West must not expect attitudes to Kremlin to change
I recently zapped through the channels on my old analogue TV set and came across a programme that caught my eye. It was a documentary about the Allied bombings of Sofia. Footage of what central Sofia looks like at the moment were interspersed with archival material showing bombed-out top floors of interwar condos, destruction of tram lines on Dondukov Boulevard and the general chaos associated with a war air raid. Not sweet at all. Then elderly ladies and gentlemen were interviewed on or off camera. They all dug up dusty memories of how they reacted to the sirens signalling the onslaught of the American squadrons, how they were taken by their parents to basements camouflaged as air raid shelters, how they, in their teenage days, kept asking themselves the question, why do the Americans bomb us? The TV programme I watched never provided an answer to this question.
Actually, it did. If the now elderly ladies and gentlemen being interviewed were not that bad – and obviously, they as teenagers could not have been that bad to warrant being bombed upon – then the Americans were the bad ones because they did bomb them regardless!
Last year, on a rare trip to the now overbuilt Bulgarian seaside, I did the whole drive from Durankulak, on the Romanian border, to Rezovo, next to Turkey. My purpose was not taking in some sun or submerging myself in the libertine atmosphere of Sunny Beach, but exploring the dozens of Red Army monuments dotting the Bulgarian shoreline. From huge monstrosities like the ones in Varna and Burgas to small, out-of-the-way tombstones, they were all kept spick-and-span. They were all spruced up, some of them had even been recently renovated. Typically, they carried gold-plated names of Soviet soldiers who died off the coast of Bulgaria in 1941-1944, when Bulgaria was a German ally and when Hitler had already broken the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, setting off what the Russians to this day refer to as The Great Fatherland War.
Again, there was no explanation why these monuments and tombstones were there.
No, there was. The Red Army soldiers who died on the Black Sea coast fought against "fascism" in Bulgaria. They "liberated" us from our own government, just like their Russian imperial forefathers had liberated us from the Turks!
A Stalinist monstrosity hovers over the city of Plovdiv and is still being referred by the citizens of Bulgaria's second-largest town as The Alyosha. In the 1990s, the Plovdiv City Council refused to grant artist Christo Yavacheff, of Central Park, Pont Neuf and Bundestag fame, permission to wrap up the monument in an art installation
Now think about the Allied bombing of Sofia and the Soviet incursions into Bulgarian territory. Bulgaria did start a war against both Britain and the United States. Neither Britain, nor the United States treated that war very seriously – at least not so seriously as they viewed for example Romania, also a Nazi ally. But Bulgaria never declared a war against the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union did – on 5 September 1944, or three days before the Communist takeover. The historical truth is that the Red Army was fighting an undeclared war against Bulgaria and that Soviet submarines torpedoed Bulgarian ships, including a vessel that carried Jewish refugees to what at the time was British Palestine.
There is not a word anywhere on the Black Sea coast about that.
Yet, the Americans are vile because they bombed us, and the Russians are good because they... liberated us.
Of course, this is illogical but to understand the prevalent Bulgarian attitudes towards Russia one has to understand the illogical logic of latter-day Bulgarians.
It is mainly sentimental. Forty-five years of Communism force-fed generations of Bulgarians with Soviet propaganda that represented the world in black-and-white (or rather black-and-red) terms. Whoever was in power in the Kremlin determined with the stroke of a pen or with a whiff into a telephone what happened in Sofia. The Stalinist way of thinking was omnipresent and omnipotent – it entailed not only five-year production plans and administering labour camp sentences for telling political jokes but also an almost complete rewriting of history and a total dictate on people's daily lives – from school kids, who were forced to memorise dates and names rather than think, to their parents, who were banned from dancing the twist because it was considered decadent and immoral.
From the standpoint of 2014 it is hard to imagine how this obviously irrational system could hold on for so many years – and in actual fact it didn't. Very few people took seriously what party functionaries told them to believe and everyone did tell political jokes – some of which are still capable of generating hush-hush laughs.
Despite the overhaul of the system post-1989, many notions from the Communist days persist. One of the most enduring is the one about Russia. Its "greatness" is one of the ready-made excuses you will hear whenever anything goes wrong in Russia or when the Russians make yet another hash of things. Just like in Sochi – no matter how many toilets they installed in a three-bedroom hotel room, Russia will always remain a "great" country with a "great history." Full stop. No one will answer in detail what makes Russia's history so "great."
So, next time you are discussing Bulgarian feelings for Russia with a local, be prepared not to use common sense arguments. Don't mention oil and gas – or Bulgaria's total dependence on Russian resources. Go for the sentimental. Refer to the Ottoman Empire. Ask for memories from student working holidays in the USSR. Mention the Russian tourists at the Black Sea coast – and the need to have more of them. Then you might be able to understand why the Americans are vile and why the monuments to the Red Army still stand.