It’s been a few months since the increasingly troubling instability in Crimea burst forth into our western awareness. With the cheers still fading from the Sochi Olympics, we slowly became aware of hearing ominous growls from the Russian Bear. Masked men in unmarked uniforms, ethnic unrest and violent confrontations flaring on what language or accent people spoke with, a military base not so much overrun as edged out. A referendum, howls of protest, noise about sanctions and repercussions and protests, all while at least part of Ukraine gasps for breath in the grip of a slow and unrelenting choke hold.
The Russians. I was brought up in a world where we had “duck and cover” drills in school, to prepare for when the bombs that would fall. Being under our desks would protect us from a thermonuclear blast, the teachers solemnly asserted. “Cross your arms in front of your face and keep your head down.” The blast, we all knew, would be from Russian missiles.
My wife and I were reminded of some of those old thoughts when we were first assigned to work in Bulgaria. The country had been severed from its long association with the Soviets, and the U.S and Russia seemed set on a path toward friendship and mutual glasnost, but lingering doubts nagged at us. Even their alphabet seemed threatening.
They write in Cyrillic letters, with the backwards R and backwards N, long associated in our Cold War culture with Russian May Day tank parades, mutual distrust, and missiles pointed at us. Strange, alien, ominous. — Breeze, p. 7
We soon found that for most Bulgarians the process of “facing to the west” after the fall of the Soviet Union was seen as a positive development. After all, as it was explained in Breeze, all the big State-run factories had closed and people had lost their jobs in the process, so something had to happen. The whole structure of how-everything-works had been set adrift, inflation had ravaged what was left, unemployment was rampant, and learning new ways seemed the only hope. There were even sparks of excitement among the normally staid Bulgarians. There were pockets of resistance, though, pockets of resentment and acrimony about “The Change.” Change is not always welcomed wholeheartedly, there as here, even when it is official government policy.
… the old people pine for the old days. Their memories are filtered through a misty haze of golden job security that smoothes away the old problems, and underscores the hopeless feelings of the present. “They told us what to do. It was fine.” — Breeze, p. 93
I was once caught in a conversational crossfire on the subject, with friends meeting under the stars on a summer night. We were at a sidewalk café having a beer.
Ivan’s friend was going a mile a minute about how everything was better under communism… [Our friend] Mary was incensed. She and Hristo had so often expressed the opposite opinion, telling us how their families suffered under Communist rule. Ivan, caught in the middle, was just embarrassed and kept trying to calm the argument down. Cool it for now in front of our guests for goodness’ sake, save it for later. It did cool down after a while, since no one was convincing anyone anyway. The talk turned to halfhearted empty pleasantries and we called it a night. — Breeze, p. 255
There was more to it, of course, than jobs and café talk. The attachment to Russia was not only from the Soviet days but long before. You might remember learning about the 1878 liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. The Uprising, the Heroes of the Revolution, cannons and swords, martyrs and sacrifice. The overarching importance of breaking from “500 years under the Turkish yoke” is imprinted deeply in every Bulgarian’s consciousness in song and story, in monumental statues and art. It was the Russians who got credit for making it happen, under “The Tsar Liberator” Alexander.
My main job in Bulgaria was to teach English, the language of business in Western Europe, at the request of the Bulgarian government. Improbable as it would have seemed in my long-ago childhood and even more recently, Bulgaria actually became, in 2007, a member of the European Union. With most of the older generations having learned to speak Russian, having worked with Russians side by side in industry and the Army, lock-stepping together in the old ideology, Bulgaria joined the EU! Signed up! Bought the ticket to ride! And not only that but the trans-Atlantic military alliance NATO to boot!
Torn between two lovers? Yeah, a little.
It’s a complicated problem. This April 10 article from Reuters explains the quandary very well. Bulgaria: caught between Moscow and Brussels. In addition to the deep ties already described, another is that the country is almost entirely dependent on Russian energy supplies. But what country would base its foreign policy on getting oil and gas? Never mind. I didn’t mean to be glib. Again, from the Reuters article, “… support for Putin goes beyond history and energy supplies. Many citizens of the EU’s poorest member state have been disappointed by EU membership, and are almost gratified by the new hostilities between the Kremlin and Brussels.”
The bright prospect of EU membership involved lots of promises, and the honeymoon may be over.
My friend John, who served in Moldova 2001-2003, wrote this to me by email. I asked if I could share it here in the comments. With his permission…
Excellent article. I have limited contacts in Moldova… and they are ‘gloom-and-doom’ types. Transnistria, the break-away republic, is in the news. For a while we lived there, then moved to just inside Moldova… a stones-throw away. Transnistria was more soviet than Russia when we visited… statues of Stalin and Lenin, everything in Russian. The head of the communist party in our village was not very popular… he ran for mayor and finished fifth with only a paltry number of votes… but there was a lot of nostalgia for the old days when everyone had a job. My contacts in Moldova say that the Russian bear is ominous, nothing good will come of it… and they expect Transnistria will be taken over (in reality, they took over a decade ago)… and that maybe Moldova will lose more. The border city where we lived originally, Bender (pronounced Bendair) is split in half and the Transnistria folk have a couple of times taken-over parts of the other side of town, so much so that the locals say that Bender is Transnistria (which means across the Dnistriu River) even though half of Bender was on the our side of the River.