The Bulgarians - a Dying Breed of Nihilists

Editorial |Author: Ivan Dikov | November 30, 2010, Tuesday // 23:58|  views

A Sofia-based NGO called Center for Demographic Policies recently raised alarm that the ethnic Bulgarians living in Bulgaria will dwindle dramatically in numbers over the next 50-100 years.

The scholars from the Center have put a more tangible feel to the clich? called "demographic crisis" that every Bulgarian government in the past 20 years has mentioned with empty intentions of tackling.

Bulgaria has had a declining birth-rate since the 1950s, courtesy of the ill-designed urbanization campaigns of a bunch of particularly empty-headed communist stooges copying blindly the models of the Soviet Union.

The greatest demographic shock, however, arrived in the early 1990s, when the former nomenclature, intelligence officers, and the pool of criminal talent privatized the economy shattering it for the most part, without providing any kind of national leadership – which is usually the job of the upper classes no matter how they got to their status.

Bulgaria's population growth has been negative since 1990, and has remained so even though the birth rate made a modest comeback after the relative stabilization since 1998. Add to that the problem of emigration, which has exacerbated the situation, though perhaps not as much as most have argued, and the situation becomes about as grim as it could get.

The projection of the Center for Demographic Policies paints quite a picture – of the 5 million or so ethnic Bulgarians living in Bulgaria today, there will be only 800 000 left in 2050, and 300 000 left in 2100. Of course, the other major ethnic groups in the country – the ethnic Turks and especially the Roma – will grow substantially in numbers.

As people around the world know, the Bulgarian lands are pretty great to live on, in terms of climate and nature, and there will definitely be people inhabiting today's Bulgaria – as there have been for hundreds of thousands of years – even if they are not ethnic Bulgarians.

As a Bulgarian myself, and as a person who believes in the ideals and virtues that his nation certainly had once (but has very little left of today), it is hard for me not to take such projections emotionally. At the same time, however, I am probably more saddened than terrified – just because when one thinks of history, humans, nature, etc, one cannot help but remember that much grander states, empires, societies, peoples than today's Bulgaria have vanished – the examples are numerous, starting with the most obvious ones such as the Roman Empire, Byzantium, the Inca Empire. So if a people becomes extinct, there are certainly logical reasons for that.

So what is the deal with the Bulgarians today, why are they dying off? Sure, there are staggering population declines with many ethnicities in Europe, it is not a purely Bulgarian trend, etc. But the Bulgarians are probably becoming extinct at one of the fastest rates, and they are a small nation anyway.

Whether the above-mentioned projection is right or not, the so called demographic crisis in Bulgaria has even deeper Bulgaria-specific, underlying causes that make the situation even worse than it is elsewhere in the so called developed world. (By the way, on a separate note, one keeps wondering how Bulgaria gets all the negatives of the developed states and little of the benefits...)

I tend to believe I know my own people very well. Clearly, socio-economic transformations in the past 60 years, and especially in past 20 years have dealt severe blows to the demographic development of the Bulgarian nation. Again, that is no surprise – in general, a country going through these grand social transformations – from a traditional/pre-modern to a modern society, and then from a modern to global/post-modern/post-industrial society – is expected to see such changes.

Of course, in the Bulgarian case, given the economic backwardness all the way since the times of the Ottoman Empire, whose yoke we got to enjoy for 500 years, till the post-communist period, those transformations have been much more painful that elsewhere.

The real problem, however, lies with the fact that today's Bulgarian society/nation/people has no internal incentive to exist; no national philosophy, no national, common goals, no sense of belonging together, no common grand ideals, no national morale, no proper underlying virtues, no national unity and cohesion, no sense of national interests and community, no moral faith. It does have shocking collective actions problems – from the most distant village pub to the national government and all the way to the Bulgarian immigrant communities in Chicago and Madrid.

How did we end up here? If the answer of a question of such tremendous complexity can be put in a sentence – in more modern times, we probably started with the catastrophe of the national idea in the wars of 1912-1918, then toyed with fascism, then had to go after – or at least pretend to do so - an utopia instilled from abroad called communism, and then ended up in the wild times of post-communism.

For some time after 1989, Bulgaria's so called leaders and elite presented the membership in the EU and NATO as a national ideal. Ha-ha. Even the stray dogs in the streets of Sofia know that a membership in an international or even a supranational organization cannot be a proper national ideal. It could at best be a means for achieving a much higher goal. Of course, the major policy goals in Bulgaria have had to do with raising the living standards, and generally getting more stuff and entertainment options.

Sure, the Western-style consumer society (especially when coupled with a liberal democracy) has been recognized as perhaps the superior form of social organization. But the kind of materialism that it cherishes can have various consequences – especially for a small nation with very specific features in terms of national tradition.

Contrary to what many in Bulgaria have hoped, higher living standards, consumerism and capitalist values won't do it with respect to fixing the demographic problem. In general, the richer don't have more children, they focus on career, education, pleasure, entertainment, accruing wealth, and perhaps raising 1 or 2 kids. As the clich? saying goes, the rich get richer and the poor get children.

By the way, even that is not the case with the ethnic Bulgarians in Bulgaria – in the early 1990s we were poor (in our opinion), and we started having very few children. Some twenty years later we are somewhat richer, and still have few children. It is really a matter of the current Bulgarian psyche, but most of all, of the fact that the Bulgarian society has lost its sense of community and common direction.

Any comparison to periods when Bulgaria was a predominantly agricultural society might sound ridiculous because in those cases you clearly needed more children to work the land and survive. And yet, Bulgaria was strongest and at the same time had more children when it had a sense of national unity and ideals.

In 19th century, still in the Ottoman Empire, the Bulgarians had no state but managed to create 3000 schools – about as many in number as the great powers of the time France and Britain had – simply because of the sense of national unity and revival and the crucial role of education in it. Botched as the Bulgarian rebellions might have been at that time, we had countless brave men and women who sacrificed everything for abstract grand ideals such as freedom and righteousness. Try getting the average today's Bulgarian not to do – but to listen about that – they will laugh in your face.

After the Liberation in 1878, even though only about half of the Bulgarian lands and people were freed, the sense of goal for national unification drove the "Bulgarian economic miracle", a period of tremendous economic gains on a relative basis in 1890-1910, when the Bulgarians created a modern nation out of almost nothing. In 1912, the national morale was so high that we wiped the Ottoman Empire off the map of Europe in three weeks. (Of course, the talented Bulgarian politicians squandered these achievements.)

Other than working the land, Bulgarians back then had other reasons to live – and reproduce for that matter. Apparently, that is not the case today. Now, don't get me wrong – this is not about national values per se – and probably cannot be in the global age. But what about other kinds of moral values such as hard work, honesty, decency, achievement, education, entrepreneurship in themselves? There is very little of that in today's Bulgaria. What about the proper values associated with being European, a sense of belonging to the EU. What about believing in democracy and other grand ideals? There is very little of that in today's Bulgaria, too.

Of course, there are some in Bulgaria who would do their homework or do their job in the branch office of a foreign company relatively decently, but that does not change the big picture of a society that in general does not value science, entrepreneurship playing by the rules (i.e. economic competition under rule of law), economic growth (which is different from having money to spend on sports cars and breast implants for your lover), or international cooperation and understanding of global issues and other nations.

All of that is epitomized by the stupefying nihilism that you can get from a 5-minute talk with the average Bulgarian.

I grew up in the 1990s when the situation was horrifying – nihilism-wise. All I heard as I was growing up is that we are in a crisis, an abyss, an apocalypse. If I had a nickel for every time some nice Bulgarian adult urged me to flee from this country, seeking to shock me, scare me, chase me away...

That would be all that you would hear on a bus or a train or in the street – masochistic nihilism of tremendous proportions – as opposed to what a rational human being would do under harsh economic and political circumstances – work hard seeing to it that things improve, and still appreciate what they have.

Perhaps the first time I realized there was something terribly wrong, and that this masochistic nihilism cannot be ruling philosophy on this planet, was in the mid 1990s when I saw on the Bulgarian National Television the hour-long documentary about the Taliban regime in Afghanistan made by courageous Bulgarian journalist Elena Yoncheva. I was startled by what I saw as it was thousands of times worse that anything I had seen in Bulgaria.

And yet, while the Afghan people in the documentary – including women toiling and living in terrible conditions – explained about their hardships, I did not hear any of them whine nearly as much as I had heard the average Bulgarian did at the time. Since then I have heard hundreds of foreigners say that Bulgaria is such a nice country and that they fail to understand why Bulgarians bitch about everything so much all the time...

International surveys of the level of happiness have found Bulgarians to be among the most unhappy nations, loaded with negative sentiments, while people living much more poorly in countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have been found to view life much more positvely.

Bulgaria and Bulgarians certainly can still take measures to prevent their extinction – if they want. The big question is – do they? Having the resources or the stuff is not enough for a nation – courage and integrity also matter.

Today's Bulgarian state leadership has dismissed the demographic doomsday scenario. Over the past week I heard dozens of Bulgarians say that the Bulgarian people survived much harsher times – invasions, famines, wars.

Sure they did. But back then an average Bulgarian family would have 5-10 kids, not one as is the case today. Those who don't believe the catastrophe is real should take a one-hour ride outside of Sofia into the country. The small-town primary school where I studied in the 1990s had 200 kids. I know that in the 1960s it had 1000 kids. Today it is closed.

So if you don't have the motivation to exist as a community, how can you be expected to seek to perpetuate that community?

God and history will have their way at the end. But the Bulgarians' story is sadly weird, and weirdly sad.

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Tags: demographic crisis, demographics, nihilism


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