A priest I know in one of the remotest corners of Bulgaria recently told me: "Don't think that the Bulgarian Church has anything to do with believing in God. It's all about money and power. The liturgy is a sleight-of-hand." I won't name the man for fear his local bishop might promptly excommunicate him, but I pondered over what he'd said while I was looking at the construction site of a new Orthodox chapellette, in that unique mutro-baroque style you've seen in Boyana. Turkish and Gypsy contractors were busy putting the final touches to the new house of prayer that would bear the name of St George the Victorious.
You've witnessed the church construction boom in recent years, I'm sure. But don't think the Bulgarians have suddenly become very religious or so affluent that they can afford to spare a few hundred thousand leva for their local church. "Ordinary folk go to church, the mutri build churches," the priest answered my thought.
Sadly, he is right. Bulgaria's turbulent transition to democracy and free market economy did not end with the country's accession to NATO and the EU but with the moment the mutri, who still play a significant role in making Bulgaria what it is now, started legitimising themselves by subsidising projects of "social significance" such as churches and monuments. The ruling clique as epitomised by the government, the president and Bozhidar Dimitrov, the chief of the National History Museum, are very happy to fall to their knees in reverence. Obsessed with boosting patriotism rather than talking about the EU reports about corruption, double standards and the sorry state of Bulgarian justice system, they are anxious to be seen attending inauguration ceremonies of non-controversial 19th Century freedom fighters.
The latest example is right in the middle of Sofia for everyone to see. Next to the Alexandr Nevskiy Cathedral, the building of the Holy Synod and the St Sofia Church stands a larger-than-life statue of "The Bulgarian Opalchenets," the local irregulars who joined the Russian imperial forces in the 1877–78 war against the Ottomans. In the years after the war – and quite rightly so – the whole of Bulgaria was dotted with military cemeteries and monuments to the glorious dead who helped their country gain its independence.
But what purpose does a monument like this serve in 2008?
The government, the president and Bozhidar Dimitrov have the answer. In the moral and ideological vacuum of post-EU but pre-rich Bulgaria it is easier to erect a monument to glorify some distant past than to build a motorway or tackle the problems of dairy farmers. Reassert our 19th Century heroes (there has been talk of erecting a monument to the Founder of Bulgarian State, the 7th Century Khan Asparuh, as well!) and you will be at ease with your identity in Europe of the Germans and the British. We may be experiencing some temporary difficulties at the moment, but we have our proud past that we won't allow anyone to touch.
You know who is paying for this? According to the Kapital weekly, the sponsors of the Opalchenets monument include the International Asset Bank, allegedly close to Mladen "Madzho" Mihalev; Nikolay Tsvetin, the former vice president of the VAI Holding owned by Georgi Iliev, who was assassinated in Sunny Beach in 2005; and Nove Holding, owned by Vasil Bozhkov. They were joined by Professor Aksiniya Dzhurova, the daughter of the Communist-era Defence Minister Gen. Dobri Dzhurov, and Lyubomir Kolarov, now head of the Bulgaria's Heroes Foundation. He used to be the Bulgarian National Television's correspondent in Moscow in the early 1990s and then held a senior communications position under Zhan Videnov. Who shall liveth forever more?