Molly and I visited Vidin, Bulgaria on May Day and were able to spend the morning enjoying the town’s celebrations.
We had come to this part of Bulgaria, wedged between Serbia and Romania, because of a fantastic writer named Alan Furst whose novel, Night Soldiers, opens in the town of Vidin. Here, his teenage protagonist witnesses the struggle between Fascism and Communism waging in the Balkans during the 1930s. The Danube is a significant component of this struggle: as the main form of transportation in the region, this massive river connects Germany and the Black Sea, allowing both the Nazis and Soviets to wield their influence on the region. Even though they struggled for centuries to free themselves from Ottoman rule, in Bulgaria an invader is always coming from one direction or another.
“And it was their fate to live on this river. It was their fate that some rivers drew conquerors much as corpses drew flies . . . thus is was their fate to be conquered, to live as slaves. That was the truth of it, why call it something else? And, as slaves, to have the worst slaves’ luck of all: changing masters.” – Alan Furst
This idea of changing masters is immediately apparent walking through town. In the riverfront park there is a small Orthodox Chapel, a mosque and a Turkish fortress, which the Bulgarians captured during their fight for independence in 1878. We even saw a half destroyed synagogue built in the 19th century but abandoned after World War II, representing how tolerant the Ottoman Empire was to Jews but then also how destructive the Fascists were when they took over the region.
Bulgaria aligned itself with Germany during WWII but resisted the deportation of their Jews to Nazi concentration camps and then refused to assist in the invasion of Russia. Sensing internal conflict, the Russians then invaded Bulgaria and set-up a communist state. Communism brought a significant increase to the GDP and helped to modernize Bulgaria, but thousands of Bulgarians were killed in the process via Stalinesque style policies of violent repression. And right there on the river, the very first thing we saw getting out of our car is a large memorial to the “Victims of Communism.”
Even now, in 2014, during the May Day celebrations along the river, we could see the meshing of identities. We watched Bulgarian kids dance to traditional Bulgarian folk songs in front of a Turkish mosque. The food vendors were serving doner kebabs alongside pork sausages. And everywhere we looked people were waving little European Union flags alongside their Bulgarian flags because, at least for now, Bulgaria looks westward, up the river.