Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter after Communism

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Pirin Mountains, viewed from Bansko
(Photo by Daria's friend, Vili)
My friend Daria grew up in the town of Bansko, situated in the shadow of the Pirin Mountains in southwestern Bulgaria. Another shadow cast over the whole country was that of communism, effective from 1944 to '89. Under that shadow in her youth, Daria describes the Orthodox church in her hometown as only being frequented by grandmothers and the priest. Everyone else had too much to lose under the fear of being monitored and reported, thus losing jobs and livelihoods.

Daria recalls being drawn by a spiritual hunger for the biblical narrative at a young age, and the only place in which it could be experienced in these conditions was secretly in the home. So her grandmother would read her stories from an old, dusty family Bible. Even at a young age and under such tight restrictions, Daria had a quiet reputation for knowing stories from the Bible. For instance, her eye doctor would ask her to recite them for him when she spent a few weeks in the nearby town where he practiced. The doctor had no other way to hear these stories than from this five year old girl.

Komsomol postage stamp from the USSR
But in the first grade, Daria reports another religious encounter: that of communist indoctrination in the communist youth program. After mentioning the many nationalist songs she was taught as a child, underwritten by communist ideology and mythology, I asked Daria to recite some lines from one of these songs, translated into English:
Communists built the motherland,
Komsomol built after them.
Pioneers, pioneers!
There is a hard and glorious road ahead of us.
As part of the indoctrination, children were also required to remember and recite the poetry of Bulgarian communist poet, Nikola Vaptsarov, whose work Daria describes as being an admixture of communist ideology, Bulgarian nationalism, and biblical themes imbibed from the poet's Protestant mother, a rarity in his time. This section of our conversation led to an interesting discussion on identity in Bulgaria. Though Daria claims affinity to both the dominant Orthodox and minority Protestant-Congregational church traditions, most Bulgarians equate being Orthodox with being Bulgarian, a mix that is not easily disentangled. With its proximity to Turkey, many Bulgarians see the Orthodox church as having played an important role in holding off being overrun by the Muslim Ottoman Turks, a threat which lasted for centuries, a deep-seated attitude in the national imagination that makes Muslim-Christian encounter tricky business to this day.

Daria was 16 years old when Bulgarian communist leaders dissolved their government in November of 1989. With the threat to Christians wishing to practice their faith now gone, Daria describes the following Easter service at the Orthodox church in her hometown as being packed for the first time in decades. In the crowded church there was a palpable sense of joy and expectancy. At the stroke of midnight the priest declared, “Christ is risen!” The congregation shouted passionately in response, “He is risen indeed!” Daria said to me, “It's like I met God that day.” A great shadow had lifted and the Christians in Bansko experienced a glimpse of what resurrection must be.

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