Четвъртък, 14 Март 2013 00:00

The Importance of Being Enslaved

Milla Mineva

The text aims to interpret the popular construction of Bulgarian identity based on a case study of the online debates on the so called “Turkish yoke”. Are these efforts to protect the national pride an attempt to re-imagine the social bond and solidarity? Why are the popular versions of identity so conservative? The text argues that the public institutions have withdrawn from the process of imagining a new social bond and have thus resorted to the most stable narrative, the narrative of the national metaphors.

It all started, once again[1], with the “myth of Batak” in 2007 when a research project managed to go beyond the field of academic debate and to obsess the public imagination to such an extent that eventually its authors ended up being threatened with physical retribution. Nothing seemed to have foreshadowed the tragedy: Bulgaria had just celebrated the coming true of the only strategic dream of the “transition” period – the EU membership. The public drama was staged once again in 2009 – this time the cause was the “Entropa” art installation by David Cerny. Offended as they were, the state institutions were so quick to react that the Turkish toilet, which occupied the place of Bulgaria in the installation, was covered with a black cloth, and practically removed from the map of “Entropa”. Only a year later, a new tragedy spread throughout the media: Major Daniela Blagoeva made a presentation about March 3rd to enlighten her international colleagues in the military base in Kabul why we celebrate this day as a national holiday. This innocent gesture, however, produced an unexpected effect – a Turkish officer was offended, the Ministry of Defence got seriously concerned and started an investigation of the situation, whereas Major Blagoeva was made to apologize for what she had done (at least, that is what the media shared consensus on, but whether there were any penalties imposed afterwards remained unclear). A few days later, the event disappeared from the media but continued to have an active afterlife online.

The three cases (the first two were analyzed in detail in the public space) actually played out one and the same drama – the negotiation of collective identities, given the lack of a legitimate centralized control over the production of this identity.[2] The public opinion reacts to the multiplication of the actors who produce our perceptions; it further reacts to the loss of ideological monopoly. In fact, it turns out that the answer to the question “who are we” can be given anywhere and by anyone.[3]

Although collective identity is constructed by negotiating between claims and recognition (Ditchev 2002), for the first time we have a channel through which people, without any ideological initiative, are not only witnessing the process, but also gaining a resource to participate in it. At this very moment, when having acquired this unexpected chance to negotiate identity from below, the citizens consider it a loss of ideological monopoly. The groups that had until recently been active in the construction of collective identities – the national elites – seem to have abdicated from this process.[4] This sounds strange against the background of the cases mentioned above because the national institutions then reacted in defence of the national pride. The active participants in the “myth of Batak” were the Director of the National History Museum, Bozhidar Dimitrov, the Director of the Institute for Historical Studies at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Prof. Georgi Markov, and the President Georgi Parvanov. In his capacity of a historian, the latter delivered an “open lesson” on Batak in the town of Batak. The first institution to react to the “Entropa” installation was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It seemed as if there was no way out, let alone an abdication... Still, this text will make an attempt to show the withdrawal from making ideological efforts to construct a new collective identity, as well as to analyze the effects of this on the people’s “worldview” (Gramsci, 1976: 94).

Let us address the third of the cases mentioned above – the initiative of a Bulgarian major[5] to present the historical background of our national holiday – March 3rd – to an international military audience. The Turkish contingent was offended by the innocent story and according to the headlines in the media the “Turkish yoke” stirred up a diplomatic scandal. It never became clear what exactly lay at the root of the scandal. The scandalous presentation appeared in the public space a few days after the event, however, there are traces of it only online now, and its content is inaccessible. According to most of the interpretations, the drama arose around the attribute “Turkish”. A cautious commentator claimed that the problem was actually much smaller and it lay in the definition of başıbozuk as “Turkish”. Here, however, the debate itself is more valuable than the truth, and the debate most certainly was roused by and revolved around the word “yoke”. Most authors of online comments were ready to replace “Turkish” with “Ottoman”, or with whatever was considered scientifically correct right away (although they used the word “Turkish”, they did not waste much rhetorical energy to defend its use, i.e. it was just the most readily available attribute for the time being). The issue with the word “yoke”, however, is different. No matter what science has to say about it, it does not have a say. Besides, it is not quite clear what our historical science is saying (Hranova 2011) – there were two historians quoted in reference with the scandal – Prof. Georgi Markov and Prof. Vera Mutafchieva (the net put out an earlier interview with her). Prof. Markov insisted on the correctness of the term, based on documents (documents from the National Revival period), whereas Prof. Mutafchieva argued for the terms “under Turkish rule” and “Ottoman domination” as being more correct in her opinion, just as the history textbooks used to refer to this period prior to the 1960s.[6] The history textbooks also allow for different readings – although they talk about the Bulgarians “under the Ottoman rule”, one of the words, often used to describe the raya (from Turkish: people of low social status in the Ottoman Empire) is “the enslaved” (to make the long story short, we get the sentence “The Bulgarians under the Ottoman rule are enslaved.”). It is rather curious that the digital nation[7] refers neither to the historical studies (although they use historical arguments to argue their point), nor to the textbooks from which they studied about the epoch. Here is what one comment even reads:

Yes, it can be written in a more “cultured” way in the textbooks (when I asked my history teacher why we were spared the cruelties of the Turks in the lessons, he replied that it was in order not to offend our present-day neighbours, as well as some of the governing circles in Bulgaria), but this does not wash away the atrocities done to us, and besides, I see nothing offensive in the truth.[8]

Where does the knowledge of the “atrocities done to us” come from? What is the source of the “truth”? In one forum the source is clear – “Balgarski hroniki” [Bulgarian chronicles] by Stefan Tsanev, obviously copied with love by mun4ol (the username combines in a curious way his respect for Ivan Vazov, the Latin alphabet, and the digital substitution of the Cyrillic letter “ч” with “4”). Most of the users on the net, however, do not refer to sources. In the logic of the debate, references seem unnecessary – the knowledge on the yoke is available, it is part of the “common sense”, or if we refer to Gramsci, it is folklore. Folklore is not at all a picturesque element or a museum artefact, representing the genius of the people. On the contrary, Gramsci suggests thinking of it as a set of opinions and beliefs which reflect the people’s worldview. And since the people are not homogeneous, it actually comes down to expressing the worldview of “time- and place-specific layers of the society” (Gramsci 1976: 94). Folklore makes use of the official culture, extracting motifs from it, displacing them, however, in competition with the “ideology of the state” (Gramsci 1976: 96). The quasi-public space of the net, it seems, allows us to discern a similar folklore-type of constructing collective identity, negotiating from below, poaching of existing forms by anonymous fellow-citizens.

Let us return to the debate on the “Turkish yoke” and examine the common arguments in it. Although such a text may be based on a quantitative analysis, I would prefer to start with a close reading of several discussions. The first blog, which appeared on the topic, has more than 70 comments. The curious thing about this blog is that it does not announce itself as a nationalistic one – its name is pisalka.net [Translator’s note: in Bulgarian pisalka means a pen], and as per its self-description, it is a blog “for literature, culture, stories, essays, etc.” The author tells the story of the scandal under the ironic title: “There hadn’t been a Turkish yoke, of course”:

Well deserved! Calling [Turkish] presence a yoke – oh, come on! It is not even presence, but an unprecedented cultural and spiritual blossoming that I don’t have the power and the talent to describe.

This quote gives a clear notion of the position of the author as well as of the stylistics of the text (which slightly contradicts the image of the Battle of Shipka Pass that we are well familiar with from our primary readers). A heated discussion on the historical authenticity of “slavery” develops in the comments to the text. Two distinct sides are formed. It is curious that there is a certain consensus among them: first, that historians cannot be trusted; second, that the role of the school is ambiguous. Actually, the line of reasoning goes in similar directions – Bulgarian historians have always served certain political interests and that is why they write either “nationalistic”, or “antipatriotic” history. The school in turn either “inculcates patriotic bullshit”, or obscures parts of “the truth” which are inconvenient today. Despite these suspicions, both sides claim to know the history and tend to turn to the net as a source of truth. The “patriots”, however, have other sources at hand too. Quoting Vazov, Botev, Chintulov is rather common (Hranova 2011), but referring to folk tales and songs is even more impressive. Folk songs about “the three lines of enchained slaves” become an unquestionable proof of the slavery. Most important for the patriots is memory – memory of the family, memory of kin, national memory:

Dear commentators, just give it a thought – isn’t there at least one memory in your family history of what had happened only a century ago (should you happen to know anything about your family history at all)? [written in Bulgarian, in Latin letters][9]

The recalling of the suffering goes along with appeals to the Bulgarians, to collective identity, to Bulgaria. The authors of these comments usually write in the first person plural and rarely limit themselves to the past. On the contrary, their texts address the present and posit forgetting as a figure explaining the present-day situation of the state. But what is most important, they place “Turkish slavery” at the root of collective identity.

The other camp, which is also active and does not quit the debate, resorts to entirely different strategies. Their comments pose questions, explain the ways of the empire, and ridicule the emotional outbursts of the patriots. There is a radical difference, however.  First, this camp refuses to conceive of history as a reference point for the present. Paradoxically, such comments do not see a connection between the “Turkish slavery” and [Ahmed] Dogan, but they get their place in history with the appeal for understanding history and getting over it. The second difference, however, seems more important, so, let us hear about it from a comment:

We live in a world in which we interdependent and everybody chooses how to define him- or herself![10]

So, while some are talking about “us”, “the Bulgarians”, about “our dignity”, others are talking about “me”, the freedom “to choose”, about the outdatedness of nationalism. It is not accidental that they are called “cosmopolitans” by the other side in the debate, and recognized as “cultured”. In another blog, where the author starts with the powerful statement: “We have to cure ourselves from the slave psychology…”, most of the comments tend to question “slavery”. The point is that “slavery” is being mocked there but there is one single version of positive collective identity, articulated as follows:

I am proud to be Bulgarian (even if that is mistaken in your judgment) for the following reasons:

We had schools established some 60 years before the Russian army “liberated” us (some of them still exist today despite the “optimization” in 2005-2008)

We managed to put together a working European state in a period of only 25-30 years after some five hundred years of disruption; furthermore, with an army, which, as far as I understand, meets the highest European standards.

At least 10 large-scale (for their time) entrepreneurs such as the brothers Evlogi and Hristo Georgiev, Peter Beron, and others, whose business was seriously affected by the Bulgarian independence, donated funds for consolidating the foundations of the independent Bulgarian state.

It is good to know about the massacres. But personally, I refuse to celebrate “the survival of the Bulgarians after 500 years of massacres” as a national public holiday. And in general, I would like to spare our children celebrations of any kind of survival as a source of great pride. So as not to doom them to poverty. In every possible meaning of the word. Maria D.[11]

This comment remains the one and only of its kind, and the biggest effort the “cosmopolitans” make is to construct a collective interest – it is in our interest to get along with our neighbours, with our NATO allies, in order to be Europeans. The point is that self-sacrifice goes against this interest – some people gave their lives so that we can be here now, patriots state.

In general, such is the dynamics of the flow of the discussion. In the nationalistic forums there is either outbidding on slavery, or the discussion escalates around the topic of when real history had been replaced – communism easily fills both the role of new slavery and the role of a powerful manipulator of history.[12]

So, let us return to the starting point of the text. What transpired in the case of the so called “myth of Batak”? Some people from outside tried to suggest (after all, the project envisioned an exhibition at the Ethnographic Museum) deconstructing one of the major sites of collective identity in Bulgaria. And the institutions reacted in a conservative way – they took the side in defence of the “victims” (it is hardly accidental that the people massacred in Batak were later canonized as martyrs, but were not commemorated as heroes). The Kabul case appears to be different. Major Blagoeva overstepped some boundaries – boundaries existing on the international stage, which are invisible here. The digital debate clearly refuses to acknowledge this standard imposed from abroad, and the main critique is towards the institutions, suspected to have crossed off the sacrifice for the sake of the short-term interest. Besides, as far as we understand from the comments, the presentation is hardly particularly original or contributing to the topic – on the video-sharing websites there are loads of presentations about the Turkish slavery and the celebratory video clips on the occasion of March 3rd hardly ever fail to qualify the period as slavery (if the net says so, it must be the truth).

But what is the debate actually about? Why is it so important for us today to have been enslaved?

Various studies on the internet users in Bulgaria (the latest data from the National Statistic Institute is available here) unanimously agree on several characteristics – most active are the users in the 16 to 24 age range, but all age groups up to 44 years old are well represented; most of the users live in the cities, use different forms of communication, one third of them run business of their own or take top management positions; the percentage of students and people with high school education is impressive. Why do these people waste their energy and rhetorical efforts on guarding “slavery”? In my view, it is not slavery that it all comes down to but a desperate effort to invent collective identity, to give an answer to the question: now that we all happen to be in this place, is there anything that binds us together? Can we name a reason for not just being gathered here but for being here together? Let me paraphrase the question in Rosanvallon’s terms – how can we reinvent “social bond” and solidarity today in a situation of a withdrawing social state. Rosanvallon, who makes a historical analysis of the ideas of the social state, shows a radical change – society today functions according to the principle of “compensation” (not the principle of “insurance”, which is the leading principle of the social state) – “compensation” is due to the “victim” and the past sufferings become a valuable capital (Rosanvallon 2000: 35). In fact, the replacement of “slavery” with “genocide” (the political party “Ataka” offered such a formulation in the Parliament), the emphasis of the story upon the martyrs not the heroes, both indicate a shift in this direction. The point is that the majority is trying to get compensation for its “capital of sacrifice”… Therefore, it is no accident that the nationalist drama started developing as a TV serial after Bulgaria’s accession to the EU – when there was someone to ask compensation from.

I would allow myself, however, yet another line of interpretation. I have already underscored that I am interested in the way the “common people” are trying to construct collective identities. The concept of folklore is important here because it underlines the uses of images and narratives borrowed from the official culture. In short, it shows those pieces of the official culture that have become part of the “common sense”, pieces that one uses without thinking of it. It seems, these are some extremely conservative versions of collective identity. The question, however, is whether there are other versions. I have deliberately emphasized the engagement of the public institutions with guarding these versions of collective identity. In fact, it is not the folklore narrative, but the official one that is conservative. That is why I claim that the national elites have abdicated from the effort to construct new collective identities. Instead of making up a new narrative on the social bond, the institutions resort to the most available and sustainable narrative. On the one hand, the effort has shifted towards the invention of the “individual” and “personality”; even the citizen is thought of not as a member of a political community, but as a private individual with his own interests. On the other hand, national metaphorics is used as self-understood; referring to the national saves explanations and obstructs the invention of a new social bond today. We are Bulgarians because we remember the past – private people caught in the trap of slavery.


Milla Mineva is Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. She has served as the managing editor of Foreign Policy-Bulgaria magazine since January 2009. She is coordinator of the project “Guide 2020”. Her main research interests are in the field of social studies, historical anthropology of socialism and consumer culture.

[1]  Actually, the first debate we should recall is from the 1990s when the idea of substituting the phrase “Turkish yoke” with “Ottoman presence” was discussed. For an analysis of the debate and the mystifications around it, see Hravona, Albena. 2011. Istoriografia i Literatura [Historiography and Literature], vol. 2, Sofia: Prosveta, pp. 502-514.

[2]  On this issue, see Lilova, Dessislava. 2008. Istoriyata na Viktor Krum: natsionalnata identichnost v internet [The Story of Viktor Krum: National Identity on the Internet]. In: Critique & Humanism, vol. 25, no. 1, 115-138. An analysis by Lilyana Deyanova runs in a similar vein – see Deyanova, Lilyana. Batak – otkrit urok [Batak – an Open Lesson] [01.02.2012]

[3]  This is a structural situation in the contemporary world which I am not going to analyze here. These cases rendered the situation more visible to the public rather than to the academic communities. 

[4]  We are not going to discuss here whether it is because they have become “tourists” according to Bauman, because they are trying to construct supranational identities on the one hand, and personal identities on the other, according to Delanty, or because they think of national identity as a refuge for those on the losing side according to Judt.

[5]  In my opinion, the fact that the major is a female does not matter much for the debate on the case, even though there were offenses against her gender. For that reason I would rather refer to the military rank in neutral.

[6]  In fact, the interview was conducted during the 1990s debate when the term “Ottoman presence” was introduced.

[7]  “Digital nation” is a term which I have borrowed from Ivaylo Ditchev. This text intentionally does not focus on the postings in the nationalist forums because I am not interested in the position of those who declare themselves nationalists; my attempt is rather to examine how the debate unfolds among people who do not define themselves as such. Why do the “common people” (Certeau) need the yoke?

[8]  Antoaneta. 17.03.2010, Comment to the post There was no Turkish yoke, of course [01.02.2012]

[9]  Postradala. 18.03.2010, Comment to the post There was no Turkish yoke, of course [01.02.2012]

[10]  Lubimo. 18.03.2010 [01.02.2012]

[11]  Maria D. 19.03.2010, Comment to the post Great is our soldier – give me a break! [01.02.2012]

[12]  The topic of communism within the debate on the Turkish slavery deserves to be dealt with in a separate paper. Paradoxically, communism can be used as an explanation for both the “patriotic bullshit” and the concealment of the heroic past because of our “Russian Brothers”. The invention of “communist slavery”, even if marginal, is a meaningful attempt to deal with the past.

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