Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Memories Of Socialist Bulgaria Still Resonate
MAR 2017 Monday 13TH
posted by Morning Star in Arts

Jean Turner reviews Once Upon a Time in Bulgaria
Once Upon a Time in Bulgaria by Mercia MacDermott (Manifesto Press, £11.95)

AFTER participating in the 1947 and 1948 NUS youth brigades in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, and helped by her study of Russian and related Slav languages including Bulgarian, Mercia MacDermott took up a one-year English teaching post in Sofia in 1963.

Already familiar with Bulgarian history, as part of the British brigade in 1948 she had even met the communist legend Georgi Dimitrov, then Prime Minister of Bulgaria and universally loved and admired.

Her studies revealed how in the Middle Ages, under the influence of Slavonic Slovenians and Byzantium, the Bulgarians had obtained a degree of civilisation equal to that of Western nations. It ended with the invasions of Tatars and Turks in the 14th century and the Bulgarians suffered 500 years of occupation by the Ottoman empire.

But, in the middle of the 19th century, leaders arose who led resistance campaigns against the Turks, often ending in massacres of Christians by the Ottomans. Among them was Vasil Levsky who, unlike previous leaders, had looked to other countries for support and help.

Levsky developed a form of struggle reminiscent of the hero of What Is To Be Done? by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, his Russian contemporary.

He favoured a network of highly disciplined secret committees, linked to a central committee by an efficient system of couriers and governed by a statute democratically adopted at a delegate conference, reminiscent of Lenin’s “party of a new type.”

Sadly, he was betrayed and hanged in 1873 but he became Bulgaria’s national hero, whose life is celebrated every year.

While teaching English in Sofia in 1963, MacDermott became enthused by the festivals and tributes paid to Bulgaria’s historic heroes of resistance and, on returning to England, decided to write a history of Levsky which was translated into Bulgarian and became a best-seller there.

Although conversant with their hero’s history, the fact that another country had published a book about him inspired Bulgarians’ gratitude.

MacDermott became a national treasure and was welcomed with open arms when she returned to English teaching in Sofia in 1973. Famous wherever she went, she was continually asked to lecture all over the country on Levsky.

The book from then on becomes a delightful tapestry of scenes of everyday life in a socialist country which provides an analysis of its excellent education system and descriptions of major towns and villages.

It describes too the festivals of a countryside, often deeply rooted in the ancient past and famous for its roses, the collectivism of its culture and the deep respect for the suffering of others in the world.

Returning to Bulgaria post-1989, the author regrets the effect of capitalism on its citizens.

Her images of post-WWII socialist Bulgaria will be unrecognisable to present-day visitors to the country, where great inequalities in income and living standards now exist.

Unemployment, unheard of in socialist times, has driven a highly educated population to seek work in other countries.

Thus this informative and entertaining memoir will serve to highlight the benefits that a socialist society could bring to our lives.

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