A typical statement – it could have been made at any time in the last fifty years: If not for anything else, I blame the Turkish yoke for imposing an oriental system of values on us.
When pressed to define oriental values, the speaker, a woman in this case, cites the enduring legacy of patriarchal control, particularly in family relationships. This patriarchy boils down to the authority of the father figure over his wife and his apparently God-given right to command his children’s lives even after those children have reached the age of thirty and way beyond.
Interestingly these “oriental values’ became a cornerstone of Communist policy between 1944 and 1989 – particularly in the increasing struggle to channel youthful enthusiasm and control its tendency towards rebellion.
Once the attempt to substitute real fathers and mothers with a portrait of Georgi Dimitrov in every living room and a poem about Mother Party on the lips of every child, had clearly failed, Communists had no choice but to fall back on the traditional family to impose hegemony. The function of the family was stated as: “childbirth, upbringing and educating the children to be boundlessly faithful to the Fatherland”. Todor Zhivkov called on the ‘valuable national traditions and virtues’. Key to this was the practice of passing childcare over to grandparents. And so the Oriental patriarchal traditions prospered.
One’s children are a resource. They can live the lives that we could only dream of. They can however be used as a weapon against us. This was especially true in communist times. Let us imagine a typical conversation between a functionary of the State Militia and an embarrassed Party official.
We had to pick up your son, last night. He was with a group of long haired decadent hooligans, singing subversive song in the park. Lucky for him Sergeant Goshkov recognized him, separated him from the rest and sent him home, with a flea in his ear.
I’m so sorry Comrade.
Might I suggest you have some strong words with him about his behavior, his dress and the company he keeps?
As nothing remains a secret in this society, our desperate party official will have to endure the schadenfreude of his colleagues. Comrade X has problems. He can’t even control his own children.
Communism falls but the underpinning values remain. The way our children make their way in the world is a comment on our own worth as human beings. In the theatre of Bulgarian society, we are judged on their academic, professional and personal successes and failures. We are therefore expected to intervene decisively.
The following exchange is from a conversation with my neighbour, (we’ll call him Boncho Bonchev). The subject is my son who has just returned to Europe after year long travels in Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
B.B. : How did you let him go?
Me: He’s 24 he makes his own decisions
B.B.: I’ve told my children. They have no business beyond the Bosporus.
You might reasonably ask how typically fathers like Boncho Bonchev maintain their power over their grown up children. It is through the power of patronage and guilt. In return for significant material help through their adolescence and adulthood, they can expect obedience. The typical Bulgarian father is proud that he supported his children through school and university. Not for them the indignity of part time work!
I didn’t educate my daughter to serve in a bar or clean floors.
After they have repaid him in getting a respectable degree so he can treat his neighbours, children can expect further significant help in buying their first car, their first apartment and so on. In return they should respect his pronouncements – at least to his face – and prepare to repay their debts as he gets older by ensuring a female member of the family looks after him.
The problem is that Boncho did not foresee globalization. Now in the cold alienated capitalist world, children travel to build lives far away from their controlling parents. But if the patriarchal contract is broken, the consequences are not always bright.
In the UK, even in liberal newspapers an interesting question is being raised. Has Women’s liberation led to the breakdown of social cohesion? Once, frustrated middle class women could only find fulfillment in socially useful local voluntary work. Now freed from their dominant masters, they have become so overtaken by their professional needs that they have no time to bear children, let alone care about their local community.
From both the UK and Bulgaria, seekers for the traditional values and institutions, so praised by Todor Zhivkov, will need to travel east – to Turkey or Iran.
It is particularly ironic that the nationalist Ataka party opposes what they call the Turkification of Bulgaria and at the same time whips up nostalgia for the good old days when traditional values held families together, crime was low and groups of pensioners were given carte blanche to control children’s bad behavior in the neighbourhood. Ataka would feel comfortably at home in many parts of the Muslim world.