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We, the People

Mishkova Diana

Part II. Nationalization of Sciences and the Definitions of the Folk

Barbarians, Civilized People and Bulgarians

Definition of Identity in Textbooks and the Press (1830–1878)

Desislava Lilova

Texte intégral

1Are Bulgarians barbarians or civilized? Answering this question consumed a considerable part of the intellectual energy of the Bulgarian elite in the 19th century. The dilemma was first put up for discussion at the beginning of the century and ever since then, each new generation has been joining a fresh round of the debate. Interest in the topic has been sufficiently lively to lend legitimacy to the “barbarism–civilization” taxonomy as the main framework within which the nation builds its identity. This research aims to explore the origins of this process. The analysis covers the period from the 1830s to the rise of the independent Bulgarian state in 1878. This is the chronological framework in which the intellectual elite imported and promoted the ideological grammar of modernity and the taxonomies of progress. The objective is to shed light on the history, mechanisms and results of their transfer.



2Definitions of barbarism and civilization entered Bulgarian culture as part of geography classes. An explanation is needed here, firstly of why this kind of knowledge was taught in geography, and not history courses. The reason lies in the way in which the two subjects structured their field of knowledge in the 19th century. At this time there were two major branches of historiography: general (i.e., of all humankind) and specialized (i.e., of individual nations). The general history, however, was not exactly universal because it covered only those nations deemed to have contributed to the development of world culture. A basic test for such a contribution was the formation of a state. Accordingly, “primitive tribes” and all other nations which did not reach the stage of statehood remained outside the scope of history’s attention. In this respect, geography took a more liberal approach. Its subject matter was seen as descriptive, and not explanatory, and for this reason it did not require a preliminary selection of the facts to be studied. In fact, at this time, the geography framework sought to register, count and measure everything related to the Earth’s human, economic and natural resources—from the Solar System to the minerals in the sub-soil. The stages of development reached by the different groups of the world population were also included in the scope of information as part of the fundamental knowledge of humankind.

  • 1 On the state of geographic studies at the end of the 18th and the first half of the 19th century, (...)

3The next question, which needs elaboration, concerns the effectiveness of geography teaching as a channel of transferring ideological notions. The marginal status of this scientific field in Europe casts doubts about its potential to function successfully as a mediator. In the first half of the 19th century, geography was seen as an applied science. It was primarily expected to serve the needs of trade and governments by supplying them with maps and statistical data, especially for the unexplored lands of the colonies. Its low reputation as a support discipline was mainly due to the absence of a distinct subject matter.1

  • 2 For more details on the use of geography in Greek schools, see Koulouri (1992).

4The inability of geography to establish its legitimacy as an autonomous science was evidenced by its modest place in curricula. It was called “one of the two eyes of history,” together with chronology, and this cliché reflected objectively its pedagogical status. To put it briefly, geography was used primarily as a visualization of the historical scene. Its introduction as an independent subject took place relatively late. In most countries this happened after the 1870s. Before that it was traditionally taught in the form of a short introduction to history or language classes. Geography, however, had a strong presence in Greek schools as early as the end of the 18th century. But even there it was used first and foremost as an illustration of antiquity.2

5Even though their educational models were imported from Western Europe, Bulgarian schools balanced the relative weight of subjects in an alternative way and this difference requires a careful analysis. First of all, geography held strong positions from the very beginning when it was first introduced in the 1830s and they were preserved until the end of the period under consideration. Secondly, it did not have a support function, was not overshadowed by history and did not, therefore, need emancipation. Admittedly we do not have consolidated data about the curricula because the Ottoman ministry did not exert centralized control over the Bulgarian education system. Specifically for geography, however, all sources confirm that the subject enjoyed a solid reputation and popularity.

  • 3 The three translators of Abbé Gaultier are Gruev (1861, reprinted 1865, 1870, 1872, 1874); Manchev (...)

6One indication is the number of textbooks in the subject. In the period between 1835 and 1874 there were a total of 41 editions (55 with reprints). By comparison, the total number of Bulgarian history books was 10, that is, nearly four times less. The lack of balance between the two subjects can be traced in the chronology of publications, too. It is remarkable that the first textbook on Bulgarian history (1844) was published exactly nine years after the first geography one. The other nine history textbooks came out during the last 17 years of Ottoman rule. In other words, this subject developed explosively and relatively late. By contrast, in the geography sector the publications were distributed evenly over a period of 40 years. Between one and five textbooks were coming out every year. The absence of historical atlases is another fact which suggests that under Bulgarian conditions, geography did not function as the “eye of history.” Despite the obvious fascination with geography, no maps to illustrate the Medieval Bulgarian state were produced. And last but not least, it is symptomatic that historical data were often removed from the translations of textbooks. The reception of the French geographer Abbé Gaultier is an excellent example. His geography was translated by three different translators and went through eight new editions, which made it the most popular textbook on the subject.3 None of the translators considered it necessary to preserve the information about the past of each country included in the original.

7How is to be explained this extremely un-classical balance between history and geography in the Bulgarian education system? There is no doubt that geography was the more developed of the two but this does not necessarily mean that it was considered to be the more important. It would be more plausible to claim that it was seen as the more easily accessible ideological resource. For the intellectuals of the time it was difficult to write a national history for several reasons. Firstly, there were no medieval chronicles preserved in the Bulgarian language in the 19th century. Information about the past was therefore hard to gather since it was written in foreign languages and kept in libraries that were to be visited abroad. Secondly, being a very respected and established field, historiography was seen as the province of specialists with a qualification which Bulgarian authors did not have. Against this background we could assume that demand for Bulgarian history textbooks was high, but there were no authors in Europe to write them, which meant an absence of material for translation. This is why a long period of time had to pass before a qualified and confident national elite emerged and started filling the widening gaps.

8This means that the early emergence, autonomous status and rapid development of geographies could be seen as a compensation phenomenon. The textbooks in this subject were not able not replace the missing story of the Bulgarian past, but they provided an alternative resource for collective identity construction. A key factor was the liberalism of their scientific perspective. To put it simply, the geographies distinguished Bulgarians as a separate entity, while the general history books ignored them. Even in the shortest textbook, the normally indiscernible Balkan ethnos was registered as part of:

  • the population of Europe;
  • the subjects of the Sultan;
  • the Slavic language family.

9The facts were not numerous, but they could be amplified by any translator and this is the second advantage of geography. The description of human settlements does not require special expertise and a textbook stands to profit if it is enriched by the personal competence of the translator. In practice, in the first half of the 19th century, no other branch of science required a lower level of professionalism and it would have been surprising if the young Bulgarian intellectual elite did not seize this rare opportunity.

10One could claim that through a coincidence of circumstances, geography, under Bulgarian conditions capitalized on its own imperfections. It was received with strong enthusiasm precisely because the discipline did not have its own subject matter and was devoted exclusively to the systematization of the results of analysis conducted by other sciences. Being at the early stages of development it was descriptive, superficial and eclectic. But this is precisely the reason why geography implied the possibility to be used as an encyclopedic database of modern rationality. Its framework contains practically everything—the cosmos, the planet, humankind, and its social order. When the written tradition of a culture has been interrupted for several centuries, the absorption of such an elementary, but exhaustive compendium is more than important. This is a strategic necessity which might explain the unusual status of geography as the backbone of the educational curriculum. It gained ground not merely because it was capable of compensating for the deficit in Bulgarian history textbooks. Geography established its strong position as a tool of priority value which made it possible to promote none other than the alphabet of modernity.


11Notions of barbarism and civilization are key elements of the new “alphabet” that the Bulgarians were learning. Each geography textbook contains definitions of the two terms, but considering the large number of textbooks, the question arises: Which of the dozens of definitions was normativized? As regards “civilization,” this question is easy to answer since all textbooks define the term through a description of Europe.

12As a rule, the continent is presented as two aspects: physical characteristics and population. In the case of physical characteristics, the focus is commonly on factors such as temperate climate and “central” location in the world. As regards the population of Europe, it is defined on the basis of several elements. Top priority is given to cultural development. According to all textbooks, what distinguishes the Europeans from the rest of the world’s population are above all their high achievements in science, technology and the arts. The second distinctive feature is the language families. According to the data offered in the textbooks, the overwhelming majority of the Europeans are speakers of languages of Latin, Germanic or Slavic origins. Classifications of the population by religion are common too. Here the accent is on the dominant position of Christianity. Racial classifications in general can be found in all geographies, but only one of the translated textbooks includes race in the definition of Europe. Conversely, the civilizational criterion figures in all geography textbooks. It proves to be the condition without which it is impossible to give an adequate answer to the question of “what is Europe.” For example, here is the standardized definition of Europe in Ioakim Gruev’s geography textbook, published in five editions:

  • 4 Gruev (1861), pp. 75–76.

What distinguishes Europe from the other parts of the world? Europe is the smallest of the five parts of the world but it holds first place; because its population is the most intelligent, the best educated and, with its migrations, has had a great influence on the other parts of the world too. Trade, industry and education are the most developed in Europe, and this is due not least to the seas that wash its coasts from all sides and to its location between Asia and Africa.4

  • 5 Hroch (2002), pp. 247–248; Stråth (2002), pp. 131–132.

13Similar descriptions are found in the other geography textbooks even though they were translated or compiled from different sources: French, Russian, German, American, and Greek. As the analyses of Miroslav Hroch and Bo Stråth show, the definitions of Europe given in the first Czech encyclopedia from 1862 and in the first Swedish encyclopedia from 1881 are almost literally the same.5 The invariant character and mass reproduction of this definition are symptomatic of its status in the 19th-century ideological canon. The concept of Europe as a measure of civilization and as the leader of global progress had acquired the status of elementary, basic knowledge without which it was impossible to enter the project of modernity. Why did the transfer of such a banalized definition cause complications in the Bulgarian context? To put it simply, the problem was that the normative idea of Europe made it difficult for the Bulgarians to identify themselves as Europeans. Admittedly, the Bulgarians met the formal criteria (territorial belonging, religion, language, race) but their level of development made them newcomers who could not measure up to the “leaders of progress.”

14This structural imbalance could become the basis of the newly forming national identity because it was “scientifically” fixed in the geography textbooks. Here the definition of Europe is commonly in the introductory part and comes into question in the review of individual countries only if some sort of aberration could be indicated. The lesson devoted to European Turkey is a case in point. As a rule, it is noted that the population of this part of the continent is culturally and economically backward. By this cardinal indicator the sultan’s subjects, including the Bulgarians, differ from the other Europeans. But then what category do they belong to? Each textbook contains a scheme of the different levels of development, but unlike the definition of Europe, these classifications vary from one textbook to another and therefore could not offer a normativized solution to the problem of Bulgarian identity.

15The first inconsistency comes from the lack of consensus about the number of groups included in the classification based on a civilizational standard. According to some authors, there are two alternatives: “enlightened nations” or “savage tribes.” The scheme in other textbooks, however, is more complicated, containing from one to four intermediate categories: “half-educated,” “half-savage,” “domesticated” or “barbarian.” Predictably, the difference in the terms corresponds to a difference in the definitions of all these groups. Only the characteristics of the so-called “savage tribes” are more or less constant. They are described as hunting communities that live in caves, which makes it impossible to identify the Bulgarians with them. From this perspective, the intermediate groups look more promising but, on the other hand, their definitions vary greatly. According to some authors, the intermediate level is represented by nomads only, whereas other authors include here also sedentary peoples which are literate and agricultural, but lack achievements in the economy and culture.

16The classifications contain only a description of the categories without giving any examples. However, the geographical zones of the “barbarian world” are outlined rather clearly: Southern Africa; Northern Asia; the two Americas; Australia and Oceania. In itself, this does not mean that all continents except Europe were regarded as “primitive.” On the contrary, their definitions are balanced. For example, Asia is invariably defined as the cradle of human civilization, the remarkable progress of the “Europeans” in North America is noted, and Egypt’s old glory adds a positive touch to the image of Africa. This compromise approach is more adequate to the Bulgarian case and could have been used as a matrix although none of the textbooks apply it to the definition of Europe. Europe was always considered to be a matrix of progress and in this sense it was simply impossible to imagine the existence of underdeveloped Europeans.

17It is obvious that the education system found it difficult to give an unambiguous answer to the question of whether the Bulgarians are not Europeans. It used conceptual apparatus that did not allow clear identification of marginal cases. The most that could be achieved under the circumstances was to problematize the nation’s undecided status as an anomaly. In practice, this basic lesson about Bulgarian identity went as follows:

  • 6 Blagoev (1874), p. 7.

There is no nation in Europe today that is contented to have nothing but agriculture, and all are eager to learn and improve everything. To achieve this, all nations in Europe regard school as a source of everything that is good. Only we Bulgarians cannot boast this; but surrounded by an educated world, we will of necessity advance slowly.6


  • 7 See the editorials of Bâlgarski knizhitsi [Bulgarian books], II (1859), 1; Turtsiya [Turkey], I (J (...)

18How were the geography lessons received? The reactions of the press are a good indicator in this respect. The first marker is the way in which the new terminology was used. Unlike textbooks, which avoided directly identifying the Bulgarians with the barbarian world, newspapers frequently associated the nation’s name with expressions such as “barbarians,” “immature people” or “infant people.” Although such definitions can be found in virtually all sorts of contexts, they are most common in articles on the development of the education system and the press. In the period under review, the newspapers and schools designed for the Bulgarian community were founded without any government financial support or control. That is why the very appearance of such institutions was a source of pride and was perceived as convincing evidence of the nation’s choice and will to be “Europeanized.” At the same time, however, the elite was constantly complaining about the pace of progress: about the number of schools, the quality of curricula, the poor qualification of teachers, the inert attitudes of village parishes, the low level of subscriptions to newspapers and magazines. The press abounded in debates on such issues and authors were very often brutal in expressing their disappointment. In such cases the Bulgarians were described as “unrefined and primitive,” “an ungrateful and rude lot” that will “forever live in ignorance and poverty” and that “desecrates with its unworthy mouth the sacred names nation and nationality.7

19Although the style of the geography textbooks was considerably more moderate, one will also find in them examples of stigmatization on the grounds of “hopeless barbarism”—as in the lessons about the Bushmen and the Hottentots, who were represented as specimens of the so-called “savage tribes.” The analogy is symptomatic of the way in which the press put into use the taxonomies of the education system. First and foremost, the classification is simplified, and all intermediate categories are dropped. Consequently, markers such as territorial belonging, religion, language family or race become irrelevant; there is no mention of hunters, farmers, sedentary peoples or nomads, and the world is divided into two: “enlightened” meaning Europeans; and “barbarians” meaning all others. What remains as a norm is the notion that the Bulgarians belong to both spheres at the same time. The textbooks register the dilemma but treat it quite unemotionally, using more complex definitions that give greater room for maneuvering. The press concentrates on the pragmatic aspect of the modernization process and addresses the problem of the level of education point-blank. From this perspective, there is one valid boundary between the “barbarians” and the “civilized” and it boils down to the will for education. Such an approach does not allow for anything in between, therefore hesitant progress is commonly interpreted as proof that the nation still belongs to the “barbarian” world.

20The debate on how to catch up with the “enlightened peoples” dominated the public sphere for decades and left lasting imprints on the collective imagination. After all, the barbarian stereotype of Bulgarian identity would not have been so stable if it had not been reproduced within the framework of the modernizational ideology and by means of its rhetoric. The result is that once this inferiority complex had developed, no sphere was sufficiently immune to its vitality. This applies to virtually all spheres, including language, history and folklore or, in other words, the spheres in which the Bulgarians were presumed to have met and even surpassed the standards of “civilizational achievements.”

  • 8 Gübre means „fertilizer, manure, dung” in Turkish. The author Vasil Popovich (1833– 1897) was a fa (...)

21For example, the Cyrillic alphabet was seen as a priceless cultural heritage, a “patent” on the very tool of literate culture. But contrary to expectations, the literary output in this period did not acquire a high status similar to that of the language and alphabet. On the contrary, it was viewed critically and even negatively. In itself, such an attitude suggests that the nascent literate culture was regarded less as a realization of the potential of the language than as a result of the civilizational stage of the moment. Or, to quote the brutal formula of Vasil Popovich, at this stage it was inevitable that Bulgarian writers would produce “gübre literature”:8

Every nation has such gübre literature because every nation sets out from the same starting point as the other educated nations before it, and such literary gübre is now being created in our literature too. Young, inexperienced, enthusiastic, undiscerning, impatient, desperate, we Bulgarians will eagerly embrace anything that catches our eye […], we will break, scrape, carve and hammer with our half-savage, unspent strength and fantasy until we suddenly realize that instead of defining clearly the form of our ideas, we have demonstrated our inept infancy.

22History is a classical resource for constructing a prestigious identity and the Bulgarian case is no exception to this common rule. The Bulgarian historical heritage became the core of the national symbolic capital and that is precisely why the fact that even its value was questioned is quite telling. Two factors contributed to the development of such a tendency. In the first place, we ought to bear in mind that Bulgarian historiography was fighting for power over the collective imagination in direct rivalry with Greek ideologues. This practically means that aggressive articles published in neighbors’ newspapers were being constantly reprinted or discussed. Under the circumstances, it would have been strange if there was anybody who had failed to understand that according to “Homer’s grandchildren” the Bulgarians were heirs of “savage tribes.”

23World histories are another resource that confirms the impression that the Bulgarian symbolic positions were weak in a comparative context. Ten textbooks on the subject were translated, of which nine of the original books do not mention the name “Bulgaria” at all. Some (not all!) of the translators added passages or even whole chapters on the medieval Bulgarian State, but even they did not hide, but openly commented on the fact that they had had to intervene in the text. Therefore, the reading audience was forced to accept the thought that the lack of a Bulgarian “trace” did not prevent European science from creating a narrative of universal history. The foreign point of view could not in itself devalue, but it did constantly challenge the optimistic view of the intelligentsia that the story of the Bulgarians’ past consisted of golden chapters. The reactions were different and controversial but in our case it is important to point out that in the 1870s, leading periodicals have offered strikingly skeptical recapitulations of national symbolic capital.

  • 9 Kakva e sâshtinskata bolest na nashiit narod [What’s the true malaise of our nation] (anonymous au (...)
  • 10 Marko Balabanov (1837–1921) graduated as a lawyer in Paris and worked as journalist in Constantino (...)

24“We will only say,” an anonymous writer in Napredâk [Progress] notes soberly and sadly, “that world history generally counts Bulgaria as one of the barbarian peoples that over the centuries have attacked, laid waste to and weakened the development of the culture of the Greeks, whose culture is regarded as part of the universal heritage of mankind. In a word, the entire past life of the Bulgarian State is presumed to be something ephemeral, unserious and totally in vain.”9 It is noteworthy that in the eyes of a number of authors even Tsar Simeon’s Golden Age (864–927) was not a sufficient guarantee of a “contribution” to civilization. The reason is that not even a single work from this age had survived. “Where is their poetry, where is their literature, where are the traces and lasting evidences of intellectual development, of their moral education, of their social and material well-being?” Marko Balabanov asks in this connection, only to conclude bitterly: “O Sancta Simplicitas! O Holy Bulgarian Innocence!”10

  • 11 Todor Shishkov (1833–1896) graduated in Paris and Prague; became famous as a teacher, writer and j (...)

25Analogous tendencies can be found in the attitude to folklore, too. The most scandalous example is Todor Shishkov’s lecture delivered in Constantinople in the autumn of 1869. In it the young speaker explained to his audience that Bulgarian folk songs reflected the status of women as slaves, which in its turn was due to “our distance from Europe” which “prevented us from adopting the chivalric ideas.” In his opinion, folk tales had another flaw, namely “unrestrained imagination full of exaggerations and vulgarity”: “Thus, instead of heroes we see in them monstrous giants personifying a material strength; strong people who, even in their childhood, will catch somebody by the hand or head only to tear them off; who have an oven-full of bread for breakfast and down a pail of wine or brandy in a gulp […] All of it admittedly good, but the fantastic element in them lacks grace completely, all you see are male and female dragons big and small that play an important role in the community of our peasant girls and boys!”11

26Let us note once again that such debates are not representative of the way in which the national elite discussed Bulgarian history and folklore. But these marginal cases are worthy of note because they show that no zones were completely protected from the shadow of barbarian identity. Arguably, this was a side effect of modernity that was cultivated in the Bulgarian context. The question is: what were the results from this phenomenon?



  • 12 Puteshestvenik nyakoi opisuva bâlgarite [An unknown traveler describes the Bulgarians] (anonymous (...)
  • 13 For the dominant Western discourses constructing the Orient and the Balkans, see Said (1978); Todo (...)

27The efforts to adjust the barbarism/civilization taxonomy to the Bulgarian context were energetic but haphazard, and therefore not always effective. The reception of the notion of a “Bulgarian Arcadia” is a typical example of a failed experiment. This vision was introduced into the public sphere through translations of travel accounts recording the impressions of European travelers of Bulgarian-populated lands. The initiative was launched by Tsarigradski Vestnik [Constantinople Gazette]. In 1853 the newspaper published an anonymous travel account that tells of young, slim, pretty women who sang and danced continuously while harvesting the fields. Their hair was hanging loose and their eyes were shining but innocent, and the author notes that this scene “calls to mind” scenes of “the pastoral life described so well by the ancients.”12 References to Virgil’s Idyls and Bucolica are commonplace in European travel accounts and are actually a genre cliché. Pastoral utopia is the product of an erudite perspective that projects its phantasms on unknown areas of the world, including them in such a form in its established cultural order.13 As is known, Arcadia has been discovered more than once all over the world, therefore it is hardly surprising that at some point it was found on the Balkans, too. What is more interesting in this case is how the Bulgarians used the discovery that they were living in a bucolic paradise. How did they use the opportunity of constructing their collective image through the prism of an Arcadian identity?

  • 14 The translator Petko Slaveikov (1827–1895) was a famous poet and journalist, one of the leading fi (...)

28The readers of Tsarigradski Vestnik first got the chance of seeing their imagined community in a pastoral light. The text, however, is without comment, so we do not know what the reactions to it were. More illuminating in this respect are the travel notes of the Irishman Robert Walsh, who also sees Bulgarian peasants as innocent children. An abridged version of the text was translated by Petko Slaveikov and published in Mesetsoslov na bâlgarskata knizhnina [Menologion of Bulgarian Literature] in 1859.14 According to the author, the Bulgarians have lost the militant spirit of their ancestors and have become “the simplest, gentlest and most obliging” ploughmen and shepherds. The traveler notes that they “do not have churches, schools or books,” concluding with satisfaction: “Just like the peoples from the Golden Age, evil things are unknown to them.” In his turn, the translator notes that some of those observations are no longer true because they were made 30 years ago, but the travel account is noteworthy because of the “accurate remarks” about the national character.

29On the whole, one gets the impression that in the 1850s the bucolic version of Bulgarian identity was not resisted. On the contrary, the elite was obviously tempted by its potential for projecting in a prestigious way the disturbing lack of cultural and economic progress. One may say that the transfer of the stereotype got off to a promising start, but then the question arises: what brought about the radical twist in the 1860s? In this period interest in the Bulgarian image in the European imagination grew, and there were daily comments in the press on the opinions of politicians, scholars, writers, missionaries and even random interlocutors. The emerging national identity was influenced by the accumulation of such information, and the transformation of the notion of a Bulgarian Arcadia is a typical example of this.

30The problem is that the pastoral utopia invented by travelers was transformed by diplomats into a conservative project for the solution of the socalled Eastern Question. The thesis of a peaceful Christian population that was prospering in the increasingly reformed empire was a key argument in favor of the Ottoman status quo. The Bulgarians were often cited as proof owing to the fact that their ethnic stereotype was already established and de facto served the political conjuncture. They were seen as meek, good-natured people who were happy in their patriarchal paradise and did not seem upset in any way by the sultan’s rule. It was also presumed that because of their innocent simplicity, the Bulgarians lacked historical potential and therefore did not deserve a chance for independent development.

  • 15 See the editorials of Narodnost, II (November 24, 1868), 1; (January 19, 1869), 9; (January 26, 18 (...)

31As one could expect, the elite of the young nation was unpleasantly surprised by this use of the bucolic identity. The strongest reaction came from the political circle of émigrés in Romania, united around the project for a Bulgarian-Turkish monarchy modeled on Austria-Hungary. According to the newspaper of the dualists, Narodnost [Nationality], the level of development depends on the level of sovereignty. The prosperity of the Balkan neighbors— Greeks, Serbs and Romanians—whose national cause enjoyed the support of Europe is cited as proof. On this basis, Western diplomacy is accused of applying a double standard, which is treated as a crime against the universal laws of progress. The only point of relative consensus is the notion of the Bulgarians as meek people. Yet according to Narodnost, these are not symptoms of an “infant nation” but of a fully “mature nation” that is trying to advance through education and hard work rather than through revolutions.15

32This is one of the first anti-European debates in the Bulgarian public sphere and it is interesting in itself; what is more important in the context of this study, however, is its impact on the pastoral stereotype. There is no reason to doubt that the translation into political language transformed the blissful Arcadia into an anti-utopia. Child-like innocence proved to be shameful infantilism, predictably evoking a negative reaction which, however, does not necessarily mean that the counter-thesis about the Bulgarians as a “mature nation” was effective. As we have seen, the intelligentsia constantly criticized the pace of the nation’s modernization and in doing so resorted to extremely aggressive rhetoric. Thanks to this pedagogy, the reading public was objectively more familiar with the qualification “barbarians” than with the label “mature nation.” Instead of ceasing, or at least becoming less frequent, the reflections on the “infantile” stage in which the Bulgarians were at the time became a genre cliché. It entered the collective imagination as an anti-utopia and not as a bucolic idyll. The cultivated sense of shame about the status of an “infant nation” irreversibly devalued the symbolic capital of the pastoral stereotype and motivated a reorientation towards alternatives that had nothing to do with the conservatism of Rousseauesque utopias.


33The most productive solution to the task of ideologizing the actual cultural backwardness in a sufficiently prestigious way proved to be that of importing academic works written in the tradition of evolutionism. The strategy was not to avoid the “barbarian” identity but, conversely, to historicize the stereotype of Europe. Simply put, the purpose was to get the collective imagination accustomed to the thought that nobody (the Europeans included) was born civilized, and therefore nobody (the Bulgarians included) is doomed to remain barbarian. This thesis seems (and is) entirely logical, but its propagation took many years and maximum efforts.

  • 16 For an exhaustive analysis of Schlözer’s contribution to the field of statistics and world history (...)
  • 17 Ducreux (2005).

34A key role in this process was played by the reception of the German historian August Schlözer (1735–1809). This encyclopedic scholar was held in exceptional esteem in the second half of the 18th century. His works on statistics made a ground-breaking contribution to the academic recognition of the discipline, and his innovative model of understanding and writing world history triggered a heated debate in intellectual circles.16 Especially influential were his studies on the languages and origins of the Slavs, the Hungarians, and the nations of Northern Europe. It was these studies that placed Schlözer at the centre of an international network of intellectuals who shaped the science of history and linguistics in Central Europe and Russia in the period. As Marie-Elizabeth Ducreux’s analysis shows, the Göttingen professor became a cult figure for his Slav and Hungarian fellow scholars.17 In these circles he was referred to with reverence and cited much more frequently than Herder. It is no accident that in their correspondence two of the founders of modern Slavic Studies, Bartholomäus Kopitar and Josef Dobrovský, call their teacher “the immortal Schlözer.”

35Bulgarian intellectuals from the mid-19th century deeply respected August Schlözer too, but “discovered” him in an entirely different way. Although his contribution to the history of the Slavs was known and appreciated, the work that actually made him an authority in the Bulgarian context was An Introduction to World History. This is a book that does not deal with the Slavs at all. Nor does it deal with linguistic or ethnogenetic questions and therefore there was no way for it to be used as a classical tool of forming the Bulgarian national symbolic capital. So whence the strategic interest in it?

36Above all we should bear in mind that this was not a standard work in the genre of world histories. In fact, August Schlözer was determined to refashion the tradition in this field and he proposed a new model. In his opinion the classical compilation of separate chapters devoted to the history of different countries was mechanic and conservative and should therefore be abandoned. The first purpose of his book was to identify the engines of progress that are not always and not necessarily related to the deeds of rulers, or to their wars. The author firmly believed that trade contracts or, say, the history of coffee offer considerably more valuable information in this respect. The second flaw that was to be eliminated was the selective approach. According to Schlözer, world history could not serve its purpose if it discriminated against the majority of nations by excluding them from the historical narrative. To overcome these deficiencies, he proposed an alternative model based on four methods:

  • synchronic (analyzing events in a given period in different parts of the world);
  • technographic (tracing the development of sciences and the arts);
  • geographic (comparing the history of different regions);
  • ethnographic (studying all tribes that were present on the historical scene in a given age).
  • 18 Specifically about the debate between Schlözer and Herder, see the analyses of Escudier (1999), pp (...)

37This was a radical attempt to revise the historiographical tradition and it was met with a mixed reception. Herder subjected the new model to scathing criticism and Schlözer responded by writing an entire book. On the other hand, the former students of the Göttingen professor as well as the members of his wide intellectual network reacted enthusiastically. Some of them founded and chaired departments of world history at their universities to apply their teacher’s model.18 Of course, that does not mean that Herder was the loser and Schlözer the winner in this debate. As is known, Herder’s views have had a decisive impact on the formation of a new type of historiography that participated directly in the construction of national identity. From this standpoint, the interest in the unique character of each nation obviously prevailed over the motives for seeking a liberal universalistic perspective. By the mid-19th century this tendency had reached its climax and Schlözer’s model had long been consigned to oblivion. This, however, brings us back to the question of why the Bulgarians discovered the unused potential of Schlözer’s approach precisely in the period in question.

  • 19 Schlözer (1779).
  • 20 Escudier (1999), p. 267.

38It must be noted that what was translated into Bulgarian was not Schlözer’s seminal theoretical work An Introduction to World History but his adapted version for children.19 This is a textbook that discusses in lay terms not methodological but ideological questions. Schlözer’s task is to help young readers understand why everybody—not only the “civilized” but also the “barbarians”— have a place in the historical narrative. For the purpose, the textbook recreates only the age before the discovery of writing and the creation of states when all humankind was in a “savage state.” This unusual choice makes it possible to criticize in a convincing and simple way assorted “proofs” of the hereditary superiority of the civilized over the barbarian world. As Alexandre Escudier writes, the advantage of this perspective is that it eliminates the sense of a cultural abyss between the different nations and cultivates a consciousness of belonging to one universal brotherhood.20

  • 21 For both translations, see the analysis of Lilova (2003), pp. 167–181.
  • 22 Iliev (1875), p. 46.

39For a community with a low level of development and even lower selfesteem such a lesson on the subject of “barbarism/civilization” was critically important, and we have reason to believe that it was well-received. The textbook was translated twice, in the 1850s and in the 1860s;21 it was recognized as a tool of strategic importance and introduced into the curricula as an autonomous subject. The most remarkable evidence of the exceptional productiveness of this ideological transfer is the popularity of the image of the “savage and barbarian Europe,” as August Schlözer describes it in his Introduction to World History, to persuade readers that civilization is not something hereditary. Although the thesis is simplified to the extreme, in the context of the Bulgarian 19th century it became an ideological tool of enormous motivational power. This explains why the image that embodies it persisted in the press for decades. The pleasure of reflecting on the distant past in which England, France and Germany were “covered with woods and forests in which coarse and beast-like savages lived here and there” did not diminish, and ultimately the image of the “savage and barbarian Europe” was normativized as a counterpoint to the “enlightened Europe” of modern times.22

  • 23 Balabanov (1870), p. 135.

40The second important result of Schlözer’s productive transfer is connected with the gradual formation of an alternative theoretical canon that did not overlap with the most authoritative names in Western Europe at the time. The need for scientific tools to eliminate the acquired barbarian inferiority complex created extremely unfavorable conditions for the reception of all kinds of ideologies legitimating the boundary between the “civilized” and all others. For example, the theories of segregation on a racial or climatic basis were subjected to sharp criticism, as was the theory of the four temperaments determining the character and hence the potential of every nation. Especially symptomatic in this respect is the blocked reception of Charles de Montesquieu. The response to his theory of the objective superiority of the North over the South was extremely negative. In the 1870s this subject sparked a debate that spread to almost all newspapers and magazines. This in practice meant that the public sphere was literally flooded with articles reminding readers of the flowering civilizations of North Africa, Southern Europe and Central Asia at a time when “today’s most enlightened inhabitants of the globe were barely different from savages.”23 Unlike Montesquieu, the German Darwinist W. F. A. Zimmermann (d. i. Carl Gottfried Wilhelm Vollmer) and the French anthropologist Antoine de Quatrefage were immensely popular. Their names were cited as authoritative on the questions of racial prejudices, which were likewise discussed frequently in the press. Especially active was the highest-circulation magazine, Chitalishte [Reading Room], whose readers were regularly prompted to reflect on the absurdity of measuring the skulls of nations:

  • 24 Dushanov (1873), pp. 887–889.

“The question then is, is the brain in the skull of the present-day Greeks or Italians less than the one that their ancestors had in the time of Alexander or Ceasar,” one of the magazine’s contributors asks readers provocatively. “The Turks and the Magyars are nations from the first Asian family line and the make of their skulls is not so pretty, but they nevertheless conquered the Caucasians and for a long time were the scare and horror of the Germans and the other Europeans.”24

  • 25 Kakva e sâshtinskata bolest na nashiit narod [What’s the true malaise of our nation?] (anonymous a (...)

41As we can see, the composition of the newly forming theoretical canon is quite eclectic. It includes authors who are as a rule marginal in their own context and belong to different theoretical traditions but whose visions allow, in one form or another, the assertion of a fundamental egalitarianism between the “barbarian” and the “civilized” world. Bulgarian intellectuals recognized these authors as bearers of strategically important knowledge and directly invested this capital in the construction of national identity. In this way they won an ideological ground that allowed the Bulgarians to accept—without enthusiasm but also without a surplus sense of drama—the fact that in many respects the nation was still a “newcomer.” As with any other stage of development, the spokesmen of modernity claimed, this is an entirely normal period which is to be outgrown in an entirely rational way. Or as the newspaper Napredâk [Progress] wrote in the 1870s, it is possible to presume that the Bulgarians had nothing to “bolster and inspire” them. But this does not necessarily mean that it is impossible for “us to create a nation that will be envied by both Germans and Americans.”25


  • 26 The clash between utopia and reality in the Bulgarian image of Europe is analyzed from different p (...)

42The persistent efforts to normativize Schlözer’s paradigm produced a considerably more positive result than the attempt to “enter” the conservative utopia of the bucolic identity. Yet even so, there were zones in which the chosen strategy for “adapting” the project of modernity proved far less productive. A typical example is the reaction of the intelligentsia towards the economic contacts with Europe. It is no accident that this subject was much more rarely discussed in the public sphere and, when it was, the opinions lacked the optimism typical of the period in question. An even more symptomatic deviation from the adopted standard is the absence at least of an attempt to identify with Europe where goods and markets are concerned. The catastrophic difference between the Bulgarians and the Western powers in this field blocked the sense of belonging to the “civilized” world and prompted spontaneous empathy with the “barbarian” world.26

  • 27 Pismo ot Kukush [A letter from Kukush] (anonymous author 1869).

43It is noteworthy that virtually any occasion associated with the economic imbalance between the Bulgarians and Europe provoked debates about the unscrupulous style in which the West exploited undeveloped nations. The authors described in detail the effects of the colonial system that a nation can enter easily but exit with difficulty and with bad prospects of development since the country’s natural resources would have already been exported by the foreigners. Everybody seemed convinced that this was the future that lied in store for the Bulgarians too if they did not invest in industrialization. As the newspaper Makedoniya [Macedonia] put it, “it won’t be long before we find ourselves, much to our regret, empty-handed and as naked and starving on dry hills as the Africans in their deserts; everything will disappear from our hands, and we will live in misery.”27

  • 28 The author Todor Ikonomov (1838–1892) was an influential journalist and leader of the Bulgarian na (...)
  • 29 See Alexandar Vezenkov’s text in this volume for a comprehensive analysis of the newspaper La Turq (...)

44Still, if we must point out the crucial factor for the stabilization of the colonial model as a pattern of thinking about the economic relations between the Bulgarians and Europe, this is the debate on railroads. It was provoked by an editorial of the newspaper Turtsiya [Turkey] headlined Prazni nadezhdi [Vain hopes].28 The article criticized a forecast in the French-language newspaper La Turquie, according to which “crisscrossing the country with railways” would be enough to “make Turkey a rival of the United States.”29 The author of ‘Vain hopes,’ Todor Ikonomov thought that this was impossible. Railroads, he reasoned, certainly did not originate as a basis for industry. They were invented only when industrial output grew to an extent that made its quick transportation imperative. The Bulgarian productivity rate, however, was low and, according to the analyst’s calculations, three calendar months would be enough to export the total output—two months for the grain crop plus another one for the other goods. This raised the question of who had built a railway line with such low effectiveness, and why. Ikonomov’s answer was that the facility does not really belong to the Bulgarians and was not designed to satisfy their modest needs. It was linked to the lines in Europe and, as such, was entirely lucrative because it was designed for import, and not for export. According to the author, the problem was who stood to gain from the shock integration of undeveloped regions into the market of modernity. “This is good, but not for us,” the young critic explained to readers. “Our goodwill consists of the consolation that we have helped the Europeans to derive all possible benefits from our fatherland and to turn us gradually into their slaves, if not physically than at least mentally—mind-wise.”

  • 30 See the editorials of Turtsiya [Turkey], VII (October 23–January 8, 1872), 36–47.

45In sum, the conclusion is that from a “Turkish territorial” point of view the railroads are harmful because they are a tool of colonial power. The criticism is radical, but this does not necessarily mean that it attacks the basic elements of the normative concept of the technologies of modernity. Ikonomov does not call into question the idea that railway transport is a tool of progress. He does not doubt that huge profits can be made from the quick transportation of goods. He only doubts that the Bulgarians have goods that are worth transporting, but this is a different problem. Ikonomov elaborates an overall program for its solution, publishing it in a series of seven articles devoted to the different branches of the Bulgarian economy.30 The strategy is simple: rapid modernization of industry by introducing new technologies; not only training but also importing qualified specialists; enlargement of enterprises; uniting of financial capital; industrialization and orientation of trade towards promising market segments.

46The last thing that can be said of such a program is that it is counter-modern. It does not advocate the return to sources such as folk art, poetry and customs, nor does it lament the dissolution of the normative national character. What is revised here is not the project of modernity but the concept of the regime in which it functions. In Ikonomov’s vision, the exchange of ideas, technologies and goods departs from the regime of utopia and enters the regime of the market. Hence the change of rules: not solidarity and universal fellowship, but interests, competition and, respectively, power, which you either have and exercise, or do not have and submit to. The sober and pragmatic logic of this economic nationalism (in the classical tradition of Friedrich List) was popularized very quickly and effectively. Almost all newspapers and magazines took part in the debate on railroads. The expected profits from the new kind of transport were calculated with caution, and this common reserved attitude proved to be one of the few points of relative consensus among otherwise irreconcilable political parties, wings and individual figures in the national elite.

  • 31 See Sreshtu zheleznitzite [Against the Railroads] (anonymous author 1873); Botev (1876).

47We should also take into account the fact that the moral damage from intensive contacts with Europe were mentioned very rarely—just in two out of dozens of articles on the subject.31 Such a percentage of moral conservatism is far below the level that could have been expected. Moreover, even in those two individual cases the harm to patriarchal innocence is a marginal argument, the basic thesis being premised on entirely economic grounds. Finally, we ought to keep in mind that the press continued publishing panegyrics on engineering “miracles,” such as tunnels, bridges, canals and railway lines in inaccessible regions—even in the same issues of newspapers in which it was claimed that in the Bulgarian case, in particular, railways did more harm than good.

48In itself, the ambivalence of this inconsistency suggests that the elite’s reaction was indeed extreme, but it did not signal a conservative “counterrevolution.” There is much more pragmatism than myth in it, and in this sense it tends to balance rather than to compete with the normative utopia of the idea of progress. In the Bulgarian context, rapid modernization required import and the adoption of new cultural products, ideas, technologies and goods. In principle, this active transfer was ideologized as gift-exchange and was therefore perceived positively and even enthusiastically. The expansion of the Western market on the Balkans upset this symbolic economy because it did not function in the gift-exchange regime. It provoked a quest for an ideological model that reflected the real inequality in the competition between European import and Bulgarian output.

49Colonialism proved to be an adequate matrix for this purpose because it practically did not require changes in the basic conceptual apparatus. The concept of Europe’s dominance and the “barbarian” status of the Bulgarians had become normativized and that is precisely why it was easily transferred from the utopia to the anti-utopia of modernity. Ultimately, it would have been strange if a community with such a deeply cultivated self-perception of backwardness had failed to discover the “dark” side of its relations with the “civilized” world. What is remarkable in this case is, rather, something else. The debate on railways is indeed a symptom of resistance, but the latter was aimed not against the project of modernity but against the unequal opportunities of those willing to take part in it. This series of publications expresses the deepest reservations against the technologies and ideologies of the progress that the young nation’s ideologues had. But even so, the prospect that was outlined was not of a return to Arcadia by ox-drawn carts but, conversely, an economic leap that would make railroads necessary. The position was anti-European but not counter-modern and this distinction between Europe and modernity deserves attention since it was not a lesson that could be learnt from 19th-century textbooks. The question is what does this entail? Does it mean that there was an attempt to create an alternative project of modernity from the point of view of the European periphery?

50In my opinion such a hypothesis would be much too radical. There are no real grounds to speak about some “Bulgarian grammar of modernity.” There are, however, grounds for acknowledging the development of peculiar model that helped to adapt the basic ideological concepts of modernity for Bulgarian use. The emergence of that model was provoked by the transfer of the new ideological dictionary introducing the idea of progress. The reception of the definitions of barbarism and civilization proved to be especially difficult as the Bulgarians failed to reach completely neither the first nor the second set of standards. The construction of collective identity on the base of “anomaly” was not a promising start and predictably the search for a solution consumed a lot of intellectual energy. Of course, the Bulgarian nation was not the only one that came up against such a problem. On the contrary, most of the nations throughout the world have stepped into modernity from the poor position of “beginners.” From this point of view, the situation was actually standard and the only peculiarity lies in the way the Bulgarians tried to cope with the problem. To put it briefly, they did not follow either of the two classical models of emancipation from the barbarian stigma. The first model entails the use of the historical past as a priority resource to build an identity. The ancient and/or medieval accomplishments are incorporated in the national image as a guarantee for the “natural” right of affiliation to the “civilized world.” In the second model the barbarian is not rejected. Instead it is aestheticized as a sign of vitality, primal force, innocence and morality, i.e., qualities which compensate for the lack of “contribution” to world culture.

51As we have seen, the 19th-century Bulgarian elite explored the potential of both strategies. The results, however, remained only relatively successful. The political implications of the bucolic utopia were the main factor leading to the marginalization of Arcadia as a projection of identity. History proved to be a much more productive resource, although its effectiveness was also restricted. The barbarian stereotype kept dominating the collective imagination despite their ancestors’ glory. This failure to create a sufficiently prestigious identity for the emerging nation motivated the reorientation towards different sort of strategies. The alternative chosen by the elite was to make the definition of Europe more relative. This way the simultaneous belonging to both the “barbarian” and the “civilized” sphere was supposed to lose its status of anomaly and become a norm. The design was neither easy nor trivial since it necessitated changes in the basic taxonomies of modernity. This explains the emergence of theoretical canon, which was borrowed from Europe and yet did not replicate the Western matrix. The main purpose of this selective ideological import was to promote works that represented the lack of essential difference between the civilized and everybody else. As a result, the image of “savage and barbarian Europe” from time immemorial has been asserted as a legitimate part of “enlightened” European identity. And it was this ambivalence that finally allowed the Bulgarians to recognize themselves as Europeans.

52Herein lies the peculiarity of the 19th-century Bulgarian way of domesticating the taxonomies of modernity. The definitions of civilization and barbarity remained in the form they were fixed in the geography textbooks. What changed as a result of the transfer was the possibility to apply both definitions to Europe and hence to everybody else. This outcome was regarded as strategic ideological capital and was invested directly in the foundations of the national identity. On this flexible basis, the collective subject “we, the Bulgarians” could refer legitimately both to “we, the Europeans” and “they, the Europeans,” “we, the barbarians” and “they, the barbarians.” It is hard to assess the advantages and disadvantages resulting from the chosen strategy to accommodate the project of modernity for Bulgarian use. On the one hand, it certainly helped to marginalize the more conservative ways of coping with the barbarian complex. On the other hand, the constant presence of alternative answers to the question of “who we are” is pregnant with a crisis potential. The equilibrium is delicate and could be rationalized as a product of transfers caused by both necessity and initiative. It is precisely this balance of determinism and choice, domination and resistance that is worth investigating because ultimately its results make up the history of modernity in the “barbarian” periphery of the “civilized” world.



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1 On the state of geographic studies at the end of the 18th and the first half of the 19th century, see Broc (1994); Livingstone (1992); Nordman (1998); Godlewska (1999).

2 For more details on the use of geography in Greek schools, see Koulouri (1992).

3 The three translators of Abbé Gaultier are Gruev (1861, reprinted 1865, 1870, 1872, 1874); Manchev (1862, reprinted 1864); and Shapkarev (1868). Cf. Abbé Gaultier (1855).

4 Gruev (1861), pp. 75–76.

5 Hroch (2002), pp. 247–248; Stråth (2002), pp. 131–132.

6 Blagoev (1874), p. 7.

7 See the editorials of Bâlgarski knizhitsi [Bulgarian books], II (1859), 1; Turtsiya [Turkey], I (January 16, 1865), 28; I (19/06/1865), 48.

8 Gübre means „fertilizer, manure, dung” in Turkish. The author Vasil Popovich (1833– 1897) was a famous literary and art critic. See Popovich (1874), p. 406.

9 Kakva e sâshtinskata bolest na nashiit narod [What’s the true malaise of our nation] (anonymous author 1875).

10 Marko Balabanov (1837–1921) graduated as a lawyer in Paris and worked as journalist in Constantinople; became the first foreign minister of Bulgaria after the appearance of a sovereign state in 1878. See Balabanov (1871), pp. 325–326.

11 Todor Shishkov (1833–1896) graduated in Paris and Prague; became famous as a teacher, writer and journalist. See Edin urok na g. Slaveikova [A lesson to M. Slaveikov] (anonymous author 1869).

12 Puteshestvenik nyakoi opisuva bâlgarite [An unknown traveler describes the Bulgarians] (anonymous author 1853).

13 For the dominant Western discourses constructing the Orient and the Balkans, see Said (1978); Todorova (1997); Wolff (1994).

14 The translator Petko Slaveikov (1827–1895) was a famous poet and journalist, one of the leading figures in the Bulgarian national movement. See Slaveikov (1859).

15 See the editorials of Narodnost, II (November 24, 1868), 1; (January 19, 1869), 9; (January 26, 1869), 10; (March 23, 1869), 18. The arguments of the dualists against „the infant stage” of the Bulgarians are also set out in the booklet Bâlgariya pred litseto na Evropa [Bulgaria in the face of Europe] (anonymous author 1865).

16 For an exhaustive analysis of Schlözer’s contribution to the field of statistics and world history, see Lindenfeld (1997), pp. 40–45; Escudier (1999), pp. 254–296.

17 Ducreux (2005).

18 Specifically about the debate between Schlözer and Herder, see the analyses of Escudier (1999), pp. 283–285; Ducreux (2005), pp. 265–267.

19 Schlözer (1779).

20 Escudier (1999), p. 267.

21 For both translations, see the analysis of Lilova (2003), pp. 167–181.

22 Iliev (1875), p. 46.

23 Balabanov (1870), p. 135.

24 Dushanov (1873), pp. 887–889.

25 Kakva e sâshtinskata bolest na nashiit narod [What’s the true malaise of our nation?] (anonymous author 1875).

26 The clash between utopia and reality in the Bulgarian image of Europe is analyzed from different perspectives by Daskalov (1998); Kiosev (1997); Mishkova (2004).

27 Pismo ot Kukush [A letter from Kukush] (anonymous author 1869).

28 The author Todor Ikonomov (1838–1892) was an influential journalist and leader of the Bulgarian national movement. See Ikonomov (1871).

29 See Alexandar Vezenkov’s text in this volume for a comprehensive analysis of the newspaper La Turquie whose ideological platform instigated constant debates in the contemporary Bulgarian press.

30 See the editorials of Turtsiya [Turkey], VII (October 23–January 8, 1872), 36–47.

31 See Sreshtu zheleznitzite [Against the Railroads] (anonymous author 1873); Botev (1876).


Dessislava Lilova is Associate Professor at the Department of Cultural Studies, Southwestern University of Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria. She has a PhD in Philology from the University of Blagoevgrad (1997). Her PhD dissertation entitled Perceptions of Time in the Bulgarian Culture in 18th–19th century discussed the evolution of the idea of historical time in the early modern Bulgaria culture. Her work revolves around nationalism studies, cultural transfers, and imaginary geographies. She is the author of Vâzrozhdenskite znacheniya na natzionalnoto ime (The meanings of the Bulgarian national name in the Revival period) (2003).

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