Consequences of the Turkish rule on contemporary political thought in Bulgaria


Irina Sotirova
Sofia University


Bulgaria fell completely under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in 1396. For years before that, however, the Bulgarian state had been divided in parts and had ceased to exist as a unified structure. Bulgarian territories within the Ottoman Empire were completely deprived of any form of self-government. Bulgarian administrative bodies at all levels were replaced by the authorities of the Ottoman Empire. This continued for five whole centuries, up to 1878, when Bulgaria was liberated as a result of the Russian-Turkish War. These five centuries have remained in the national mentality as “the Turkish slavery”.
Formally, there was never slavery on Bulgarian territory. Even the most humiliated Bulgarians could not be killed at a whim or sold, they had their own property, families, freedom of movement, they were Christians, etc. In reality, however, they were slaves within the Ottoman Empire since they did not have the right to express their own political will and were subjugated to foreign political rule. In many cases, the rights of the Bulgarian ethnos were observed on paper only. Bulgarian folklore songs tell about cruel Turkish acts related to forcefully imposing the Islam religion, dispossession, kidnapping of women and the terrible “blood tax” – the taking of children to be trained in the elite Ottoman military core – the so-called enichari.
It can be seen that the Ottoman Empire consciously and through formally punishable acts aimed to deprive the Bulgarian people of all attributes of national self-awareness: their own state, education, religion, language and rituals. The results of this legalized and “illegal” violence became a reality soon enough. The Bulgarian people forgot that centuries before, their state was the third most powerful in Europe, equal to the Byzantine and Roman Empires. They were deprived of schools and proper textbooks to open their eyes to their glorious past as a people and maintain their national pride. Together with the administrative prohibitions, there were also the purely spiritual barriers, resulting from the Byzantine patriarchate. On paper, the Christian religion was recognized in the Ottoman Empire. Bulgarian settlements had their own churches, although many of them were destroyed and turned into mosques. The most devastating effect on the Bulgarian spirit, however, was due to the inclusion of the Bulgarian church in the Byzantine patriarchate. The church was ruled by the Greek clergy. Service was held in Greek. Religious books were in Greek and the work of the saint brothers Cyril and Methodius, the authors of our alphabet, fell into oblivion. As we can see, what we call “slavery” was implemented in two ways: the state, through the Ottoman rule, and the spiritual, through the rule of the Byzantine church.
The lack of an autonomous Bulgarian government at all levels and the lack of an autonomous national self-awareness led to an integral result – the elimination of the belief that anything depends on the individual’s decisions. The people turned into rayah – a population deprived of rights, carrying out foreign will in all aspects of public life. These circumstances quite naturally led to the lack of any form of political activity and, respectively, political thought. Since everything is determined by a hostile rule both in the social and the spiritual areas, there is no hope that good can come about as a result of personal initiative and individual efforts. The only thing the Bulgarian people could expect from the next day to come was that it will be worse than the present. That is why their prayers were “let it not become worse.” A number of proverbs survived the centuries, the Turkish rule, and are still used today. They show that the perception of evil as something inevitable, the pointlessness of resistance and personal initiative are elements of the political thought of today. A frequently heard saying is “let us choose the lesser of two evils”. When the personality factor is excluded from the fight with evil, what follows naturally is the irrational, semi-mythological and semi-theocratic figures of rescue. Bulgarian folk tales contain the image of Krali Marko, standing over several mountains, watching over the safety of the Bulgarian people and liberating the wronged from their oppressors. Towards the end of the Turkish rule, the national intellect gives birth to the collective image of “Grandpa Ivan” – that of the Russian people who, led by their emperor, will come and liberate their enslaved Slavic brothers. Several decades before the Liberation, the “haidouk” [“outlaws”, rebels”] roamed the country – individual avengers who had left their families and undertook surprise attacks against the Turkish rule. They acted without a clear philosophy, political or revolutionary program. That is why in the national mind they were perceived both as heroes, who install fear into the Ottoman authorities, and local villains, who cannot unite enough followers around a common liberation movement. The haidouks remain isolated from the oppressed Bulgarian people, who cannot see an opportunity for self-expression. In the last years before the Liberation, there were rebel troops which sometimes comprised a hundred or more rebels. These troops, however, developed their own initiative without being united under a common command, common strategy, central supply of arms, food, etc. The impressive activities of the Bulgarian national hero Vasil Levski for the organization of common liberation committees died out after he was captured and hanged. His death deepened the feeling of being in a dead-lock and the lack of faith in personal strength for liberation.
In the end, the Bulgarian State was restored in 1878 as a result of the Russian-Turkish war. The Russian occupation administration was quickly replaced with a Bulgarian one. A constitution was adopted. The protection of the state became the responsibility of the Bulgarian army. Internal order was maintained by a police. Schools were opened for all ages, including for girls. There was higher education in Sofia University and scientific research was carried out by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Centralized healthcare was established. The Bulgarian church was now completely autonomous and service was held in Bulgarian. The Bulgarian voting law was unique for the time in that it granted political rights to women as well.
As we can see, all the components of a completely independently functioning and even democratic state were present even before the end of the 19th century. Industry, agriculture, trade, educational and cultural activities developed. In a purely political aspect, however, the heritage from the Turkish rule hindered the development of political thought. Soon after the Liberation, people who fought side by side turned on each other. Political repression and even assassinations became common practice. Political struggles were determined by individual ambitions. “Political parties” came on the political stage which, according to the phrase of the time, “comprise a carriage of people”. Since Bulgarian society has no traditions in political life, personal interests take over the public ones. It is very difficult to make a difference in the political programs of the parties that participate in the elections. From one election to the next, the ruling party changes, but the principle “Let’s choose the lesser of two evils” remains defining for the voters. Throughout the period from the liberation to the end of World War II, there are no several consecutive years during which Bulgaria can boast a successful and unquestionable rule. Moreover, there are long intervals in which the country is ruled by single-party governments that come to power through a coup, fascist cabinets, and a total ban on political parties and political activity. Naturally, these periods do nothing for the growth of modern political thought in the Bulgarian population. On the contrary, the lack of normal political parties to protect the interests of social circles and classes stimulates political profiteering, buying votes, pre-election lies and corruption. At the beginning of the 20th century, the great Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov creates his character Bai Ganyo. This is a collective image of the average Bulgarian – concerned only about his personal interest, unaware that by ignoring the collective interests it is often he who suffers. Bai Ganyo is an individualist in the absolute sense of the word. His political motto is “I am no opposition” and he uses all means to come to power – both allowed and not. Naturally, there can be no question of a political doctrine. The means Bai Ganyo uses in his pre-election campaigns are often comical, but they have become emblematic of contemporary political leaders, too. Bai Ganyo still lives today, multiplied in many political shades. For the past one hundred years, the jokes about Bai Ganyo have been increasing in number. This shows that the political product of the Turkish slavery continues to live in the Bulgarian mind to the present day.
At the end of 1944 Bulgaria sees drastic political and social changes. In World War II Bulgaria is an ally in the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis. The Hitleristic coalition, including Bulgaria, is defeated. The monarchy fascistic rule is brought down. Bulgaria is occupied by Soviet forces within the Anti-Hitleristic coalition. A coalition government comprising democratic and anti-fascist parties is established. For the second time in Bulgarian history, political liberation comes from outside. The first time it comes with the Russian forces, the second – with the Soviet. During the war, while Bulgaria is an ally of the fascists, there is not a sufficiently powerful resistance like the ones in Yugoslavia and Greece. It can be said that in a certain period Bulgaria manages to achieve some of its national goals – the annexation of originally Bulgarian territories seized by Serbia, Greece and Romania after previous wars. The return of the Bulgarian territories is seen by the Bulgarian people as a victory of historical justice. This justice, however, is once again not the result of own efforts, but the will of the powerful ally – Germany – and it does not contribute anything to the growth of a political consciousness. On the contrary, the Bai Ganyo model thrives, victory is not dependent on personal actions but on the choice of the right powerful ally. Naturally, the powerful ally has a price and that price is most often giving up independent thought, i.e. to one extent or another, slavery.
Very soon after the establishment of a socialist rule following the Soviet model, all elements of democratic thought are eliminated. In practice, the only party that remains is the communist one. Opposition is eliminated both in the political and physical sense. Private property, the basis of individual independence, and hence, independent political thought, becomes state property. Villagers are forced to enter into cooperatives, similar to the Soviet kolhozi, in which they own no share, nor have a say in their management. Education is dogmatized in line with the principles of Marxism and Leninism and Soviet history. All contacts with western educational establishments are terminated. Education and post-education abroad in the western countries is impossible. Bulgaria is economically bound with the other socialist countries and part of the Warsaw Treaty in military terms.
We can see that almost half a century of the new Bulgarian history reproduces the model from the “Turkish slavery” – elimination of all attempts at independent political thought. The situation changes drastically in November 1989 when the single-party rule is taken down from power, a lot of the old political parties are re-established and many new ones are founded, complete freedom of speech and press is given and the first democratic elections take place soon after. A new, non-communist constitution is adopted. Free market economy is established. Years later, Bulgaria becomes a member of NATO, and then the European Union. As we can see, all prerequisites for the modern political thought at work in traditionally democratic states have now been present in Bulgaria for more than 20 years. The heritage of the “Turkish slavery” in the political psyche of the Bulgarian people, however, remains. Today, it is once again expressed in individual passiveness, the wish for “somebody else to do the work”. In Bulgaria there are still no political parties in the traditional sense of the word – political organizations to protect the interests of different social classes. In words, the Bulgarian Socialist Party carries out a left-wing policy protecting the poor, but in reality, when it is the ruling party, it works for the large businesses. The opposition parties, representing themselves as right-wing, do not really encourage the development of businesses, when they come to power, they embrace populism and work for the interests of the circles that finance them. In this picture, the voter cannot see his place as one of the force determining who the Member of Parliament will be, or the cabinet. A major principle, just like in the times of the Turkish rule, is “nothing depends on me”. When there are elections, nobody votes on the basis of political programs, but the “lesser evil” principle. Bulgarian vote is entirely negative. In the first democratic elections, the majority voted against the communists. Then, disappointed, the majority voted against the democrats. Disappointed once again, just so they do not vote for the ex-communists or the democrats, the majority voted for the former tzar, Simeon II. His election clearly demonstrated the psyche from the Turkish rule period – the “tzar” was to play the role of Krali Marko and save the Bulgarian people single-handedly. It is indicative that when he won the elections, he did not even have a political party behind him, not to mention a political program. The Bulgarian voter votes for his “saviour”. Disappointed by the tzar too, at the latest elections people voted for a leader who in their eyes impersonates “the strong hand”. He also won the elections without an actual political party or a detailed political program. Thus, he is also the individual saviour – yet another Krali Marko who will punish the “bad guys”. The constant implementation of the “lesser evil” principle, practiced for five centuries during the Turkish rule, makes it very hard to imagine where and how the political “good” will come from. The Bulgarian voter has not realized yet that in order to enjoy an actual improvement in his own style of living, he needs to make investments by being active. As long as he sits and waits for liberation to come from above, he will always be threatened by yet another encounter with evil.
Disappointed by their political reality for centuries, one in which they do not feel they belong, Bulgarians are once again looking beyond the borders of the country – towards the European Union. Although Bulgarians are EU citizens, they are waiting on other EU citizens to install order and law in their own country, stop corruption, punish the guilty and restore the stolen funds. The only solution to eliminating the slave-like expectation of salvation “from above” and activating the individual political thought is for the Bulgarian to start living with the democratic traditions of the European community he is now irreversibly a member of.