Pictures from the Balkans
Fraser, John Foster


A Miniature Brussels - A City in the Making - The Public Buildings - The Church of St. Sofia - The Bulgar's Qualities - A Kaleidoscopic History - Prince Ferdinand - His Unpopularity - Bulgarian Ambitions - The Prince a Factor for Peace - The Most Efficient Army in Europe - A Nation that Believes in Education

THERE is something of the western American city about Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. A quarter of a century ago it was a squalid Turkish town. The squalor has been swept away. The ramshackle, wheezy houses, bulging over narrow and ill-smelling passages, have disappeared as though swept by a fire. There are now big and broad thoroughfares, fine squares, impressive public buildings. The boulevards are shaded with trees, the cafes sprawl their little round tables and wire chairs into the roadway.

Sofia is a miniature Brussels. One of these days it may rival Buda-Pest, or rather Pest, the most modern, spick-and-span town in Europe. Twenty-five years ago there were eleven thousand people in Sofia. - Now there are over seventy thousand.

But Sofia is still in an unfinished state. The old town, as the Turks left it, has nigh gone. But the new town has not come in its completeness. There is not a single paved street; the roads are bumpy, vile with dust in summer, and villainous with filth in winter. The houses are built with poor bricks, but stuccoed and plastered and bevelled and colourwashed into representation of stone blocks. There


is the flimsiness of stage mansions about the residences. That, however, does not prevent them looking neat and clean and, with the acacia trees which grow rapidly to give a tone of softness, quite comfortable.

Unbuilt Sofia is pegged out after the American style. Imposing, walled residences stand up solitary. Before you get to them there is a patch of waste land, with rank vegetation growing among old pots and pans which have been pitched there; then you get to a house in the course of construction, the material littering three parts across the road; then a completed and pretty house; then more waste.

Sofia, in a businesslike way, is setting about to make a fine city of itself. It is well situated on a patch of plain, with picturesque mountain ranges as a background. No time has been lost in providing magnificent public buildings. The Royal Palace, where Prince Ferdinand occasionally stays, is fine. The National Assembly is a serviceable pile, and the interior is ornate., The technical schools are well equipped and up to date. The barracks are equal to any in England. The Military Club would hold its own with a Pall Mall establishment. The hotels are clean, comfortable, and cheap. There is a good theatre. Also there are gardens where, in the cool of the summer evening, the band plays, and folk sit round and sip beverages. The Bulgarians intend to have a capital worthy of their energetic little nation.

Remember, it is only since 1878, when the Turks, having smeared the country with their sloth for centuries, were driven south by Russian guns,


and Bulgaria got its liberty, that the Bulgarians have had an opportunity to show the stuff of which they are made. They have acquitted themselves well. The first thing they did was to wipe out the evidences of Turkish occupation. When the Turkish rulers had gone, the Turkish populace also began to disappear. The mosques were unfrequented; they were converted into prisons, markets, and even baths. Only one mosque is in use to-day. There is the Church of the Seven Saints, originally Greek Christian, changed to a mosque by the Turks, deserted when the Turks went, and now changed to a Christian Bulgarian Church. It has been restored, and looks like a new building. There are the remains of St. Sofia, the mother-church of the city, built in the twelfth century. It is a mighty, but cracked and tumbling mass of Byzantine architecture. The walls are eight feet thick; where decrepitude has caused them to gape, secret chambers filled with skeletons have been found. The plaster of four hundred years is falling as though intent on revealing the frescoes of Christian saints beneath. There still stands the Christian altar facing Jerusalem. The pulpit from which the Moslem priests proclaimed Allah is askew, so that it may face Mecca. Remnants of Christian and Moslem worship commingle in ruin. No formal service has been held for many years. The interior has the damp smell of a dungeon. But fervent Christians come and burn candles before the cheap oleographs of Christian saints which are pasted on the walls. An old man, grey-locked and cadaverous, knelt on the slimy floor


and prayed. He gashed his arm with a knife, and, using his fore-finger as brush, made, in blood, the sign of the Cross on the Mahommedan pulpit.

You must look beneath the surface for the qualities of the Bulgar. He is dour, even sullen. There is little refinement about him. He carries himself slovenly. He has brusqueness of manner, and the polite "thank you" rarely enters his speech. He hates the idea of subservience; to avoid any semblance of that his behaviour savours of rudeness. He is stolid and unimaginative. In commerce he is slow. But he is a good worker, zealous, plodding, and is one of the best agriculturists in the world. You cannot stir the Bulgar with sentimental orations. Yet the Bulgar is fond of his country in a cold, determined way. He does not move quickly, but he is always moving. That is why Bulgaria, since the Liberation, has made steady and definite progress.

The history of the country is a kaleidoscope. The Romans made a province of it. The Goths and the Huns overran it. Tribes invaded it and butchered one another. The dominant tribe was that of the Bulgari: Finns with an Asiatic strain, and from the Volga regions. They got mixed up with the Slavs - indeed, the Bulgar is more Slav than Bulgarian, though he does not know it. The Bulgarian language was pure Slavonic. Modern Bulgarian is Slavonic, but murdered by alien peoples. No doubt Vlach and Russian influence has been the cause. In writing, Bulgarian assimilates to Russian. Still, the Bulgarian language is no more of a hotch-potch than


is English. In the twelfth century the Bulgarian tribes consolidated and flung off the Byzantine rule. Then they fell under Servia. Next, both Bulgaria and Servia came under the Turks, and for nigh five hundred years remained stagnant. Russia, with an eye on the Bosphorus, came as the Liberator, and after the siege of Plevna and the defence of the Shipka Pass, forced Turkey to free Bulgaria. Then by the Treaty of Berlin, 1878, Bulgaria was constituted an "autonomous and tributary Principality" under the suzerainty of the Sultan.

Seven years later northern European Turkey, called Roumelia, but mainly inhabited by Bulgarians, united itself to its brother and became South Bulgaria. This growth of Bulgaria did not please Russia. It was all right lopping off a piece of Turkey and erecting the little Bulgarian nation, Russia's child, to be claimed as her own whenever it suited the Muscovite intention. But an enlarged Bulgaria, with possible ideas of standing alone, brought scowls to the brow of Czar Alexander III. All Russian officers, who had so kindly assisted the Bulgarian army, were withdrawn.. It was imagined Bulgaria lacked the brains to defend itself. The Servians, egged on by Austria, made war on their neighbours. The Bulgars, under their foreign Prince Alexander, smashed the Serbs, and would have annexed Servia had not Austria, under threats, cried halt, and even made the Bulgarians yield territory. So the two countries have no love for each other. It rankles in the mind of Servia that it was defeated; it galls Bulgaria that


it lost territory. Russia was wroth with Bulgaria strutting as a nation instead of being dependent on Russia, which had done so much for it. Russia kidnapped Prince Alexander, held him prisoner, let him go when Europe cried "Shame!" but succeeded by intrigue in making Alexander's life miserable, broke his heart, and caused him to abdicate. The country was in turmoil. Then Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg was chosen by the Sobranje, or Parliament, and under his rule Bulgaria has gone ahead.

Ferdinand is astute. Yet his cleverness is not of the kind to be appreciated by Bulgarians. During the last twenty years he has had an excellent opportunity to get a grip of the hearts of the people. He has done nothing of the kind. Rightly or wrongly, they are convinced that he neither likes them nor their country. If they are wrong, he ministers to the mistake by preferring to live in other countries than in that of his adoption. His official allowance is about a million and a quarter of francs, money drawn from peasants. They think it ought to be spent in Bulgaria, and not in Vienna or Paris. He is not popular.

The Bulgars are a democratic people, with exaggerated notions of independence. The endeavour on the part of the Prince to create an aristocracy goes against the grain. He has round him a band of Ministers - a few above reproach, most under a strong suspicion - who utilise the national finances for their individual benefit. Political corruption is, in its way, as marked as in the United States. The party in power, the Prince's party, who are little


but tools in his hand, come to office again and again, because they have the means of bribing the constituencies. Educated Bulgarians are sick of the whole business, but any endeavour toward purity is swamped beneath the flood of corruption. The Constitution is nominally democratic, but really autocratic. The Prince has greater powers than those possessed by any constitutional monarch. He can and does actively interfere in politics. The Ministry has greater latitude than any other European Ministry. Prince and Ministry working together - and the Prince has only pliable Ministers - the Sobranje, with less than the powers of any other constitutional Legislature, does not really represent the people. The Government has machinery, not always creditable, which regulates the results of the polls.

The Bulgarians are ambitious. They are rightly proud of the way in which their country has gone ahead since the Turkish shackles were cast off. Possibly they exaggerate their powers; but that is natural. There is a feeling that Bulgaria should win back by the sword what Austria forced it to cede to Servia. There is a much stronger feeling for a Big Bulgaria, and eyes are cast toward Macedonia, where it is alleged most of the Christians are of the Bulgar race. There are also Macedonian Bulgarians in the Principality - for since the Liberation Bulgars in Macedonia have emigrated to the land where they could have more freedom: men of sprightlier intelligence than the pure Bulgarian - and these, not anxious to have Macedonia fall under the rule of Bulgaria, are working for an independent Mace-


donia, with, of course, the Macedonian Bulgarians as "top dog" over the Turks, Serbs, Roumanians, and Greeks. So in regard to Macedonia there are in Bulgaria itself two parties - the Big Bulgaria party, and the Autonomous Macedonia party. There is bitter feeling between them.

The cynic smiles. The Balkan problem is wheels within wheels. All the Christians hate the Turk. The rival Christians, Bulgar, Serb, Greek, hate each other. Then rival factions of Bulgars are at daggers drawn - and sometimes the dagger is used. The Sultan plays off one Christian nation against another. Prince Ferdinand plays off one Bulgarian party against the other.

Despite his shortcomings, Prince Ferdinand is a factor for peace - a greater factor than the rest of Europe gives him credit for. Were his influence removed there is little doubt Bulgaria would pick a quarrel with Turkey, and plunge the Balkans into war. The war spirit is dominant, though there is little of the splash and splutter which would be shown by a more volatile people. It is a spirit which has its roots in the belief that the Bulgars are at last coming into their heritage, and have a large place to fill on the scroll of destiny. They have watched the Far East. "If," was often said to me, "a little country like Japan can overthrow so great a Power as Russia, why should not Bulgaria overthrow Turkey? We are the Japanese of the Near East." The nation expects and wants to fight Turkey. The Turks know it. Later in my wanderings I had talks with Turkish officials. They admitted that


Turkey did not want to fight, but not because Turkey was afraid of defeat. Here was their logic: "We fought the Greeks and defeated them; then we lost Crete. We shall defeat the Bulgarians, but we shall lose Macedonia. Kismet!" Then a shrug of the shoulders.

Now Prince Ferdinand does not want war. He is a little afraid of a rival Bulgarian nation in Macedonia. He is more afraid of an endeavour toward a Big Bulgaria, for he is not as confident as are his people that the Turks will be defeated, and he knows that under a Turkish victory the Bulgarians, in their wrath, would make him their first victim.

There is, however, something fine and noble in the way the little Bulgarian nation is equipping itself to meet a great Power, be it Russia or Turkey. Now and then I heard a groan at the burden of the army, which consumes a third of the national revenue. It is borne, because there is no Bulgarian who does not realise that his country any day may be called upon to fight for its independence - for the suzerainty of Turkey is but a name. I visited, and was shown over, the great barracks beyond Sofia. I went out to the plains and saw the men at drill. For its size the Bulgarian army is the best equipped and most efficient in Europe. It means business. Every detail is attended to, every probability of warfare provided for. The officers are not so smart as those of Servia, but they are more practical. What worries the War Minister is that the officers run so much to fat. They are a most podgy lot of officers. If someone will devise means whereby the Bulgarian


officers need not wear such large waistcoats he will receive the profuse thanks of the army.

Conscription prevails. It embraces everybody. Even those who, for special reasons, escape full conscriptive service must do duty in the Reserve for three months in each of two years, and then must pass into the active Army Reserve for nine years. In peace time a recruit enters the Army when he is twenty years of age; in war time he starts his fighting at eighteen. Not till he is forty-five years of age does a Bulgarian escape from liability to serve. Even foreigners, after three years' residence, must serve, unless they have a special certificate of exemption. If Moslems pay £20 they can claim exemption; but as the Moslems remaining in Bulgaria are poor, very few escape. Bulgars afflicted with infirmities which prevent them entering the service must pay a special tax.

The Army lays its grip on Bulgaria. The peace strength is some 3,000 officers and 50,000 men, 6,000 horses and oxen, and 250 guns horsed out of 500. The war strength is about 6,000 officers, 300,000 men, 45,000 horses, and 2,500 oxen. The Army stands for Bulgarian independence. The young Bulgarian straightens himself, drops his slouch, and walks with a proud glint in his eye when his country calls upon him. Military service is popular.

Now the Bulgarians, though unemotional and somewhat brusque, have other qualities besides industry and devotion to their country. They are a moral and a truthful people. Further, though so young a nation, they realise, better than any other race


in the Balkans, the advantages of education. I was somewhat astonished at the number of men I met who spoke English but who had never seen England. The fact is that a considerable number of the public men were educated at Robert College, near Constantinople. English is the language of instruction. That College has had a marvellous effect on the Christians, not only of the Balkans, but of Asia Minor. Both Bulgaria and Armenia owe much to Robert College. In the uttermost corners of Turkey I have met men who spoke English. "Where did you learn it?" "At Robert College," was the invariable answer. In Bulgaria itself there are at Samakov two American missionary schools, where the pupils are Bulgarians, and all learn English. A good word for Samakov. The directors realise the danger of over-education. Only harm will come to Bulgaria if ill-prepared minds are stuffed with what are called "enlightened views." So earnest and particular attention is directed to technical instruction, which is the thing the Bulgarians, as an agricultural people, specially need. All the State schools are free. Excellent colleges are at Sofia and Philippopolis. Parents submit themselves to hardship so that their children may go to college. In the smaller towns travelling State-paid lecturers instruct the people in scientific husbandry. These lectures are always well attended.

"What a wild, barbarous land Bulgaria is!" is the popular but ignorant belief in Britain. It is just as safe as England. The Bulgarian likes to think he is imitating England.

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