Ivan Vazov public domain photo van https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/da/BASA-937K-1-410-7-Ivan_Vazov_%28cropped%29.JPG
Reading Vazov to understand Bulgaria
A few years ago Bulgaria began to attract my interest, when family relations happened to extend into this Balkan country, about which I hardly knew anything then. In the last few years I got to know the country as a tourist and discovered that it has much to offer in terms of culture and nature. With my wife I even cycled from Vienna to Pleven along the Danube. In 2016 I decided to learn the language. This took longer than expected – a Slavic language poses its own problems – but my efforts have led to some moderate success.
I also got interested in the politics of this remote EU-country, especially when months of protests against the Borisov government in 2020 demonstrated some of the problems this country is facing. This stimulated my interest in the history and culture of Bulgaria, about which I knew so little.
Not only its recent past as a communist satellite state, but also its more remote past as part of the Ottoman (or Osman) empire, sets this country, like other Balkan states, apart from Western Europe. I had seen traces of the Ottoman past during our tourist travels and monuments referring to the ‘rebirth’ of the country (the ‘Vazrazhdane’) at the end of the nineteenth century. My wife and I visited the ‘Panorama’ museum in Pleven dedicated to the battle of the Bulgarians and Russians against the Turks (Ottomans), with romantic drawings picturing the heroism of the patriots and their Russian allies.
Of course I met the names of persons involved in the liberation and rebirth, like Levski and Rakovski, in streets and squares named after them. I saw heroic statues. I also developed an interest in the literature of that epoch, which puts the national narrative of Bulgaria into words. Ivan Vazov’s book ‘Under the Yoke’ (Pod igoto), about the failed April uprising of 1876, its preparation and aftermath, drew my attention. I learned that the book is still playing a role in the education of young Bulgarians, in spite of its antiquated language and romantic style. At a school in Sofia pupils meticulously copied the complete text of this book in their best handwriting as a contribution to the ‘patriotic cause’ (rodolyubito delo), something that had also happened a few years before in Mezdra. In Sofia, the copied text was offered ceremoniously to the mayor, mrs. Fandakova  (https://www.dnevnik.bg/analizi/predozirane/2020/12/03/4147083_predozirane_sedmoklasnici_prepisha_pod_igoto_na_ruka/ . This may have been an absurd excess of patriotism, but with his work Vazov did make essential contributions not only to the revival of the Bulgarian language, but also to the national consciousness. Gospodinov writes:
‘There are writers who invent the personal memories of a nation. Probably this applies to every literature. In ours, it seems to me, this is Vazov.’“Има писатели, които измислят личните спомени на един народ. Вероятно във всяка литература е така. В … Continue reading
This was a sufficient reason for me to delve into Vazov’s work. Since no adequate modern (Dutch of English) translation of his work seemed to be available and the Covid-19 pandemic gave me plenty of time, I decided to read the original text.The edition of 1888, published by JiaHu, apparently an machine-scanned text, containing a number of errors. It is identical to the version that can be found on the Internet: … Continue reading.The rich and partly antiquated language of Vazov constituted a challenge, but fortunately the story itself is not hard to follow. Specialized dictionariesEspecially helpful was the речник на бългаския език on the internet https://ibl.bas.bg/rbe/ suggested to me by a Bulgarian friend, a professional in the field of Bulgarian … Continue readinghelped me to understand words that are no longer part of the standard language. Despite the barriers of the language, I felt that reading Vazov brought me somewhat closer to the collective memory of the Bulgarians.
Under the Yoke: the romanticism of liberation and love
As the Bulgarian readers of this blog probably know, the book tells two intertwined stories in a large collection of short chapters (organized in three parts) with a common protagonist, who calls himself Boycho Ognyanov. Both are love stories: the first focuses on the love for Bulgaria, the driving force in the uprising, the second concerns the love between Boycho and the young teacher Rada and their tragic relationship until the moment they both die during the battle against the Turks. A tension between the patriotic and the personal love permeates the whole story, but apparently patriotism wins.
In the run-up to the uprising we get to know the little town of Byala Cherk(o)vaBoth spellings, черква and черкова, are used in the 1888 edition for the word that in modern Bulgarian is written църква. (‘White Church) and its inhabitants who represent a variety of roles and positions in Bulgarian society at the end of the nineteenth century. We meet conservative citizens who are in league with the Turkish oppressor, patriotic revolutionaries who are called ‘apostles’, a young intellectual who feels attracted to Russian socialism, members of the orthodox clergy with varying attitudes towards the emerging patriotic revolution, the local café owner and barber, whose shop also functions as a forum for political debate, and many others.
Step by step the small town is getting ripe for the revolution. This process is depicted as a play between persons with their motives and passions, in line with the romanticism of nineteenth century. The love story of Boycho and Rada fits in perfectly, and so does the inner conflict of the protagonist with his two incompatible passions. Others too, like the impulsive young doctor Sokolov, Boycho’s comrade-in-arms until the very end, or Stefchov, the major opponent of Boycho and loyal supporter of the Turks, are implicated in love affairs. These add colour and liveliness to the story and make the persons more human.
The book follows the preparations for the uprising and shows how the patriots get into a state of intoxication. Vazov writes about the ‘drunkenness of a nation.’  пиянството на един народ, part 2, chapter 16The drunkenness is followed by a hangover, when the uprising turns out to already have been crushed by the Turks, while Byala Cherkva was still waiting for it to begin. The death of Boycho, together with his companion Sokolov and his love Rada, marks the end of a struggle that had no chance to succeed from the very start. It is a beautiful, but also deeply sad story, which according to Gospodinov offers consolation to the nation. “I have always thought and I have written: Vazov is the great Bulgarian consolation. The great Bulgarian comforter.” “Винаги съм смятал и съм го писал: … Continue reading
Under the yoke expresses the new nationalism of the nineteenth century. The patriot, the ‘good Bulgarian’, is depicted in contrast with the ‘bad Turk’, but is also compared to bad, unreliable and selfish Bulgarians, who are not brave enough to turn against the oppressor and continue to collaborate with the Turks out of opportunism or self-interest. In the nationalism of that time, which Bulgaria shared with other Balkan countries, the myth of a return to a situation before the foreign oppression, plays an important role. Hence the term ‘rebirth’ for the revolutionary change taking place in Bulgaria. The narrative of a ‘pure Bulgaria’, untainted by foreign influences, is a myth however, as such a past has never existed in medieval or earlier times before the Ottoman empire.This interpretation is influenced by the work of Raymond Detrez, who show how the creation of the myth of a ‘pure’ national past was part of all liberation movements on the Balkan. Raymond … Continue reading
This emphasis on the roots of the nation in an idealized pure past makes the nationalism to which Vazov contributed romantic. The idea that a nation derives its identity from its past with which it has an unbroken relationship through its language and culture, was part of German romanticism and formulated by leading German philosophers like Herder (1744-1803) and Fichte (1762-1814). Comparable romantic ideas resonate in the Bulgarian revival or rebirth movement (vazrazhdane) to which Vazov’s work contributed. His story showed how the rebirth of Bulgaria demanded the courage of men – women do not play a central role in the struggle in his view – who can liberate the nation from the yoke of the foreign oppressor. Vazov’s story hardly pays any attention to the enemy as a human being. The Turk is mostly portrayed as the impersonation of evil, as a beast or a brute. Other non-Bulgarian people are not portrayed very positively either. ‘Gipsies’ (Tsigani), as the Roma were called, more than once play a negative key role as traitors. Circassians (Tserkezi), who are employed by the Turks, can also not be trusted and even the incidental Greek in the story turns out to be highly unreliable. The only foreigners that receive a really good press in Vazov’s book are other revolutionaries on the Balkan. Also in the work of Vazov, the growing awareness of a national identity, rooted in language and culture, seems to go together with a stereotyping of others and with the idea that within the boundaries of a national state there is no room for those belonging to another nation.
“Let’s not beat around the bush, we’re dealing with a horrendous fight of one nation against another. The Bulgarian soil is too narrow for the two nations.”
This is Boycho’s thought after leaving a mosque where he heard the preacher talk about a holy war that the Turks must wage in the name of Allah.In part 2, chapter 30: Значи, борба ужасна ще имаме, борба на народ с народ, да се не лъжем вече… Българската земя е … Continue reading The conflict between two mutually incompatible cultures cannot be bridged. Brave men, native culture and a struggle against foreigners are elements of a romantic nationalism that Vazov puts into words. The emphasis on ‘brave men’ in this nineteenth century romanticism also reflects the male bias of that time. Bravery is for men; women are emotional and sentimental. These gender stereotypes expressed in ‘Under the Yoke’, especially in Boycho and Rada as representation male heroism and female emotion.
Romanticism for 2021?
Vazov made an essential contribution to the collective memory of Bulgaria. This applies to the words, expressions and images from ‘Under the Yoke’ that have become part of Bulgarian language and culture. This is what Gospodinov was hinting at in his essay, in which he gave examples like the canon of cherry wood that every Bulgarian still knows today or the personalities of figures in the book that have become a kind of national types. But would the pupils who diligently copied the texts of ‘Under the Yoke’ not also have taken in the rather outdated romantic nationalism? Will they accept the outdated gender roles in the story? Have the teachers provided the necessary ‘instructions for use’ for the use of this old text in the context of a modern and European Bulgaria? In the late nineteenth century, romantic nationalism was an innovative force that enabled the creation of the ‘modern’ state of Bulgaria. At that time the conservatives were those who continued to support the Ottoman empire. As the history of Germany shows, however, this initially innovative nationalism can degenerate into a reactionary or even fascist doctrine. Patriotism may then become xenophobia and discrimination of minorities (Jews, Roma), and the love of the native language and culture may be transformed into narrow-minded provincialism. Heroism may become male chauvinism.
My knowledge of the Bulgarian situation is limited. I do see, however, that groups at the extreme right of side of politics adhere to values that seem to have affinity with those of Bulgarian patriots in Vazov’s time. I am thinking of the Bulgarian National Movement (IMRO) of Krasimir Karakachanov, who regard themselves as heirs of the liberation movement of the late nineteenth century. They have an extreme position in the political field of Bulgaria and are by no means representative for the country. Nevertheless, ideas of national identity and culture related to romantic nationalism still seem to play an important role in Bulgaria’s behavior towards its neighbors. In November 2020 the Borisov government of Bulgaria blocked the entry of North-Macedonia because of a conflict over the ‘Bulgarian’ nature of the Macedonian languageThe Guardian, 17 November 2020: During discussions by EU ministers on Tuesday, Bulgaria raised its opposition citing a failure of its neighbour to respect a shared history. It wants official EU … Continue reading. This centrality of language to the identity of a nation is a clear legacy of nineteenth century romantic nationalism.
So, how should one deal with the ideological component in Vazov’s work, rooted in nineteenth century romanticism, while acknowledging his important contribution to the Bulgarian language and culture? That is not a question for me to answer, but an important question for educators in Bulgaria. How will they develop a way to teach pupils to love their classics, while also encouraging an open debate on what his work means in the context of today’s society.
I would very much like to hear from my Bulgarian friends if discussions about this theme exist in Bulgaria and what different points of view exist. I assume that most intelligent people will agree that copying the book by hand is not the most productive strategy. But what is?
|↑1||public domain photo van https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/da/BASA-937K-1-410-7-Ivan_Vazov_%28cropped%29.JPG|
|↑3||“Има писатели, които измислят личните спомени на един народ. Вероятно във всяка литература е така. В нашата, струва ми се, това е Вазов.” Георги Господинов, невидимите кризи. Жанет, 2013. See also https://lira.bg/archives/73279.|
|↑4||The edition of 1888, published by JiaHu, apparently an machine-scanned text, containing a number of errors. It is identical to the version that can be found on the Internet: http://www.litclub.bg/library/bg/vasov/podigoto/index.htm I also used the first English translation of 1912 by Edwin Gosse. It was only of limited help as it was written in a rather antiquated English and contained many inaccuracies, apart from the fact that it was based on another edition than the JiaHu edition|
|↑5||Especially helpful was the речник на бългаския език on the internet https://ibl.bas.bg/rbe/ suggested to me by a Bulgarian friend, a professional in the field of Bulgarian language and education.|
|↑6||Both spellings, черква and черкова, are used in the 1888 edition for the word that in modern Bulgarian is written църква.|
|↑7||пиянството на един народ, part 2, chapter 16|
|↑8||“I have always thought and I have written: Vazov is the great Bulgarian consolation. The great Bulgarian comforter.” “Винаги съм смятал и съм го писал: Вазов е голямото българско утешение. Големият български утешител.”, see https://lira.bg/archives/73279|
|↑9||This interpretation is influenced by the work of Raymond Detrez, who show how the creation of the myth of a ‘pure’ national past was part of all liberation movements on the Balkan. Raymond Detrez, De Balkan: een geschiedenis. Antwerpen/Amsterdam: Houtekiet, 2019.|
|↑10||In part 2, chapter 30: Значи, борба ужасна ще имаме, борба на народ с народ, да се не лъжем вече… Българската земя е тясна за двете племена…|
|↑11||The Guardian, 17 November 2020: During discussions by EU ministers on Tuesday, Bulgaria raised its opposition citing a failure of its neighbour to respect a shared history. It wants official EU documents to avoid mention of the “Macedonian language”, which it insists derives from Bulgarian.|