HISTORY BY PETITION

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Bulgaria spawns grotesque criticism of... school textbooks

History school textbooks in Bulgaria, to a lot greater extent than, say, geography or biology textbooks, are regularly the stuff that hacks build their conspiracy theories on. This usually happens at the beginning of the summer for three reasons. The Bulgarian publishers start rolling out new textbooks for the next school year. Politics are usually low key as Bulgarians head to the Greek seaside, leaving their TV sets unattended. And third, significantly, the Bulgarian penchant for and perceived understanding of both recent and ancient history need constant tickling – especially in years when there is no football world championship.

Usually, the scandals involving history textbooks are generated by extreme nationalist parties and groupings. Usually they touch on Bulgaria's Ottoman period. Internet sites' headlines like "They are taking Levski and Botev out of the history textbooks" or "There was no Turkish yoke but Ottoman 'presence'" immediately make ordinary Bulgarians see red. It makes no difference that no one actually ever thought of taking Levski and Botev out of the history textbooks. Internet users rarely see beyond the headlines. For them a headline is enough to vilify the vicious, liberal West in general and the vicious, liberal EU in particular for wanting to usurp whatever has been left of Bulgaria's proud history of suffering and defeat.

The ploy works remarkably well left, right and centre. In 2019 Hristo Hristov, an activist for the government commission to declassify whatever is left of the Communist-era State Security files, produced a pamphlet in which he accused the publishers of five new history school textbooks of "manipulating" the Communist period and of purposefully whitewashing it. The idea was simple: former Communists and their stooges continued to run the show, in 2019, by manipulating history.

Hristov produced few direct quotes from the allegedly manipulative textbooks, but he was immediately joined by another activist, Evelina Kelbecheva, who teaches history in the American University at Blagoevgrad. Together they fanned up an online petition subscribed to by over 3,000 people. The petition demanded the rewriting of the history textbooks – obviously, without giving any concrete directions or preferences to the historians who wrote them.

In the minds of middle-aged Bulgarians, who grew up under Communism and had Communist propaganda thrust down their throats for generations, history textbooks, to a much larger extent than, say, geography or biology textbooks, immediately conjure up the image of a stern yet just comrade teacher who administers science from a lectern in front of a blackboard. Middle-aged Bulgarians know that whatever they learned in school would last for life. Their conviction that the Bulgarians were "enslaved" by the Turks and that the Russians were "double liberators" has in recent years generated a counter-reaction that absolutely everything that has gone wrong in Bulgaria since 1944 (including post-1989, when the East bloc ceased to exist) is to be attributed to Communism and, by proxy, to that stern teacher who uses a sponge dipped in vinegar to clean the blackboard.

The truth, however, is never black and white. Communism may be responsible for many wrongs in today's Bulgaria, including the predominant work ethic, the sullen restaurant service and the fact that nothing in the civil service actually works. But it is not responsible for everything. Bay Ganyu, the fictional hero invented by Aleko Konstantinov, the turn of the 20th century writer who went down in history as this country's greatest satirist, was not a Communist. He was a stock Bulgarian: cunning, stingy, simple-minded and nativist. Sound familiar?

Interestingly, the over 3,000 people who joined Hristov's online petition never made an attempt to see what was actually in the reviled textbooks. Even some Western media picked up the story. Radio Free Europe, the US international broadcaster which recently restarted a limited Bulgarian service, put out a story along Hristov's lines. According to RFE, which is paid for with US taxpayers money, the newly proposed history textbooks presented Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's Communist dictator in 1956-1989, as a "hero" and "whitewashed" the repressive nature of his regime. Again, no one bothered to see the actual proposed textbooks.

Deputy Education Minister Petar Nikolov said that the criticism of Hristov and his followers concerned single words and sentences rather than the pith of the matter. He assured he had asked the publishers to make amends in time for the new school year.

The current history textbooks scandal exemplifies that the Communist mentality is alive and well in Bulgaria of NATO and the EU. Even those, who identify themselves as anti-Communist intellectuals, would happily embrace the Stalinist methods of shoot-to-kill anyone who disagrees with their version of life in general and history in particular. They will never bear any criticism and they would happily fall for what in more normal circumstances would immediately be billed fake news.

Juliana Metodieva, a journalist who runs a human rights Internet site called Marginalia, exclaimed: "It feels as if we are back in 1989, standing in the middle of Sofia and shouting down with the BKP!"

Members of the academic community produced a counter-petition to protest against what they billed an unabashed attempt to manipulate public opinion and to create a new enemy figure in academia. Contrary to what Hristov, Kelbecheva and their fans claim, Communism has been taught in Bulgarian schools since 1996, and is invariably being billed as repressive and undemocratic. Total praise, like total negation have little to do with science. Hristov's and Kelbecheva's attempts to halt the publication of new history textbooks by pressing on with their private opinions are a classic example of censorship on objective scientific knowledge, the counter-petition said.

The history textbooks scandal was so absurd that it even generated... jokes. Dr Dimitar Bechev, a Bulgarian political scientist who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote on social media that he would not endorse any history textbook that failed to mention the fact that even the most devout members of the various Communist-era youth organisations were primarily interested not in the tenets of Marxism-Leninism but in... the bra size of Samantha Fox.

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