Monday, September 22, 2008

A bit of Balkan history

Today is the 100th anniversary of the independent state of Bulgaria (according to the old style Julian calendar) which is as good an excuse as any to mention the controversial Bulgarian - or possibly Macedonian - intellectual, Krste Misirkov, who was much involved in defining an identity of Macedonians. He died in 1926, but an important diary of his was found just two years ago in a Bulgarian antique shop, and has been much in the Balkan news.

The Republic of Bulgaria forms part of the Balkans in south-eastern Europe, bordering five other countries: Romania, Serbia, Greece, Turkey and the Republic of Macedonia. But the idea of Bulgaria goes back a long way. There was a Bulgarian empire that started in the 7th century and survived over three hundred years; and a second empire that lasted from the 12th century to the 14th. The next five hundred years Bulgarians lived under the rule of the Ottoman empire. In the 1870s, though, Russia went to war against Turkey, and this led to Bulgaria becoming a principality in 1878. Thirty years later, on 22 September 1908 (old style calendar - see Wikipedia for an explanation), it declared itself an independent nation.

But the Balkan area was then (and became so again much later in the 20th century after the collapse of Yugoslavia) a cauldron of peoples vying for identity and nationality, and Bulgaria’s independence was just one element in the region’s complex picture. Another element was the neighbouring region of Macedonia, which can trace its history much further back than Bulgaria, and which was also grumbling about Ottoman rule and wanting some autonomy. It didn’t achieve any. After the First World War, it became part of Serbia, and then, after the Second World War, part of Yugoslavia.

Nearly 100 years later, there is once again a country called Macedonia, but so strong are the feelings about the Macedonian identity that a dispute with Greece over the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ has meant that, pending a solution to the dispute, this new republic is still referred to in international negotiations as FYROM, or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Very much alive at the time of Bulgaria’s independence and Macedonia’s grumblings was Krste Misirkov, an intellectual, writer and philologist. He was born in 1874 in Pella, now in the Greek region of Macedonia, and died in Sofia in 1926. His 1903 book On The Macedonian Matters - which, among things, set down principals for a Macedonian literary language - was considered a kind of rallying cry by Macedonian intellectuals struggling for independence. A full text in English is available at Macedoniafaq.

Largely because of this book, some Macedonian historians have dubbed Misirkov as the father of the contemporary Macedonian nation. Also on the basis of this book, they’ve claimed he was Macedonian, rather than Bulgarian, an assertion that has been difficult to reject definitively since he himself made conflicting claims about his nationality. Macedonian News still calls him ‘the founder of the Macedonian national history, literary language and orthography’.

Astonishingly, a 380 page diary written by Misirkov in Russian and dating from 1913 was found recently - 80 years after his death - in a Bulgarian antique shop. The diary, which has been authenticated by both Bulgarian and Macedonian experts, sheds new light on Misirkov and his beliefs. In particular, it shows that he thought of himself as a ‘Macedonian Bulgarian’. 

An article on Macedoniablogs (in English, but with delightful spelling!) gives an interesting analysis of Macedonian history at the time, with reference to Misirkov. It also quotes a review of the newly-found diary by Prof Dr Vlado Popovski, cited in Vreme newspaper: ‘[Misirkov] presents Bulgaria as martyr, who has undertaken the biggest burden from the war with the Turkish empire, it is a country that sacrificially heads to the realisation of its national ideal for the unification of the Bulgarian lands, in which apart from Thrace, Misirkov includes also Macedonia. In the context, he presents a range of statements with which he justifies the Bulgarian interests in Macedonia and calls the Macedonians Macedonian Bulgarians. Accusing Russia of unfaithfulness and coarse nationalism . . . Misirkov recommends to it [i.e. Russia] at least to call for autonomy of Macedonia as a transition solution to unification with Bulgaria.’

In other words, the simple truth seems to be that Misirkov supported the idea of a Macedonian identity in order to work towards an autonomous region, but only so that it would then be easier for it to unify with Bulgaria.

According to Sofia News Agency Novinite earlier this year, the State Archive of the Republic of Macedonia and Bulgaria’s State Archives Agency will soon be publishing the diary in both languages (translated from the original Russian).

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