15/02/2012

The Bulgarian Perspective

For a couple of days in the winter break, I and my American associate headed for the closest border crossing and ended up spending a few days in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.

Sofia is cold. I expected as much in a week when around 300 had already died in the East European snow, but it gets real when you can't feel your feet on a two walking tour of the city. Admittedly, I was ill-prepared with converse but that only became more apparent as the day wore on.

Demitra was our guide for the day - a history masters student, something always exciting to this humanities geek. 

The tour began at the High Court, with its impressive lion statues outside and continued up and down Sofia's wide boulevards passing churches, cathedrals, hotels, shopping centres, and old roman bath houses which had been later converted into churches, cathedrals, hotels and shopping centres. 

Bulgaria was carved out of the Ottoman Empire on Russia's demand via the treaty of San Sefano in 1877. Russia's various wars against the empire in the 19th century weakened the Ottomans and made Bulgaria not only independent, but sympathetic to Russia. Unlike most post-Soviet states in Eastern Europe, you get the sense that Bulgarians don't quite curse the day when the Red Army took over after the Second World War. Although the Nazis never occupied Bulgaria per se (they were allies), the old royal-bourgeois establishment was replaced by a functioning socialist state.

I had heard about the Bulgarian hatred of the Turks from those foreigners working in Turkey who go on 'visa runs' to Sofia for a day and shoot back to Istanbul with a freshly stamped three month visa in lieu of a work permit. I had also heard from those Thracian and Izmiri friends whose Muslim Turk families living in Bulgaria fled to Turkey in the early 90s. Rather than focusing on shifting from a communist to capitalist economic set-up, the Bulgarian government focused its efforts on removing the remnants of earlier oppressions. Rumour has it that Muslim marriages were invalidated and circumcision and halal meat was outlawed to promote a new sense of nationhood, again.

From one part of the city centre, suitably nicknamed "Tolerance Square," one can see in the same glimpse, a mosque built by Mimar Sinan, a glorious domed synagogue and the former "biggest church in the Balkans." However, alluding to the treatment of minorities in the times of distress, our guide noted the hollow optimism in such a nick-name.

I pinned Dimitre down in a coffee shop to ask why Bulgaria's historiography has focused more on pre-Soviet days as its moment of glorious struggle than other former bloc countries.

"That is a good question, firstly, I think Bulgarians are very passive people - they just accept their situation, so if it wasn't for the Russians Bulgaria would not have freed itself. I also think Bulgarians' natural sympathy to Russians [and thus to its ideology] meant that during the Soviet period they were spared the worst excesses of the regime, for example it was not like we had a Prague Spring moment where we said 'no'"

The mosque where one Turksih-Bulgarian worshiper, seeing me
stooping down to put on some converse in -18 degrees, shoved
 a 20 Euro in my pocket and told me to put something proper on my
feet before speeding away. 
More info:

Book a free (but worth giving a tip) tour of the city: http://www.freesofiatour.com/
Our back-backer hub of a hostel, internationally recognised and highly recommended, was called Hostel Mostel, right in the city: http://www.hostelmostel.com/



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