Sure way to generate media coverage, make some money and win some votes
In the summer of 2023, one of the news items that preoccupied Bulgarians for weeks on end was a... banner.
The national banner, to be more precise. After a much advertised donation campaign, organised by an NGO and supported by the president, an 111-metre-tall flagpole was erected in a meadow high in the Rhodope mountains. From it, a national banner 40 by 25 metres was unfurled.
Freudian? Don't jump to conclusions. Here is how the chairman of Heritage for the Future, the NGO behind the initiative, explained the symbolism of the Rozhen Flagpole: "We want to do something completely different in the grey everyday life and the darkness that has befallen our country in a political, demographic and economic aspect. We really need a true centre of attraction to unite the Bulgarians and not to divide them." The pylon's 111 metres symbolise the 111,000 sq km of Bulgarian territory and the 111th anniversary since the Rhodope became a part of Bulgaria. Until 1912, a significant part of the mountain range was in the Ottoman Empire. The border passed right through the Rozhen meadows.
For some Bulgarians, tattooing national heroes on their bodies, most usually Vasil Levski and Hristo Botev, is the best way to express their patriotism
The Rozhen Flagpole is far from being the only over-the-top initiative that claims to promote patriotic values and ideas to Bulgarians increasingly unsatisfied with their everyday lives. Since the 2010s, the nation has been swept up in a frenzy of events and projects designed for those who want to bask in the glory of Bulgaria's past and traditions. Here are some examples: the construction of monuments and sites that promote "patriotism" and national greatness, dancing the horo in a range of appropriate and inappropriate public spaces, and hoisting Bulgarian national flags at historical sites that have nothing to do with the Bulgarians, most notably Thracian sacred places. All types of public infrastructure, such as utility boxes, have been painted in white, green and red, along with graffiti and the trend for getting tattoos depicting 19th century revolutionaries, while fiction and nonfiction books praising the uniqueness of Bulgarian traditions and history, and its alphabet, have been churned out.
For a time, the most widespread form of performative patriotism was some "spontaneous" horo dancing. It started with a group of people who decided to gather outside the National Theatre in Sofia and revive the old way in which Bulgarians in villages and small towns would enjoy Sundays. The original tradition died out in the mid-20th century as a result of industrialisation and urbanisation, although Bulgarians are still happy to perform a horo in the first few seconds of the New Year or during public festivals. The horo dancing in front of the National Theatre quickly turned into something that was never done in small town Bulgaria – huge crowds dancing and waving national banners to music blasting from loudspeakers. Predictably, theatre-goers were unhappy as often the folk music penetrated the walls of the building and disturbed the performances.
The horo in front of the National Theatre has gradually lost its appeal among Bulgarians, and has dwindled since its peak in 2019-2020
This horo spawned more. Soon Bulgarians could be seen dancing everywhere: from central Brussels, led by the then Bulgarian European Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva (now managing director of the IMF) in full national costume, to Greek beaches and to the waters of one of the Seven Rila Lakes, a protected natural site where entry is banned.
Nowadays Bulgarians are somewhat tired of dancing the horo; even that in front of the National Theatre has lost its mass appeal. Instead, they prefer to travel and take selfies at a set of theme parks dedicated to glorious periods of Bulgaria's past, from medieval history to ancient Thracians and rose oil production.
One of the strangest examples is the Rayuvski Cromlech near Elena, in the Stara Planina mountain range. In the 2010s, a sculptor placed a monument to Valchan Voyvoda, the mythical Bulgarian brigand who stole all the gold he could from the Ottomans and hid it so well that treasure hunters have been digging for it ever since, on a hill overlooking a dam. Soon, next to the monument, appeared a massive stone circle, a modern rendering of prehistoric cromlechs such as Stonehenge, decorated with inspirational or cryptic quotes by famous Bulgarians, from 19th century revolutionary Vasil Levski to the blind clairvoyant Vanga. Construction on the hill continues. Today, the Rayuvski Cromlech features a chapel, an arch, and portraits of Bulgarian medieval rulers and more 19th century brigands and revolutionaries. Importantly, among the latest additions are Vanga, and Peter Deunov, the early 20th century Christian mystic whose followers claim was admired by Albert Einstein (without Einstein himself knowing a thing about paneurhythmy, Deunov's greatest dancing invention).
The hectic construction in the compound is in sharp contrast to the beautiful but depopulated area around: a handful of villages and hamlets whose inhabitants either emigrated to seek jobs elsewhere, or died. The Rayuvski Cromlech receives universal praise on the Internet for its patriotic and "elevating" message.
A wax dummy of Bulgarian Khan Krum, in Pliska's Cyrillic Castle, depicts the 9th century ruler at his most famous – holding a drinking cup made from the skull of Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus II. Nicephorus tortured and killed civilians when he captured Pliska, then Bulgaria's capital. Krum’s revenge was equally brutal. The khan did not write in the Cyrillic (it was yet to be invented) and was pagan, but his victory over Byzantium, medieval Bulgaria's arch foe, is perceived as a precursor of modern Bulgarians' opposition to any foreign power
The Yard of the Cyrillic Alphabet is another project that keeps on getting bigger. Located in Pliska, the first capital of medieval Bulgaria, it started with an open air gallery of huge stones depicting the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet. The elaborate carvings that cover them are in the best traditions of... Armenian decorative art. The Armenian connection is not coincidental – the Yard of the Cyrillic was initiated by an Armenian. That country is proud with its own unique script and already has a site of stone sculptures in the shape of Armenian letters.
Today, the yard is part of a larger compound. The so-called Writers' Alley is a collection of bronze busts of prominent authors who – you've guessed it! – used the Cyrillic alphabet. A structure called Cyrillic Castle hosts wax figures of medieval Bulgarian kings and queens. According to the Yard of the Cyrillic website, the castle "stands as protection from the invasion of the Latin world and as a guardian that keeps the cultural achievements made in Cyrillic."
The most ambitious site is the Historical Park beside Neofit Rilski village near Varna. It spreads over 50 hectares and aims to represent 10,000 years of history in the Bulgarian lands, from the Neolithic to the Middle Ages. There are prehistoric huts, Thracian, Roman and medieval Bulgarian buildings, and a plethora of activities designed to both entertain and boost the national spirit: historical reenactment events, animation, a kid's corner, and costumes and captive birds of prey to have your photo taken with. There are restaurants serving "genuine Bulgarian cuisine" and dishes from Tatarstan, the Russian republic inhabited by ancestors of a proto-Bulgarian clan that branched out from the ancestors of modern Bulgarians in the 7th century. One of the activities is minting your own coin to "keep forever the memory of your greatness and honour"[sic].
Most of these sites are designed to generate profit. Entry to The Yard of the Cyrillic costs 10 leva, while the standard ticket for the Historical Park is 50 leva. The Rayuvski Cromlech is free to visit.
The popularity of these events and sites shows that they are effectively catering to an audience who wants to feel connected to the nation's great past for at least a couple of hours – and to boast about it on Facebook. To what extent this supply has met an already existing demand or has created it by aggressive advertisement is not clear, but the rhetoric is often problematic as it usually pitches "Bulgarian-ness" against the West and its values.
Bulgaria joined NATO in 2003 and the EU in 2007, but its place in these organisations today seems largely a matter of dispute among the Bulgarians themselves. Despite the advantages that came with membership, such as improved business conditions, the ability to travel, do business and study without a visa, and shared military defence, many Bulgarians actively dislike NATO and the EU, which they views as "modern colonisers." The populist wave that is sweeping through the United States and Europe has reached Bulgaria as well and has deepened the rift. As a result, in compliance with the narrative pushed for years by Russian propaganda many Bulgarians now associate the democratic West with depravity and decline, and believe that their nation would have been better off on its own, or in an alliance with the Russian "brothers."
In the Bulgarian consciousness, the democratic West has turned from a haven of freedom and prosperity into a hell of low mores, which threatens to erase the Bulgarian spirit, traditions and sweet pink tomatoes with its consumerism, gay rights and Dutch tomatoes.
Against this background, the Bulgarian nostalgia for the traditions and stability of the idealised past has naturally become stronger. Hence the interest in dancing the horo in the centre of Sofia or Brussels, painting all free public surfaces in the national colours, and buying an apartment in a building decorated with old Slavonic letters. You can put on a traditional costume and tattoo Levski on your shoulder, and keep a book on your bedside table that teaches you how to make old Bulgarian magic for money, health and general wellbeing.
The demographic who participate in such events, buy these products and write posts and comments on Facebook is ripe for politicians capable of exploiting its disappointment and turning it into votes. Since the early 2000s, Bulgaria has seen a number of parties that gained a significant portion of the vote and then went out of business (pun not intended) the second they were tied, directly or indirectly, to the government. Bulgarians who vote for anti-establishment parties lose interest in them as soon as they become rulers.
"Patriotic" flagpole builders and theme park designers, however, have an easy answer. President Rumen Radev summed it up perfectly during the inauguration of the Rozhen Flagpole: "Today we reject the nihilism and unfatherlandness that crashed in their attempts to smear and stifle this initiative. Today we show that there is no power capable of making us betray our blood and Fatherland."
In the 21st century this kind of rhetoric may sound a bit nefarious.