Bulgaria’s Forbidden Names

For almost all of the 20th century, Bulgaria’s Muslims have been victims of state sponsored discrimination, deportations and attempts to wipe out their cultural existence. To date, this remains one of the well hidden chapters in Bulgarian history. An exhibition by Bulgarian artist Vera Hadzhiyska in London tries to break up the silence.

Not even a trace of the cultural existence of Bulgaria’s sizeable Muslim minority was to have been left, had it been according the plans of the country’s Stalinist regime, by then in its death throes.

They were to change their names, the country’s leader Todor Christov Živkov proclaimed as late as 1984.

This was to be part of a Bulgarian awakening – a policy clearly recognizable as a nationalist turn of a regime officially comitted to Communism and thus Internationalism.

Close relatives of Vera Hadzhiyska were forced to choose Slavic names for themselves.

300.000 members of Bulgaria’s Muslim community fled to Turkey. According to other sources, they were deported.

A Whiff of China

One feels eerily reminded of the goings on in China, where hundreds of thousands of Uighurs are reported to be held in what can only be called concentration camps.

Both cases, it should be added, are not typical of Stalinist regimes.

Typically, Stalinist regimes targeted clergy and religious organizational structures to the same degree without singleing out any particular religion or its members.

Normal members were largely left alone, while religious practice was openly discouraged.

Socialist Yugoslavia, by contrast, chose the path of secularism, practicing a mildly repressive form of freedom of religion.

The campaign starting in 1984 was to be the last wave of oppression against the country’s greatest religious minority, today about 1 million people strong.

The Silence Endures

Ever since Bulgarian independence, the group had to endure discrimination, oppression and persecution, no matter what the official ideology of the regime at the time was.

They were defamed as unwelcome remnants of Ottoman rule – vaguely supported but not justified by the fact that the majority of Muslims in the country identify as Turkish by ethnicity.

Nevertheless, around a third or so of the country’s Muslim population are ethnic Bulgarians or Roma.

After the fall of Stalinism, the oppression ended. At least officially.

While discrimination against Muslims appears to have been on the rise for at least a decade or so, officially the groups now enjoys religious freedom like everyone else.

Yet, just like with the Bulgarian gulag system, little has been done to address or to even research the injustices of the 20th century.

There is very little scholarly work, and in general, the plight of Muslim Bulgarians is given little attention.

Bulgarian artist Vera Hadzhiyska is trying to change that.

Vera Hadzhiyska

On Sept 4th, she will open her solo exhibition „With The Name of A Flower“ in London.

This is part of long standing project dealing with the forced name changes and the effects that can still be felt today.

“My work questions how these historical events have affected the cultural, religious and national identity of the people who experienced them and their descendants .I am interested in how memories have been preserved or purposefully omitted from family narratives, creating fractured family histories and resulting in a shift of identity and sense of belonging of the younger generation”, Vera writes in the press release for the exhibition.

The show will feature a multichannel sound installation as well as Vera’s photographic work. (She holds a degree in Photography at the University of Portsmouth, which also supports this exhibition.)

Alongside, Vera will run workshops with special guests Kye Wilson, Natasha Caruana and Revolv Collective to support and inspire emerging artists. The workshops are free of chargebut bookable in advance.

„With The Name of A Flower“ opens at the Four Corners Gallery, 121 Roman Road, London, E2 0QN on Sept 4th at 11:00 AM, with a preview starting the day before at 6 PM.

For more info check out Vera’s website verahadzhiyska.com.

All photos: (c) Vera Hadzhiyska.

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