Fate of Bulgarian Turks

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 182-185:

Gürcan had spent the second half of his life in Turkey and the first half in Bulgaria, where he was born in 1969 as one of just under 800,000 Turks whose forefathers had escaped the expulsions of the early twentieth century. Later, in the socialist era, Bulgaria had been suspicious of its Muslim minorities but, for cynical reasons, expulsions were no longer the political weapon of choice. During the Cold War, the Turkish–Bulgarian border had hardened into the Iron Curtain, the stated objective of which was to keep the proletariat in the country. This meant that the Bulgarian Turks were trapped in the Eastern Bloc alongside the Bulgarians themselves.

Nevertheless, they remained a thorn in the side of the regime in Sofia. Centuries of Ottoman dominance in the Balkans had not been forgotten, and the mere presence of a Turkish minority stoked old fears. Nearly one in ten inhabitants of socialist Bulgaria was a Turk, and the ratio was rising slightly because the Muslims had more children than the rest of the population. This led the authorities to hatch a dastardly plan in the mid-1980s: they might not be able to get rid of the Turks, but they could make them disappear, make them invisible, by destroying their identity.

Gürcan was sixteen when soldiers appeared one day in his hometown of Kurkariya. They made their way through the factories, the collective farms, and the schools, taking the Turks aside in each one. The soldiers had a simple request: the Turks were to choose new names. Bulgarian ones.

Gürcan’s father, who had been called Enver Süleymanov all his life, was known as Encho Stanishev after the renaming campaign. Gürcan’s own new identity card was marked Gensho Stanishev.

He was still at school at the time. It was clear, he said, that his Bulgarian teachers were embarrassed by the campaign. ‘From one day to the next, they had to get used to calling us by different names. They were obviously ashamed, but not one of them dared not to go along with it.’

What made matters worse was that it was customary in Bulgaria to use patronyms in addition to first names and surnames. Gürcan’s full name, when his father was still called Enver, was Gürcan Enverov Süleymanov. Now he was called Gensho Enchev Stanishev. The situation was more complicated for Gürcan’s father, whose own father was long dead when renaming began. He and hundreds of thousands of other Turks were nonetheless compelled to adopt Bulgarian patronyms, which meant that they had to give their dead fathers posthumous new first names.

‘They forced us to change dead people’s names. Can you believe it? People long buried in the cemetery! What kind of a person thinks up such things?’

Gürcan’s expression was so indignant that it was as if the matter had occurred mere days back, not three and a half decades ago.

The official designation of this campaign harked back to the name chosen by the nineteenth-century Bulgarian resistance movement against Turkish domination: the regime spoke of a ‘process of renaissance’. In macabre fashion, this was quite apt for a scheme to rename the dead. Above all, however, it brought home to Turkish Bulgarians what the state really thought of them. Concurrently with the renaming campaign, they were banned from using their language. There was also a more severe crackdown on their religion, which had never been welcome in socialist Bulgaria.

Individual Turks who were not willing to be reborn as Bulgarians resisted the directives in the late 1980s. Riots broke out and people died. Ultimately, when communism’s imminent collapse seemed nigh, the regime decided to sort out the problem in the traditional fashion after all. For a three-month period in the summer of 1989, the Iron Curtain was raised exclusively for Muslims, and party secretary Todor Zhivkov proclaimed that the path abroad was open to anyone who wished to take it. The Turks understood that this was not an invitation but an ultimatum. That summer, around 350,000 of them packed up whatever they could lash to the roofs of their Soviet cars, and the roads south were black with people. It was Europe’s largest ethnic cleansing campaign since the end of the Second World War.

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Filed under Bulgaria, language, migration, nationalism, religion, Turkey

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