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The Myth of the Orthodox Slavs

The West needs a clearer picture of a creed that stretches from the Russian Far East to the Adriatic.

by Boyko Vassilev 6 March 2014

There is a country in Eastern Europe, divided between Russia and the West. Russians used to call it a “brotherly” country, and the West has tried to handle its relations with the government there in such a way as to avoid annoying the Russians.


The people there consider themselves to be in a border land. Politics means government versus protesters. Protesters claim the government is a mafia; the government claims protesters are fascists. Compromise is almost impossible, as is dialogue.


I could be talking about Ukraine, but I’m not. I’m talking about Bulgaria.


Different as they are, Ukraine has much in common with Bulgaria. Both are divided in their attitude to Russia – it’s just that in Ukraine the division is territorial, in Bulgaria philosophical. Both have been rocked by protests, although those in Ukraine ended with an explosion, those in Bulgaria with implosion. And both belong to a seemingly unhappy family – the Orthodox Slavs.


These countries of Slavia Orthodoxa (Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine) top the surveys for fatigue, unhappiness, and pessimism. All have low rates of fertility and high rates of crime. Some fought recent wars – and lost them. There is no spectacular business success here. Only one, Bulgaria, was not a member of either Yugoslavia or the USSR. And only one, Bulgaria again, is an EU member. Still, Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU and is not known for its stability.


What’s wrong? To Orthodox Slavs, it is that history does not favor them. They develop theories of self-pity, explaining that their glory days have passed. Sometimes their intellectuals point to Brussels and say that EU integration and world globalization are driven by Protestants and Catholics, with the Orthodox as second class. Or that they are left to their own devices to face an all-conquering Islam. Orthodox Slavs feel abandoned, desolate, and deprived. They conclude they are either too weak or too good: too weak to win any contest, or so virtuous that the nefarious world is in league against them.


Of course, Russia is a special case, but not too special. Patriotic fervor cannot undo a national mentality of melancholy and depression. Ambitious as they are, Russians remain typical Orthodox Slavs.


A grim picture, no doubt. Samuel Huntington’s followers would use it to prove the late Harvard professor’s “clash of civilizations” theory, according to which Orthodoxy is an autonomous sphere – different and even hostile to the West. If true, then Orthodox Slavs have more in common with other Orthodox, such as Greeks, Armenians, Romanians, Moldovans, and Georgians, than with other Slavs, such as Czechs, Slovaks, and Poles. It goes without saying that the master of this sphere is – inherently and forever – Moscow.


I have never believed in such predetermination and self-imposed depression, but many in the West do. I remember how hard it was to get Bulgaria into NATO during the late 1990s, because the former Kremlinologists in the U.S. administration and in public life thought Russia should not be antagonized for such a small prize. In his newly published memoirs, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says American military bases in Bulgaria and Romania were a mistake because they unnecessarily provoked Moscow.


Bulgarians got accustomed to having the West see their country through a Russian lens. Not that the alternative Turkish lens would be an improvement. Bulgaria has been in both empires, and empires seldom leave good memories in smaller nations. For them, an empire is a jungle where the bigger beast eats the smaller.


Ukraine was also seen through a Russian lens – and the events there showed the limitations of this view. Would the tragedy on the Maidan have been prevented if Europe had provided a juicer carrot and a harder stick in the very beginning? Did the EU really want Ukraine before the second revolution? Was it ready to spend billions there in an age when the financial crisis has brought nationalist resentments back to the surface in Europe?


These are hard questions. We have to remember that before Maidan the so-called Eastern Partnership was a rather unpopular EU policy, supported mainly by Poland, the Baltics, and Sweden. They others stayed away in order not to spend money or provoke Moscow.


It’s high time the West learns some basics, because the devil is in the details.


First, not all Orthodox Slavs are hard-line Russophiles. Serbs and Montenegrins are, but from a distance – a luxury Belarusians do not possess. Bulgarians and Ukrainians are at least divided. There, you have many people who are culturally Russophile but politically pro-Western; it is possible to love Dostoyevsky and democracy simultaneously.


Second, not all members of Slavia Orthodoxa are anti-Western; quite the contrary. Bulgarians are more pro-Western even than some fellow EU members. Even Russians have a strong pro-Western tradition. Russian historian Alexander Yanov traces it to Kyiv and Novgorod.


Third, Eastern Christians are not by nature spoiled losers; they also can prosper and flourish. “Byzantine” is not a synonym for tyranny and obedience; it marks one of the cradles of European civilization, a continuation of Rome. Misery is caused by corrupt cliques, not by the blood in your veins or the faith in your soul. Culture is not only what you inherit, but also what you acquire. In this sense, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Russia could be free, prosperous, and democratic.


If you call this “Western,” so be it. Every country deserves its own lens. Otherwise, Huntington’s ideas would become a self-fulfilling prophecy – and fatigue would reign forever.

Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.

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