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Still grappling with the recent past

28/06/2011

I discovered by chance a couple of weeks back that the 8th graders I teach, at a private secondary school in Sofia, had never heard of Georgi Markov.  Yet Markov, assassinated in London in September 1978, could legitimately be described as the 20th Century’s Hristo Botev.  He – Botev – ranks behind only Vasil Levski as the most revered of Bulgaria’s freedom fighters – “Apostles of Freedom” – who gave their lives in the cause of Bulgaria’s liberation from five centuries of what used to be called “the Ottoman Yoke” but in this modern era has been tempered to “Turkish occupation”.

Georgi Markov in London

The similarities between Hristo Botev and Georgi Markov are easily enough drawn.  Both established themselves as literate and literary figures at a young age.  Both were products of their times – oppression by dictatorial forces which suppressed freedom of expression – and both died at a young age (Botev in his 20s and Markov in his 40s) for their attempts to bring about their country’s liberation from that oppression.

Yet, whereas the heroic endeavours of the 19th Century’s  Botev, Levski – including the myth-like story of how he acquired his nom de guerre “Lion-like” – and others such as Rakovski, Karavelov and Gotse Delchev are absorbed as mantra by Bulgarian children from their primary years, there is a silence in the curriculum when it comes to the voices against the 45-year communist regime.

When I mentioned my observation to fellow teachers – Bulgarians – the response was hard to read.  I was told that 8th graders – 14 to 15 year olds – are too young to understand this period of recent history, from (roughly) 1944 to 1989.  The former being the year in which Bulgaria was “liberated” by the Soviet army – it marched in unopposed the day after the country declared war on Nazi Germany, until then its ally,  and stayed until the Bulgarian communists had secured their Kremlin-backed control of the country.  The latter, the year in which the Communist Party conceded its grip on absolute power, with long-time party boss Todor Zhivkov being deposed in an internal party coup the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But in the intervening years, Bulgaria was a staunch – at times hard-line – member of the European communist bloc.  People like Georgi Markov were few and far between.  He could have chosen the soft option, as many of his peers did – he could have put his talents at the disposal of the regime.  Instead he defected when the opportunity presented itself – in 1969 – ending up in London, where he learned English and became a voice of dissent haphazardly received, courtesy of the BBC, Radio Free Europe and Deutche Welles, on illegal radio receivers in his home country.

And it was in London that he was silenced – waiting for a bus alongside the Thames – with a lethal dose of ricin injected by umbrella tip into his leg.  To this day his killer, and his killer’s controllers in Sofia and Moscow, remain free.

In the years immediately following the collapse of communism in Bulgaria, the education authorities faced the need for a wholesale revision of the school history curriculum.  Much of what had been taught during the communist period had been distorted to present the party line – literally and figuratively – in ways that bore precious little connection with prior teachings.  And revisionism then repeated itself in the 1990s with  two generations of recent history being excised from the curriculum.  So it has remained.  “Modern” history is taught from the 17th Century to 1944.  After that, it seems, nothing.  History has stopped and has yet to be restarted.

The possible reasons for this state of affairs are not hard to fathom.  Twenty years out from the end of the communist regime, the syllabus writers by and large remain products of that era.  They were either sympathisers or dissidents – or they pretended to be neither – but in any event they kept their heads down:  an acquired skill which they’ve carried into the post-communist times.  They were young themselves then but now they’re the parents of 8th or 9th graders.  They have their own impressions of those times which are so complex that they cannot resolve the version  to be taught to their children.

In the “western” world, this dilemma no longer presents itself.  The difficult periods of our histories – whether it be the exploitation and annihilation of indigenous peoples in Australia or the United States, or baseless land grabs in New Zealand – are sufficiently reconciled that they have become a part of our collective identity and are taught as such in the high schools.  But the communist era in Bulgaria and elsewhere in central and eastern Europe remains an unhealed wound.  If the doctors – the enlightened minds from that era – cannot yet heal it, there is little hope of the patient – their offspring – finding the treatment for themselves.

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