It wasn’t until I visited Bulgaria that I realized what a challenging history it’s had. It lies between the River Danube (with Romania) to the north, the Black Sea to the east, Greece and Turkey to the south and Serbia and Macedonia to the west. Historically, its borders have always been under threat and, over the centuries, they have expanded and contracted. 5000 years ago, they were invaded by the Thracians who came from Asia, bringing the Bronze Age with them. The Romans, coming up from the south, staked their claim to the country in the 1st century AD. In AD 300, the Emperor Constantine moved his capital to nearby Byzantium, renamed it Constantinople and Bulgaria, inevitably, became part of his Empire. By the 9th century, Bulgaria had converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity.

Nessebar: Greek Orthodox Church of Christ Pantokrator

Geographically, any migrants coming from Asia have to come through Bulgaria; the Slavs came in the late 5th century, bringing their language with them. They were followed in the 7th century by the Bulgars who gave the country the name we know it by today. The Byzantine Empire gradually weakened, as Empires do, and the Ottoman Turks took over; from 1393 to 1878, Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks introduced their cuisine (I love their bread), business acumen and wonderful pottery.

With this history, it’s easy to understand why the Bulgarians fought for freedom from their various overlords. Eventually, the Ottoman Empire, too, weakened and, eventually, thanks to the Russo-Turkish War, Bulgaria became an independent state in 1878. But the price was to be heavy.

Nessebar: Room in Ottoman Merchant’s House

In Bulgarian folklore, Russia, peopled by fellow Slavs, had been traditionally thought of as ‘Grandfather Ivan’, the personification of a benevolent Russia who would always support Bulgaria. When the Second World War broke out, Bulgaria tried to remain neutral, but failed. Hitler marched in and Bulgaria again sought help from ‘Grandfather Ivan’. But it’s one thing to invite another country in to help and, as they discovered, quite another to get them to go home when the war was won.

A stern Soviet-era lion guards the tomb of the unknown warrior in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia

‘Grandfather Ivan’ remained, though no longer viewed as benevolent, and Bulgaria became part of the Soviet Union. When the Russians eventually left in 1996, Bulgaria was left to cope with the seemingly intractable problems of making the forced Soviet collective farms work, coupled with years of under-investment. The Soviet Union cancelled its deals with Bulgaria to buy its fruit and vegetables; the unhappy result was that the hitherto profitable farms could no longer sell their produce. The countryside was abandoned as the young left to find work elsewhere.

View from Karanovo Tell: beautiful scenery but no evidence of farming, and no animals

When I visited, I was shocked and saddened to see miles of abandoned farmland with almost no sheep or cows. Most of the villages looked deserted, apart from a few old people struggling to tend a smallholding. A few donkeys carried heavy, lop-sided loads, and that was about it.

Junk shop selling Soviet memorabilia. The draped scarlet flag has a hammer and sickle sewn onto it

What made me hopeful for Bulgaria’s future was the pragmatic, occasionally humorous way the Bulgarians treat their Soviet past. For example, the junk shop above sells Soviet relics: medals, helmets, Soviet flags with the hammer and sickle, you name it, it’s probably there.

Near Otrusha, roadside shop selling old Soviet cars and bits of machinery

And by the road side near Otrusha we came across a long corrugated iron roofed building with old Soviet cars parked on top. A miscellany of motoring bits and pieces cluttered up the space underneath.

Board outside Museum at Varna

Our guide told us what it was like, living under Soviet domination, ‘We were always being ordered about: don’t drop litter, look smart, be proud of the Soviet Union…’

The board outside the museum at Varna telling you what you couldn’t do also looked like a Soviet relic. I was amused by the gun with the ‘forbidden’ line through it – as though bringing guns into museums was an everyday occurrence – but perhaps it was.

Old Soviet artefacts outside Varna Naval Museum

Next to the Naval Museum in Varna, there is a collection of old Soviet naval artefacts. They don’t attract much attention from passers by. I decided that that boded well; Bulgaria is plainly a country that can move on.

Traditional wooden house in Nessebar

A traditional wooden house in Nessebar happily mixes old and new. Upstairs the washing hangs out on the balcony of an old Turkish-style house as it has probably done for the last couple of hundred years; outside, a yellow sign saying WESTERN UNION indicates that American advertising has arrived, and a modern, Western car waits in the road.

Stara Zagora military band

I liked the informal Military Band we saw in the park at Stars Zagora. Nobody felt they had to stand to attention and life went on happily around the band playing. It looked as if they were all enjoying themselves.

Changing of the Guard outside the Sofia Presidency Building

Before the Second World War, Bulgaria had had a monarchy. After the death of his father in 1943, King Symeon II was crowned but went into exile in 1946, aged nine, after a referendum overthrew the monarchy. When the Communist regime fell in 1996, the king, now aged 59, returned to a warm welcome. The monarchy was not restored but, nevertheless, King Symeon set up his own party: The National Movement for Stability and Progress and was elected Prime Minister, serving from 2001-2005. He did his best but, inevitably, things moved too slowly and he lost the next election.

The government gave him back the royal palace in Sofia which had been confiscated in 1946, together with its large park. The king accepted the palace but gifted the park back to the citizens of Sofia.

The uniforms of the soldiers pictured above changing guard are definitely not Soviet. It’s good to know that Bulgaria can bring back what it wants of the old ways, i.e. the uniform. They can also decide not to restore the monarchy but still elect Symeon II as Prime Minister. They don’t have to have things in black and white, they can compromise in the way which best suits them.

Bulgaria’s national motto is ‘Unity Makes Strength’; and Bulgaria seems to have learnt that other difficult lesson: ‘Diversity Also Makes Strength’.

Elizabeth Hawksley

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2 Responses to Bulgaria: Towards the Future

  • Did not know any of this history. Fascinating. I imagine it’s an interesting place to visit, especially with the mix of old and new.

    • You are right, Elizabeth. I actually went to Bulgaria to see their spectacular Thracian tombs and the gold objects found inside them; I had no idea how much else there was: beautiful Roman glass; top quality Neolithic pottery – which can equal anything modern potters can offer; and a fascinating, turbulent history. I admired their resilience and I just love their rose hand cream, and the variety of local honeys!