what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

In the mists of Bulgaria's past

Bulgaria has a long and proud history – reaching back 1300 years. Sofia is Europe’s second oldest capital…..Tribes and foreign armies have ravaged its territory for thousands of years…..

The Isihia music group gives us a haunting ensemble here of painting and music to help fix that reality in our minds.
And a 1980s film about the nation’s first ruler - Han Asparuh is a stirring 2 hour view (with sub-titles) which also makes us aware of the emptiness of Holywood epics……

Initially I could find only one history book but am now beginning to develop the beginnings of a serious library….of which three books are the mainstay -
-  “The Rose of the Balkans – a short history of Bulgaria” by Ivan Iltchev (Colibri 2005) – a delightful read (with good graphics) by the Dean of Sofia University who has also produced several other books on modern Bulgarian history
Short History of Modern Bulgaria  RJ Crampton (1987)
Historical Dictionary of Bulgaria Raymon Detrez (the Scarecrow Press 2006) – an amazing find (thanks to The National Library of Scotland). 900 pages of information (of which no less than 100 pages are a bibliography of books and articles available in the English language!!) All freely downloadable!!

One of the main Sofia thoroughfares is Stamboulski St which I had assumed was a reference to Istanbul (if I had given half a thought to the Ottoman Empire, I should have known better!!).
In fact it refers to one of Bulgaria’s most prominent 20th Century politicians whose massive statue towers over the entrance to the Opera House - 
One book clearly worth reading on him is Peasants in power: Alexander Stamboliski and the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union, 1899-1923  by John Bell (1977) which a review summarized usefully thus -

The Bulgarian Agrarian National Union (BANU) was a left-populist political party based in the rural areas of Bulgaria. They briefly held power from 1919 to 1923, under the charismatic leadership of Alexander Stamboliski. In 1923, the BANU government was overthrown by a military coup. Stamboliski was arrested and tortured to death.
Bulgarian politics almost a century ago may seem like a somewhat obscure and esoteric subject (unless you are Bulgarian!), but the history of the BANU have broader implications. During the 20th century, modernization have essentially only taken two paths: capitalist modernization or socialist modernization. The latter path eventually proved unviable, unless one counts present-day China as still being socialist. Stamboliski and the BANU attempted a third way to modernization: a path based on neither the bourgeoisie nor "the working class" (actually a socialist state bureaucracy), but rather on the peasantry. They attempted to turn Bulgaria into some kind of non-capitalist, non-socialist system based on peasant private property and cooperatives. The ultimate goal of the BANU was to replace parliamentary democracy with an "estatist" organization based on the professional organizations of peasants, artisans and workers. ("Estatist" as in based on estates.) Apparently, this was a vaguely left-wing version of corporatism.
What makes the BANU interesting, is precisely that their commitment to the peasantry wasn't a call for anti-modernism or Throne and Altar conservative politics. Stamboliski was a freethinker who had studied Darwin, Renan and Bernstein. He opposed both the Bulgarian monarchy, the military and the nationalist wars of expansion carried out by a number of Bulgarian governments. He wanted modernization, but a modernization that would benefit the peasantry rather than squeeze them in the usual fashion.
Stamboliski believed that private property was legitimate as long as it was acquired through individual or family labour. He therefore opposed big landowners and called for a far-reaching land reform. In power, Stamboliski used the power of the state to carry out a radical redistribution of land. The BANU also encouraged the creation of cooperatives in agriculture, fishing and forestry. The Bulgarian government established a virtual monopoly on foreign trade in grain and tobacco, which led to the peasants getting higher prices for their products. A system of virtual rent controls was instituted to ease the burdens of the homeless after World War One. The government also set up a compulsory labour service to mobilize workers and peasants to build new roads, clean the streets of the towns, etc.
What this shows, of course, is that the idea of a radical redistribution of property without using the power of the state, is utopian. No matter whether the goal is to abolish private property, or merely to redistribute it, the power of the state is necessary. (The only exception would be a situation of general societal breakdown, at which point the local communities would presumably help themselves to whatever part of "big business" happens to be in their backyard.)
Another thing that intrigued me when reading "Peasants in power" was the peaceful foreign policy advocated by the BANU. As already indicated, Stamboliski absolutely opposed the foreign expansionism of the previous Bulgarian governments and their bizarre allies, the terrorist organization IMRO. Opposing the tide of Greater Bulgarian nationalism against Turks, Greeks, Serbs and Rumanians must have been difficult, but Stamboliski stood his ground. Eventually the BANU got the support of a plurality of the Bulgarian voters, who were sick and tired of all the loosing wars. In power, Stamboliski called for a Balkan federation and sought rapprochement with Yugoslavia, the traditional enemy of Bulgaria in all things Balkan.
Eventually, Stamboliski and his radical populist regime were overthrown by a bloody right wing coup. That the traditional circles in Bulgaria opposed the BANU is hardly surprising. To them, the BANU was "Bolshevist". The IMRO, a Macedonian terrorist organization with a substantial following in Bulgaria, also opposed the BANU and assassinated several of its ministers already before the coup. The IMRO wanted Bulgaria to attack the Serbs or the Greeks (or both!) in order to regain all of Macedonia for a Greater Bulgaria, a bizarre but typically nationalist project. Russian White Guards (stationed in Bulgaria at the prodding of the Allies) had been implicated in an earlier coup attempt, and resented Stamboliski's thaw with the Soviet Union.
Tragically, the BANU was also opposed by the other left-wing parties. The Broad Socialists (Social Democrats) opposed the BANU. So did the Communist Party, which viewed the conflicts between Stamboliski and the right-wing as an internal "bourgeois" conflict. Only after the overthrow and murder of Stamboliski did the Communists enter an alliance with the BANU, but their joint uprising against the new regime failed completely, and brutal repression followed.
For rather obvious reasons, nobody can tell how world history would have looked like, had a "Green" path to modernization been chosen, rather than the "Blue" or "Red" paths actually followed, or if such a path is even feasible. Still, "Peasants in power" is an interesting and fascinating read about a little known episode in that world history...
Other English language books on Bulgaria clearly worth reading are -
The Iron Fist ;– inside the archives of the Bulgarian Secret Police Alex Dmitrova (2007)
Voices from the Gulag – life and death in communist Bulgaria (1999) looks in harrowing detail at this period of Bulgaria’s history
- Papers of the American Research Center in Sofia (2014); a very impressive collection of monographs on different aspects of Balkan history eg about commerce between Brasov and Vidin in the 15th century!!

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