Złote Piachy – Sylwia Siedlecka

This book started me three-book spur of reading about countries in which I would not like to live. I know it sounds mean, but it’s not meant that way. When I think of it, there are not many countries that I’d like to live in, so it’s really not only about those three. Also, the fact I wouldn’t like to live in Bulgaria, Finland or North Korea does not mean I would not like to visit them. For now due to the situation I had to make do with learning more about them.

Złote Piachy literally means Golden Sands, only with the word sands in its augmentative form (which in Polish typically denotes pejorative meaning). Golden Sands is a seaside resort in Bulgaria, close to Varna. Very popular with Eastern Europeans and gaining popularity in the West as well. This is what Bulgaria wants to be associated with, beautiful beaches, blue sea, an amazing tourist destination. Sylwia Siedlecka looks beyond that surface, to uncover a country with thirteen centuries of tumultuous history and bring it closer to us.

One of my friends is Bulgarian, so I heard about many of the things mentioned in the book before. But still, it was nice to validate what I knew and learn a few new things at the same time. Siedlecka starts with Ludmila Zhivkova (I’ll try to stick with the English transliteration of Bulgarian Cyrillic, but if something looks odd it just means you see the Polish transliteration, apologies upfront), daughter of Bulgaria’s communist leader Todor Zhivkov. Exquisitely educated, with a very stormy life Ludmila died mysteriously at the age of 39, an event that still fuels popular imagination. Ludmila in her political career was focusing on Bulgarian culture, adamant to claim the Thracian legacy of Orpheus. In 1973 within the space of one hour she was involved in two car crashes, changing her life forever. She became obsessed with Eastern spirituality and founded Bulgarian Institute of Suggestology while continuing her work on Bulgarian cultural legacy.

Todor Zhivkov rules the country for 35 years. While in Poland there seems to be quite a broad consensus about negative perception of communist times, this is not the case in Bulgaria. Many people remember Zhivkov’s time fondly. Also, there was a lot less tension with Russia, as Bulgarians perceive Russia as the country that freed them from Turkish yolk. A very different perspective to the Polish one (and as I was to learn from my next read Finnish one too). One of the people interviewed by Siedlecka even mentions that ‘Bulgaria didn’t fight for change, instead the change has fallen on it’.

And it has fallen badly. Bulgaria was not a rich country, to begin with, but the transformation has left it poor, corruption-ridden, and in the hands of the mafia. Siedlecka writes about the huge communist monument in Buzludzha and its architect, only to move to the music of transformation (chalga, you can find a sample here). She travels the country talking to people, discovering its stories. We get to know about Baba Vanga, a blind mystic and clairvoyant consulted even by Leonid Brezhnev.

We also get to know about the discrimination of Turks. After Bulgaria was freed from Turkish yolk, surprisingly the Turks that remained in Bulgaria were able to live without any major problems. Bulgarians and Turks have been neighbors in the villages for generations, and neither side was keen to upset the situation further. And all would happily continue if Todor Zhivkov had not decided to strengthen Bulgaria by turning the nationality into an issue. What followed were forced name changes (known as the Process of Rebirth), across the entire country. Siedlecka brings s a story of Mehmet who decided to burn himself rather than change the name. Then in 1989 the Turks that did not assimilate and turn Bulgarians were effectively banished from the country. They left or were forced to leave en masse, over 350,000 people, in what was known as ‘The Big Excursion’. This effectively depleted the existing workforce and severely impacted the Bulgarian economy.

Siedlecka also writes about Bulgarians love of music and dance. And when I think of it really almost every Bulgarian I ever knew was at some point in their life in a traditional Bulgarian dance group. Another thing that Bulgarians see as traditional is the circus. During communism, circus gained a lot of state support, popularity and respect. Circus as art has for a long time been respected in Russia, and it was seen as entertainment that brought everyone to the same level, uniting all classes in awe. When I was reading it I remember that even right after the transformation circus was still going strong in Poland too. Television would show recordings of Russian circus shows on weekends and in the summer circus would come to town.

There is also a very disturbing chapter about Julia Kristeva’s cooperation with communist secret police. Consisting of the pages from her ‘folder’ interspersed with quotes from Kristeva’s texts about Bulgaria, and finishing with a slew of judgments passed on her by public figures once the ‘folders’ were made public.

Then closing the book Siedlecka writes about Boyko Borisov. Allowing the narration to follow the circle drawn by history. Borisov, now serving as prime minister for almost 12 years,  started his career as Todor Zhivkov’s bodyguard. She writes that Borisov is pro-European, and seems to be quite popular with European elites. But still, within the country he presents himself ‘the man of the people’. During his rule the macroeconomic situation of Bulgaria deteriorated, driving him out of the office twice, only to be reelected every time. He rules with a heavy hand, and the way he presents himself as a ‘father of the nation’ figure feels like an updated take on Zhivkov’s style of running the country. Borisov – the Zhivkov for our times, it could almost be a campaign slogan.

Like any country, Bulgaria is a complex affair. Siedlecka tries to distill for us the main traits of it. Making us look beyond the golden sands and turquoise sea. It was a fascinating read. It certainly helped that it’s well written and the people and stories selected by her give an engrossing and vast picture of this relatively small country.

This is book #4 of my 20 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 746books.
See my list as it grows here.

Photo by Anastas Petkov @http://www.vitaobscura.com/

20-books

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