Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria
I hate to rain on anyone's parade, but let's get off this thing about poor, picked on Ukraine standing up for freedom against the big, evil Russians.
Would you feel sympathy if poor, picked on Texas decided they wanted to secede? Maybe that might not be an entirely bad idea, given the reprehensible politics of the place. But still we'd probably object.
My best insight into Ukraine a couple or so years back came when I stood in front of the National Library in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. I was fascinated by the statue in front of two brothers, Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, credited with inventing the Cyrillic alphabet which is used not only in Bulgaria but in Russia and a lot of other places.
The Cyrillic alphabet, based on the Greek alphabet (Greece is a neighbor of Bulgaria), was created as a way to spread Orthodox Christianity in the eighth century. So little Bulgaria gave Eastern Europe the basis of the Slavic language.
Not far away from the library is Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, named after the great saint of the Orthodox Church who defended Mother Russia from the Germanic invaders in the 13th century.
There are many links between little Bulgaria and Mother Russia. The pivotal point of Bulgarian history was its 500 year war to drive the Turks from their land. The headquarters of the Bulgarian liberation movement was high in the mountains at Ryla Monastery, whose grounds date from the third century. In the 19th century, it was the Russians who fought with the Bulgarians and drove them from their land. But for Russia, it might have been another 500 years of the intensely brutal Turkish rule, known in Bulgaria as the "Turkish Yoke."
Inside the Sephardic Temple in Sofia
The links between little Bulgaria and much bigger Russia are many. A small country, Bulgaria was the first European country -- it became a nation sometime in the sixth century. Unlike the Ukraine, Bulgaria was never a part of the Russian Soviet Union, although it certainly became part of the Soviet bloc after World War II.
There was another great influence on the Bulgarians. Germany installed a German king and created a Bulgarian throne in the 1880s. So Bulgaria has not only enjoyed Russian influence, there's the German influence as well.
After communism fell in the late eighties, people didn't just study Russian as a second language -- some studied German.
Nonetheless, its history was intertwined with Russia for hundreds of years. It was the German king who was ordered to Berlin for a conference with Hitler, who insisted he send Germany his Jews. The king refused, and died of a "heart attack" on the plane taking him back to Bulgaria. The head of the Bulgarian parliament, as well as the head of the Bulgarian Church, had stood in front of trains carrying their Jews to Germany. Bulgaria and Denmark were the only European countries that refused to help the Nazis in committing genocide against the Jews, unlike most other eastern countries -- including in particular the Ukraine.
Some of my family came from the Ukraine, in an area that was sometimes part of Russia and sometimes part of Poland. I am keenly aware that the Ukrainian nationalists had a sordid history of cooperating with the Nazis during World War II. My mother's very name came from the Crimean town of Yalta.
Inside an Orthodox church in Bulgaria
Americans tend not to understand geopolitics. Many had no idea what was behind the war in Bosnia cooked up by Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Germany has always been anxious to control the territory of the former Yugoslavia, both as a market and as a bulwark against Russia. That's why the Germans weren't sorry that Yugoslavia was breaking up, because today they rule Europe by business and money, not armies.
But sometimes armies are still needed.
The results of a genocide by the Turks against a Bulgarian town in which 10,000 people died.
While Americans don't understand this, many Europeans do. In Greece, they remember the German occupation, and the bankers of the European Union, who are run by Germans, are not beloved in that ancient cradle of democracy.
Let me explain this by telling the story of a friend I had, a musical composer of some note, who was a Sephardic Jew from Belgrade. He took the side of the Serbians over the Bosnians -- why, because his own family survived World War II because simple Serbian peasants hid them in their houses.
Now none of this is to suggest Putin is a fine fellow. He is most obviously not. But his desire to get the Crimea into the Russian sphere of influence makes absolute sense, not only because the Russian Navy's only warm water port is in the Crimea, but because it has always been part of Russia. And for that matter, so was Ukraine. Alexander Nevsky had the title of "Prince of Kiev."
From my perspective, it's hard for me to whip up any great enthusiasm for the Ukrainian nationalists. So sorry, but I think I see a great gray cloud coming in loaded with rain. Yep, I need to rain on your parade.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of a number of books on politics, classical music, literature and various things, all available on Amazon's Kindle Store.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Poland uses the Cyrillic alphabet, and that a Bulgarian throne was created as late as World War I. The text has been updated to correct this.
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