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TitleBones of Contention: The Living Archive of Vasil Levski and the Making of Bulgaria's National Hero
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LanguageEnglish
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Page 2

BONES OF CONTENTION

Page 319

296 The Apostle of Freedom, or What Makes a Hero?

In 2006, the poet Stefan Tsanev published an over 500-page vol-
ume called Bulgarian Chronicles and subtitled A poem. It was the first
volume of a huge enterprise that was to encompass the whole history
of the Bulgarians, and it covered the period from 2137 B.C. until A.D.
1453. It was followed in 2007 by a 350-page second volume, bringing
the narrative down to 1876.288 Tsanev explains his urge to provide his
compatriots with something that can overcome the stifling boredom
of history textbooks. He directly points to Genchev as his inspiration:
“More than twenty years ago, the moment we would sit down with
Prof. Nikolai Genchev in the Cinema Club or in the Russian Club,
after his third drink he would call out: ‘Hey, poet, why don’t you write
an amusing history of Bulgaria!’” Tsanev sees his work as the fulfill-
ment of Genchev’s call. Indeed, for people who have heard Genchev
speak at a table, this sounds much like his table talk (after the third
drink).289 The first volume, I am told, sold well. Tsanev complains,
in the second one, of the wrath of historians (scholars and teachers
alike), as well as literary critics but none of this detracts him from his
vocation.

Two chapters in the second volume are devoted to Levski, and
the Leitmotiv is Levski as Christ (as is the title of Chapter VI: The
Bulgarian Jesus). It is a compilation of the well-known facts about
Levski and, as in the other parts, a skillful collation of quotes from
sources and other works, interspersed with the author’s comments. In
his appreciation of Levski, Tsanev is more than conventional. He is
equally so about Botev, and his explicit, if predictable, verdict is that
these are the two greatest figures in Bulgarian history. He raises rhe-
torically the question why the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has not

Pechelia za tsial narod: biografichen roman za Vasil Levski, Sofia: Univer-
sitetsko izdatelstvo “Sv.Kliment Okhridski,” 1993; Ivan Zheglov, Shpi-
ononît Sabri: razkazi i noveli za Vasil Levski: za sredna uchilishtna vîzrast,
Stara Zagora: I. Zheglov, 1993; Ivan Zheglov, Zvezda zornitsa: razkazi i
noveli za Vasil Levski, Stara Zagora: I. Zheglov, 1997; finally, the trans-
lation of a Russian novel about Levski belongs to this genre: Alexander
Stekolnikov, Vasil Levski, Veliko Tîrnovo: VITAL, 2003.

288 Stefan Tsanev, Bîlgarski khroniki. Istoriia na nashiia narod ot 2137 pr.Khr.
do 1453 sl.Khr. Poema, Plovdiv: Zhanet, 2006; Bîlgarski khroniki. Istoriia
na nashiia narod ot 1453 do 1878 g. Poema. Tom 2, Plovdiv: Zhanet, 2007.

289 Tsanev calls this Biblical verse (whence the designation of his work as
poem): each paragraph containing as many words as can be pronounced
in a single breath.

Page 320

297The Literary and Visual Hypostases of the Hero

canonized Levski, and correctly finds the objections unconvincing but
stops short of lobbying for the effort.290

What Tsanev adds is Levski’s personal obsession with—in fact,
little disguised enmity toward—Liuben Karavelov, topped only by
his open disdain for his Serbian wife Natalia. It is not a new historio-
graphic discovery but for years it had been toned down in the general
lore, so it comes as a surprise.291 Not only is Karavelov used as a foil
for Levski, and his opposition to Levski’s idea to create two centers of
the revolutionary organization (in Bucharest and in Lovech) is inter-
preted simply as fear of sharing the glory of leadership. There is a curi-
ous twist when the incident inspires Tsanev to transparently muse on
contemporary developments:

Generally speaking, one can notice in our history a strange phenom-
enon: the émigrés always consider themselves more clever and signif-
icant than the natives. The nuts stay in some free country, haven’t
got the foggiest idea of what’s happening in their ex-fatherland, drink
their coffee or wine in a pub, and give advice to their enslaved breth-
ren how to wield their struggle. But hey, come on here and struggle!—
as Levski would tell them in a while.292

It is a poignant outburst that illustrates better present-day develop-
ments when, for the first time in its history, Bulgaria has become an
outmigrating country with a sizeable diaspora, and with complex rela-
tions to its fatherland. But Tsanev, who bemoaned the fact that history
is being rewritten all the time,293 has become a historian himself and,
despite his disclaimers, writes for the present and about it (even when
he is not aware of it).

290 Tsanev, Bîlgarski khroniki (1453–1878), 184–5.
291 Not only does Karavelov emerge as an indecisive, pedantic, unimagina-

tive, pompous and arrogant demagogue and intellectual, his whole behav-
ior after Levski’s death and particularly his break with Botev is explained
as the burden of his guilt (and possibly accusation by Botev) for having
unconsciously betrayed the Apostle, after the archive of the Central Com-
mittee was stolen and found its way to the Ottoman authorities. (Ibid.,
162, 178–81, 187–98, 219–31)

292 Ibid., 196.
293 Tsanev, Bîlgarski khroniki (2137 BC–1453 AD), 21.

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Plates

 Plate 21 From photograph to icon

Page 639

Plates

 Plate 22 Icon of Lenin, 1920s
Source: Miltiades Papanikolaou, ed., Licht und Farbe in der russischen
Avantgarde: die Sammlung Costakis aus dem Staatlichen Museum für

Zeitgenössische Kunst Thessaloniki Köln: DuMont, 2004.

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