Dr. Mila Maeva is an ethnologist from Sofia University. She has specialised in Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Norway. Her main interests focus on migration, culture and self-identification in minority groups – primarily the Muslim minority in Bulgaria. Her first book “The Bulgarian Turks” was published in 2006 and is dedicated to the migration from Bulgaria to Turkey in 1989 due to the so-called ‘Revival Process’.
Why did you decide to write a book about Bulgarian migration to the UK? Talk more about how the idea became a reality.
Like with most of my research, the topic finds me. My brother – Ivo Maev – was the first editor of the Bulgarian emigrant newspaper ‘Budilnik’. During his time as editor I was involved with contributing to the newspaper, having a column on Bulgarian festivities. The connection with immigration from Bulgaria from the beginning of the 21st century was the starting point of my research on the topic. During that period, Bulgarian immigration was still relatively small in number, whereas its organisation – in a process of coming to life. The book presents the first complete and in-depth analysis of Bulgarian emigration to England from the Bulgarian Revival to present day. My research is based on British archives and my own field work collected in the period between 2007 and 2015 in places like Manchester, Birmingham, Rochester, and London, amongst others. I analyse changes the in ways borders are crosses, the motifs, and the socio-economic specificities of Bulgarian immigrants in England in the period after 1989 to 2015. I focus on the Bulgarian institutions from the prism of subgroups created by the emigrants. The book also presents the changes in religious views when in the process of arriving to a new country. It analyses language as a key emigration component in view of starting a new life in a new society, as well as the changes in every day life and festive culture. My key aim is to present the view point of the emigrants in England – why and how they migrate, what their reflections are on the topic of migration, how they learn a new language and create a new home, how they integrate into British society, what they change in their own culture and traditions, how they feel in Britain, and understanding how and why they create their subgroups and zones of comfort.
Can you share an interesting story from the process of writing the book?
Every piece of research has its own interesting story. My story connected to the writing of this book is concerned with the difficulty I experienced when trying to infiltrate Bulgarian immigrant groups in England. Despite knowing a few Bulgarians, I wanted to produce much more expansive research. This approach connected me with different highly qualified immigrants. Interviews with less qualified and less educated Bulgarians created a number of problems. I encountered the fear of the immigrant from his fellow countrymen, as they saw in me not a researcher, but a competitor, who’s after their jobs. Other striking stories include the emotional traumas of migration. Quite often, my interviews showed that many of the stories of migrating to England were connected primarily with emotional difficulties, as opposed to social and cultural obstacles – an unexplored avenue in this field of research.
What is the most important lesson you’ve taken out from writing the book?
In writing this book I realised how multi-faceted Bulgarian immigration in the United Kingdom is. My initial desire was to write about as many immigrants as possible, from different countries. However, in the end I decided to limit my research exclusively to the Bulgarians living in England. I realised that despite my initially held beliefs that immigration is a product of economic motifs, in the course of the research, it became obvious that people come with different reasons – searching for security, personal growth, or plainly, because their friends and families are leaving.
The book is available online in Bulgarian from the Paradigma Publishers website.
Dimitar Bechev is currently a research fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has extensive experience in the world of policy and is affiliated with the Atlantic Council think-tank in Washington, D.C. In 2015, Dimitar Bechev became the founding director of the European Policy Institute, a small but dynamic outfit based in Sofia, Bulgaria. His area of expertise cover EU external relations, especially enlargement and neighbourhood policy, the politics of Turkey and the Balkans, and Russian foreign policy. Prior to the University of North Carolina, Bechev held fellowships at Harvard’s Center for European Studies and the London School of Economics. Having authored or edited several books and articles in academic journals, he also publishes on current affairs in outlets such as the American Interest, Al Jazeera Online, Foreign Policy, openDemocracy and others. In 2010-14, he headed the Sofia Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Prior to that Dimitar Bechev taught International Relations at Oxford where he obtained his D.Phil. in 2005.
Dimitar Bechev is in conversation with the Executive Editor of SLOVO Journal, Borimir Totev, about his latest book ‘Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe’ published by Yale University Press.
Why did you initially decided to enter academia within this particular field? Was there a turning point or a moment of clarity?
I have always been fascinated with international politics and knew I would pursue a graduate degree. I arrived to Oxford in 2000, at a moment the EU, as well as Europe as a whole were undergoing dramatic changes. Southeast Europe was at the forefront as former Yugoslavia, following a decade of wars, and Turkey embarked on the path of membership, and Bulgaria and Romania entered accession negotiations with the EU. Such momentous events provided the inspiration for my D.Phil thesis and ultimately the book I published in 2011, Constructing South East Europe (Palgrave), which explores the international relations of the region. Though there are IR scholars who stay in the academic ivory tower, that has not been my case.
Where do you position of social sciences within wider society?
I have not pursued a typical academic career but have been moving back and forth between universities and think-tanks, which does have its disadvantages but also helps one get a better perspective on world affairs. Academic training provides the means to think a rigorous manner. There are far too many pundits and current affairs analysts who juggle terms and conceptual shortcuts uncritically. Or who lack historical depth to see through the latest hype. Equally, academic researchers are better off if they keep up-to-date with global political events which, admittedly, develop at breakneck speed and think more clearly about what their particular project means for those outside the university circuit. Navel-gazing is not what social science should be about.
How does ‘Rival Power’, as a Russia focused project, differ to your previous book publications?
Rival Power is an attempt to bridge the divide between scholarship and current affairs writing. It looks at Russia’s growing footprint in Southeast Europe – a region comprising the post-communist Balkans, Greece, Cyprus, and even Turkey, heir to the Ottoman Empire, which once dominated the area. I argue that Russia has no strategic ambitions nor is it driven by the rich historical legacies which link it to the Balkans. It simply exploits opportunities to poke a finger into the eye of the West, at a moment when relations with the US and EU are at their lowest point thanks to the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. Yet, contrary to other authors, I put a great deal on emphasis on local players too (governments, individual leaders, business lobbies, political parties etc.). Rather than being mere pawns or proxies of Moscow, they often leverage their connection to the Russians to advance their own, often parochial interests. It is a two-way street. And more than once, Russia has suffered setbacks – a point that many writing about the standoff with the West and Putin’s talents as a foreign policy chess master often fail to appreciate. Readers can also learn much about the twists and turns in the ambiguous relationship between Russia and Turkey, a marriage of convenience, as I call it. My hope is to draw in both readers following Southeast Europe, who may or may not know much about Russia beyond the usual stereotypes, and those interested in the broader subject of Russian foreign policy and Moscow’s influence beyond the confines of the former Soviet Union.
The book is available on Amazon or from Yale University Press’ website. Excerpts will be published by The American Interest.
Agne Dovydaityte (A.D.) and Alexander Belinski (A.B.) in conversation with the Executive Editor of SLOVO Journal, Borimir Totev, about the passion for cinema, the Lithuanian country side, an old diary, and their first documentary film project entitled “The Sun Sets in the East”.
How did you end up on the path towards documentary film making? Did you encounter a turning point or a moment of clarity?
I came to London in 2014 to study Journalism, while working as a bartender in one of Angela Hartnett’s restaurants on the side. I wanted to be a journalist since I was five years old, and I’ve always envisioned myself to be involved in print or online media, with a focus on Eastern European culture and politics. However, as someone who has high expectations, I found Journalism studies rather boring and disappointing. I met Alex at university and consequently was introduced to avant-garde cinema, cinematography, and film production. I also began practising Russian with him. Initially we collaborated on video projects for university, then for the hospitality industry, also filming some events and conferences. We felt rather comfortable working with each other – him as a camera person and editor, and me as a producer.
I was born in Ukraine and lived in Germany for a short while, before moving to the United Kingdom. After finishing secondary school, uncertain as to whether I was more interested in politics or communication, I decided to study Journalism at university, where I met Agne. I have been interested in film for a long time. What started out as regular watching of films gradually turned into a passion, perhaps even an obsession with what cinema as a concept had to offer. Inevitably I found myself at a point where things I watched rarely satisfied me anymore, and I therefore developed a desire to create, based on all that I had learned along the way. I didn’t necessarily pick documentary cinema as the format to pursue, and I am very much open to narrative cinema as well, however this is what I’m currently doing. Having said that, I believe the highest form of cinema is a kind of hybrid of documentary and narrative formats.
On one of your trips back to Lithuania you stumbled across an exciting discovery. Tell us more about what inspired “The Sun Sets in the East”?
When I discovered my grandfather’s diary and mentioned it to Alex, we came to a natural realisation that it was a valuable document, telling of moral values and a pastoral lifestyle that is all but forgotten in the ‘developed’ world. We also realised that it would make for an interesting documentary. The diary of my grandfather described the slow and simple life of a peasant in 1984 Soviet Lithuania, in a very delicate and touching manner. Contrary to what some might expect, it is not an emotional diary, he wasn’t a person who experienced loads of suffering, he wasn’t deported, he did not get lost in the stream of history. It is a diary of the everyday life of a peasant, who wakes up in the morning and goes to weed furrows or cut trees in the park. Politics barely reaches him, and he allows himself to seek God, also in a very non-emotional way – simply living by the rules, following church orders, and being a good person. My grandfather, Jonas, writes in a very natural way, non-professionally, rather objectively, makes many mistakes, and uses old Lithuanian, sometimes Russian slang too. He was a very religious person, and went to church a few times a week, noted how many people attended the service, as well as how many pupils and teachers showed up. In Soviet Lithuania, teachers and state workers were not allowed to attend mass. At one point Jonas writes: “Kurtimaitis, a school teacher was buried with the Church, therefore none of the school staff attended. The priest said that other believers have to fill up this gap and pray to God for everyone.” Modern day Lithuania has unfortunately become the leading European country in suicide rates, especially within rural communities. Life there is slow and not everyone can handle this sort of pace. For this reason we believe that now is an appropriate time for a film like ours. Although the diary itself appears to be of a very religious nature, this does not necessarily set the tone for the film.
Where exactly are you in the process of making the film right now and what can we expect to see as a finished product?
At the moment we are alternating between pre-production and principal photography. The film is as planned out as can be for a haphazard project of this nature. It is partially funded, and we hope to close the gap soon with a crowdfunding campaign. Recently, we were in Lithuania for a week, in order to shoot the summer segment of the diary, with the help of friends and relatives acting as chauffeurs and guides. This segment is now being edited, so in a way we are also stepping a little into post-production territory too.
I am mostly responsible for the organisational part of the film – PR, social media, human resources, timing, and planning. We both have a clear vision of how the film is going to look, and we’ve already started shooting it. The visuals mostly show countryside Lithuania, lone villages and houses, fields of barley and hay, with industrial buildings and constructions disturbing this peaceful scenery. Where before there used to be allotments, now there are factories, the landscape is divided by electricity pylons and giant industrial chimneys. These visuals are combined with a voiceover of the diary. Without spoiling too much, we can say that this film will be straightforward, and non-judgemental, with a focus on aesthetics. It simply showcases how the life of a regular Lithuanian peasant looked like, and the landscape in which it unfolded. This is not a film about Lithuania. This is a film about a man at a certain period of history where nothing was certain, apart from one’s faith and nature. Most of what is told by him and shown by us is applicable everywhere and always.
Where would you position documentary film within wider society, how much power does the medium of film generally posses, is it a means to an end?
Documentary film occupies a kind of middle ground between regular mainstream cinema, and more esoteric ‘art house’ cinema. Documentary cinema is not without its own mainstream entrapments, and the ratio of truly unique and challenging documentaries is probably around the same as regular narrative cinema and ‘art house’ cinema. In what I would consider to be the upper echelons of cinema as an art form, there is a great deal of overlap between documentary and narrative cinema, to the extent that one may become indistinguishable from the other. Film is a tremendously powerful medium, both politically and financially. Precisely this power is what has hampered the progress of cinema as an art form. Almost immediately after its inception, cinema was exploited around the world – for financial gain in the West, and for propaganda in the East. Eventually the two systems collided, and much of world cinema became an ugly amalgamation of both models. It’s notorious effectiveness is an unfortunate testament of its ability to have an effect on people. In that regard, in a cynical manner, it is indeed a means to an end. But it shouldn’t be. ‘Real’ cinema, that is, as an art form, is a means unto itself. However, whether that stage will ever be reached universally – I cannot say.
Those interested in the “The Sun Sets in the East”, willing to give advice, financial support, or ask further questions can stay updated via the film’s official Instagram account @eastern.sunset