Saturday, October 28, 2006
Historic Amnesia and the Macedonian Question
Funny things have been happening lately in cyberspace: instead of celebrating the recent Athens-Skopje agreement for lifting the Greek embargo, people from the Republic of Macedonia are lamenting having to give up state symbols which never belonged to their country anyway
On 25 Sep 1995 Bruce Smithoski wrote:
"So, I am not sorry that the Sun is gone, but I am VERY UPSET that it was done in this way. I cannot express my anger that the flag was sold. Only people who don't care about nationality and tradition can shamelessly manipulate a national flag or ANY national symbol, like this. Regardless of how this new flag was introduced to the Macedonians, and whether I like it or not, it is a shame to sell a national flag, and also play with the feelings of those Macedonians who decided to bond with that symbol."Now, now, Bruce: You cannot take something that belongs to other people, "bond" to it, and then, when asked to return the stolen goods, cry out that you have been robbed. You explain clearly enough the story with the stolen state symbols:
"Frankly speaking, this new designer's creation for the official flag of RoM (combination of the communist and Yugoslav SR Macedonia's old red flag with the Sun of Alexander the Great) as for practically all Macedonians a completely new thing... Without offending anyone, I know that there were my fellow countryman (in Macedonia and abroad) who, "didn't know that they were Macedonians until 4 years ago". In my experience, they are the ones who most strongly grasped the new flag. Among my friends those who were the biggest Yugoslavs before, and used to cry so loudly for Yugoslavia, became biggest Macedonians in 1991. Interestingly but not surprisingly enough, they were usually also absolutely clueless about our history."So, here is the crux of the matter: national amnesia. Amnesia caused by eighty-three years of cruel foreign domination over the people of Vardar Macedonia; eighty-three years during which the occupiers first tried to make them part of the Serbian nation, and when this failed tried to create an appendage to the Serbian nation called "Macedonia".
No doubt, Bruce knows some of the historic truth, although his knowledge, as he admits himself, goes back to the Berlin Congress, 1878. He explains to his fellow countrymen:
"Traditional Macedonian flag has two equal horizontal parts.., the upper half being red and the lower black... This traditional Macedonian flag had also a symbolic meaning - the same meaning as the slogan of the Macedonian fighters from the beginning of the century: "Freedom (red) or Death (black)". During the 1903 Ilinden uprising and the Krushevo republic the formal flag of Macedonian fighters was black-and-red. However, local flags used by different guerrilla groups (cheti) were more colorful. Usually they had a cross, a picture of a young woman (representing Macedonia) or a lion (also a traditional symbol), on a red, or red and black background, with the words "Liberty or Death" - "SVOBODA ili SM'RT" written in golden letters (needless to say, with the Cyrillic alphabet of Kliment Ohridski and not the one of Karadzich-Koneski)."The trouble with partial knowledge is that being incomplete, it can be also misleading. The flag of the uprising in Macedonia and Eastern Thrace in 1903 (Ilindensko-Preobrazhensko Vustanie) has its own history, and you should know it, because it is yours.
It begins with a man from the Bulgarian town of Kotel, named Georgi Stoykov Popovich, better known as Georgi Sava Rakowski. In 1837 the 16- year old Georgi enters the Greek Gymnasium in Kurucheshme, Constantinople. Four years later he is in Athens to become a free citizen of a free country. His Greek passport (which later saves his life) carries the name of Georgios Savva Makedon. In Athens he forms his first revolutionary organization, the secret "Macedonian Society". His dream is to unite the Christians of the Ottoman Empire, regardless of ethnicity, in revolt against the Sultan. He speaks of a "federation" of culturally autonomous entities.
Twenty years later, disillusioned by general indifference to his proposals, he moves to Belgrade, where he forms his first Bulgarian legion, a paramilitary organization intended to prepare future military leaders of an armed uprising of the Bulgarian people. The blue-green flag of the Legion bears in Bulgarian the motto of the Greek revolution, 'Eleutheria I Thanatos' - "Svoboda ili sm'rt". Beneath the arching motto stands a golden lion rampant (the heraldic symbol of the last independent Bulgarian kingdom).
Rakowski did not steal "Freedom or death" from the Greeks. Although the idea of individual freedom is a Greek one, the motto of the Greek revolution was first heard in the New World almost a half-century earlier:
"Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God. I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"Patrick Henry, Speech in Virginia Convention, Richmond [March 23, 1775]Ideas cannot be stolen; they travel through time and space to whatever minds are ready to receive them. Patrick Henry had doubtless read, in the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, "Death is better, a milder fate than tyranny."
The flag of Rakowski saw its baptism of fire in 1867, when Panayot Hitov and Filip Totyu led the first battles of the Bulgarians against the Turks. Vasil Kunchev, one of Rakowski's legionnaires, assumed his nom de guerre, "Levski" from the lion on the flag. He later became not only the leader of the Bulgarian revolution, but the ideal hero of Goce Delchev, leader of the Ilinden uprising.
In the spring of 1876, the 20-year-old primary-school teacher of the town of Panagyurishte, Rayna Popgeorgieva Futekova embroidered the revolutionary flag on a piece of red silk, the best piece of cloth available. On the day of the April Uprising she carried the flag, for which she became known as "Rayna Knyaginya" (Princess Rayna). When the Uprising was crushed, she was held in detention for three months (during which she was beaten and raped repeatedly), but then released after international intervention and sent abroad to study.
The 20,000 fighters of the Bitola Vilaet did not suffer from historical amnesia.
They knew what flag they were carrying in the 150 battles against 300,000 Turkish soldiers. Nor were the leaders of the Krushevo Republic amnesiacs. It is their great-grandchildren who do not remember, and who dig for their roots in the grave of Philip of Macedon. It is those descendents who have never heard of the Krushevo Proclamation to the neighboring Turkish and Albanian villages:
"Bratja zemljaci i mili komshii ! Nie se bontueme protiv tiranijata i robstvoto, protiv predatelite, protiv zolumcharite, protiv nasilnicite na nashata chest, i protiv tie, shto ni ja smukat nashata pot i ekspluatirat nashiot trud.. Elate, bratja muslimani, pri nas, da trgneme protiv vashite i nashite dushmani! Elate, da gi skrshime sindjirite na robstvoto, da se kurtulisame ot maki i stradanie!"
[Brother countrymen and dear neighbors! We are rebelling against tyranny and slavery, against traitors, against rapists and violators of our honor, and against those who drink our sweat and exploit our labor... Come, brother Muslims, join us as we attack our common enemies! Come, let us break the chains of slavery, let us free ourselves from pain and suffering!]Now, in FYROM, the "dear neighbors" have become "stinking Albanians" - their great-grandchildren are not allowed to enter the same school building as the rest of the children. And you wonder to yourselves what the actual historical flag looked like.
I doubt if the parliament in Skopje is going to choose the Ilinden flag as the new national symbol of the country. Its heraldic meaning is too unsettling for people who feel uneasy about their Bulgarian origins.
My grandfather, a simple carter from Prilep, fought in 1903 for the freedom of his people. My grandmother, his new bride, cared for the wounded and comforted the orphans. The Ilinden uprising is part of my family history, and I do not suffer from amnesia.