THE METAMORPHOSES OF THE BULGARIAN NATIONAL CHARACTER
Professor Dr of science. Habil Ivaylo Hristov
After the end of World War II, which ultimately resulted in destroying the idea of the unity of the Bulgarian nation, fundamental transformations in the Bulgarian national psychology and national identity took place. Two radical historical events determined their characteristic features: the change on 9 September 1944, which set the beginning of socialism in Bulgaria, and the transition to liberal democracy that happened after 10 November 1989. These were accompanied by acute political confrontation in society.
The two basic models of the development of the Bulgarian characterology disintegrated in the second half of the 20th century. The first one was dominated by the traditional patriarchal features of rural and artisanal Bulgaria, for which the importance of morality vis-a-vis the preservation of nationality is a matter of cause; the other one was based on political and ideological values that exposes the Bulgarian’s worldview during the socialist era. The spiritual vacuum that was created after the changes in the 1990s fuelled a crisis of our national self-consciousness and mentality. Thus we can justifiably speak of the emergence of a new third model in the development of the Bulgarian national psychology, resting on neoliberal capitalism and on the new information technologies.
The transformation of values that took place in our characterology at the turn of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century is to be found in a couple of focal points:
First: What emerged was a change of primordial Bulgarian virtues such as diligence and the features related thereof: thrift, prestige, dignity. For the traditional Bulgarian morality, diligence is a sign of national self-esteem and human dignity. Labor has alienated people and brought them closer together, united and separated young and old. It comprises the borderline between good and bad, between truth and lie, between the healthy and the rotten. Tearing away from labor is equal to a cataclysm. For the Bulgarian, until the first half of the 20th century, labor was a lot more than a means for securing livelihood. It is through labour that our people revealed its merits and virtues, found entertainment and revelry, gave vent to their dreams and hopes. For rural and artisanal Bulgaria labor was raised to the level of morality and elevated to the meaning of human existence. “Better work to no purpose than stay idle”, ”the work praises the man”, “he who works as a slave, eats as a king”, “You won’t get sick if you have plenty of work”, “work is the source of all good”, “God helps him who helps himself”, “Few of us get anything without working for it”. These proverbs reveal the Bulgarian attitude to labor. This is an attitude that is of a moral nature rather than an economic category. In its very essence, this is a patriarchal and romantic vision about labor in the Bulgarian’s mentality, which drastically changed during the second half of the 20th century.
On the one hand, labor and diligence are made a cult and are considered factors that educate and elevate people. Socialism raises the principle “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” However, it turned out that people’s needs and necessities have no limit. The more you satisfy human needs, the more they grow. This regularity was tested twice. Once when socialism accumulated enough goods for consumption and a second time (in a more drastic form) – in the post-1990 period, when gluttony and greed dismantled the boundaries of morals. However, way back during the socialist era, capabilities were not the only measure for the human being or the only condition for prosperity. They were increasingly replaced by loyalty to the political Establishment and to the ideas of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Hypocrisy and lies also became the silent emblem of diligence. In effect the idea of pursuing a professional career through labor, upheld by the system, was rendered worthless, whereas career development “through the back door” became a more realistic option; the practice became rife of saying one thing while doing something different. From a value in itself, labor gradually became part of a large-scale ideological platform. It was comprised of “champions of labor,” “heroes of socialist labor” and they were not few. However, there were also quite a few of those who pretended to work, while they were more involved in establishing contacts and ties with the power holders. “And our so memorable diligence, this rescue temple of ours in which we have prayed for centuries, this incredible capability of ours to put aside money, our Bulgarian leather sandals with soles – they no longer had a social meaning, nor did they play the role of a major driving force behind personal success. They gradually started to fade away among the blast furnaces and the solemn beacons of our triumphant “socialism”” (Semov, 1999: 186). We can add to these words the steady trend that emerged in the 1980s and ran contrary to economic laws: the rise in wages outstripped the growth in labor productivity. “You cannot consume more than is produced. However, the political leadership proved incapable of stopping this process. Hence the conclusion that part of the increase in the people’s living standard had an unstable basis.” (Mikhaylov, 1993: 49).
The reality of the contemporary neoliberal society imposed another attitude to diligence on the Bulgarian national character. Diligence no longer guarantees success and the formulas “to each according to his merits”, “to each according to his capabilities,” “to each according to his labor” were dropped out of circulation long ago. Success and professional career today are not so much the result of diligence, but of chance, luck and speculative economy. “The world is becoming a global casino,” Vasil Prodanov notes, where a new division exists – the division “of winners and losers in a continuous game of profit and loss. An enormous amount of efforts, capabilities, knowledge are no longer necessary, as was the case in the preceding eras” (Prodanov, 2012: 329). It is no coincidence that our media space is inundated with TV games and reality formats, inspiring a cult to money, luxury and affluence. The “profile figures” of the transition period are constantly shown on TV – thugs, fashion models, folk singers, athletes, who foist on the public mind certain standards of outer appearance and conduct. Simultaneously a new social and also moral model came into being. In this model money acquires an increasingly important and dominant role, and all else becomes worthless. Most young people tend to imitate this social model, realizing that a successful person is not the one who has knowledge and capabilities, but the one who is rich. Being educated is no longer important, what matters is being sly and calculating. What matters is not what you can do, but what you possess.
Second. National nihilism and underestimating everything that is Bulgarian – a trend that drastically clashes with the one typical of the preceding decades. During the National Revival, the Bulgarian considered the personality as an “instrument” that served supra-individual values – Bulgaria, the Nation, the Homeland. Not the individual, but the people was the supreme ideal for the Bulgarian National Revival. All National Revival activists subordinated their own pathos to it. In a letter written to his close friends and relatives, Khristo Botev said: “If I die, you should know that after my homeland I love you most, therefore take care of Ivanka and remember Khristo, who loves you so much.” It is namely the formula “AFTER THE HOMELAND” that determines the basic trends of our National Revival and of the post-liberation era that evolved in a strongly patriotic and ethnocentric context.
Today we are witnessing the dismissal of the idea of the unity of the national community and of the national body, as well as the severing of the ties between the state and its citizens. Symptoms of the loss of national identity readily emerged in Bulgaria. They are related to the fate of our language, of the nation, of the patriotic consciousness and self-esteem. Revealing in this respect is the devaluation and underestimation of concepts such as ‘homeland’, ‘patriotism’, ‘orthodoxy’, ‘national commitment’, considered irrelevant or old-fashioned, and anachronistic to European humanism. For a large portion of the young people these concepts have no meaning whatsoever. The devaluation of national ideals and the suppression of national consciousness have been painful problems in Bulgarian life since the turn of the 20th and in the early 21st century. The prerequisite for “deleting” the Bulgarian national spirit from the Bulgarian mentality largely lies in the series of myths that gained ground in the 1990s, the aim of which was to replace change. Their basic impact boiled down to: the progress of democracy, which promised almost world happiness to Bulgarians; the domination of the idea of mankind that rooted out nations; postmodernism that manipulated the intelligentsia; and also the myth about inequality as the peak of civilization.
The most painful problem that affects the crisis of our national self-consciousness pertains to the question of why homeland became an obsolete and dismissed word in Bulgaria and an anachronism, and why patriotism became a sin. It does sound strange, but it is nevertheless a fact; the national idea was shattered and watered down in meaning. However, its conceptual content can only be found in the active awareness of ethnic belonging, defending the national independence and the independence-related prioritizing of the values in life. Patriotism suggests above all love for your birthplace and readiness for self-sacrifice for the sake of your homeland. Things are not so complicated, considering that if residents of a country did not love their home, language, family, traditions and customs, and if they were reluctant to make self-sacrifice for the sake of their homeland, the latter would sooner or later disintegrate. In simple words – the concept of commitment and duty is encoded in patriotism. In the name of patriotism Vasil Levski, Khristo Botev, Stefan Stambolov, Georgi Benkovski, Vasil Petleshkov and hundreds of Bulgarian patriots were hanged or shot dead. The final results of the machine that assimilated people and made them reject their homeland is seen in the constant emergence of young people willing to leave Bulgaria. This is a choice dictated not only by the economic crisis in the country, but also by the crisis of the national self-consciousness. The conclusion is a truism: for a lot of Bulgarians it turned out that they would rather possess what can be achieved effortlessly in the civilized world than do something here, in Bulgaria.
Third. Conservatism and conformity with the laws of nature have long been left in the past. By the mid-20th century, the Bulgarian was intimately and inextricably bound with nature and the land. It is the latter that impact and constrain the life the people had; and nature, and above all the Balkan mountains had a strong impact on their national character. The Bulgarian sees something quite reasonable in conservatism: suspicion towards everything that is new and unfamiliar and that can disrupt the strong immutable social order that has stood the test of time. This is the status quo that life in the Bulgarian village rested on until 1944. The village was adjusted to living a completely independent life – both in economic and spiritual terms. The people were committed to unshakable traditions and customs: when to work, when and what to eat, what is or is not moral, what is good and what is useless, when to get engaged and when to get married. Every exception was sanctioned by the village’s pseudo court and the wrongdoers were forced to leave the borders of the village. Tradition regulates human life on a seasonal basis, imparting content and value to life: it gives people humility and autonomous existence. “The survival of our people was impossible without observing health measures in everything. What saved us from the assimilation of the Phanariots was the fact that a huge portion of the Bulgarian population lived in self-subsisting rural municipalities, away from the urban Greek culture, language and civilization” (Khaitov, 1997: 41). There was full spiritual and material independence from the rest of the world, apart from the supply with salt and iron tools – hoes, axes, etc. It is namely conservatism that preserved the viability of the Bulgarian nation during the Ottoman rule, and that regulated the civic sense and also set the border between freedom and the abuse of freedom.
All aforementioned features underwent a drastic change after the urbanization took place in the second half of the 20th century, which led to the mass-scale depopulation of the Bulgarian villages. The push towards migration was set off in the decree issued by the Ministry of Education in 1971, by virtue of which schools were “enlarged.” It stipulated that towns and villages in which there were less than 100 pupils had no right to their own school. Thus the small villages of the Balkan, Strandzha and Rhodopi mountains ceased to exist because the children went to the towns, followed by their parents and thus rural Bulgaria was forgotten. These “phantom villages” in southeastern Bulgaria were frightening. They were wiped out in two consecutive moves: the establishment of agricultural cooperatives and the enlargement of schools. No longer could children’s voices be heard there, and only the funeral toll of the church bell was heard. Urbanization has not only economic consequences. It removes social control (which is practically non-existent in towns) and hence the Bulgarian virtues. Thronging the towns severed the usual ties on which human relationships had evolved centuries on end – being a personality, being known, recognizable and personified. The disintegration of the Bulgarian village resulted in the disappearance of the usual “brakes”, and led to the disappearance of the two key concepts in the vocabulary of our predecessors: disgrace and sin, from which only “rusty leftovers” remain. The traditional Bulgarian system of values was increasingly becoming a “museum rarity.” Their worldview, the leading principles of which were thrift, labor, self-subsistence, the lack of fastidiousness, modesty, and an overall non-consumer type of psychological makeup, is already relegated to the past and replaced by the ambition to live an easier life and to do less work.
Fourth. The last decades destroyed solidarity as the foundation of our moral system. It was replaced by egoistic individualism, leading to a conscious atomization of the individual. The transition period gave birth to a new “breed” of people, radically different from the ordinary god-loving people brought up in the traditional Bulgarian morality. For a big portion of our contemporaries the consumer plague and the flourishing of consumer passions is something normal. It is related to destroying the religious morality and the responsibility before God, which in turn leads to unleashing the dark human instincts, and to a deadlock of values. It is rooted in increasing parasitism, and in the growing distance between “I want” and “I can,” which pushes the individual into the circle of sensual pleasures. The contemporary Bulgarian is trapped into the mythologeme of “the high standard of living.” However, maintaining a high standard of living is not only a matter of pleasure, but also a matter of difficulty. Those who have achieved it should live up to the standard (possess a brand car, a luxury apartment in a prestigious residential area, expensive clothes etc.). The rest of the people should strain every nerve and compete with each other to achieve these things. The result is an all-embracing tension, which exhausts society and drives it crazy. The result is a “competition in who enjoys more social prestige,” which has become a form of life, and the meaning of life.
Fifth. The strength of our people has always lain in the thirst for knowledge and ambition to be educated. It has always been considered as a goal, as a desired and necessary good. Education is not only a means to achieve material wealth, but also a stepping-stone to moral elevation. Therefore the Bulgarian is ready, as a proverb says, “to go to great lengths” to ensure that their child becomes aware of the power of knowledge and science. The need for a high-quality education has become even greater and imperative in the context of the information society the world has entered. Unfortunately, we failed to live up to European standards. The integration tasks our education is facing were transformed into a simple emulation. Because the role of education and science at the beginning of the 21st century is to bring up Bulgarians who are worthy members of the European Union, not citizens of Europe and the world in general. As a result of globalization and the need to meet the European and American educational standards, the Bulgarian education-related values were destroyed, even though until recently, were considered among the most successful ones in Europe. The Bulgarian secondary education also tended to preserve a high level. Drawing on the former Belgian school, it was highly humane, open, making the students highly knowledgeable, unlike the American secondary education which, as the Americans themselves admit, is unsatisfactory.
During the transition period, the Bulgarian education system was characterized by the carrying out of constant reforms. A couple of governments were involved in them. It turned out that institutional memory was totally lacking. Each subsequent change of the power holders led to a change of the course in general, to making decisions that were totally contrary to the ones made by their predecessors. Thus matriculation exams were either introduced or revoked only in a couple of months’ time, a multitude and a great variety of entrance exams were introduced, which was inevitably followed by their renunciation; adequate systems for survival were sought, which subsequently proved to be completely unacceptable. Education became an experimental field, which was stressful not only for the Bulgarian schoolchildren but also for their parents.
The consumer model of contemporary society is also reflected in neglecting and depreciating the profession of teachers. The profession has lost its prestige, swept away by the strength of power and money, while for quite some time the school used to be “the temple of knowledge.” Sadly, but true - currently a steadily decreasing number of people choose to become teachers and those who are attracted to this profession lose their motivation at a later stage. The reasons lie not only in the lack of personal fulfillment and material well-being, but also in the fact that education is not a priority for the Bulgarian political elite. After all, nothing good is in store for a society that places the teacher at the bottom of the social ladder.
At the start of the 21st century, we faced the challenge of demolished social values of freedom, justice and social responsibility. The dominating egoism was permanently foisted on the public mind, weighing on the Bulgarian, who was anyway suffering from terrible inferiority complexes and from more negative emotions. Unfortunately, our people is increasingly losing faith in its own strengths, optimism died out and our national energy was replaced by apathy and inertia, and by some illusory hope that someone else will do the work for us and will take care of our fate. The transformations of the Bulgarian national psychology, which we are witnessing, led to destroying our traditional worldview. For sure, we can now speak of the “Bulgarian of the 21st century”, having a system of values that is different from the “Bulgarian of the 20th century.” Hence the crucial question is whether the “Bulgarian of the 21st century” will manage to preserve their feeling for ethnic belonging, their virtues, and whether they will retain their Bulgarian identity or be assimilated within the multicultural space of the global world.
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Prodanov, Vasil. The theory of the Bulgarian transition. Sofia, Zachary Stoyanov publishing house, 2012. [Teoria na bulgarskiya prehod]
Semov, Marko. The virtues of the Bulgarians. Sofia, Tangra publishing house TanNakRa, 1999.
Haitov, Nikolay. Diary. Sofia, Vulkan publishing house, 1997.