The Ignored Voices of the “Unawakened”

Raymond Detrez (Ghent, Leuven).

Historians are aware that every attempt to conceptualize history as a sequence of “periods” is a perilous undertaking. “Epoch-making” events are in fact rather spans of time themselves, during which the old slowly fades away and the new progressively emerges. As a rule, historians are more interested in the first appearance of the new than in the last appearance of the old, although from a historiographical point of view the latter is no less relevant and intriguing.

The beginning of the Bulgarian national revival period known as “văzraždane” (literally: “renaissance”, most often translated as “awakening”) has been the object of lengthy discussions, but since the publication of Marin Drinov’s seminal study in 1871, the completion and distribution of Father Paisiy’s History of the Bulgarian Slavs in 1762 has been gradually adopted by most scholars as the symbolic start. However, not surprisingly, many features of the pre-văzraždane period subsist during the văzraždane, long after 1762.

Characteristic of the văzraždane is the emergence of national consciousness based on ethnic affiliation. Typical of the pre-văzraždane period is people’s basic identification with a religious, and not with an ethnic community. This particularity transpires from various ego-documents, from official records, folksongs, statements of foreign travelers, etc. People, asked who or what they are, as a rule declare to be “Christians”. Ethnonyms appear relatively rarely, and in many cases, they refer to religious affiliation as well ― as in the well-known case of “the Greek”, actually “the Orthodox Church”. In addition, ethnonyms may also refer to social categories, vocations, and social status. Indications of the predominance of religious identity can be found roughly until the middle of the nineteenth century. The same can be said about the polysemantic use of ethnonyms, although one might expect that national consciousness ― and in general, the growing susceptibility to ethnic issues ― would require a more unambiguous dealing with of ethnonyms.

Another recurrent feature of the pre-văzraždane period is the use of the Greek language, especially its “scholarly”, “high” variety. From the eighteenth century on, Greek was used in Bulgaria in many functions ― as the language of the liturgy and of church administration, as a lingua franca in commerce, as the language of scholarship and scholarly communication occasionally even between Bulgarian intellectuals, as the language marking the social distinction between the urban elites and the “backward” peasant population. In fact, in none of these functions, except as a lingua franca and as a language for inter-ethnic communication, the use of Greek was compatible with a genuine Bulgarian national awareness. However, Greek was used on a regular basis in Bulgarian cities in all these functions not only by the few Greeks residing there but also by a large part of the Bulgarian urban establishment until the 1860s.

Although the incentives to speak and write Greek may be related to career opportunities and the desire to belong to the upper class, its use was never totally disconnected from the religious affiliation of its speakers as Greek fulfilled the abovementioned functions exclusively within the Orthodox Christian community ― and not within the Armenian and Jewish, let alone the Muslim one.

In fact, Greek had taken over all the functions of the former Bulgarian literary language, Church Slavonic, except for those in the narrow liturgical sphere. There was no “living” literature in Church Slavonic remotely matching the size, quality, and distribution of that in scholarly Greek. Greek maintained this position for many decades after Bulgarian intellectuals in the early nineteenth century started working for nationwide education in colloquial Bulgarian and for the use of Church Slavonic as the language of worship. Colloquial Bulgarian, used from the early seventeenth century on in collections of sermons and hagiographies, on behalf of those unfamiliar with Church Slavonic or Greek, gradually developed into the Bulgarian literary language, a process that was accomplished in the 1860s, when Bulgarian finally replaced Greek in all its functions.

Thеse relicts from the past are tenacious and disappear slowly is a normal phenomenon. In our case, they provoked considerable tensions between “conservatives”, sticking to a past marked by religiosity, and progressives, who embraced almost unconditionally the concept of ethnic nationalism. The offensive terminology the latter used to denote the former ― “Graecomans”, “renegades” and suchlike ― is indicative of these tensions. However, the outdated pre-national religious community with its own institutions, moral values, complex social structures and admirable cultural achievements proved surprisingly vital, long after ethnic nationalism apparently had taken possession of the hearts and minds.