An Exercise In History Deletion

This is going to be about the way history itself can be treated, and twisted, and perverted, for political purposes. Do bear with me. For the target of my contention is your fave boxing bag too: Russia. And for a good reason.

December 5, 1931 was a dark day in history. One of many at the time. It was the day that Stalin ordered the demolition of the Christ the Savior cathedral in downtown Moscow. That same day, the magnificent Memorial of the Bulgars was also blown up in Kazan, in Tatarstan, to the east of Moscow. In the meantime, along with this destruction of massive cultural treasures, a hectic effort in rewriting the history of the Russian Empire was going on. Because it was supposed to be substituted with the glorious history of the emergent Soviet Union. The drive of the Bolshevik propaganda to redraw not just Russian history but the history of all the parts of the world it could put its paws upon, was meant to prove to the peoples of the new empire that the spiritual and historic legacy of imperial Russia was supposed to be perceived as solely the achievement of the Russian people and no one else – and not just any Russian people, but the “right” social groups. Everything that dared to contradict this fantasy, was doomed to oblivion. As collateral, the Bulgar(ian) role in Russian history became a victim as well.

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Saints Cyril and Methodius were two titans of the Early Medieval Renaissance with huge significance for the Balkans, East Europe and the Slavic world. Their disciples brought their legacy and their work to Russia as well, among other places. This fact became a primary target for the Soviet historiography, and was a taboo topic in Russia for a long time. The very thought that the Slavic alphabet that was so important for an entire civilization, was brought by a tiny country like Bulgaria (an empire at the time), was unbearable and unacceptable for the Kremlin. Russia had to be the standard-bearer of the Slavic civilization, and it wasn’t meant to share that pedestal with anybody else. So, the historical truth was quickly substituted with a pseudo-scientific theory about Cyril and Methodius’ imaginary “mission” to the Crimean Khazars in 860. A scribe at the time wrote that Cyril was shown a Bible that was written in a local runic alphabet. That detail is at the core of the Soviet myth that the Slavic alphabet was created in Russia (or under Russian influence). What’s more likely than that story is that Cyril was familiar with the Varangian (Viking) runes that were popular among the northern merchants who were quite influential in Byzantium at the time, and who, among other things, were the trigger factor for the creation of Russia. In fact, the Russian tribes intentionally invited a clan of Swedish Vikings (later dubbed the Rurikids) to come show them how to build a state of their own. Another historical fact that was (and still is largely) a taboo topic in Russia, by the way.

Even a cursory glance at the Grand Soviet Encyclopaedia shows that Cyril and Methodius’ mission and significance is deliberately disparaged, and for political reasons. Instead of clearly stating their South Slavic identity and the explicit Bulgarian patronage of their disciples’ work, they’re being associated with some sort of vague “Slavic influence”.

Plenty of Bulgarian history teachers now recall that in the Soviet era, they would frequently hit all sorts of road-blocks and wade into all sorts of trouble if they ever dared to cite actual historical facts about the key role of the First Bulgarian Empire for the development and popularization of Orthodox Christianity throughout East and Central Europe, including Russia. The fact that Bulgaria was the first enlightenment factor in this half of the continent, long before Russia, was yet another taboo topic. Which hadn’t been the case before the Bolsheviks – in fact, many Russian writers and academics have acknowledged that “our southern cousins taught us to read and write, and to pray to God”. Citing these was also forbidden in Soviet schools, and severely frowned upon in Bulgarian schools, pre-90s. A pre-Bolshevik professor named Yuriy Venelin (whose words I’ve just quoted) had his grave and memorial plate blown up by the Soviet Moscow authorities in the 30s in result of that stance.

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Another victim of this hectic historical revisionism was St. Cyprian of Bulgaria. He became a Bishop of Moscow and All Russia in the late 14th century. He was born in Tarnovo, Bulgaria, and was among the most influential figures in Russian history, with huge importance for the Russian Orthodox Church. As is the case with Saints Cyril and Methodius, Constantinople was the facilitator of the Russo-Bulgar relations at the time. Cyprian, who was a friend and ally to our own legendary patriarch Euthymius of Tarnovo, was sent on a mission to Russia to help spread Orthodox Christianity in a country that was being torn by civil war and threatened with Asian invasions. The tremendous talent of the Bulgarian cleric managed to bring the warring lords to the table, achieve internal peace, and mobilize the Church and hence the populace to unite against the Tatar threat. Cyprian gained huge support among the people, and embarked on a unifying and enlightening mission until his death in the early 15th century. He was head of the enormous Muscovite and All-Russian Patriarchy.

Centuries after he was canonized and proclaimed a Saint though, his origin and role for unifying Russia and the Church began to be undermined and questioned. At times he was declared a Greek, and his contribution as leader and reformist of the Russian faith started to get ascribed to some imaginary Russian hermit. After long negotiations between the Bulgarian and Russian Patriarchies, about 16 years ago Cyprian’s bones were re-buried at the Uspenski Cathedral within the Kremlin complex. The visitors can now see his tomb, with an inscription from the Russian Orthodox Church, acknowledging his true origin and his significance for the formation of the Russian nation. He had to wait nearly a century to re-gain his status. And that says a lot.

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There’s yet another episode in the history of the bilateral relations that is much darker than this. The 1917 Bolshevik revolution gave way to illusions among the heirs of the Volga Bulgars (living between the Volga and Kama rivers) that they’d be granted a revival of their national identity. They did not want to be falsely given the identity of the Tatar invaders who had conquered Volga Bulgaria centuries before, so they were naive enough to believe the new Soviet regime would help them. But the Bolsheviks first used them for their civil war, and then removed the threat from a possible Bulgar revival by either massacring, deporting, or generally repressing any and all activists who were hoping for a Bulgar autonomy. Instead, the Tatar Autonomous Socialist Republic was created around the city of Kazan. And the dream of Khan Kotrag’s heirs was drowned into the Volga and Kama rivers.

A USSR census conducted at the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika gave a chance to the long-oppressed people to raise their head once more. However, as soon as our newly born democracy attempted to voice its support for our cousins around the Volga, Moscow sent us an angry note, ordering us to refrain from “meddling in the internal affairs of the Russian Federation” (while simultaneously not shying away from meddling into our own domestic affairs, regarding our energy industry, etc). Naturally, being true to its old instinct of laying lower than the grass until all storms have passed, BG duly obliged and shut up. A few years later, a petition was signed by 150 thousand Volga Bulgars who demanded that a Bulgar nation be recognized within the Russian Federation was sent to the Russian embassy (other nations have been recognized for far less, btw). But it so happened that the Second Chechen War broke out at that moment, so our “leaders” figured the moment to press such claims that could be interpreted as “separatists”, was inappropriate. So the cause of the heirs of the Bulgars was again drowned somewhere into the bog of political expedience and coyness.

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Of course, Soviet “national engineering” has been well-known far and wide for years. Formerly influential regional powers like my country have been of particular interest in various partitioning efforts, for the sake of fulfilling various geopolitical purposes. The peak of this was reached during our own pro-Soviet regime (1944-1989), where our obedient Soviet marionette governments were actively used to “create” such mongrels like a Macedonian, Moesian, Thracian and Dobrudja nations. Moscow built a neat and nice theory regarding the establishment of a new “Gagauz” nation in the Ukrainian and Moldovan autonomous republics, especially in the regions tightly packed with ethnic Bulgarians. The ripples of all this nation-building can be felt even today. Brothers are pitched against brothers, arguing who’s more authentic than the other. The purpose of all this was clear: rob nations of their identity, dilute their historic legacy. Divide and rule, you know.

We’ve often been told that we owe our freedom to the benevolent Russians, because they liberated us from the Ottomans. In fact, ever since the Russo-Turkish wars of the 19th century, we, along with a number of our Balkan neighbors, have consistently been used as both a source of manpower for the Russian nation-engineering and re-population purposes (the Southern Steppes of Crimea and Caucasus had to be Russianized and absorbed into the expanding empire, after all), and as a host territory to dump the respective indigenous Crimean and Caucasian peoples into, in exchange (particularly in the eastern portion of Bulgaria). Given the Russian efforts from the near past to erase our legacy and diminish our role for the formation of the Slavic civilization, I could say that if anyone still believes that Russia’s intentions towards my country have ever been benevolent (and I’m speaking of Russia the state and the government, as opposed to the Russians-the-people), then they’re as naive as a 3rd-grader. Because if anyone has been paying attention in history classes, they’d have noticed by the 3rd grade that something’s terribly wrong with the whole “Russia is our friend” narrative.

Of course, that’s not just directed at us. We’re no special snowflake. In fact, Russia likes to do that all the time, with anybody. Kremlin’s historical revisionist prowess has been well-known. As any other craft, it’s been passed from master to apprentice. Therefore, it’s hardly a surprise that the various artificial nations that have sprung from this nation-building frenzy would start inventing histories of their own at some point. Just look at the way the “antique” history of the Former Yugoslav Republic of…. Blabla-bla, was invented, perfumed, put in a shiny package, and sold to the public. After all, the complexes and deficiencies of a (quasi-)nation that has not existed until recently and is therefore rather confused about its own identity, always tend to reflect on the way its (hi)story starts to look under closer scrutiny. And some national stories do reek of cartoonish ridiculousness, indeed.

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