Not many things to mind when Bulgaria is mentioned. Someone might know that Julia Kristeva originally came from Bulgaria, or that in the 2000 Olympics the whole Australian weightlifting team spoke Bulgarian (they had emigrated en masse). And it is not always clear to people exactly where Bulgaria is – somewhere in Europe, perhaps in the eastern part. I must admit that I was one of these people, largely ignorant of what, who and where Bulgaria is.
So we came to Sofia by train from Belgrade, a slow ride in an ancient rattler that took far longer than the listed time of six hours. It boasted a mythical dining car that was nowhere to be found and nicotine that could be scraped off the windows. The train had a tendency to hurtle down hills and crawl up them. It stopped for an eternity at the border, with men in uniform peering at my passport, hammering underneath and crawling through the roof looking for smugglers. First impressions of Sofia? A massive railway station at night, a couple of stray dogs, a friendly and helpful taxi driver who gave us a tour of the city while looking for a small hotel, and a bustling city that was a full of traffic, peeling cement rendering, a teetering brick or two that might literally fall on one’s head, much renovation, a Professor of French from Romania with whom I shared my accommodation and with whom I spoke French.
But I was not after these things – I could have found them anywhere. There was a deeper forgotten history that I slowly started to uncover: the recent and mixed legacy of stringent Marxism; an unknown classical past; the role of religion after communism; and the beautiful women.
Let me begin with the austere topic of Marxism. Part of my work as a writer and a critic is to explore the intersections between Marxism and the Bible. How deeply do some of Marxism’s greatest thinkers rely on the Bible and theology? And what are the possibilities for Marxist interpretations of the Bible? So coming to a ‘post-communist’ country, especially one in which the communism in question was of a very orthodox kind, I knew I was going to come face to face with the legacy of what has been called ironically ‘actually existing communism’.
But I had no romantic illusions, no nostalgia for some mythical Golden Age that had been destroyed by those devious and mean capitalists. What I found was a range of feelings. In endless discussions – over the ubiquitous coffee and cigarette – what came through time and again was the memory of the excitement of 1989, the profound sense – for a brief period – that anything was possible. Some felt ‘good riddance’ to communism, that communism was merely a screen for the brutal exercise of power by some human beings. Others felt that for all its flaws it was better than capitalism, and others saw the ambiguities, the gains and losses of the present. The question I kept asking – ‘but when the changes took place in ’89, did you imagine it would turn out like this?’ – was answered in as many ways as the reader can imagine, although the overwhelming sense was that the present (2005) didn’t live up to the hopes of that time when everything seemed possible.
I noticed the donkeys and carts in the country and was told that with the privatisation of land after the end of communism, many farmers could not afford machinery and had therefore gone back to hand harvesting and animal power. In the cities they were allowed again and the gypsies used them. I constantly negotiated the broken footpaths and barking dogs and was told that the communists had maintained the cities and kept the dogs off the streets; all of this had happened since the end of communism. It takes only a few years for a city to look run down.
One person excused the enthusiastic embracing the worst of US capitalism by saying that Bulgarians were not yet very good at being capitalist, but another pointed out that they are exceedingly good – they know how to be very ‘creative’ with the money of other people. Often it seemed to me that there was a rapid imposition of an ill-fitting capitalism over a much older layer that was in some way not comfortable with it. In fact, it seemed to me that Bulgarians are so deeply socialist in their assumptions and beliefs that they are not even aware of it. The assumptions of how a society should work with a widespread ‘safety network’ as it is called – medicine, adequate holidays, maternity leave, condition of employment, schools and universities without fees and so on – are anathema to the market economists having their way in the USA, Australia and other places. And if they have their way, all these and many other things will disappear too in Bulgaria.
In other cases, however, nothing much had changed. In the amazing town of Plovdiv, where I stood by a Thracian Wall, we walked through the old central square – the one where the party headquarters were and the parades were held and so on. The old red flags of the communist era had gone… only to be replaced by the red propaganda and umbrellas of Coca-Cola.
So much for this more recent past that everyone (in the West at least) would rather forget as an anomaly of history. But there was a far deeper and older past of Bulgaria that is well and truly forgotten. I had studied Classics at university, focussing of course on the languages and cultures of Greece and Rome and India – an agenda set long ago in the universities of Western Europe. That study of Classics had both an unquestioned time-line and an unquestioned geography. The time-line ran from ancient Greece through Rome to Western Europe, especially the German tribes and the development of Medieval Europe. On the way this artificial time-line conveniently forgot what we know now as the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
There was also a certain geography to that study that just did not include what became Bulgaria. For some reason or other Greece, the fount of European culture and philosophy, always was assumed to be a ‘Western’ country. Yet, if you glance at the map you can see that it is a Balkan country, smack bang in the middle of what is the ‘East’ as far as Europe is concerned. In other words, what hit me with flabbergasting force in Bulgaria is that this was the seat of the classical world. Macedonia is just across the border to the south, speaking what is really a dialect of Bulgarian. This is where Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great hailed from. Bulgaria and Romania to the north were old stamping grounds of the Romans, so much so that a string of later emperors came from this area.
I should not, therefore, have been surprised to stand by the ancient defensive wall of Plovdiv and find layers that ran back through the Romans, Greeks and Macedonians to the Thracians. But I was surprised. I was embarrassed – I should have known. But I didn’t. Plovdiv was the ancient Roman city of Trimontium, a glittering city that stunned all who travelled there. One merely has to walk around the old centre of Plovdiv to see its past everywhere. Around one corner is a Roman amphitheatre, around another the columns of a temple or a collection of statues that have not yet found a home.
What remains with me above all is the small red-brick church within the Presidential Palace back in Sofia, the capital. Its origins are a little obscure, with claims that it was built in the second or third centuries CE, depending on what I read. What struck me was that it was built before the conversion of Constantine the Great in CE 314, before the first Christian Roman Emperor. In other words, it was built before Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. That meant that this little red-brick church was built during a period of uncertainty, when Christians were still persecuted as a weird and dangerous sect, a cult that many believed brainwashed its members and did strange things in secret. As I stood within this church, I wondered. Did the enigmatic Constantine visit this tiny church before he became emperor? After all, he came from this area. What of the centuries of Muslim worship? It had been converted into a mosque for a long time, its original Christian mosaics covered over. What is its status now in a post-communist, secular Bulgaria? This little church also made me realise that many of the issues with which Western Europe and its outposts such as Australia and the USA struggle, such as living with Islam and a thoroughly secular appreciation of religion, are struggles of the past in Bulgaria. Or rather, there is a sense in which Bulgaria is far in advance of the West in these matters.
That small red church in the middle of Sofia reminds me of the other great forgotten part of Bulgaria. Before I arrived I wondered whether there would be evidence of a great religious revival after communism. Had the overthrow of communism unleashed a covert love of religion among the people? If we were to believe the reports of the Western media, then with religious ‘freedom’ people were flocking to the churches.
What I found was a recovery of the role of religion in Bulgaria’s history. For instance, the carefully preserved icons from the 11th century in the basement of the Nevsky Cathedral are astonishing. Rila Monastery, which I visited with my hosts, is a stunning place, set in the hills with the colours of autumn delicately balanced by the stones of the building. Yet there was no religious revival to speak of, unless one means the occasional wandering ecstatic prophet who promises instant salvation to those who come to hear him. All that I noticed about the Orthodox Church was that it did seem to have a lot of money from somewhere: the theological college in Sofia was undergoing expensive renovations and was freshly painted. And Rila Monastery was in rather good condition, with further renovation work going on there as well.
By and large, however, Bulgaria turned out to be a thoroughly secular country. Forty-four years of an official atheistic policy have left their marks on a generation or two, although there is no militant atheism – rather, a secure secularism. It is an approach to religion that leaves the West still in the dark ages, with an increasingly fundamentalist Christianity battling it out with an increasingly fundamentalist Islam. Perhaps because of its tumultuous history, it seems to me that these forgotten parts of Bulgaria have something to offer, especially on the matter of religion. The secure secularism of Bulgaria came home to me in the smoky chapel at Rila Monastery. With the walls stained by centuries of burning oil candles, so much so that the paintings and icons on the walls had all become blurry and smudged, people with no overt religious belief still bought a candle or two, placed them at various points in the chapel and paused for a thought.