Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Compassion to France

This crude drawing is to show my sympathy to the people of France after the Nov. 13 tragedy in Paris, where 129 innocent people were massacred in the newest mass murder in the name of Islam.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Princess mermaid

I am now busy with examining my mother's things and deciding what to take, what to leave and what to discard.

Of course, this work generally makes me sad. However, it occasionally brings nice surprises.

Last week, I found the drawing shown above.

It was made by my elder son at preschool when he was in 1st group, i.e. 3 years old. I was delighted to see it, because it was one of his first recognizable humanoid images.

I asked him what he had drawn. He replied, "a princess". Presumably he meant mermaid but didn't know the word. At that time, he already could read and was learning to write,as the drawing shows, but could not yet talk properly.

I wanted to keep the drawing but couldn't find it and thought that it had become just another lost work. I had quite forgotten that I had given it to my mother.

I suppose that only a parent can understand why I was glad to find it again and why someone would wish to keep such a masterpiece in the first place.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Honoring Taurian Bulgarians and Misho Hadjiyski

(Bulgarian readers can find this post also on my Bulgarian blog.)

In June, my father Dyanko Markov together with Georgi Chunchukov from the city of Dobrich and Filip Pitelov from the Association of Bulgarian Expatriates was invited to attend a ceremony to unveil a memorial plate of Misho Hadjiyski in the village of Inzovka, Ukraine. I of course felt quite uneasy because of the situation in Ukraine and the advanced age of my father. (It was difficult to manage his travel insurance, because for most insurance companies, people of my father's age simply do not exist.) This event made me learn more about the Taurian Bulgarians, whom I had known just by name.

When we Bulgarians talk about Taurica, we usually mean the region north-west of the Sea of Azov, where many ethnic Bulgarians settled in the first half of the 19th century. They kept their language and traditions because there was no local population to influence them - until their coming, the region was desolate. The settlement was under the auspice of Russian general Ivan Inzov. To facilitate the cultivation of Taurica, he ensured that the settlers would have rights of free people. At that time, the Russian peasants as serfs were deprived of such rights.

Taurian Bulgarians generally lived well until the October Revolution of 1917. After that, they together with the other Soviet subjects had to face the repressive terror of the Bolshevik regime. Although they had been farmers for many generations and had turned their land into a granary, they suffered and a number of them died in the Holodomor - the genocide organized by Stalin to subdue Ukraine, considered too unruly.

Memorial of the Holodomor victims near the village of Tyaginka, between Odessa and Taurica. Above, there is an inscription in Ukrainian: "Ukraine, to your sons and daughters, great and small, children and adults, suffocated by the bony hand of the Holodomor in 1932-33..." Below is a verse in Russian by the well-known poet Robert Rozhdestvensky: "Posredine planeti / V grome tuch grozovih / Smotryat myortvie v nebo / Verya v mudrost zhivih." (Amidst the planet, / In the thunder of stormy clouds, / The dead are staring into the sky, / Trusting the wisdom of the living.)

Memorial in the village of Kolarovka (Taurica) of the ethnic Bulgarian victims of Stalinist terror. The inscription in Bulgarian and Ukrainian is: "To the Bulgarians of Ukraine, victims of the repressions."

After Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union and occupied Ukraine, Taurian Bulgarians wrote a letter to the Bulgarian king Boris III on April 20, 1942. I am translating a part of the text: "In this war between the two great states, we have been ruined and abandoned. Our prosperous villages have been turned into deserts... We have heard, King, that your Kingdom is an ally of Great Germany, may God help you in everything you do, but we are asking you for one favor: Let our plight is alleviated at last, let the Germans allow us to have in every Bulgarian village authorities of our own, subordinated directly to the Germans rather than to the Russians... Send here to Taurica an envoy to protect us... We shall be glad if you right now decree for all us sixty thousand Bulgarians to be accepted in Your Kingdom. Maybe there will be free lands for us to settle. We are not many, we are here [concentrated in] twenty-eight villages at the shore of the Sea of Azov, between the towns of Melitopol and Berdyansk. We are ready to share in the joys and sorrows of your Kingdom but to be under your protection. If we cannot settle all at once, King, allow to a part of us to come, so that we all move to Bulgaria in one or two years. We had turned Taurica from a desert into a Paradise on Earth. Give us desolate lands and we will settle there, because we have always lived by honest work..."

The letter was signed by 15 people. Most important, however, was the role of a young man whose signature was third, the writer Mikhail (Misho) Hadjiyski from the village of Inzovka. After obtaining permission from the Bulgarian authorities, he led nearly 2000 his compatriots to Bulgaria in 1944. The refugees were traveling on their own, in very harsh conditions, sometimes crossing battlefields with their horse carts. Upon arrival, most of them settled in Southern Dobruja, a region only recently reunited with Bulgaria. Misho Hadjiyski met Savka Nikolaeva, a university student from Sofia, and they married in late August.

However, the refuge in Bulgaria was too short-lived. In September 1944, Bulgaria itself was occupied by Soviet troops who installed Soviet puppets as new rulers. At the end of the month, Misho Hadjiyski was arrested and tortured. Some Bulgarian leftists advocated for him and he was released in the middle of November. However, on December 7 militiamen came to arrest him again and he committed suicide, shooting himself in the head. He was only 28 years old and had been married only for 3 months.

The next year (1945), Taurian Bulgarians who had moved to Bulgaria were sought one by one, dragged into trains and deported to the deserts of Kazakhstan - the method of genocide preferred by Stalin because it reliably destroyed a substantial part of the unwanted population without leaving troublesome evidence like gas chambers. As some commentators noted, the Bulgarian nation had managed to rescue its Jews two years before, but now was unable to rescue the Taurian Bulgarians.

At present, Bulgarian Taurica is divided. Its eastern districts have been affected by Putin's land-grabbing campaign and are currently under the control of pro-Russian separatists, but most of its territory is in free Ukraine, at least for now. Inzovka, named after the benefactor Inzov, is also in Ukraine. Until recently, the village school had no name, but now it is named after Misho Hadjiyski. The naming ceremony took place on June 18 and included unveiling a memorial plate of Misho Hadjiyski at the front wall of the building.

Nona Popova, Mayor of the village of Inzovka, is reading the naming order.

In front of the memorial plate, moments after it was unveiled.

The memorial plate, with inscriptions in Bulgarian and Ukrainian: "To Misho Hadjiyski, writer, human rights activist and Bulgarian patriot, killed by Stalin's repressions, from the grateful Taurian Bulgarians."

The guests from Bulgaria with a folklore group of Taurian Bulgarian children. The tall man is Georgi Chunchukov, next to him is my father.

The photos in this post were sent to me by Georgi Chunchukov; his report about the visit was also of much help to me in writing this text.

Savka Nikolaeva, the widow of Misho Hadjiyski, is still alive but is bed-ridden and cannot attend the ceremonies in honor of her husband. She did not remarry after his death. Stalin's terror not only took the life of Misho but ruined her life as well.

After his meetings with Taurian Bulgarians, my father was impressed that despite the past sufferings and the numerous innocent victims they hated nobody. Now, they only want to be free, to live their lives as they choose and to create material goods and culture. We had heard allegations of strong pro-Russian sentiments among this community, but they turned out to have been much exaggerated. Like most other Ukrainians, Taurian Bulgarians are looking in the direction of Europe and hope for their country to be admitted into the European Union. Alas, "old" Europeans are too inclined to betray the founding principles of European civilization and to seek only security and material well-being, which naturally leads them to collaboration with the aggressor Putin. In the long term (and even not so long), this endangers not only Ukraine but also Europe itself. Therefore, as my father said, the future of Europe depends on the survival of independent Ukraine.

I am glad that in the same year in which the residents of Inzovka could finally honor their countryman Misho Hadjiyski, honors to him and the Taurian Bulgarians led by him were paid also in Bulgaria. This is happening exactly in Dobrudja where the refugees were accepted and hoped to find new homes. A memorial plate dedicated to the Taurian Bulgarians will be unveiled today in the city of Dobrich, in front of the municipality building. So everyone who passes through the center of Dobrich will remember the events of 1944-45 that must not be forgotten.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Drowned while seeking a better life

A month ago, on Sept. 2, three-year-old Syrian-Kurdish boy Alan (Aylan) Kurdi drowned together with his 5-yr-old brother Galip and their mother Rehana after the overcrowded inflatable boat by which they left Turkey and were trying to reach the Greek island of Kos capsized. The victims' bodies were washed ashore back on the Turkish beach. There, a reporter photographed Alan's body and the images shocked the world. I don't post any of them here, because I don't want to absolutely ruin the day of my few readers. Let me just mention that the beautiful little boy lying face down on the sand looked to be just sleeping, which inspired artist Mahnaz Yazdani to draw the above cartoon titled exactly so, Just Sleeping.

As a hopeless cynic, I mention in passing that the strong reaction to the photograph was largely due to the fact that Alan and Galip in appearance - face, haircut, clothes and all, were quite like native Western children, like my sons at that age. The BBC admits the same: "David Cameron echoed many reactions on Twitter when he said that, "as a father" he had been deeply moved. Nicole Itano oversees all creative work for Save the Children, including photography. She is also the mother of a one-year-old girl. "My first reaction was, my god, that could be my child, who has the same colour hair, the same chubby legs," she says... "He looks like he could be any of our children."" If the victim was a dark-skinned child, or a slightly older girl in a headscarf, I doubt that we would have been moved the same way.

I have written elsewhere about the unfortunate events that made millions of Syrians refugees. However, Alan's family was no longer fleeing the war and genocide in Syria. They had lived in Turkey for years - for almost all of his short life - in miserable yet safe conditions. So their story is part of the broader, universal narrative of Seeking a Better Life. Alan became known to the entire world, but there are many others who drown, literally or metaphorically, while seeking a better life, and you never hear of them, unless they happen to be someone you love.

By "seeking a better life", I don't mean the efforts to improve one's life but the drive to move to another place and solve all problems by finding a ready-made better life there. My opinion and experience is that, while trying to improve one's life is admirable even when not quite successful, the attempts to find a better life elsewhere are usually destructive. This "better life" is always said to exist in another, far-away place. This is a hint about its true nature: it is a mirage. And, similarly to physical mirages which are unreal but based on real objects and phenomena, this one is based on real places and facts. You'd better not believe that a better life is awaiting you in some Blessed Realm just because you possess photos, presents and other artifacts from this place. Even if you have visited it or have relatives living there - as Alan's father had - you'd better not believe that it is your dream incarnated. If you believe it, you sever your connection to the real world and get detached from reality. Only this can explain why an otherwise sensible person such as Alan's father could think that putting his most precious possession - his wife (who was unable to swim) and his young children - into an overloaded rubber dinghy supplied by unscrupulous modern pirates was a good idea. And even the lucky majority of better-life seekers who reach their destination safely find there not cloudless happiness but ordinary human life burdened with home-sickness and the strain of adaptation.

Seeking a Better Life is in the folklore of all nations. Remember Puss in Boots, Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk etc. The penniless hero finds a treasure lying in some cave without an owner, or a castle owned by some wicked being fully deserving to be killed and dispossessed. We read these tales to our young children, as if mixing poison into their breakfast milk. I wish to give examples of other folk tales, of heroes building better lives by work and ingenuity, creating prosperity where none existed before. However, there are too few such stories and they are obscure.

After the destruction of his family, Alan's father talked to some fellow refugees planning to embark on the perilous sea journey and dissuaded them. I am glad for them. Meanwhile, however, masses of thousands give their savings to the smugglers and sail the unfriendly sea to reach an unfriendly land. And I know that it is inevitable. Because to seek a better life is apparently ingrained in human nature.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Ugly Animals by Simon Watt

This spring, I translated to Bulgarian The Ugly Animals by Simon Watt. I've just written a post about it in my Bulgarian blog (better late than never), and here is the announcement by the Bulgarian publisher. I admit I am proud to read at the Ugly Animal Preservation Society website (the above screenshot) that the book is "available in all good bookshops in the UK, USA and Bulgaria" (emphasis mine).

The cover of the Bulgarian translation shows a Galapagos marine iguana - a charmingly ugly animal that can inspire horror-movie screenwriters. I like it very much, though I still prefer the blobfish on the cover of the original which won the viewers' vote for ugliest animal on the planet (to me, this "ugly" fish is even cute, and I definitely like it and the other animals in the book better than the panda).

The Ugly Animals is devoted to species that are both ugly and more or less endangered. Each animal is presented by a nice large photo occupying as much space as the text. I think this is the correct way to address today's overworked, ever-tired readers - with a lot of beautiful pictures and a carefully controlled dose of text. Nevertheless, there are many things to be learned from this book. It is written with much humor, which I have tried to preserve in the translation but I don't know whether I have succeeded.

To me, it is unfortunate that so many otherwise sensible people create a false dichotomy about what we must preserve, ourselves and our civilization or the living world as we know it. I think that we must preserve both, and I believe that we can.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Kangaroo court of Ukrainian film director in Russia

Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov is now on trial in the Russian city of Rostov-na-Don because of his opposition to Crimea's annexation by Russia. Mr. Sentsov is a native of Crimea and was arrested there when the peninsula was taken over last year. He was reportedly mistreated in custody. The charge against him is... terrorism.

To me, the story is quite reminiscent of the Stalinist show trials from the 1930s. Unfortunately, it receives little coverage in international media. I heard of it from Bulgarian news sources.

Update: Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Striving for excellence versus free speech

How free should our speech be?

In theory, we are all for free speech. In practice, we conform to restrictions and self-restrictions all the time, and impose restrictions on others. All parents I know start to impose restrictions on their children's speech practically from the moment the child starts talking. The process is long, and many of us, despite our efforts, are periodically called to unpleasant meetings with teachers because of our children exercising too much free speech at school.

Every system striving for excellence restricts free speech. An example is the school. Another, even better example is the business. Have you been badmouthed by a waiter? And if you are, will you endure it in silence for the sake of the waiter's right to free speech?

What is true for the waiter or cleaner is equally true for the CEO. Executives do not allow themselves free speech (read: adolescent talk), because it harms the business. It repels customers and gives the entire company a bad name. Personally, I cannot imagine any businessman saying anything of this sort:

"I am inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa because all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really... Despite the desire that all human beings should be equal, people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."

These words belong to James Watson, Nobel Prize winner for the discovery of the DNA double helical structure. After the gaffe, he was forced to retire from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory which he had founded. And I think this was right. While scientific institutions stay apart from the market, they must strive for excellence quite like the companies trying to survive at the market.

Last month, another Nobel Prize winner put his foot in his mouth: Tim Hunt, honored for his important discoveries in regulation of cell division. Talking at a lunch for female journalist and scientists in Seoul, he said:

It's strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? Now, seriously, I'm impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me."

For this, he was forced to resign from the University College London, where he had been Honorary Professor. And I think this was right. If a scientist not only harbors misogynist views but cannot keep them to a private, trusted circle of close friends, he must not hold any honorary position. Prof. Hunt damaged the reputation of his University and his country. I also suspect that, with these views and apparently nobody to criticize him through the years, Prof. Hunt has done a lot of damage to the "girls" to whom he has been superior, so his resignation was too little too late; still, better late than never.

I wasn't going to honor Prof. Hunt with a post, but Charles Steele, who disagrees with me and with whom we had a long discussion, suggested to me to write one. So this text owes its existence to him.