Category Archives: religion

Lakotas Arrive in the Black Hills, 1830s

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 167-169:

Oglalas and Sicangus were the first to turn west, ascending the White and Bad [rivers] which offered reliable water and wood, serving as superb passageways. As they inched upriver, they clashed with Kiowas and Crows, pushing the former to the south and the latter to the west. Sicangus joined forces with Cheyennes against the Kiowas, while Oglalas spearheaded campaigns against Crows under the leadership of Bull Bear whose boldness and resolve seemed to have given their operations particular sharpness. By the late 1820s Crows had retreated from the Black Hills into the Powder River country a hundred miles to the west, and Oglalas and Sicangus established themselves on Pahá Sápa’s eastern side. By that time Sans Arcs, Minneconjous, Two Kettles, Sihasapas, and Hunkpapas had also begun to shift west, establishing the Cheyenne and Grand [rivers] as entryways.

Lakotas had turned west, decisively, but they remained people of river valleys first and people of the plains second. They ventured into the western grasslands and Pahá Sápa from multiple points along timbered river valleys and moved back regularly along those same valleys to the Mníšoše [Missouri R.], which remained vital to their cosmology and economy. Essentially protrusions of the Missourian riparian woodlands, the White, Bad, Cheyenne, and other tributaries provided Lakotas with safe and familiar pathways into the West. When they began pulling away from the Missouri, they were not so much casting themselves loose on the open plains but extending their old riverland world into the West.

This tripartite pattern—a trunk line in the east, an elevated, magnet-like anchor in the west, and a row of arterials in between—formed the core of the Lakota world from the 1830s onward. It was in those three places where Lakotas spent most of their time—cooking, eating, sleeping, socializing, smoking, praying, raising children, tending horses, preparing hides, making clothes, tools, and weapons—and where most of them entered and left this world. This was the homeland Lakotas would defend against invaders and, when needed, expand.

The western tributaries were keys to land and wealth and power, but they were also conduits into a perilous new world, for they carried Lakotas toward greater aridity. The western Great Plains lie in a long rain shadow cast by the Rocky Mountains. Pacific winds pump moist maritime air eastward, but the air sheds much of its moisture while climbing up the Rockies. The shadow effect is strongest in the west, the 98th meridian marking a default line where evaporation exceeds precipitation and the soil starts to go dry. The grass cover reflects this, becoming shorter toward the west. Around the 105th meridian densely tufted blue grama and buffalo grasses become dominant and the plant canopy shrinks down to a few inches. The bison had adapted over the millennia to these semi-arid conditions, thriving on the stunted short-grasses that retained protein in their dry stalks, making them ideal winter forage. Tens of millions of them lived in the plains, their huge bodies a hunter’s delight.

That was when the Black Hills began to loom large in a material sense. When severe droughts struck the grasslands, the bison tended to seek relief in the high-altitude microclimate around the Black Hills where summers were cooler, rainfall higher, and pasture more lavish. Lakotas did the same. This introduced a new dimension to Pahá Sápa’s allure: it became a sanctuary and a meat pack. Lakotas gathered there to sit out droughts and subsist on buffaloes that seemed to give themselves up—just like the White Buffalo Calf Woman had promised. The control of Pahá Sápa became a spiritual and material imperative without which nothing in the world was secure—not its unearthly bounties, not the hunt, not the survival of Lakotas as a people. Hand paintings on Pahá Sápa’s rocky planes—red spots marking slain enemies—bespeak of the violent struggle that turned the mountain range into an exclusive domain of Lakotas and their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies. By the late 1820s Lakotas were wintering in Pahá Sápa. The Black Hills belonged to them.

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A Hermit Old Believer in the Taiga

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 4274ff:

When I think back on Agafya today, I hear her voice before I see her face. She speaks, but I do not hear any words, only an unmistakable melody. She seems to be singing. It sounds like a faint, unfinished song not intended for an audience.

For five days and four nights I heard her singing voice almost constantly. Each of its melodic variations impressed itself on me, even if I did not always understand the text. Sometimes I was not sure whether Agafya herself knew the text exactly. When she spoke, it often sounded as if her song drifted aimlessly and at random through fragments of memory and verses of scripture, through family tales and the life stories of people she had known.

While we walked along the river, the evening sun sank behind the mountains. The valley turned red before it paled. I was in a strange mental state, dead tired and wide awake at the same time, exhausted from the hike, electrified by our arrival. I could hardly feel the weight of my backpack anymore, everything seemed strangely light, as if the world in which I had landed was not quite real. Agafya walked in front of me, so close that I could make out the irregular seams in her dress, the dirt under her fingernails, the notches in her hatchet. I memorised every detail with the nervousness of a dreamer who knows that he may wake up at any moment.

I was only half listening when Lyonya told me the name of a smaller tributary which flowed into the Abakan just behind the fish trap: the Yerinat. We continued walking on its shore, until the dense forest suddenly opened up. A clearing wound its way up the mountainside. Three small wooden houses stood about halfway up. Above them I could make out the furrows of a potato field.

The oldest of the three huts was half-dilapidated. Agafya had lived in it until her father had died. The two other houses, which were visibly newer, had been built by Lyonya and his forestry colleagues. Agafya lived in the one on the left. Lyonya disappeared into the right one to unload our backpacks.

I unpacked the gifts I had brought along with me [from Abaza, Republic of Khakassia] the headscarf from Doctor Nazarov, the letter from Agafya’s cousins in Kilinsk, the jar with the home-pressed sunflower oil, a woollen blanket that I had bought as a gift and finally the letter from Galina, the linguist. Smiling, Agafya turned all the objects over in her hands, as if she was pondering their religious adequacy. In the end she put the headscarf, the blanket and the sunflower oil on a woodpile in front of her hut. Only the letters remained in her hands as she went inside.

A campfire was smouldering between the houses, with a pan full of fish roasting over the embers. While I was wondering who had put them on the fire, a very small man with a very long beard suddenly stood before me. He reached out his hand. ‘Alexei.’ The high voice did not fit his beard.

Alexei was a distant relative of Agafya’s. He visited her each year around this time. Usually he would stay a few weeks to help her with the winter preparations. He came from one of the Old Believer communities in the Altai Mountains. As it turned out, it was a neighbouring village of Kilinsk, the place where I had met Agafya’s cousins.

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“Fundamentals of Safe Living” in Siberia

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 3404ff:

San Sanych was a teacher. At Abaza’s only school he taught a subject with the curious name ‘Fundamentals of Safe Living’. He instructed Russian students how to protect themselves against Russian threats: alcohol poisoning, terrorist attacks, sexually transmitted diseases, nuclear accidents, savage animals. To supplement his teacher’s salary, he leased the top floor of his house to tourists who came to Abaza for fishing or hunting. Occasionally he organised boat tours, mountain hikes and Taiga expeditions.

San Sanych’s actual name was Alexander Alexandrovich, but like many Alexander Alexandroviches, he used a shortened form of his first name and patronymic. San Sanych’s father had also been called San Sanych, just like his grandfather. Unfortunately, the family memory did not extend any further back, because the grandfather had died early – he had tried to save a church from being destroyed by the Bolsheviks, which the Bolsheviks had very much resented. The grandfather’s widowed wife, who had to make ends meet with an orphaned son, decided in her plight to become an agitator for atheism. Until the end of her life she taught students and collective farm workers that the god her husband had died for did not exist.

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Growth of Trans-Siberian Travel

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2435ff:

The glamorous luxury cars which Parisian society strolled through at the [World Exhibition of 1900] were never used in Trans-Siberian reality. Far simpler models commuted between Moscow and Vladivostok when the line was completed in 1904. The first symbolic cut of the spade had been performed 13 years earlier on the pacific coast by a young boy named Nicholas, who did not realise that he was digging his own grave – three decades later Tsar Nicholas II rolled to Yekaterinburg in a Trans-Siberian carriage, towards his execution.

Before the line was put into operation, Siberia was linked with the Russian west only by a rough, unpaved dirt road which was barely accessible for the major part of the year – in the winter snow hampered the journey; in the spring, mud; in the summer, dust. The relationship between the two parts of the country was loose, geographically and mentally. Even in the travel notes of Chekhov, who crossed the Eurasian landmass in a horse-drawn wagon shortly before the construction of the railway line, the inhabitants of Siberia spoke of Russia as if it were another, distant country. The endless trip over the Siberian tract must have made it feel like such.

Despite all the hardships, however, the road was hopelessly congested, even during Chekhov’s time. Year after year, since serfdom had been abolished in 1861, a stream of land-seeking farmers flowed into the vast expanses of Siberia. On horse-drawn carts people transported their entire belongings eastward, for 1,000s of kilometres. It happened that at their final destination they bumped into former neighbours, who had fled from serfdom years before to seek their fortunes in Siberia. For centuries the sparsely populated areas east of the Ural Mountains had attracted people who wanted to evade the state’s reach. Runaway serfs hid in Siberia, wanted criminals, escaped convicts, deflowered girls, dishonoured men, illegitimate children. The Old Believers were the most famous, but not the only community of sectarians who awaited the apocalypse deep in the wilderness. They shared their exile with all those outlaws, exiles and madmen who the state itself transported east so they would not cause any more damage in the Russian heartland.

Just a little earlier, there had not even been a road to Siberia. When the first bands of Cossacks crossed the Urals in the 16th century, they dragged dismantled rowing boats over the mountains. Siberia was conquered by water. The Cossacks used the branched river system that traverses the entire land mass between Moscow and the Pacific. From the Volga they worked their way forward to the Kama, from the Irtysh to the Ob, from the Yenisey to the Angara, from the Lena to the Amur. Piece by piece they wrested the country from the Tatar tribes who had dominated it since the collapse of the Mongol empire. The Tatars called their realm Sibir: ‘sleeping country’. The Cossacks, who adopted the Turkish word, woke Siberia with violence. When they reached the Pacific in 1639, not even 60 years after the beginning of the campaign, they had moved Russia’s border more than 5,000 kilometres to the east. Each year they had annexed an area the size of Great Britain to the already huge tsarist empire.

Siberia’s proportions are somewhat terrifying.

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Reactions to Moscow Subway Bombing

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1330ff:

When I woke up the next morning, I began to write down the experiences of the previous day. I stayed in the apartment the entire day. In the evening Vanya came home.

‘Damn traffic jams,’ he cursed. ‘I sat in the taxi for three hours.’

‘Why didn’t you take the subway?’

Surprised, he looked at me. ‘You don’t know?’

‘What don’t I know?’

‘A terrorist attack. Two bombs, this morning, in the underground; 36 people have died.’

Without knowing exactly why, I set out for the city centre. In the meantime, the subway had started running again, but the cars were as good as empty. The few passengers exchanged nervous glances. Shortly before the train reached the Ring Line, a dark-skinned woman boarded, apparently from the Caucasus. Two Russians, a man and a woman, left the car immediately.

At the station Park Kultury, where one of the two bombs had exploded, a silent crowd had gathered. All traces of the attack had been eliminated; there was nothing to see. The people were staring at a shrine of flowers and other offerings which had accrued spontaneously in the middle of the platform. No one spoke. Only a bearded man with an opened liturgical book in his hands whispered a requiem. Like all the others I stared silently at the shrine, where new offerings continued to be added. A pot of crocuses. A ten rouble note. Two icons of the Virgin Mother, one made of cardboard, the other of wood. Eighteen white tea lights, nine yellow icon candles, three red grave lanterns. A lighter, a box of matches, six chocolate eggs, two Snickers bars. A handwritten note: Vy zhivy – ‘You are alive’. Roses, carnations, asters, tulips, gerbera, pussy willows, fir sprigs.

Just as I was getting ready to go, a man walked up to the shrine. He was the type of man I characterise in my personal Moscow typology as a perestroika rocker: not young anymore, long hair, black leather jacket, very oppositional facial expression. He took two bottles of vodka and a stack of plastic cups out of his army backpack, placed them down with the other offerings to the dead, turned around and left. Mechanically, I counted the cups: 36, one for each.

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Chornobyl, 988-1986

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 705ff:

The Yakushins were a family of priests. Nicholas’s great-grandfather had served in the Church of Saint Ilya, Nicholas’s grandfather as well. Then the Bolsheviks came. They hammered on the church door and cried: stop praying, Father; man has no soul. The grandfather did not agree: man, he said, most certainly has a soul, and it is immortal. The Bolsheviks detained the grandfather. When he was released, he was old. That was his good luck. He died early enough to escape Stalin’s terror, which hardly any clerics survived. The grandfather’s son, Nicholas Yakushin’s father, did not become a priest. The times were not right.

Nicholas was nevertheless baptised, secretly, at home, the way most Orthodox were. Those who baptised their children in the church had to reckon with work-related harassment. When Nicholas was born, shortly after the end of the war, the church was closed anyway; the local kolkhoz used it as a grain silo. Thus Nicholas got to know his forefathers’ church: filled to the dome with wheat. On the ceiling a besieged Christ faded away, his hands spread over the grain as if in self-protection, not in blessing.

The town of Chernobyl, or Chornobyl, in Ukrainian, is old, ancient, even if it does not look it anymore. None of the original buildings are left. First the Mongols razed the city; later came Lithuanians, Poles, Bolsheviks, finally the Germans. Today there are only a few wooden houses standing between the concrete blocks, none of them older than two centuries. But Chernobyl was founded at the same time as Kiev, and when prince Vladimir had his subjects baptised in the year 988, the citizens of Chernobyl were amongst the first Christians of the Slavic world.

To those for whom this past was still present – despite the futurist ecstasy of the Soviet period – it was no surprise that here, in Chernobyl, 1000 years after the Slavs’ baptism, time should come to an end, just as it had been proclaimed in the Book of Revelation:

The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. And a third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters, because they had been made bitter.

This John wrote in Chapter 8, verses 10 and 11. But in Ukrainian ‘wormwood’ means: Chornobyl [lit. ‘black stalk’, Artemisia vulgaris ‘common mugwort, wormwood’, to distinguish it from the lighter-stemmed wormwood A. absinthium].

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Origins of Russia’s Old Believers

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 176ff.

In the not exactly bloodless history of Russia, the 17th century was one of the bloodiest. A bizarre religious controversy divided the country: people argued over the question of whether to make the sign of the cross with two fingers or with three. The Moscow Patriarch, who advocated for the three-finger cross, persecuted the followers of the two-finger cross viciously; he had unruly believers’ hands chopped off, and their priests’ tongues ripped out. Many rendered the mutilations unnecessary by simply chopping off their own thumbs in order not to have to blaspheme God with three fingers. Whole communities barricaded themselves in their churches, set their altars on fire and watched as the flames ate away at their hands, two fingers outstretched to the very end.

The conflict had been sparked by one man who exerted all of his dubious ambition to rectify the course of history. Around the middle of the century Patriarch Nikon, head of the Russian Orthodoxy, introduced a church reform. He invoked the origins of the Orthodox faith: the Russians had adopted Christianity from Byzantium in 988, when the Grand Duke of Kiev baptised his subjects according to the Greek rites. Over the centuries the inevitable happened: little by little, the Russian Orthodoxy developed its own, non-Greek traits, arising partly as a result of incorrect translations of Greek liturgical texts, but more often through the everyday practice of the faith. No Russians considered these characteristics to be a betrayal of their Orthodox roots. Patriarch Nikon alone was embarrassed when he received Greek dignitaries in the Kremlin, whose astonishment at the customs of the Russians did not escape him.

With his reforms, Nikon attempted to rectify the most obvious deviations of the Russian liturgy from the Greek. At first glance, they were trifles: the Trinity was no longer praised with two hallelujahs but with three; one letter was to be added to the name of the Lord, ‘Iisus’ instead of ‘Isus’; there should be not seven loaves but only one on the altar during the Eucharist; finally, the sign of the cross would no longer be made with two fingers but with three, the way the Greeks did it.

These interventions might have been accepted without complaint if at the same time much more drastic changes had not been overtaking Russia. The long isolated country was opening up to the West. Things appeared that had never been in Russia before; tobacco, tea and coffee; trimmed beards; sacred images with saints barely recognisable, so outlandishly were they depicted; foreigners, summoned by the Tsar to modernise the country, brought foreign manners to Russia, foreign languages and foreign gadgets. On the main tower of the Kremlin wall a huge mechanical clock from England appeared, the first in all of Russia. Its message was unmistakable: the times were changing.

All of these upheavals had one thing in common with Nikon’s reforms: they made Russia look bad. Many Russians did not want to admit that the traditions of their fathers should suddenly be worth less than the inventions of foreigners, be it English clocks, Dutch paintings, German books or Greek church rules. The Old Believers, as the opponents of reform were soon called, rejected Nikon’s heresies as vehemently as the ever-advancing West. Their two-fingered cross became a gesture of resistance against a Russia that was betraying its roots in every respect.

The times were changing. And perhaps, as the Old Believers in fact suspected, the world was actually approaching its prophesied end. There was evidence. As the religious controversy reached its bloody climax, people in Russia wrote the year as 7174 – their calendar started with the creation of the world. But in the West, where the years were numbered from the birth of Christ, a different number appeared on the calendar, a terrible one: 1666. There could be no doubt: the foreigners were messengers of the apocalypse.

While Russia drifted towards the west, the Old Believers fled towards the east. Persecuted by the Patriarch’s henchmen, they withdrew to the sparsely populated, peripheral regions of the Russian Empire. They founded communities where time stood still, where nothing diluted the spirit of old Russia, no tobacco and no coffee, no razor and no clockworks, not one hallelujah too many, not one altar loaf too few.

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Danube Delta Border Oddities

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 235-236:

There are many strange borders around the Black Sea, but that between Romania and Ukraine is one of the stranger ones. It coincides with the most northerly branch of the Danube delta, running along its length and dividing it into a Romanian half and a Ukrainian half. Russian Old Believers live on both sides, their villages separated in some places only by 200 m of water, so close that you can count the onions growing in the gardens on the other bank. It has long been impossible to cross over from here to there, however. The external border of the Soviet Union was drawn along the northern bank after the Second World War; nowadays, the south side marks where the European Union ends. Border craft patrol the river which has kept the Lipovan villages apart for more than seventy years. A man in Mila 23 told me that almost all the Old Believers in the delta had relatives on the other side, whom they knew only from stories recounted by their grandparents. The border had torn the Lipovan families asunder.

If you want to cross from Romania to the other side, you have to leave the delta and follow the Danube upstream to Galati – the nearest border crossing, a good 100 km from the coast. It does not lead into Ukraine, however, but into the southernmost tip of Moldova. Only 2 km further on comes a second border, this one with Ukraine.

An old Moldovan by the name of Foma, who had worked as a policeman in the Soviet days, took me to Reni, the first place on the Ukrainian side, which was where he lived.

On the way to the bus station, we drove past the base of a monument with no monument standing on it. I pointed to the empty plinth.

‘Lenin?’

Foma nodded. This was not the first empty Lenin plinth I’d seen. Since the start of the war with Russia, the Ukrainians had toppled the old memorials to the Soviet leader all over the country.

‘Is it Lenin’s fault that life’s bad?’ Foma didn’t wait for my answer. ‘The goal of socialism was for everyone to have a house, a car, a dacha. What’s so bad about that?’

The main street of Reni was pitted with enormous rainfilled potholes. We dodged these craters at walking pace like cosmonauts on a lunar expedition. Rarely had the gulf between the goals and the consequences of socialism seemed wider to me.

Foma didn’t think much of Ukraine’s new-found nationalism. ‘Is it going to make our lives better if they send us hooligans who rip down monuments to Lenin? What are these nationalists even doing here? There are hardly any Ukrainians in Budjak! The villages here are Romanian, Moldovan, Bulgarian, and Gagauz. We all speak our own languages, and we communicate with one another in Russian. No one speaks Ukrainian …’

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Fate of Crimean Karaites

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 274-276:

History had taught the Karaites that it was better if the world didn’t find out too much about them. Tiriyaki took my pen and drew a tree in my notebook, its trunk forking into three branches.

‘Those,’ he said, pointing to the roots, ‘are the commandments.’

‘These’ – the three branches – ‘are the New Testament, the Talmud, and the Qur’an.’

‘This’ – the trunk – ‘is the Torah. Our only scripture. Karaites believe in the Jewish faith as it was when Jesus Christ was born and before other things were subsequently added.’

The Karaites had never accepted the Talmud. This had isolated them from all other Jews, who had never really known what to make of the Karaites. This had worked to their advantage in the Russian Empire – unlike other Jews, the Karaites had not been subject to restrictions on the professions they could pursue. A few of them had made large fortunes, especially in the tobacco trade. This wealth was visible in the old kenesa – the Karaite synagogue in whose hall I was sitting with Tiriyaki, a sumptuous religious complex with vine-draped colonnades, marble tombs, carved wooden interiors, and warm stained-glass windows.

When the Nazis invaded Crimea in the war, they didn’t know what to think of the Karaites either. Were they Jews? The Nazis commissioned an assessment by a Polish Jewish historian who, against his better judgement, declared the Karaites to be non-Jews, clearly to spare them the fate he would later suffer himself: he perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. His scheming paid off, however. The Nazis murdered the Crimean Jews but they spared the Karaites, whom they classified as a Turkic people.

Not long afterwards, the Karaites had a second stroke of luck. Their lenient treatment by the Germans could well have been a good reason for Stalin to have them deported alongside the Tatars, especially as the two minorities spoke very similar languages. Yet this cup too passed over them. For Stalin, the Karaites appeared to be Jews.

The kenesa in Yevpatoria had been closed down after the war, just like Crimea’s churches, mosques, and Jewish synagogues. The historic religious complex had been converted into a ‘museum of atheism’, and the outbuildings were used as grain silos. The community hall had become a nursery, which Tiriyaki had gone to as a boy, knowing full well that his grandmother had still been praying in the kenesa only a few years earlier.

There were now only a few hundred Karaites living in Crimea. Many had emigrated to Israel in the 1990s. The devout core of his community, Tiriyaki said, consisted of forty people.

We had been talking for less than half an hour when the old community leader began to give me signals that he’d said everything he was prepared to say. ‘If you have no further questions …’

But I do, I longed to cry, hundreds of them. Yet Tiriyaki’s expression was so forbidding that I confined myself to the central question whose insolubility had saved the Karaites’ lives twice. Where were they from? Were they a Turkic people that had converted to Judaism in the distant past? Or were they Semitic immigrants who had only become Turkicspeaking in Crimea? I knew that this matter was controversial among the Karaites too.

Tiriyaki stared at me impassively. His face was hard to read – not so much as the twitch of a muscle.

‘Origins are a card that politicians love to play. They are of no consequence to the faithful.’

He stood up and offered me his hand. I was already halfway to the door when he uttered a few final words as a send-off.

‘The Karaites lived here under the Tatar khans, under the tsars, the Soviets, the German occupiers, the Ukrainians, and now the Russians again. No one could drive us out. We are still here. That is all that counts.’

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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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