I never intended to write a book. Don’t think for a moment that I mean that as a nonchalant dismissal of the fact, a way of hiding behind my own apathy if the book itself turns out to be a bust. The original idea was actually far more ambitious - an idiot’s guide to everything, a sort of humorous Wikipedia but in print, covering subjects as broad as European politics, terminal illnesses and crabs, although the more cynical may argue that those three are interchangeable.
Somewhere along the road, An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery began to take shape. Years of living in Mostar, Belgrade, Ljubljana and then Belgrade again had taken their toll, and any sort of anti-Slavic sentiment had been beaten out of me by what I saw, what I felt, and what I knew.
Yes, anti-Slavic sentiment. Slavophobia isn’t a new thing, and if you find yourself thinking it is a thing of the past, then put that thought to bed, right away. Social media has taken the “Slavs as drunken idiots” meme and fed it a diet of steroids and plain chicken breasts. The stereotyping isn’t only emanating from the fingers of internet warriors either - in 2016, the British Minister of State for Disabled People, Work and Health referred to the people of the Balkans as “criminals” and “terrorists,” in an eventually successful attempt to convince the British public to run screaming from the European Union. It doesn’t take a whole heap of reading to realize that the Slavs have given the world a whole lot more than they’ve received in return, however, so a little bit of respect (at least) is due.
And that is exactly what An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery is. Sure, the title may suggest differently, but this soon-to-be-published tome is essentially a love letter to the Slavic people of Europe. It is a metaphorical doffing of the cap to the scientists, the revolutionaries, the poets, the athletes, the liberators, the alcoholic swimmers and the rest, men and women who did their bit to drag humanity on just a little further.
Over the next couple of months, I’ll be focusing on particular fields of interest within the Slavic sphere, in an attempt to take the microscope of coverage and burn a hole through those negative stereotypes hinted at above. It won’t be too hard. There is a whole heap of positivity lurking in the pages of history, after all.
As a Welshman, it is arguably only language the truly differentiates the Welsh from the English in 2017. This is depressing enough, but the ease of creating materials and spreading education in the 21st century means that the language is safe, for now. Those Welsh revivalists have technology and popular support on their side.
Men such as Vuk Karadžić and Krste Misirkov weren’t quite as lucky. Sure, Vuk had the enthusiasm of the people on their side, but what use is that in the face of 19th century repression or 18th century confusion? Keeping a language alive is one thing, but arguing its existence in the first place is a whole different kettle of fish.
Things get especially confusing when you have to tip-toe an ethnic line, in order to avoid persecution from more powerful nations that deny your very existence. The aforementioned Mr. Misirkov found himself in this position in the early 20th century, as a Macedonian (sorry Greece, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonian, my bad) born in Greece, but growing up in Bulgarian society.
In 1903, Misirkov wrote a little book called Za makedonckite raboti, or “On Macedonian Matters” to the English audience. The book vehemently argued the existence of a separate Macedonian language, based on the dialect found in Bitola and Prilep, before going on to talk of the establishment of an autonomous Macedonia within the Ottoman Empire. Risky stuff, I’m sure you’ll understand.
Persecution was inevitable, and the backlash was so strong that Krste fled to Russia. He almost immediately took on a more pro-Bulgarian stance, in an attempt to save his hide, renouncing the ideas of his book and promoting Bulgarian culture. The IMRO (naughty boys, to say the least) had him marked for assassination. Krste eventually referred to himself as a Macedonian Bulgarian, but nobody was buying it.
Vuk Karadžić could be considered a little lucky in comparison, as lucky as someone with a wooden leg from a young age can be, but then again, his language battle was on behalf of the people, and against the power of God. It was Karadžić who moved the Serbian language away from the archaic Slaveno-Serbian used by the Orthodox Church, and replaced it with the vernacular of the people, the simplistic “see food, eat food” way of speaking that the Serbs used then and still do today.
Vuk did this by publishing collections of Serbian folk songs and poetry that he had gathered on his travels around the Serbian lands, taking the stories and tales told around campfires (presumably) and jotting them down in the words of the people, as opposed to the isolating tongue of the Church. Karadžić founded modern Serbian literary consciousness in the process. He also published the first Serbian grammar and a dictionary along the way.
It didn’t make him rich, however, and Vuk Karadžić lived his life in miserable poverty before dying in Vienna aged 76. His language was adopted by the government four years after his death, but this meant little to the long-rotting corpse of Vuk Karadžić. By having the temerity to challenge the linguistic hegemony of the Church and bring the Serbian language to the people, Vuk received poverty and an amputated leg.
It could have been worse. The 15th century Czech priest, Jan Hus, insisted on preaching in Czech as opposed to Latin, and he was burnt at the stake for his troubles. Sure, his main offence was criticizing the corruption of the Catholic Church, but speaking to the people in words they understood didn’t help. Throughout history, the Slavic people have been forced to go to great lengths to prove their existence, and the travails of Misirkov, Karadžić, Hus and others were not in vain.
I’ll be back next month to take a look at the various women’s rights activists of Slavic history, including a chain-smoking Bulgarian and a whole lot more. In the meantime, head to the lengthy link in my bio for more information and to pre-order An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery, which is available to the world from June 12.