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Thus Spoke the Patriarch

Contentious remarks during a visit of the Russian Orthodox patriarch to Sofia brought into question aspects of Bulgaria’s centuries-old, love-hate relationship with Russia.

by Boyko Vassilev 23 March 2018

The Bulgarian mentality is fairly straightforward. If you want to cause a fuss, say something bold about Russia. The aftermath of this year’s Bulgarian National Day showed that Russians are also aware of that.


The day itself is forever attached to Tsarist Russia. On 3 March 1878, the Treaty of San Stefano cemented Russia’s victory against the Ottoman Empire. After five centuries of Turkish dominion, modern Bulgaria was born.


Why did the army of the Russian Tsar liberate Bulgaria? That question has been rousing Bulgarians ever since. Those who think the empire acted out of unselfish love toward its Slavonic and Orthodox brethren have been labeled “Russophiles.” According to the “Russophobes,” who embraced the opposite view, the Tsar followed his own greedy imperial interests. Hence the oldest cleavage in modern Bulgarian society, which sparked the eternal dispute on the role of Russia – and the Soviet Union – in Bulgaria’s history.


Consider this. And then look at what Kirill, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, did after being invited for the celebration of the country’s 140th anniversary on 3 March. More precisely, he used a meeting with the Bulgarian president to lecture him on history.


Everything came to light several days after the event itself. The Russian Patriarchate posted on its website a video shot by a Russian camera (a Bulgarian one was not present, one of many gaffes surrounding the affair). The clip showed the anger of His Holiness at the perceived lack of Bulgaria’s gratitude for its liberation – and for daring to credit other nations, such as Poland, Lithuania, and Finland, instead. “We are for the historical truth, Mr. President,” the patriarch said in a six-minute jeremiad. “We have won this historical truth with our blood.” President Rumen Radev’s response was missing as the footage cut off just before he was about to answer.


A storm followed. Russian TV shows, pundits, and priests lambasted the “ungrateful Bulgarians” and their “treacherous political leaders” who “betrayed their liberators” and surrendered to “American sodomites.” So great it was that the patriarch taught them all a lesson!


On the other side stood Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov, a rare bird among Bulgarian nationalists in the predominantly Russophile United Patriots coalition, which rules together with the center-right GERB. He called Kirill a “cigarette metropolitan” and a “second-rate Soviet cop,” a reference to his personal wealth and KGB liaisons.


“Simeonov should apologize,” retorted Volen Siderov, another member of the United Patriots, and an unapologetic defender of Russia, adding “Patriarch Kirill said some truths.” Everything turned into a typical domestic scandal, where – also typically – every Bulgarian patriot quarreled with other Bulgarian patriots on Russia and the West. The harder lot fell on the Russophiles. Patriarch Kirill did to them something that a thousand Russophobes could not –so indefensible was his rudeness.


As for the Bulgarian president, he mostly felt uneasy. Elected on a leftist – and thus Russophile – ticket, Radev has repeatedly promised to warm relations with Moscow that, in his words, “others have spoilt.” He wholeheartedly welcomed Patriarch Kirill’s visit, and Vice President Iliana Yotova could hardly be accused of not showing enough respect (she was even criticized by some commentators for looking too servile and bowing too low to kiss the patriarch’s hand). And out of nowhere Radev received such a blow. Some even speculated that it was a deliberate set-up.


Radev reacted only after the Moscow Patriarchate published the video. His office issued a statement that presented his answer to Kirill’s diatribe – the part that the Russian camera omitted to show. “Just like the Church, which fights for the soul of every human,” the president allegedly said, “so we honor the memory of every warrior who fought under the banners of Tsar Alexander II for Bulgaria’s liberation, regardless of nationality.” However, when asked to disclose the transcript of the meeting, the answer was that no such record exists.


Several days later, Radev finally spoke in public. His disappointment was evident: “Patriarch Kirill came as a spiritual leader but chose to leave as a politician.” Then he vowed to continue his commitment to bilateral relations and asked “Who tried to kidnap our [Russian-Bulgarian] common day?”


It is not easy to answer that question. You can blame extremists on both sides, but this is such an obvious response that it is nearly misleading. When passions heat up, truth suffers.


History shows that the Russian army fighting in the 1877-1878 war was multinational. The army corps were recruited from the southern fringes of the Tsarist Empire, which nowadays corresponds to southern Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland. Northern Finns, though, still sing a song about the participation of one of their regiments.


Of course, they were all fighting “under the banners of the Tsar,” but Bulgaria has never failed to mention that. Downtown Sofia, between “Liberator Tsar” Alexander II’s memorial and the cathedral that bears the name of Russian warrior saint Alexander Nevski, is full of streets dedicated to Russian figures and places: Tsar Liberator, Moskovska, Aksakov, Alabin, Dondukov, Gurko, Parensov, Graf Ignatiev, Skobelev, Totleben. This is so extraordinary that some foreigners wonder where the Bulgarians are – those who also spilled their own blood for their liberation.


The problem arises when gratitude turns into a political tool. This is far from “historical truth” – and definitely very removed from Christian humility. The internal Bulgarian clash between Russophiles and Russophobes makes things worse.


Russia will always inflame passions in Bulgaria. The role of the Bulgarian patriot, however, is to tame and not to stoke them, pouring gasoline on the fire. Otherwise, every lecture from Moscow will set Bulgaria aflame. So easy to predict – and easy to ignite: an ease that Bulgarians should avoid.

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