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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter I. Historicizing the Nation: Images of the Past, Continuity into the Present

Under the yoke

Ivan Vazov

Texte intégral

1Title: Под uогmо (Under the yoke)

2Originally published: First separate edition in Sofia, 1894. English translation: London, William Heinemann, 1894.

3Language: Bulgarian

4The excerpts used are from Under the yoke. A new and revised edition (London: William Heinemann, 1911), pp. 200–204. No information is given as to the identity of the translator.

About the author

5Ivan Vazov [1850, Sopot (Balkan valley) –1921, Sofia]: poet, novelist, and playwright. He came from a wealthy merchant family from Sopot. He studied in Sopot and in Kalofer with Botio Petkov, the father of Hristo Botev, and worked for some time as his assistant. It was there that his literary interests were formed (under the influence mainly of French literature – Béranger, Hugo and Lamartine). He spent the early seventies of the nineteenth century in Romania, where he became involved with Bulgarian revolutionary circles. This period of his life had a decisive role for the formation of his patriotic position. In 1875 he joined the revolutionary committee in Sopot, but after the end of the uprising in 1876 he emigrated again to Romania. In 1880, after the liberation of Bulgaria, Vazov moved to Plovdiv, the capital of the ephemeral autonomous principality of Eastern Rumelia which in 1885 was united with the Bulgarian principality, where he engaged in political activity. This was also the period when some of his most important literary works were published. In 1886, under the regime of Stefan Stambolov, he was forced to leave Bulgaria due to his Russophilism and moved to Odessa, where he wrote his novel ‘Under the yoke’ (1889), which became internationally renowned. After the fall of the regime of Stambolov he returned to Bulgaria and lived in Sofia from 1889 until his death. From 1897 to 1899 he was Minister of Education. After the turn of the century, Vazov was considered to be the ‘living patriarch of Bulgarian literature.’ He was the main mediator between the romanticism of the ‘National Revival’ and the institutionalization of the national ideology in the modern state. He was self-conscious of the symbolic value of his literary work and reacted, as a ‘voice of the people,’ to all important historical events in the first half-century of the existence of the independent Bulgarian state. He embodied the paradigmatic figure of the ‘national classic.’ His main model was probably Victor Hugo and, indeed, the range of Vazov’s work is quite similar to Hugo’s; spanning almost all literary genres, he completed and stabilized the elaboration of the modern genre system in Bulgarian literature. Together with Hristo Botev, he was the main architect of the Bulgarian ‘national mythology’ (the main difference being that Botev’s poems were used retrospectively in its construction, while in Vazov’s case it was a conscious project of the artist). Next to Botev, Ivan Vazov is one of the most influential authors in modern Bulgarian literature.

6Main works: Поля u горu [Fields and woods] (1884); Повеcmu u разказu [Novels and short stories] 3 vols., (1891–1893); Под uгomo [Under the yoke] (1894); Хъшове [Vagabonds] (1894); Нова земя [New land] (1894); Под нашето небе [Under our sky] (1900).


7‘Under the yoke’ is the most famous Bulgarian novel both in Bulgaria and abroad. It commemorates the April Uprising of 1876, the culmination of the Bulgarian revolutionary movement. After Vasil Levski’s death in 1873, the BRCC (Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee) continued preparations for a national uprising and, using the structure of revolutionary committees established by Levski, formed a well-organized and centralized conspiratory network, divided into four regions. The most active of these was the Balkan valley region (and, more generally, Southern Bulgaria), which also played a crucial role during the whole ‘National Revival’ period. The uprising broke out in Koprivshtitza, one of the main villages in that region, on the 20th of April 1876, earlier than had been planned because of fears of being exposed, and was completely crushed in less than two months by the Ottoman army and paramilitary troops. The violence of the ensuing reprisals provoked strong indignation all over Europe (including from some of the most influential European intellectuals—Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoevski, Ivan Turgenev, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Darwin). The Russian-Ottoman war that followed resulted in the creation of an autonomous Bulgarian state.

8Vazov’s novel is one of the crucial texts on the uprising, and transformed this dramatic historical event into a national myth. His earlier ‘Epic of the Forgotten,’ glorifying the leaders of the uprising and the people who rose in revolt, and the famous ‘Notes on the Bulgarian revolts’ (1884–1892) by Zahari Stoyanov, himself an active participant in the insurrection, opened the way to the canonization of the uprising as a sacrificial founding event. These three texts served as a paragon of the national ideology, in which the myth of national martyrdom in the April Uprising acquired a constitutive function. Stoyanov himself said of the uprising: “We possess no other more glorious past that characterizes us as people.” This sentence resumes in the most laconic way the established reading of the uprising, which was shared even by those who criticized the underlying motives of the conspirators. As a major identity-building event, the uprising also became a bone of contention of different ideologies. The main strain of interpretation remained the one promoted by Vazov and Stoyanov, which considered the event as a quintessential emanation of the national self (heroism and martyrdom). This is obvious in the work of the leading figure of Bulgarian modernism, Pencho Slavejkov, who wrote an epic poem dedicated to the April Uprising (‘Bloody song,’ 1911–13), in which he aimed to transform the romantic myth into a modernist type of ‘national ontology.’ At the same time, however, already in the late-nineteenth century, the uprising was being critically examined by authors like Konstantin Velichkov (Vazov’s closest collaborator) and Todor Vlajkov. A specific version of this critical attitude was championed by Marxist critics, starting with Dimitar Blagoev in the 1890s and culminating in the Marxist sociologist Ivan Hadzhijski’s important work on the April Uprising (see Ivan Hadzhijski, Optimistic theory of our people).

9‘Under the Yoke’ creates an epic fictional representation of this crucial episode in modern Bulgarian history. Boicho Ognyanov, a Bulgarian revolutionary imprisoned in Anatolia, succeeds in escaping and comes back to Bulgaria, to the town of Biala Cherkva (White Church) in the Balkan valley. There he is integrated step by step into the life of the community, which is represented in several bifurcations of the main plot. His aim is to lead the organization of the national revolution. Finally, the uprising bursts out but its result is a tragic catastrophe: the leaders of the movement perish, and so at the end of the novel do Ognyanov and his beloved Rada. Chapter VII, ‘A nation intoxicated,’ is a crucial ideological digression by the author. It is an attempt to devise a canon of ‘national revival,’ starting with the cultural nationalism of Paisij Hilendarski, the author of ‘Slavo-Bulgarian History’ (1762), and culminating in an armed uprising. Turning to the events of 1876, the chapter depicts revolutionary enthusiasm at its climax. The whole nation emerges as a homogeneous, organic, ecstatic and sacrificial body, in which the different social strata have disappeared, effaced by the force of the common ‘madness’: the will to freedom, or to autonomous national existence. The metaphor of ‘madness’ represents the epitome of the ideological pathos of the novel.


A nation intoxicated

  • 1 The monk Paisij Hilendarski (1722–1773) is the author of the famous ‘Slavo-Bulgarian History’ [Ист (...)
  • 2 Georgi S. Rakovski (1821–1867), Bulgarian poet, writer and revolutionary activist.
  • 3 Bulgarians, or Christians in general, who enjoyed high social standing and whose main function was (...)
  • 4 ‘Kalpak’ is the traditional peasant hat; ‘fez’ is the typical Ottoman cap, which in this context a (...)

11In truth, as spring went on, the revolutionary movement made giant strides. The whole of Western Thrace, where the excitement was most general, resembled a huge volcano, the dull rumbling of which announced the coming eruption. A stream of apostles and agitators traversed mountain and plain and organised the contest. Everywhere they met with the same welcome—everywhere arms were opened to receive them, hearts to absorb their words—the whole nation thirsted after the stirring language of freedom, and was impatient to bear its cross to the new Golgotha. A long list of workers had already prepared the soil, and had even sown there the seeds of a love for freedom. These workers, beginning from Paissi,1 a monk, and ending with Levski, a deacon—both saints—had sown and watered the field; the former had shed upon it his blessing from Mount Athos, the latter from the gallows. Twenty years before, Rakovski2 had ventured in a village to advocate the revolt—he had to fly for his life, disguised in woman’s dress, from the fury of the villagers. Now, when villagers heard that an apostle was coming, they sent out deputations to welcome him and herald his approach. They listened, they swallowed thirstily every word of that life-inspiring speech, even as the parched throat does the refreshing draught. In response to the appeal, “Be ready, we must die!” the church gave its pope, the school its teacher, the field its ploughman, the mother her son. The idea struck its roots everywhere with invincible force—it spread over all alike—over Balkan and valley, over the hut of the poor shepherd and the cell of the monk. Even the chorbadjis,3 who formed a close caste opposed to all national development, even these fell under the sway of the idea with which every brain was on fire. True, they took a comparatively small part in the patriotic movement, but they did not hinder it, for they did not betray it. Treachery and baseness were rife enough later, but after the catastrophe, as always happens in such cases. In vain would certain writers, blinded by party spirit, seek to claim a monopoly of patriotic ardour only for the sheepskin clad and shod peasant, in defiance of historical truth. No, the revolutionary spirit, like a flaming seraph, spread its wings over peasant and university student—kalpak and fez,4 priest’s cap and tall hat alike. As in all the progressive struggles of Bulgaria, science and the cross were in the front rank. The martyrology of modem Bulgarian history proclaims this truth. True, the principal contingent, as at all times, was furnished by the mass of the people. But it gave what it could—that is, numbers. Thought and soul could only be supplied by the intelligence. So the effervescence increased daily and spread over everything. Every day it assumed greater dimensions and acquired fresh strength. The preparations went on with unremitting ardour; young and old displayed equal zeal. The peasants left their fields untilled to cast bullets, the citizens neglected their business. Secret posts went day and night between the different committees and the central committee at Panagiourishte; young lads spent the day in drilling with their guns, under the command of centurions and decurions; the women knitted stockings, made cartridges, and baked biscuit; the bootmakers worked only at knapsacks, cartridge cases, military boots and such revolutionary gear; even the village mayors, vekils, and other local functionaries eagerly took part in the preparations. In every village the depot of arms, bullets and gunpowder grew larger daily—the gunpowder was supplied by the Turks themselves—cherry-trees, hollowed out, planed, and fitted with iron hoops, formed the artillery. The silken standard embroidered with lions, fancifully braided uniforms, bright ecclesiastical vestments, and crosses were the adornments of the impending contest. The influence of this general infatuation was felt even in the children’s games: tops, hoops, kites were left for the more thrilling joys of playing at soldiers with wooden swords and guns. The old people, amazed, said it was a visitation of God. In truth, it was the only divine manifestation by which people were persuaded to join in the movement, if we except the miraculous logogram, “Turkey will fall—1876,” which spread rapidly abroad and convinced the most sceptical. That year, spring was extraordinarily early: the whole of Thrace resembled the Garden of Paradise. The rose-gardens were one mass of scented bloom, more luxuriant than ever before or since. Field and vineyard alike promised miraculous harvests, destined, alas! to rot unreaped.

  • 5 An allusion to the boisterous crowds whose loud acclamations heralded the establishment of the Exa (...)

12As for the inaction of the Turkish Government, in face of such open and unconcealed agitation, such boisterous preparations for the revolt, it is to be explained only by their blindness and utter contempt of the despised raya. “They’re merely hares at play,” said the complacent Effendis. “They’re only the Hurrahers…,”5 said the haughty rulers, smiling grimly and contemptuously. There are words which mark an epoch. The “Hurrahers” were the expression of the awakening of the nation when it emerged victorious from the thirty years’ struggle for its ecclesiastical autonomy. But the hurrahers who saluted with their cheers the establishment of the Bulgarian Exarchate in 1870 had in 1876 become revolutionaries, and prepared bullets and cannons to welcome Bulgarian liberty.

  • 6 Popular semi-legendary hero. He is described in a translator’s note as a ‘Bulgarian King Arthur.’

13The Turks, however, could not discern the change: they were unable to march with the times or to see the progress in the ideas of the people. Indeed, if they had understood, it was now too late—their dungeons were not vast enough, their fetters too short, to curb the gigantic idea, the invisible “King Marko”6 lurking in the mountains.

14Posterity will be astonished—nay, the very contemporaries of the age, with a whole series of historical examples before them, stand aghast before this moral intoxication, this sublime infatuation of a people preparing to con-tend with a mighty empire still great in its military resources— preparing with the hope, too, of victory, and with such means, ineffectual even to a point of ridicule, ready to take the field in the very “jaws of hell,” as Marko Ivanoff had said not long before, without seeking for any ally save its own enthusiasm—a will-o’-the-wisp, which flames and dies out, a phantom, an illusion. History has but rarely furnished an example of such self-confidence—verging on madness. The Bulgarian national spirit has never risen to such heights, and may never again reach them.

15Especial attention has been devoted to this prelude of the struggle, for it alone is striking, and may be taken as the example of a great idea fostered in a fertile and favorable soil. The struggle itself by which it was followed was unworthy of the very name.

16Nor will it be described in these pages. The story is naturally taken up with a single episode of the contest, which follows later, and which gives a glimpse of the revolution, that utter downfall of the brightest hopes.

17Anonymous translator


1 The monk Paisij Hilendarski (1722–1773) is the author of the famous ‘Slavo-Bulgarian History’ [История славеноболгарская] (1762). He is considered in modern Bulgarian historiography as the first important figure of the ‘Bulgarian national revival.’

2 Georgi S. Rakovski (1821–1867), Bulgarian poet, writer and revolutionary activist.

3 Bulgarians, or Christians in general, who enjoyed high social standing and whose main function was to mediate in social, administrative and fiscal terms between the Ottoman authorities and the local Christian population.

4 ‘Kalpak’ is the traditional peasant hat; ‘fez’ is the typical Ottoman cap, which in this context appears as sign of the relative integration of the Christian elite in the Ottoman administration.

5 An allusion to the boisterous crowds whose loud acclamations heralded the establishment of the Exarchate and the liberation of the Bulgarian Church from Greek domination in 1870. The Turkish expression is ‘Dajiveijilerdendir’ from ‘Dajivei,’ the Bulgarian ‘Hurrah!’ (translator’s note).

6 Popular semi-legendary hero. He is described in a translator’s note as a ‘Bulgarian King Arthur.’


© Central European University Press, 2007

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