what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Friday, February 27, 2015

Survival in Romania

I referred briefly yesterday to the scandal which is currently gripping Romania – that of ex-Presidential candidate Elena Udrea. Anyone familiar with the writings of Tom Gallagher would have evinced not an iota of surprise at the revelations of greed and illegality. They loomed large in his most recent book on the country - Romania and the European Union – how the weak vanquished the strong which had followed his 2005 book Theft of a Nation itemising the kleptomania which has been a feature of the country’s political class for centuries….. 

Yesterday’s post used the phrase “consumerist amorality” of contemporary Romania – the last word alluding to Edward Banfield’s study in the early 1950s of a small town in southern Italy whose inhabitants displayed loyalty only to the members of their nuclear family and who had absolutely no sense of social responsibility for wider circles. The book (published in 1955) was called “The Moral Basis of a Backward Society” 

Banfield concluded that the town's plight was rooted in the distrust, envy and suspicion displayed by its inhabitants' relations with each other. Fellow citizens would refuse to help one another, except where one's own personal material gain was at stake. Many attempted to hinder their neighbours from attaining success, believing that others' good fortune would inevitably harm their own interests. "Montegrano"'s citizens viewed their village life as little more than a battleground. Consequently, there prevailed social isolation and poverty—and an inability to work together to solve common social problems, or even to pool common resources and talents to build infrastructure or common economic concerns.

"Montegrano"'s inhabitants were not unique nor inherently more impious than other people. But for quite a few reasons: historical and cultural, they did not have what he termed "social capital"—the habits, norms, attitudes and networks that motivate folk to work for the common good.
This stress on the nuclear family over the interest of the citizenry, he called the ethos of ‘amoral familism’. This he argued was probably created by the combination of certain land-tenure conditions, a high mortality rate, and the absence of other community building institutions.

Sixty years later, Ronnie Smith profiled (in “City Compass Guide Romania”) the ordinary Romanian in a similar way -

If you are fortunate enough to drive in Bucharest you will witness what is probably the clearest evidence of mass individualism in global human society. Romanian people, of all shapes, sizes, social and educational backgrounds and income brackets will do things in their cars that display a total disregard for sanity and other drivers.
Manoeuvres such as parking in the middle of the street, u-turning on highways without any warning and weaving between lanes in heavy traffic at 150 kilometres per hour are commonplace and point to an extreme lack of concern for the safety or even the simple existence of others.
The next time you are waiting to get on a plane at Henri Coandă airport, take a little time to observe how queuing in an orderly and effective manner is clearly regarded as an af­front to the sovereignty of the Romanian individual. Enjoy the spectacle of the pushing, shoving and general intimida­tion that follows the arrival of the airport staff to supervise boarding. Even while watching an international rugby test match you will only occasionally see the same intense level of barely controlled aggression.

Outside of their core social networks Romanians closely follow the rule stating that it is every man, woman and child for themselves. ……There is an opinion poll, published in early 2012, show­ing that around 90 percent of the Romanian population regards almost all of their compatriots as utterly untrust­worthy and incompetent. At the same time 90 percent, possibly the same 90 percent, see themselves as being abso­lutely beyond reproach. This is clearly an extreme response no matter how you view it and provides evidence of an ex­traordinary and troubling imbalance within the generality of Romania’s social relationships.
There is a well-known prayer in Romania, which roughly goes: “Dear God, if my goat is so ill that it will die, please make sure that my neighbour’s goat dies too.”

So what does this commonality suggest? The EU’s first Ambassador here was Karen Fogg who gave every consultant who came here in the early 1990s (like me) a summary of what can be seen as the follow-up to Banfield’s book – Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work – civic traditions in Italy (1993) which suggested that the laggardly nature of southern Italian Regions was due entirely to this “amoral familism”.  Putnam made an even greater play oF missing “social capital” – indeed spawned an incredible technocratic literature on the concept and ideas on how it could be “engineered” to deal with the new alienation of modern capitalism..

Romanian communism, of course, had almost 50 years to inculcate more cooperative attitudes and behaviour – but the forced nature of “collective farms”; the forced migration of villagers to urban areas to drive industrialisation; and the scale of Securitate spying created a society where, paradoxically, even fewer could trusted anyone.      
From 1990 the market became God; Reagan and Thatcher had glorified greed; the state was bad; and television – which had been limited by Ceaucescu to 2 hours a day - the great good……As the commercial stations and journals spread, the values of instant gratification became dominant. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the average Romanian seems to behave in such an aggressive and selfish if not amoral way………

Grancea’s article on “the concept of freedom in Romania” may be a very bad translation but does emphasise a crucial point – that the words foreign business men, consultants and academics have brought to Romania do not resonate in people’s minds the way we imagine them to…..They have in fact become simply another series of verbal weapons to use in the struggle for position..........
Almost 5 years ago I quoted this poem –

Watch him when he opens
His bulging words – justice
Fraternity, freedom, internationalism, peace,
peace, peace. Make it your custom
to pay no heed
to his frank look, his visa, his stamps
and signatures. Make it
your duty to spread out their contents
in a clear light
Nobody with such language
Has nothing to declare

My E-book Mapping Romania - notes on an unfinished journey tries, in various places, to deal with some of these cultural aspects - particularly section 7.2 at page 31 and all the annexes

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Two funerals and a scandal

Attending funerals was one of the things which I did as a senior Regional politician in the 1970s and 1980s – as the older officials in the ranks of our professional advisers passed away. As I changed countries and roles in 1990, only the street procession of an Azeri President’s funeral registered – until my mother’s own funeral in 2005.

But this past week has seen two funerals of older friends in this part of the world. First, in Sofia on Friday that of my friend Vihra’s father – from whom I always received a warm welcome in her gallery.
And yesterday we bade farewell to Maritsa our neighbour for 15 years in the Carpathian village I call home.

Both were Orthodox ceremonies but provided sharp contrasts – partly because I witnessed only the church ceremony in Sofia but mainly because of the different settings. Rural funeral ceremonies are permitted the traditional “wake” and horse-drawn “carriage” when the open coffin lies on an open cart amidst the mourners who accompany the body, carrying the wreaths (in this case almost 100) from the house to the church – stopping every few minutes for prayers.
We had arrived at 17.00 the previous evening just as the night’s “wake” was starting – Maritsa had been dressed in the costume of the area and she and her grieving husband Viciu were surrounded by  friends, relatives and neighbours….It was to be a long night for him. At 07.00 he was still able to smile as we shared a coffee – but he seemed a broken man as he stepped out at midday to accompany Maritsa on the last long walk to the church….The two had shared a warm marriage for 64 years….

The evening and morning provided quite a few choice vignettes as the entire village and surrounding area turned out for one of the area’s important social occasions. Of course, the mayor was in his element with such an opportunity to network and negotiate – although, sitting next to Viciu and me in the kitchen, he totally ignored Viciu and proceeded to chat at length with a city official about the budget!      

The week so far in Romania has been a powerful one – one of six books I picked up in Bucharest’s English Bookshop was Mike Ormsby’s book of short stories (indeed sketches) - Never Mind the Balkans, here’s Romania which capture incredibly well the consumerist amorality which has penetrated so quickly into the soul of Romanians……I refer (discretely) to this in several places in my E-book on the country - Mapping Romania - notes on an unfinished journey, particularly in the section on films which mentioned a tough portrayal of contemporary Romania - Child’s Pose -  which received the top award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival but which we found a bit too close for comfort.
One cold evening in March, Barbu is tearing down the streets 50 kilometres per hour over the speed limit when he knocks down a child. The boy dies shortly after the accident. A prison sentence of between three and fifteen years awaits. High time for his mother, Cornelia, to intervene.
A trained architect and member of Romania’s upper class, who graces her bookshelves with unread Herta Müller novels and is fond of flashing her purse full of credit cards, she commences her campaign to save her lethargic, languishing son. Bribes, she hopes, will persuade the witnesses to give false statements. Even the parents of the dead child might be appeased by some cash.
Călin Peter Netzer, the film’s director, portrays a mother consumed by self-love in her struggle to save her lost son and her own, long since riven family. In quasi-documentary style, the film meticulously reconstructs the events of one night and the days that follow, providing insights into the moral malaise of Romania’s bourgeoisie and throwing into sharp relief the state of institutions such as the police and the judiciary.
 A detailed review of the film can be read here. It is a good example of the strength of familial loyalty in the country (see Annexes for more on this theme)

The media these past few weeks have been full of the scandal of one Presidential candidate in the autumn elections – Elena Udrea – whose misuse of funds was caught by various surveillance devices and friend and husband’s confessions. I’ll write more on this in a later post since this affair is a typical mixture of soap opera and the Italian Tangentopoli scandal of the early 1990s which Perry Anderson has brilliantly dissected on several occasions
I have no intention of recycling the facts which are being endlessly regurgitated by journalists here – rather I will try to put them all in the context of the way Romanian society has “developed” in the 25 years since Ceaucescu fell.   

Florin Grancea is one Romanian who has tried to do this in 2006 with his Inside the mechanisms of Romanian modernisation; and gave a shorter (but pretty opaque) piece a couple of years later on “the concept of Freedom” 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Profiling the art market

Angela Minkova has set me a challenge.  She is a quirky Bulgarian artist who deserves to be better known. The previous post carries one of her artefacts I have in my Carpathian mountain house – and today’s one of her Balchik prints (which also occupies a prominent place there).

I am not an art dealer – rather a writer, networker and art collector (of Bulgarian paintings) – but she has asked me for help in raising her profile.
She is not alone in feeling somewhat frustrated and anxious. It is, of course, the quintessential fate of artists – but particularly of those from small, poorer countries on Europe’s periphery which have only the vaguest of profiles…In Bulgaria’s case …..the Black Sea, skiing, wine and ……poisoned umbrella tips….

Traditionally artists have needed galleries to display their paintings – whether individually or in special exhibitions – but the internet now offers an additional, more direct, route to the buyer. There are a lot of private galleries in Sofia – but (currently) no guide to them for the visitor. The annotated list I have in my book Bulgarian Encounters – a cultural romp focuses on the small galleries selling mainly the classic painters of the early part of the last century – and identifies 17 in this category.
There are at least that number selling contemporary art – although only a few with owners who identify and actively promote quality work. My friend Vihra’s Astry Gallery is the most prominent of these – and she occasionally takes work for exhibition in European capitals.   

So the question these days for Bulgarian artists is – how should they best promote themselves?
The choices are various - through
- traditional galleries – individual paintings/ special exhibitions/ group exhibitions?
- word of mouth?
- websites – own sites or individual entries in “gateway”  or portal sites such as SaatchiArt?
- portals - marketing contemporary Bulgarian painting eg ModernBulgarianArtists
- Facebook?

The answer is simple – through all of these routes! As is argued in this well-written article which gives great tips for artists – from a site full of much better advice than I’m capable of giving
My initial thought had been to target some of Europe’s art critics – but the article shows the error in such an approach. I strongly advise you to read the article and also this one

Although I know very little about the art market, I have been lucky enough to be able to practice strategic skills and networking for ....45 years….I have a natural inclination to look at a situation and want to identify the key players who form the system or market – suppliers, consumers and intermediaries with the latter as the most complex. It is they who shape perceptions and channel (or not) the demand and supply…….

My first inclination therefore with this problem facing Bulgarian artists is to PROFILE – ie to identify (a) the relevant galleries (real or virtual) and (b) the potential buyers for the paintings of contemporary Bulgarian artists and then try to sketch the profiles of these groups.
That’s actually three distinct groups which need to be mapped and profiled –
·         Bulgarian physical galleries
·         Virtual galleries
·         The art buyer
The easiest to deal with is the first – I’ve already said there are very few effective “impressarios” of Bulgarian contemporary artists. Last sanctuaries of originality contained some short profiles I did a couple of years ago

This is the first in what may be a series as I brainstorm this challenge which Angela has set me.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Inclusive institutions???

I romped through Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail (the link allows you to read in full for yourself) and have been musing over it for the past 24 hours – so it gets full marks for its readability and provocation. It helps that its 500 plus pages consist really of short potted histories of various countries selected to illustrate its main thesis about institutions, power, privilege and challenge. In that sense it has similarities with the charming books of Robert Greene which deal with such issues as power, seduction and war.

It was Arnold Toynbee who, in the post-war period, had the temerity to try to explain the rise and fall of nations but his efforts did not seem to inspire the next generation to similar efforts. Recent reviews in the New Statesman and in The Nation have suggested that “big history” has only now returned – but it was 1987 when Paul Kennedy brought out his Rise and Fall of the Great Powers; 1997 when Jared Diamond published Guns, Germs and Steel; and 1999 when David Landes gave us The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Like Toynbee, these books offered possible explanations for the different trajectories taken by nations.

2010 also saw Why the West Rules – for now by Ian Morris which was the subject of a long, highly detailed and caustic review – and a long and injured response by the author. Morris is a classical archaeologist and History Professor but his book is not even included in the 26 page bibliography which graces Why Nations Fail (2012) - Acemoglu, it should be noted, is an economist; Robinson a political scientist.
David Landes’ book does make it to the bibliography but the distinguished economic historian’s key work is totally ignored in the text and his name, therefore, does not figure in the book’s 18 page index….. 

There are, for me, other curious omissions and weaknesses in the 529 pages of Why Nations Fail – a book which offers from its start a distinctive lens with which to view history, namely that of “extractive institutions” and “countervailing power” and which suggests western societies owe their pre-eminence to their “inclusive institutions”.
When they define what they mean by this phrase, we get a paean to liberal or capitalist democracy – which I find a tad….well… curious given that the book was drafted in the aftermath of the 2008 global crisis; the spread since then of disgust at the behaviour of the power elites; of deepening concern about the scale of inequality within the west; and of massive alienation from political parties and voting. 

I would therefore have expected a suggestion that the west is now in danger of going the same way as others – and for the same reason…..
But no - the book ends on a note of almost laughable complacency. “Failure” is what has happened to Africa and most of Asia (apart from Japan and South Korea) and will, according to the 10 page analysis they give China in the concluding chapter, also be the fate of that country’s current effort….  

It is in this concluding chapter at the very least that I would have expected to see a recognition that Contemporary Europe and North America are showing the very same exclusion and "extractive" power which they have identified as the fatal weakness of the powerful - but this passes our authors by!! If ever there was a case of "institutional exclusion" of citizens, it is what we have been experiencing in the past decade. But these don't figure on the author's radar screen.   Not a single reference to the extensive “end of oil” literature – or to the recent important Rebalancing Society of Canadian management theorist Henry Mintzberg. There is a passing reference to the different use of patents in Europe a hundred years ago - but no mention of the variety of the variety of other ways in which resources are sucked from citizens and passed to the ruling elites eg military expenditure; pharmaceuticals; intellectual ownership; marketing; privatisation; commodification etc

Astonishingly it is only on the second last page that the authors mention the role of the media as a change agent!! And this in a book which purports to be about power. 

Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) is, of course, a work of political philosophy - not history – but should be a key reference in any work which purports to offer “countervailing power” as a driver of history. 
Paul Hirst was another political scientist who developed in the 70s and 80s the notion of “associative democracy” (people power) which was taken up by thinkers such as Will Hutton and morphed, in the 1990s, into the vision of a “stakeholder society” which I wrote about in a 2011 post

With Mintzberg, these are the authors we should be paying attention to.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Inclusive and Extractive Societies

By coincidence I find myself reading three related pieces at one and the same time
Why Nations Fail (2012) which gripped me from the opening pages of the Preface – as the review in the link says – 
For anyone remotely interested in these issues Why Nations Fail is a must-read. Acemoglu and Robinson are intellectual heavyweights of the first rank, the one a professor of economics at MIT, the other a professor of political science at Harvard.
Mostly, such people write only for other academics. In this book, they have done you the courtesy of writing a book that while at the intellectual cutting edge is not just readable but engrossing.
This alone would be reason to take notice: a vital topic, top scholars, and a well-written book.

You will find an excellent review here which identifies one of the book’s potential weaknesses -  
Explaining the entire history of humankind by dividing the world into “extractive” and “inclusive” institutions is a daunting task. At one level the notion that “extractive” institutions fail and “inclusive” ones succeed can be a tautology - if we mean that “extractive” institutions are ones that successfully block growth and “inclusive” ones are those that do not. 
This not what Acemoglu and Robinson have in mind. But lacking an axiomatic definition of what is “inclusive” and what is “extractive” that is independent from actual outcomes, the classification of historical institutions as belonging to one or the other group can end up being based on ex-post evaluations of the outcomes themselves, thereby making the argument circular and subject to a selection bias.
As a consequence, while many examples fit their theory well, others are more difficult and the discussion of those examples in the book is sometimes strained.
Empirically, when trying to classify a particular set of institutions either as “inclusive” or “extractive”, one has to face the problem of quantifying what a “small” group of individuals, in one case, and “many, in the other, mean. In what sense were the institutional arrangements of the Roman Empire “inclusive” relative, for example, to those of the Communist USSR? Or in what sense did the Spanish Kingdom turn from “inclusive” to “extractive” between the XV and the XVII century?

I should at this point confess that I have reached only page 78 (there are another 400 to go) – but one of the delights of the internet is that it allows you to find and read the most important critical reviews, thus giving you the key questions right from the beginning with which to query the authors….and the review I have quoted from and linked to is, quite simply, the best review I have ever read!!!!!
And it warns me that an issue to which the book devotes little attention is the “role of competition between nations”….

Clearly the book will keep me occupied for the week – but the other two (thankfully shorter) pieces which swam into view (as it were) pose the important question which I suspect the book doesn’t deal with about how to explain the huge discrepancies in life chances WITHIN nations.

A significant percentage of citizens living in “north Britain” (ditto most EU countries and the USA) spend their lives in quasi “third-world” conditions. I myself spent 20 years helping Scotland’s largest public agency develop a strategy to ameliorate this…..and the second piece is (yet another) pamphlet about the deep-rooted poverty within Scotland …..It’s called No More Excuses and has some good lines -
Essentially, the consumption model that dominates our economy exploits workers in poor countries, undermines businesses which are local and based in the community, offers minimum wage part-time and casual employment for the sake of cheap goods and excess profits…..
A society where esteem and self-worth are derived from acquisition, material consumption, and perceived status, rather than from relationships, mutuality or the pursuit of equality, is problematic……. 
But despite the structural causes, it is possible to overcome poverty. It requires that we pull the right levers, focus on the necessary structural change, cherish what is really important and deploy our wealth (money and beyond) for justice and equality rather than compassion. We know this is possible: as already discussed poverty is at much lower levels in the Nordic countries which are at similar stages of development and yet are more competitive, suggesting that equity and economic performance are complements and not substitutes. Ending poverty in Scotland is about allocating our resources in a more effective and sustainable way.

But it is a post from one of the best websites – Real Economics – which rams home the key point that “the current conflict is not between nations but between classes” …..   
German banks managed to capture a large portion of the growing surplus created by German workers and, instead of seeing it invested domestically, lent it abroad (to a broad array of Spanish, Greek and other borrowers)—which was the flip side of Germany’s positive current account balance (since German capitalists, benefiting from lower unit labor costs, could easily outcompete potential exporters in the European south, while German demand for European goods dropped as wages fell).
It is not countries that lend or borrow; different classes within countries create the conditions for and engage in large-scale capital flows between countries. But didn’t Spain (and Greece) have a choice? After all it seems that Spain could have refused to accept the cheap credit, and so would not have suffered from speculative market excesses, poor investment, and the collapse in the savings rate. This might be true, of course, if there were such a decision-maker as “Spain”. There wasn’t. As long as a country has a large number of individuals, households, and business entities, it does not require uniform irresponsibility, or even majority irresponsibility, for the economy to misuse unlimited credit at excessively low interest rates. Every country under those conditions has done the same. . . And this is a point that’s often missed in the popular debate.
Over and over we hear — often, ironically, from those most committed to the idea of a Europe that transcends national boundaries — that Spain (or Greece) must bear responsibility for its actions and must repay what it owes to Germany.
But there is no “Spain” and there is no “Germany” in this story. At the turn of the century Berlin, with the agreement of businesses and labor unions, put into place agreements to restrain wage growth relative to GDP growth. By holding back consumption, those policies forced up German savings rate. Because Germany was unable to invest these savings domestically, and in fact even lowered its investment rate, German banks exported the excess of savings over investment abroad to countries like Spain. . . 
Above all this is not a story about nations. Before the crisis German workers were forced to pay to inflate the Spanish (and Greek) bubble by accepting very low wage growth, even as the European economy boomed. After the crisis Spanish workers were forced to absorb the cost of deflating the bubble in the form of soaring unemployment. But the story doesn’t end there. Before the crisis, German and Spanish lenders eagerly sought out Spanish borrowers and offered them unlimited amounts of extremely cheap loans — somewhere in the fine print I suppose the lenders suggested that it would be better if these loans were used to fund only highly productive investments. But many of them didn’t, and because they didn’t, German and Spanish banks — mainly the German banks who originally exported excess German savings — must take very large losses as these foolish investments, funded by foolish loans, fail to generate the necessary returns.
 It is no great secret that banking systems resolve losses with the cooperation of their governments by passing them on to middle class savers, either directly, in the form of failed deposits or higher taxes, or indirectly, in the form of financial repression.
 Both German and Spanish banks must be recapitalized in order that they can eventually recognize the inevitable losses, and this means either many years of artificially boosted profits on the back of middle class savers, or the direct transfer of losses onto the government balance sheets, with German and Spanish household taxpayers covering the debt repayments.

Friday, February 6, 2015

A Chance Encounter

It was typical that the very day I was hoping to put my new E-book on Bulgaria online. I stumbled on yet another great but neglected Bulgarian painter….And all thanks to family, friendship and drink!
My eldest daughter will visit me (with her husband) for the first time in a week and I therefore had to find a bed settee. A visit to IKEA soon produced the goods - which lay in pieces in the spare room for a week or so…. My friend Yovo promised to came to the rescue on Wednesday – and I duly set off to the nearby CasaVino to ensure he was properly recompensed for what proved to be 2 hours of work….

As I hit the park, I decided to see if the Vaska Emanouilova gallery had anything new to show and was quite stunned by what I found – an exhibition of the work of Iakim Banchev (1884-1967)  – a magnificent portraitist and landscape artist who captures, for me, the essence of Bulgarian art and society in the first half of the 20th Century
Admitted 1903 to the National School of Drawing in the studio painting of Ivan Markvichka and Ivan Angelov, he was part of the student flow to the Art Academy in Dresden, where he stays until March 1904. Then he goes to Turin - where he graduates and stays for five years. In 1905 he takes part in an exhibition with his work "Nude" and received First Prize (the picture is located in the Turin Museum).
He returned to his native Lovech, bringing with him his paintings from his workshops in the academies - a few of which were purchased in the early 50s by Sofia City Gallery,

He works as a military artist in the Balkan Wars and creates dozens of large-scale canvasses immortalising the horror of war (now part of the collection of the Museum of Military History in Sofia).
But he wasn’t able to break into the official art world and headed across the Atlantic hoping to find work as an architect. In summer 1923 he settled in Manhattan – but his hopes to find work as an architect quickly evaporated and he was forced to go back to his painting from which he earned enough money to return to his beloved Mina.

Financial difficulties forced him to leave again and, from July 1927 to July 1933, the Banchev family lived in the US but saved enough from portraits to allow them to return to BG and buy in Sofia a property at 5a "August 11" St where he designed his own studio on the top floor .
In the remaining three decades of life he worked in the pharmaceutical office of his brother Ivan. After Sept 1944 he withdraws from the artistic partly because of the change in tastes but mostly because of his bad bourgeois past.
Despite attempts after the political changes in the country to adapt and to participate in exhibitions, his works are never admitted. “As a kind of reward for his modest nature, UBA accepts one work in 1949 but doesn’t display it. He sank into the solitude of his own studio, where he painted and then destroyed the works to avoid trouble - Sometimes doing portraits on order for a ministerial office with pictures of Botev, Levski Georgi Dimitrov. Portraits not signed. Jakim Banchev meets death on the doorstep of his home on January 19, 1967”.

Here’s a brief TV programme on the exhibition which runs at the Emanouiliva Gallery until the end of the month. 

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!!