Communist Bulgaria and the Azeri Connection

In interwar Bulgaria, Turkish intellectuals began using the Latin alphabet for writing and publishing in Turkish about two years earlier than in Turkey itself, where the Latin alphabet replaced the Arabic script in 1928. Afterward only few religious and pro-Ottoman Turkish-language periodicals were brought out in Bulgaria with the use of the Arabic script. The country was a short hop from Konstantiniyya (officially renamed Istanbul in 1935). Besides, until 1908, Bulgaria officially was an autonomous principality of the Ottoman Empire. What is more, Konstantiniyya remained the seat of the Bulgarian Exarchate (or semi-autonomous Orthodox Church) until 1913. Hence, Bulgaria did not appear to be a foreign land to pro-Ottoman refugees from Mustafa Kemal’s radically republican and anti-religious Turkey.

In 1934 a coup took place in Bulgaria, leading to the establishment of a royal dictatorship. A renewed pressure on making the country ‘truly Bulgarian’ was part and parcel of the effort to win more legitimacy for this new political arrangement. The country’s Turks, despite their Bulgarian citizenship, were typically presented as a ‘danger’ to the Bulgarian nation. In order to forestall ‘this danger’ to become a reality on the ground, Sofia endeavored to limit, as far as possible, any links between Bulgaria’s Turks and neighboring Turkey. Instrumental to this was the 1934 ban on the use of the Latin alphabet for writing and publishing in Turkish. All Turkish-language newspapers, book publishers and minority schools had to switch back to the Arabic alphabet. This ban was not a problem for pro-Ottoman publications and for the majority of medresas (religious schools), as majority of them had refused to adopt ‘godless’ Latin letters for writing Turkish in the first place. Another measure undertaken by Bulgaria to ‘reduce the Turkish presence’ was forced emigration. Between the mid-1920s and the early 1940s, as many as 150,000 Bulgarian Turks were expelled to Turkey on the basis of the Bulgarian-Turkish agreement of 1925.

Between 1934 and 1945, a new generation of Bulgaria’s Turks received education exclusively in the Arabic script-based Turkish language. Like in Turkey, it was a vernacular language, but this 1934 change in the script limited the influence of Turkey’s linguistic reforms on the Bulgarian Turkish. Furthermore, Bulgaria’s Turks wrote in their own Balkan dialect that in many ways differed from the Anatolian Turkish dialects that became the basis of standard Turkish. Meanwhile, the policy of building a ‘purely’ Slavic and Orthodox Bulgaria, led to the rapid decrease in the number of Turkish periodicals and schools. By the end of World War II only a single Turkish-language journal had survived.


During the war Bulgaria had a bad luck to throw its lot with the Axis states. Switching sides in 1944 did not immediately convince the Soviets that the country would become a loyal satellite of Moscow. In order to try out Sofia’s proclaimed loyalty the Kremlin demanded some changes that were seen by Bulgarian nationalists as a form of collective punishment. In 1946 the monarchy was abolished, religion was suppressed (only after Stalin’s death in 1953, the Bulgarian Exarchate was overhauled into an officially recognized Bulgarian Patriarchate), and a full-fledged system of minority rights protection was established in this country. The ‘affirmative action’ for Bulgaria’s previously suppressed minorities closely emulated the interwar Soviet Union’s policy of korenizatsiia (nativization), which had been discontinued in 1938 in favor of ‘internationalist’ Russification.

Turks in Bulgaria in 2011

The main beneficiaries of the minority system were Bulgaria’s Turks, who amounted to over a tenth of the country’s population. For the first time ever in their history an entire modern-style system of education was swiftly unrolled for Bulgaria’s Turks. Turkish became the sole medium of instruction in this system from kindergartens and elementary schools to secondary and technical schools, and to university departments. In 1957, over 150,000 students attended more than 1,000 Turkish minority schools. The system of Turkish minority education survived in Bulgaria until 1959 when it was made obligatorily bilingual, with Bulgarian as the leading language of instruction. Two years later, in 1961, all the Turkish-medium educational institutions were liquidated, though Turkish continued to be taught as a school subject until the school year of 1974/75. By the turn of the 1960s Bulgaria had consistently proved itself to be the Soviet Union’s most loyal satellite in central Europe. So it was high time for doing away with the Bulgarian-style korenizatsiia; no more punishment for the Bulgarian comrades. Between 1946 and 1961, this policy lasted for 15 years, that is, almost for exactly the same period of time as its Soviet counterpart in 1924-1938.


The main obstacle to the introduction of the Bulgarian-style nativization for the country’s Turks was the ‘backward feudal and clerical’ script used for writing and publishing in Turkish in Bulgaria. Not surprisingly, the use of Arabic letters was banned in 1946 and replaced with the ‘progressive’ Latin alphabet. However, 22 years after the ban of the Latin letters in 1934, and the subsequent two decades when the use of Turkish in education and publishing had been progressively suppressed in interwar Bulgaria, there were not enough decently educated Turkish teachers with a fluent command of the Latin alphabet for introducing a full-fledged Turkish-medium minority educational system in communist Bulgaria. In this dire situation the Soviet Union lent its repentant ally a helping hand.


Badly needed specialists were sent to Bulgaria from the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. The Turkic language of Azeri is as different from Turkey’s standard (Anatolian) Turkish or as similar to it, as Bulgaria’s (Balkan) Turkish. Furthermore, until the founding of Soviet Azerbaijan, the country’s Turkic vernacular had been simply referred to as ‘Turkish.’ Until the late 1920s, all the three vernaculars had been written in Arabic letters, and no one really distinguished among them, let alone had seen them as separate languages.


Sending Azeri teachers to Bulgaria was also a partial solution to the question of how to lessen the generalized displeasure felt among some Azeri, due to the rolling back of the Soviet nativization for Azerbaijan in 1938. In this year Cyrillic had replaced the Latin alphabet for writing the Azeri language. Among others, in this manner, the Kremlin had insulated Azerbaijan from the unwanted influence of Turkish-language publications in Latin letters produced across the border in the Kemalist Turkey. But between this 1938 ban of the Latin script in Soviet Azerbaijan and the introduction of the Turkish-language minority educational system in Bulgaria in 1946, only eight years had elapsed. Still there were around many well-educated Azeri teachers who preferred to write in the Latin script, while some continued to experience problems with their insufficient command of Cyrillic.


A Latin script-based Turkish-medium minority educational system in Bulgaria was a marriage made in heaven. Azeri teachers staunchly loyal to the Soviet powers that be were rewarded with a mission of their lives to the balm climes of ‘European’ Bulgaria. In this way they fulfilled their ‘internationalist proletarian duty’ toward the fraternal people’s democracy. On the other hand, these Azeri teachers could work until pension without the bother of switching to Cyrillic. Like the Kemalist Turkish, Azeri was ‘purified’ and engineered into a language in its own right in the interwar Soviet Union. But in contrast to Turkish, Azeri was infused with a lot of Sovietisms and Russian loan words and phrases. This Soviet cultural and linguistic dimension, as filtered through the lens of Azeri, was now imposed on the freshly communist Bulgaria’s Turkish in order to exorcise this language of any remaining ‘backward, feudal and clerical’ character.


Among the staff of communist Bulgaria’s postwar Turkish-medium university departments and three teachers colleges, instructors and academics from Soviet Azerbaijan (and some other Turkic-speaking Soviet republics) predominated. It was them who decidedly influenced the Bulgarian standard of the Turkish language, and adapted it for a variety of modern uses, including theater, radio and communist-style propaganda. Each Soviet bloc country had its leading newspaper, which also was the local communist party’s organ. In Bulgaria it was Труд Trud (Labor). Its counterpart for the country’s Turks was Işık (Light). In 1948 this Turkish newspaper was renamed Yeni Işık (New Light) in order to celebrate the successful completion of the installation of the Soviet-style communist regime in postwar Bulgaria. Apart from Sovietization, this newspaper also spearheaded the rapid differentiation of Bulgaria’s (Balkan) Turkish from standard Turkish. In 1971 Yeni Işık became a bilingual, Turkish-Bulgarian, Yeni Işık- Нова светлина (Nova svetlina), in which the Turkish content was limited to a mere ten per cent in the mid-1980s. In 1985, when officially no more Turks were remaining in communist Bulgaria, and the country’s entire population was declared to be homogenously Bulgarian from the ethnolinguistic perspective, the newspaper became an exclusively Bulgarian-language Нова светлина (Nova svetlina).


By the mid-1960s the Bulgarian nativization was over. Meanwhile, 155,000 Turks were expelled from communist Bulgaria to Turkey in 1950-1951, and 130,000 more in 1968-1978. Azeri teachers left for the Soviet Union, their services no longer needed. Some of their Bulgarian Turkish pupils took over the gradually reduced elements of Bulgaria’s Turkish-medium minority education and culture. However, the legacy of this all too little known chapter in the brief annals of the Azeri-Bulgarian fraternal communist cooperation that remains of import in Bulgaria to this day is the Azeri cultural and linguistic influence. This very Azeri influence does make Bulgarian Turkish more similar to the Azeri language than to Turkey’s Turkish.


May 2017