Slavophilism, Slavic idea and Russian emigrant intellectuals in Bulgaria in the 20s and 30s of the 20th century

Written by Радостин Русев

The prevailing part of the Russian immigrant intelligentsia in Bulgaria in the 1920s and 1930s was characterized by their strongly expressed Slavophile spirit, the increased concern for the fate of the Slavic idea, and a distinctive Slavic consciousness.


All-Slavic consciousness was intrinsic to the Russians, but the emigrant had additional grounds for his Slavic attachment. Being far from home, he sought to come into contact with what was closest to him and his kinship. Part of the sources and roots of Russian life have been related to Bulgaria, and one of the goals of Russian Slavophilism was precisely to direct Russian life back to them.

Slavophilism and the idea of Slavic unity were not the product and the patent of emigrant social thought. The phenomenon of Slavophilism has been known to Russian society and culture and has had its followers since the 19th century, when it was asserted as an original ideological flow in the article by Russian philosopher A. S. Khomyakov (1804–1860) О старом и новом [About the old and the new] in 1839 (Хомяков 1861) and the response it generated on the part of I. V. Kireevsky (1806–1856) (Киреевский 1861).

The Slavophile goals and aspirations were determined by the understanding that it were precisely the Slavs and the Slavic culture that were called upon to renew the culture of Europe, but, unfortunately, the Slavic peoples were not united – not so much politically, but culturally. In this regard, the programme of neo-Slavism, elaborated at the Slavic Congress in Sofia in 1910, envisaged a gradual political rapprochement between the Slavic countries mainly through cooperation in the field of culture. The dispersion of the Russian emigrant intelligentsia into the Slavic lands after the October Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent Civil War in Russia, and the resulting new contacts and processes of interpenetration between Slavic cultures became an additional catalyst for the idea of Slavic unification.

However, there was also a slight difference in the concept of Slavophilism – in its supporters in pre-revolutionary Russia unlike those who ended up emigrating after the October Revolution of 1917. More precisely, the priorities embedded in the value system and in the goals of the Slavic idea differed. In pre-revolutionary Russia, the definition of Slavophile was mainly associated with the opposition to Western Europe, with the aspiration and struggle for nationality, and with the strong belief in Russia’s great, special mission. These points, of course, were contained in some theories of Russian emigrant thought. This was especially true of Eurasianism, which, via the Russian emigrants to Bulgaria, resuscitated an older idea, founded at the end of the 19th century by historian Vladimir Lamanski (1833–1914) (Ламанский 1892). But most of the Russian emigrants in Bulgaria, conceived the term Slavophilism as implying characteristics such as common origin and similarity of languages, belonging (along with the Bulgarians) to the same Orthodox faith, etc.

At the beginning, the preparation of the mutual rapprochement and cultural acquaintance between the Bulgarian and Russian people was entrusted to the Russo-Bulgarian Friendship Society, established on March 6, 1922. It was ambiguously accepted in immigrant communities. Some qualified the society (Маринин 1923) as a ‘shady enterprise’ and its founders as ‘scammers’. There were doubts that their intentions were underlain by another purpose – financial benefits from membership fees and distribution of printed media. It was maintained that the editions of the society relied on the naivete of the subscribers – that they were full of dithyrambs about the Bulgarians, that they ‘grossly and cynically destroy the historical prisms’, that they ‘cause harm’ to the whole Russian emigration and the cause of Slavs. The ‘primitive image’ depicting Russia and Bulgaria in national costumes, with intertwined hands holding the flag of the other country, was considered a ‘mockery of the sincere feeling of the Bulgarian people’. Confrontation of this kind among Russian emigrants was not an isolated phenomenon – the reader of Russian emigrant periodicals could often come across it.

However, despite the controversy, the society in question briefly gathered 650 members from all over Bulgaria around the idea, held more than 20 lectures in different cities and produced several printed publications, among them the collection Русские в Болгарии [Russians in Bulgaria], the brochures of journalist Boris Ivinski (1881–1943 ) Кто виноват в войне России с Болгарией [Who is to blame for Russia’s war with Bulgaria], Кто виноват в развале России (Русская интеллигенция перед судом совершившихся событий) [Who is to blame for the collapse of Russia (the Russian intelligentsia standing before the court of events)], etc. Obstacles to the activities of the society arose during the term of office of A. Stamboliyski’s government, when (especially after May 1922) Russian emigrants were persecuted. Just days after the next Bulgarian government, which came to power on June 9, 1923, equalized the rights of Russian emigrants with those of Bulgarian citizens, the idea of preparing for cultural, economic and political rapprochement with Bulgaria was brought to light again – on the opening page of the first issue of the start-up emigrant newspaper Russkoe echo (July 12, 1923). An introductory editorial entitled One of the tasks of Russian emigration stated that all the misfortunes in recent years, for Russia and Bulgaria alike, stemmed from the fact that the Slavs were still not united. According to the newspaper’s publishers, the political unification of the Slavs should be preceded by a cultural one. Russian emigrants saw their residence in the Slavic lands as an opportunity for mutual awareness of the brotherly peoples’ lifestyle, customs and cultures.

The strongly expressed Slavophile spirit as a general tendency for the Russian emigrant diaspora in Bulgaria also led to the strengthening and activation of the all-Slavic consciousness, to the awakening of the idea of Slavic unity among the Bulgarian intelligentsia, and to its expansion and popularization among Bulgarian Slavophiles. The latter perceived the cultural unity of Slavs, the rapprochement of the Slavs as peoples via mutual acquaintance with the phenomena of their spiritual life, primarily as a factor in the creation of relationships that help to resolve controversial Slavic political issues.

One of the main conductors of the Slavic idea was the Slavic Society in Bulgaria. Strange as it may seem, this was the first organization, not a Russian one, to deal with the reception and accommodation of refugees, with meeting the initial needs of Russian emigrants, thus in fact saddling itself with the functions of both the Russian diplomatic mission and a charity centre. The printed editions of the society (Slavyanski glas, Slavyanski kalendar, Slavyanska biblioteka), which were the only editions in the Slavic world at that time of a purely Slavic content, attracted quite a few Russian scholars, writers, publicists and public figures for collaborators: V. Zavyalov, N. Kondakov, M. Popruzhenko, A. Agura et al., published their studies on issues affecting Slavic unification, cultural relations and relations between Russia and Bulgaria in Slavyanski glas; the first booklet of Slavyanska biblioteka (1921) contained the study of M. Popruzhenko, Към въпроса за ролята на славянството в световната история [On the question of the role of Slavs in world history], to mention but a few.

In addition to the Slavic Society, other establishments and institutions had similar goals, such as Sofia Free University (Balkan Middle East Institute in Sofia). In 1922, a Literary and Artistic Circle for the Unity of the Slavic Youth was set up, aiming to bring young people from the Slavic countries closer on a cultural ground through literature, art, scientific, philosophical and religious thought. In a short time the circle attracted about 200 participants in its weekly meetings, and opened branches in Dupnitsa, Shumen, and Plovdiv, even in Leipzig and in America. Since early 1924, the so-called Slavic meetings on the idea of the Slavic Society in Bulgaria started, with the main actors (lecturers and rapporteurs) being predominantly Russian emigrants, usually writers (A. M. Fedorov, V. Lensky, V. Nemirovich-Danchenko, P. Bitsilli).

Judging by a number of publications in the Russian emigrant press in Bulgaria, the idea of a Slavic unification has engaged the attention of Russian emigrants too seriously. The Rus newspaper (1922–1928), which published a series of articles related to Slavs and Slavic unification, strongly backed the project of Benyu Tsonev (1863–1926) for the introduction of a common Slavic language (Цонев 1922). From the point of view of a ‘cool head’ and not an ‘ardent Slavophile’, the Bulgarian linguist made a proposal, behind which there was a purely practical purpose – the invention of a common written and spoken means of mutual understanding between all Slavs. Applying it only in commercial, scientific and friendly inter-Slavic relations would eliminate the possibility that individual Slavic languages will be disregarded. After tracing how the problem had evolved theoretically, B. Tsonev dismissed the option of an artificial or dead language. Similar attempts have already been made – since the 19th century, when Croatian linguist Yuri Krizanic (ca 1618–1683) created a grammar in such a language as a mix between Russian and Croatian. The proposal of the Bulgarian linguist was that the Russian language, after a partial spelling reform, should serve as a natural basis for the future language.

M. Samborsky (alias of Mikhail Popruzhenko) in his article Славянство и Европа [Slavs and Europe] (No. 1, July 5, 1922) defined Slavism as ‘an organism proven to mankind’ that possessed a powerful spiritual power and a vast supply of creativity, but concluded that the Slavic idea could rely on prospective development, given that the fate of the Slavic community was decided by Europe. As he claimed, the possibility of constituting a new, strong, political and cultural union made the great European powers tailor combinations in order to divert the Slavs through mutual discord from the idea of merging into a whole, united by the consciousness of the unity of their cultural, economic and state interests. The Slavic peoples themselves suffered first and foremost because of their lack of awareness of the need for close cultural and economic communication, because of the misunderstanding that the interests of one Slavic people were inextricably linked to the interests of another, that they have never relied enough on blood closeness which required them to know each other well, to understand each other’s interests as their own. For these reasons, they have been easily amenable to the sentiments and incitements of those who wished to gain from the mutual discord among Slavs.

More than a decade later, in another emigrant newspaper, also bearing the name Rus (1934–1936), but without any connection with the eponymous one that preceded it, in an article Славянские перспективы [Slavic Perspectives] (No 23, 7 October), F. Danilov shared similar views. Therein the dissension in the Slavic community was also associated not so much with insurmountable internal contradictions, but with the artificial obstacles created from the outside, with the successful attempts of the Slavic opponents to thwart the Slavic idea of unification, such as the war (1914–1917) declared by Russia for the protection of the Serbian Slavs, which could have had another outcome if Germany had not attracted Bulgaria on her side, and with the poor condition that post-revolutionary Russia had been brought to.

The interest in the Slavic theme was also maintained in the articles by military writer and journalist N. Surin. The reason for Slavyanskiy koridor [Slavic corridor] (No 20, September 6, 1922) was the fate of Austria, the maneuvers foreseen by the Little Entente in case its independent existence was not preserved, but in fact the gaze was fixed on the near future of the Slavs and the search for ‘more solid and reliable ways’ for their ‘joining altogether and uniting’ without the involvement of ‘smart European architects’ pondering over different ‘corridor systems’. In Slavyanstvo i vostok [Slavs and the East] (No 32, 4 October 1922), evident was the author’s strong dissatisfaction with the way the Eastern question was resolved – far from the spirit that Russia has been following over the centuries from the point of view of her and all-Slavic interests. The great European countries discussed it with Turkey, and the Slavs have remained on the sidelines – because of the absence of a powerful national Russia, the Slavs did not exist as a single great power and could not voice their opinion on such a vital issue. What was more, each Slavic country individually raised its claims, defending its own, small interests on its own. Soviet Russia most urgently supported Kemal Pasha’s demands for the restoration of European Turkey with the capital Istanbul. The idea of Ancient Russia for the expulsion of the Turks from Europe and the conquest of Constantinople and the Straits, the commissioners replaced with another plan: to own and use the Straits based on allied and friendly relations with Turkey, supporting her external power. Closely interested in the Straits were the Balkan Slavs, and Serbia immediately raised its claims against the return of the Turks to Europe, seeing in this danger both from Turkey herself and from a possible agreement between Turkey and Bulgaria. Romania saw the same danger for herself. Czechoslovakia, as an ally of Yugoslavia, supported her position, but since she was not directly concerned, she was not in the mood for more decisive action. Poland sympathized with Bulgaria, but did not take part in resolving the Eastern question and her feelings could only be platonic. The author of the article believed that the Bulgarian aspirations in any case were approaching their partial realization. The Bulgarian proposal for the autonomy of Thrace was met with sympathy by the English and Italian press as a reasonable argument for the elaboration of the future political situation in this area. But even the passage of Thrace under Turkish rule under the control of the League of Nations would be a ‘big plus in the lives of the Thracian population.’ The author was convinced that whatever rule was established for Eastern and Western Thrace, between them and in the worst case, there will be a corridor outlet for Bulgaria to the Aegean Sea. In conclusion, the article regretted that at a crucial historical moment, the Slavs again found themselves separated, that they did not exist as a power, that they were torn apart internally by strife, disagreement, and mutual mistrust.

In the motives shared by the proponents of Slavic unity among Russian emigration, there were hardly many things in common with the familiar pre-revolutionary Russian policy of all-Slavic centralism, which intertwined with the Slavic idea itself, and there was hardly anything left of the traditional pre-revolutionary nature of Russian Slavophilism as an opposition to Western Europe, as a conviction in Russia’s great, special, unifying mission. These motives were of a completely different nature. Rather, they were underlain by a deep sense of real closeness between the Slavic peoples. They were more emotional and even naïve to a certain extent. The idea of uniting the Slavs shared by the Russian emigrants also stemmed from their not so long-held hopes and expectations for the creation of a significant political power of some kind with which the Great Powers could be accommodated and which would extend a helping hand to Russia in order to save her from Bolshevism and bring her back to life. This expectation was quite evident from their reaction to the visit of Yugoslav King Alexander I Karadjordjevic (1888–1934), a unifier of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, to Sofia (27–30 September 1934) and his meeting with the Bulgarian Tsar Boris III (1894–1943) which was perceived as a promise of a possible recent Slavic unification. Within a week, however, Alexander I was assassinated, and in this tragic event there was probably something symbolic for Russian emigrants: it seemed to be happening to show the naivety and unsoundness of their hopes and projects related to the Slavic idea, an otherwise alluring, but proven utopian idea.


  • Киреевский 1861: Киреевский И. Полное собрание сочинений: В 2 т. Т. 1. Москва, 1861, 188-200.
  • Крижанич 1859: Крижанич Ю. Граматично исказанје об Руском језику. Москва, 1859.
  • Ламанский 1892: Ламанский, Вл. Три мира азиатско-европейского материка. – Славянское обозрение, 1-4, 1892.
  • Маринин 1923: Маринин, К. Акробаты благотворительности. Правда о „Русско-болгарской Дружбе”. – Русь, 123, 20 июля 1923.=
  • Хомяков 1861: Хомяков, А. Полное собрание сочинений: В 4 т. Т. 1. Москва, 1861, 359-377.
  • Цонев 1922: Цонев, Б. Обще-славянский язык. – Русь, 8, 21 июля 1922.


SESDiva ERA.Net RUS Plus Call 2017 – S&T

SESDiva. Project № 156

SESDiva aims at creating a virtual museum of written culture in relation to the social, religious, cultural, and ideological environment and relations between the South and East Slavs throughout the centuries from the 11th to the beginning of the 20th century.

Duration: 2018-2020
Program: ERA.Net RUS Plus Call 2017 ‐ S&T Projects