goes, and my ideas become as good as anybody else’s. If we have a road accident casualty, the guilty driver has perhaps had an idea too. Maybe he had quarreled with his wife or was in a hurry. Terrorists and common mass murderers also have some pretty good ideas of their own, as did the militant communists who staged the People’s Tribunal the whole Bulgarian nation of today condemns as illegitimate and a crime. So sometimes collateral victims are fine, while other times they aren’t, and our stance on the subject mostly depends on how these collateral deaths affect us. Everything being relative, you know. And we, individuals, being the last instance of everything.
The fact that Bulgaria got its liberation in spite of the failure of the April uprising may suggest that perhaps this uprising had not been necessary at all. The fact that the USSR collapsed on its own after several short decades of lunacy means that Marx and Engels were wrong, and the proletarian revolution was not unavoidable. The fact that our communist regime collapsed peacefully from the inside means that it was not unavoidable as well, and all those deaths in the 1940s were completely unnecessary.
Did Bulgaria ever talk of this? It didn’t. It developed a personality cult of the revolutionaries instead, it suggested making Vasil Levski a saint, and it has never properly addressed communism. I won’t even mention Bulgaria’s disastrous fall in the Balkan Wars and WWI, but this has never been talked over as well. The resulting wall of silence has nipped in the bud attempts at coming to grips with what has actually happened, and woe to those who dare publicly open the box of Pandora.
The thing is, if you’re a small state that can’t beat an empire, you think, you listen, you wait, you don’t decimate your youths in revolts and ill-thought-over wars, but you keep them healthy, strong and intelligent, you network, you cultivate qualities enabling you to stand on your own when the time comes. Small states do need to know what they’re about, but they also need to learn sensing from where the wind blows as they’re not sufficiently powerful to make wind blow by themselves. That’s not weakness, that’s strategy, patience, and making the most of what’s possible. That’s winning the war mentally, which causes events to happen naturally.
Another thing is this, Bulgaria’s centuries of secluded existence as part of the Ottoman Empire has prevented it from developing moderate, reasonable, and cultured intelligentsia, and the Ottoman Empire’s legitimate (and quite cruel) action against the April revolutionaries has deprived them from the possibility to realise and repent if not for all of their actions, at least for the collateral deaths they’ve caused later in life. Their prominence in the Bulgarian society would have made their repentance very important to the intellectual and emotional growth of the nation. But they died as prodigal sons in the blaze of their glory instead, leaving Bulgaria in need of heroes and with little choice but to glorify their arbitrariness and passion, without the counterbalancing effect of their repentance.
Thus, by the time we were free and happily back on the map of Europe as the cliche goes, we were already swimming deep in the slavery-revolution-failure-compensatory pride quagmire. Those who praise revolution need a past of slavery, and generations of Bulgarians have been diligently taught that the Ottoman dominion was exactly that. Although perhaps it wasn’t, at least not entirely. Too bad that historians who occasionally venture such an opinion risk a near public lynch.
Bulgarians were subjects of the Ottoman Empire, and they were tax payers. Slaves are property themselves, while Bulgarians owned property such as houses and land. Many, even of quite humble origins, could afford to send their children to study abroad in the 19th century in particular. The beautiful homes of wealthy Bulgarians built under the Ottomans are still standing in the Balkan towns of Koprivshtitsa, or Tryavna, or Arbanasi. We still take pride in the many crafts and the rosa damascena business Bulgarians engaged in under the Ottomans. What we currently call Bulgarian cuisine is in fact quite Ottoman too, and our kilims, sofras, and minders can be encountered across Asia Minor right up to Afghanistan.
Thus our only link to our past and prosperity before the Ottomans is our Orthodox faith, which is perhaps also the cure of our allergy to imperatives, and also of our impatience, foolhardiness, pride, and arrogance. We don’t need more tales of revolution, more hatred, and more feeling that we’ve been shortchanged. We’ve shortchanged ourselves by having immaturely decided that we can achieve some absolute freedom, which we understand as a lack of hierarchy and of shared values altogether. We need guidance, and man-made ideas are not guidance. Those that might be, such as UN-sactioned human rights, come from religion anyway.
To embrace human rights and then oppose their instance of origin rather equates one to present-day immigrants who flock to Europe to claim social benefits and respect for their rights, while in the same time fighting that which has made them possible.
I believe that this, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of man, and of nations today.
PS. Rhodope by Hesychia.