Sincronía Summer 2009

Anatomy of the Bulgarian Soul: Yordan Yovkov’s Moral Philosophy

David M. Jones

Autónoma del Carmen


The history of the Bulgarian state officially begins in the year 681A.D. when the Bulgars, a nomadic people from central Asia, conquered the Slavs living in present day Bulgaria.  This new state became a rival to and at times a thorn in the side of the Byzantine Empire.  By the 9th century a Bulgarian Church had been established and also at this time came the invention of the Cyrillic alphabet and a religious literature (Bousfield 893-927).  During the reign of Tsar Simeon, Bulgaria became the center of Slavic culture and an economically and militarily powerful entity on the Balkan Peninsula.  This period became known as the “golden age” of Bulgarian arts and culture.  Following Simeon’s reign, Bulgaria faced a series of battles against Byzantium and later the Mongol hordes, for which Bulgaria most often suffered the worst.  By the late 14th century, Bulgaria fell to Ottoman conquest.  This occupation lasted for 500 years ending in 1912.  During this time, Bulgarian history and literature almost entirely stopped.  The cultural Renaissance that had spread through much of Europe had left Bulgaria untouched.  In many respects, Bulgaria under Ottoman rule was a continuation of the medieval feudal system.  During these 500 years, monasteries preserved Bulgaria’s arts and literature as they did throughout Europe in the Middle Ages (Crampton 2006).             

Modern Bulgarian literature begins shortly before the end of the Ottoman Empire.  During most of the occupation, very little literature was produced in Bulgaria; it was largely confined to oral expression.  Yet in the 19th century, a patriotic literature began to emerge that expressed a profound longing for freedom.  This period is known as the Bulgarian National Revival (the word ‘revival’ can also be translated as ‘renaissance’).  It was a time of emerging national consciousness when the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was once again recognized as an independent entity, education in the Bulgarian language was reinstated, folk songs were written down and artistic and political expression comes forth.  The characteristics of this literature continued far after liberation in the works of writers such as Ivan Vazov who memorialized Ottoman brutalities and celebrated Bulgarian resilience against tyranny.  His novel Under the Yoke dramatizes the April Uprising of 1876 that failed but preceded the Russo-Turkish war starting in 1877, which ultimately led to Bulgaria’s liberation (Crampton 2006).

            With this freedom it was possible for new and broader themes to occupy the Bulgarian literary imagination.  It also created a new opportunity to explore, criticize, explain and recreate this old nation rediscovering itself.  Among the writers who took this opportunity was Aleko Konstatinov.  In his humorous collection Bai Gano (1895), the author depicts a boorish and “uncivilized” Bulgarian man who is made laughable through juxtapositions against the European cultures in which he is traveling.  Konstantinov partially satirizes Bulgarian culture through these stories, and this representation angered Yordan Yovkov:

It played a dirty role in the evolution of our nation.  The Bulgarian does not possess European manners... The Bulgarian began to think that he should imitate Europeans, to become European; and he began to be ashamed of his own way of life, to laugh at it... and there occurred a shift in the Bulgarian’s soul, which we regret and seek to correct. (Mozejko 106) 

Yovkov’s did not aim to criticize Bulgaria but rather to find “the unique specificity of his nation’s spirit.”  In doing so, Yovkov largely follows a folkloristic tradition also occupied by his contemporary, Elin Pelin.  For Yovkov, the heart of Bulgarian culture, which had been largely a village society during the 500 years of Ottoman rule, lay in its peasantry:  “A class of people Yovkov admired for their ability to preserve rustic customs” (Mozejko 19).  He spent his life surrounded by such people.  

            Yovkov was born to a somewhat affluent family in 1880 in the village of Zherevna, located in the eastern Balkan Mountains.  His father, Stefan Yovkov, owned two houses, one in Zherevna and the other in Dobrudzha (the area of the lower Danube divided between Bulgaria and Romania and boarding the Black sea).  Through most of his childhood, Yovkov remained in Zherevna with his mother, an illiterate woman though exceedingly knowledgeable about folksongs and customs.  In many ways, Yovkov’s love for folklore came from his mother.  Yovkov had a great interest in literature, Bulgarian as well as foreign writers such as Victor Hugo, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy and Nikolai Gogol.  After high school, Yovkov attended the military academy and later began studying law at Sofia University, which he soon quit in order to teach elementary school in Chiflin Musubey, a town in the Dobrudzha region.  The primary reasons for this move were to pursue a literary career-- study would distract from writing--and to be closer to the Bulgarian peasantry (Mozejko 15-24). 

            He was a highly patriotic man and fought in both Balkan wars.  Like most Bulgarians at the time, he was quite enthusiastic about the wars and their causes (Mozejko 15-24).  In the first war (1912), Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece each declared war on Turkey in order to force it from the Balkan Peninsula.  The second Balkan war (1913) pitted Bulgaria against Greece and Serbia.  On all sides, the latter was a war of nationalism and greed, each country having territorial claims on land that Turkey had recently vacated (Bousfield, 387).  A significant portion of Yovkov’s work examines the common people and their involvement in both of these wars.

            Contrary to his enthusiasm for the Balkan wars, Yovkov was much more negative about the start of World War I.  Yovkov mostly participated in war as a correspondent.  The loss of Dobrudzha to Romania was tragic for him, and his prose took a decidedly protesting turn.  Between 1917 – 1918, he published two volumes of war prose.  In 1920 – 1927, he took a job with the Bulgarian delegation in Bucharest.  Though the job left him quite unhappy, the need to support his wife and daughter left him no choice.  During this period, he wrote many of his greatest short stories.  In 1927, Yovkov returned to Sofia in order to write professionally, and he continued to write and publish prolifically until 1936.  On October 15, 1937, Yordan Yovkov died of cancer (Mozejko, 24-7).

            During his life, Yovkov wrote a numerous short stories, plays, poetry and began a novel.  The short story is the medium that best captured his genius and endeared him to the Bulgarian people.  Yovkov’s style is folkloristic and blends realism with idealism.  He did not look at contemporary life but rather wrote from the romantic filter of memory.  

Yovkov’s works typically are set in Dobrudzha.  On the surface, they are as simple as the peasants’ lives that they describe.  These are stories without complex twisting plots.  Yovkov narrates the experiences of ordinary people, and thus, he also universalizes their unassuming existence into philosophy.  Edward Mozejko describes Yovkov as using a “popular narrator,” or a narrator of the people, “a naive rustic observer...who distinguishes clearly between good and evil, who promotes love of one’s neighbor and understanding in accordance with patriarchal tradition” (Mozejko, 54-6).  Their experiences are the trials and tribulations of life itself.  Their philosophy is merely a value system in which good and evil are two distinct entities.  This is the foundation of Yovkov’s idea of moral knowledge.

            Yovkov’s sharp delineation between good and evil, right and wrong, permeates the entirety of his work.  Though these dichotomies are an innate part of the world Yovkov paints, he never overtly discusses or attempts to prove them.  In Yovkov, moral knowledge is the recognition of these two simplistic states, and those who possess this moral knowledge act according to it for the good of others.  Moral ignorance is the antithesis of moral knowledge.  One who is ignorant of good and evil is unable to act for the good of others, but by acquiring knowledge, one also gains the opportunity to act.  Yovkov’s characters that do not act morally do so out of ignorance or greed.  In his early war prose, this moral sense (as it often is in Bulgarian National Revival literature) is very much related to nationalism--one cause is just, the other is not, and those with a moral sense are able to tell the difference (Mozejko 54-6). 

            Missing from these stories is any direct reference to God, Church or traditional religious belief.  These stories are moralistically secular.  By looking at them as such we are able to answer an important question that must occur when evaluating international literature through post-modern eyes:  by what paradigm can we access Yovkov as being a great writer and his works as classics?  One might answer this merely by saying because his works convey universal values and themes:  suffering, love, the meaning of life, happiness.  This is true, but it only answers half the question.  In order to answer this question completely, we must look at Yovkovian moral knowledge in its cultural context. 

            Bulgaria is a secular society, and this is a phenomenon that precedes communism.  Most Bulgarians are members of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church or some other religious community, but they also tend to view these institutions suspiciously.  The reasons for this are the Orthodox Church’s occasional cooperation with Ottoman and later communist authorities.  We could also speculate on other reasons for this distrust of religious institutions, but this is unimportant to the initial question.  Despite this secularity, Bulgarians are often vaguely religious through some cloudy connection to the Bible, the Koran or one’s own personal transcendental ideals.  The term “vaguely religious” best describes this situation as many people profess religious belief though have hardly defined what that means even to themselves.  Societies, such as those in most of Western Europe, in which a similar spiritual situation predominates are sometimes referred to as ‘post-God societies.’  In Bulgaria, Muslims and Christians alike are rarely religious in a traditional manner, yet pervasive throughout the culture is a secular morality that gives rise to a vague religiosity instead of the other way around.  In other words, one may have religious feelings that originate from moral knowledge, but the Bulgarian moral knowledge rarely proceeds from religious belief.  This moral knowledge itself develops through interpersonal encounters that evoke sympathy; one may call this ‘life experience.’  Yet this is not only knowledge of other people but of oneself.  Yovkov is a great writer in the Bulgarian context because his works minister to such a system.  Yovkov’s provides a strict delineation between good and evil in the same manner that Orthodox Christianity and Islam do but without the use of religion.  His heroes possess a moral sense and are moral characters; they are harbingers of his secular ministry.  He creates this ministry with attempts to bridge good and evil with hope, happiness and neighborly love.  His heroes always possess at least one of these characteristics.  According to Mozejko, Yovkov’s greatest strength “lies in his creation of a new character as bearer of certain moral and philosophical values” (Mozejko 106).  Yovkov’s secular ministry to a secular society is what makes him a classic Bulgarian writer.  Yovkov takes the Bulgarian peasants’ value system and from it forms a philosophy specific to his own culture; this is Yovkov the realist.  This ‘new character’ that he creates who offers hope and love comes from Yovkov the idealist.  Now let us follow this concept through some of his works.                 

“A Bulgarian Woman”
– 1917

“A Bulgarian Woman” takes place during the first Balkan war.  It is a continuation of the National Revival literary tradition in which moral knowledge of good and evil is given a nationalistic slant.  Certainly Yovkov’s Bulgarian readers would have no question of Bulgaria´s cause being just.  This story draws from Ivan Vazov’s novela “One Bulgarian Woman.”  In Vazov’s story, a woman helps soldiers fighting against the Ottoman occupation in the 19th century (Mozejko, 48).  In Yovkov’s story, Sheena helps soldiers pushing Turkey from the Balkan Peninsula during the first Balkan War by carrying water to and from the front so prevent the machine guns from overheating.  The story ends with Sheena, exhausted and elated, watching the Bulgarian victory.  Due to her help, the ‘morally justified’ army wins.  The story is representative of Yovkov’s war prose.  The work offers few philosophical ideas.  It is a highly romanticized, and thus for the contemporary Western reader, a slightly disturbing view of war.  Neither Yovkov nor his character questions the war and its motives—all are in agreement.  The hero, a woman named Sheena, is described as being a morally upright person, thus her participation in the war.  She is hardly introspective; her deeds are the most important aspect of the story.  Sheena, like many characters is Bulgarian National revival literature is idealized and unrealistic; though, the battle is realistically described as is common in Yovkov’s folkloric style. 

            At this point in his career, Yovkov’s ideas of moral knowledge existed in the black and white frame of an idealist depicting his cause.  During World War I, this characteristic disappears from Yovkov’s work.  As it often does, disillusionment muddied his clear idealistic vision, and the ideas represented in his works necessarily become more complex.

            After World War I, gaining moral knowledge and acting upon it becomes a more complicated affair in Yovkov.  We see this in much of his later works, including the four other short stories presented here, in which good people either do not know what they should do or are unable to act.  


“The Song of the Wheels” - 1925

Sali Yashar, an ethnic Turk living in Bulgaria and the main character in “The Song of the Wheels,” builds horse drawn wagons.  His wagons are unique because when they move, they do not rattle and knock like other wagons but instead produce exquisite music.  He does this by placing metal plates on the axles.  Sali Yashar is a wealthy and respected man, yet he is also quite miserable.  In Yovkov, money and public opinion never make the hero happy.  This is something that must come from within the person.  Sali Yashar is an elderly man and feels a need to create something that out live him.  To describe this, Yovkov uses the Turkish word sebap which roughly translates as charity or benefaction.  He feels that such a deed would give his life the meaning he craves.  For this sebap, he considers building a fountain, a bridge or perhaps an inn for weary travelers.  Sali Yashar wants to use his money for the common good.  He is a religious man, but Yovkov does not use this fact as a part of the story’s philosophical development and does not describe his religious values.  In Yovkov’s system, Sali Yashar is a good man before he is a religious one.  Though Sali Yashar has a noble urge to do good deeds, he does not know how.  He is ignorant of himself and, thus, lacks moral knowledge.

Sali Yahsar´s epiphany is one of self-understanding, and once he understands himself, he then knows what contribution he must make.  Thus, Yovkov equates self-knowledge and moral knowledge.  Self-aware people also know what actions they should follow.  Sali Yashar learns that he must do exactly what he has always been doing — make musical wagons.  Realizing this, he takes extra care in his work, developing the harmonies and chords that his wagons produce.  Sali Yashar’s sebap is to do what he has always done, and once he realizes this, he does it with pride and satisfaction.  In this story, Yovkov tells the reader that one finds art in the simplest of places and with moral knowledge one’s life becomes an art and a benefaction much like that of Sali Yashar. 


“Along the Wire” from Evenings at the Antimovo Inn - 1928

Every Bulgarian high school student reads “Along the Wire,” and in Bulgaria it is often considered to be Yovkov’s greatest work.  In the story, the hero’s daughter suffers from a mysterious and deadly illness.  The origins of this illness are explained supernaturally and so is its cure, a superstition that the sight of a white swallow will cure all illnesses.  So the hero takes his family in search of a white swallow.  Having already lost three daughters, the hero is acutely aware of life’s cruelties.  He is a character possessing knowledge of both good and evil, yet he is also a secular because he doubts this supernatural cure saying that if it were for him he would not believe.  His purpose is to provide his family with hope.  A white swallow is similar in appearance to a white dove, a common Christian symbol, and the peasant’s doubt of the superstition is symbolic of religious doubt.  During his travels, he meets Peter Mokanina, a shepherd, and tells him his story.  After listening to the fantastic story, Mokanina also encourages them to push forward saying that he has seen it and so will his daughter.  Mokanina also doubts the superstition, but out of compassion, he wants to provide them with the only thing he can, hope.  Then he watches them go in search of the white swallow, Mokanina exclaims, “My God, how miserable is this world." 

            The peasant’s story arouses Mokanina’s sympathy for this suffering family, and by arousing sympathy, it also awakens moral knowledge.  The story is about Mokanina developing knowledge of life´s causeless cruelties.  Once Mokanina is enlightened, he feels compassion for this poor family and does the only thing for them he can; he offers them hope.  Thus, the white swallow symbolizes the possibility for a better tomorrow.  Yet the reader experiences this process of awakening with Mokanina.  We, like Mokanina, sympathize with the peasant´s pain. Furthermore, Mokanina’s final statement is general not specific demonstrating he understands the world´s widespread sufffering.  He is awake and so is the reader.  In Yovkov’s philosophy, only those with moral knowledge are capable of acting for the good of others.  Benevolent action is what he hopes to illicit from his readers.


“Seraphim” from A Woman’s Heart – 1936

The title of this story is not only a symbolic reference to angels but is also the name of the story’s hero.  Seraphim, is a wanderer who drifts among occasional light jobs, but because of health problems, the work necessarily must be light.  He reappears at Enyu’s cafe after a long absence wearing a tattered overcoat.  He tells Enyu that while away he had saved enough money to buy a new one.  A woman, Pavlina, interrupts their conversation in order to speak with Enyu, her godfather, privately.  She tells Enyu her troubles, which include her husband requiring medical, care and her lack of money.  Quietly she asks Enyu for money, but he angrily refuses.  The next day, Seraphim gives Pavlina all the money he has saved.  Enyu learns of this and is bewildered because he does not understand why Seraphim could give money to a stranger.  Enyu also reminds Seraphim of the overcoat that he was going to buy.  Seraphim simply responds, “When God pays her back, she pays me.”  He adds that his old overcoat is just fine.

            Enyu and Seraphim are opposites.  Enyu is a cold man incapable of sympathizing with other people and their troubles.  He has enough money to help Pavlina, but refuses out of greed and ignorance.  Contrarily, Seraphim sympathizes with her suffering because he too suffers money and health problems.  Seraphim helps because he possesses the necessary moral knowledge to understand.  At the end of the story, though Seraphim does state that this action may help him in the afterlife, religion plays an insignificant role in the story’s development.  Religion is not the primary motivator for Seraphim’s deed; it is an afterthought not the cause of his actions.  Seraphim, like many of Yovkov’s other heroes, is an ideal person living in a cruel world.  In many ways, Seraphim is a messianic figure.  He, like Christ, serves as a model for moral behavior by sacrificing his own well being for that of others.  Thus, it is Seraphim’s moral knowledge that enables him to exercise compassion.      


“A Woman’s Heart” from A Woman’s Heart – 1936

“A Woman’s Heart” begins with Iliya´s return to his home village after a long absence.  Since he left, nothing good has been heard about him except for the latest bit of news; he now has a lot of money.  He lives extravagantly, and many of the villagers are quite impressed with him, especially his father.  No one inquires into the money’s origin, and no one except for two people suspect its true origin.  Iliya is a horse thief.  Only Anichka (the woman Iliya most wants to impress) and her husband know the truth.  He often goes by their house to brag, yet they do not believe him and seem to ridicule him.  One of Iliya’s reasons for visiting them so often is not only to convince them that he is important but also to convince himself.  He thinks that when others believe in his importance he too will believe it.  Iliya imagines that only those with money are successful and important. 

            Soon Iliya is caught, arrested and publicly disgraced including by his own father who disowns him.  Everyone abandons him because he was other than they believed; however, Anichka remains to help.  She brings him food and clothing, which his father would not do.  Much like Enyu, Iliya is ignorant and greedy.  For both men, money is important, and they think it will make their lives meaningful.  Iliya, like Sali Yashar, did not find meaning and satisfaction through money.  Not only did he get caught, but it never made him truly happy.  He tirelessly tried to convince Anichka and himself that he really was who he wanted to be.  Furthermore, people’s opinions of Iliya changed once they found out who he really is.  They did not respect Iliya the person but rather his money.  The heroes in Yovkov’s works are not admirable for their wealth but for their characters.

            Anichka is a woman possessing moral knowledge.  She is aware of Iliya’s crimes and silently condemns them, but when he is caught, only she recognizes Iliya the human being and helps.  Much like Yovkov’s other heroes, Anichka is honest, hardworking and happy in her life.  Her moral knowledge makes her happy and that also enables her to see both Iliya’s crimes and his humanity.         



I have often asked Bulgarians for their thoughts and opinions about Yovkov.  He is commonly considered one of Bulgaria’s greatest writers.  Few Bulgarian writers have gained as much notoriety (though it’s still very little) outside of Bulgaria as Yovkov has.  For example his short story “The Sin of Ivan Belin” was included in Thomas Mann’s anthology The Most Beautiful Stories in the World (1956).  So when I ask about Yovkov, most often people answer my question by saying with a certain fondness, “He wrote about Bulgarian village life.”  For a long time this confused me.  I thought perhaps they were only seeing Yovkov in the simplest of terms.  The more I’ve thought about the fact that for Yovkov the heart of Bulgaria lay in its villages and its peasant population, I soon realized that whether they realized it or not these people were really telling me, “Yordan Yovkov writes about us.”                   

            In order to describe a great writer with by his or her nationality, the writer must in some manner must capture a small essence of the native culture and then distill it into something universal.  This is what Yovkov has done.  He is a Bulgarian writer who sought the heart of Bulgaria and found it in its peasant population.  In Bulgarian villages, he found life simple and slow enough to provide sufficient fodder for human dramas to grow and thrive.  From the peasants’ simple value system, Yovkov distilled a simple paradigm to be made into a universal philosophy. 

            Yovkov’s system delineates sharply between good and evil, yet because of ignorance and greed, not everyone is capable of distinguishing them.  Ignorance amounts to a lack of moral knowledge.  When Adam and Eve bit the apple in the Garden of Eden, they gained moral knowledge.  According to Yovkov, in the modern world, one must bite the apple and gain moral knowledge in order to behave morally.  Only those with knowledge of good and evil are capable of acting for the good of others.  Moral knowledge comes through sympathetic encounters with other human beings not formal religion.  “Moral knowledge,” “good” and “evil” suggest something traditionally religious.  Though Yovkov liked the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, he and the Bulgarian society that he wrote about, did not have a strong connection to the organized religion.

            Yovkov’s heroes are romantic figures living in the real world.  For Yovkov, they are ideals about what humanity should be.  Through them, Yovkov created a Bulgarian moral code from the peasant culture he loved.  This is what makes Yordan Yovkov not merely a great writer but also a great Bulgarian writer. 






Works Cited


Bousfield, Jonathan and Richardson, Dan. Bulgaria: The Rough Guide. Penguin Books Ltd.                                                                                                                                             

            London: 1999.


Crampton, Richard. A Concise History of Bulgaria. Cambridge UP,Cambridge: 2006.


Konstantinov, Aleko. Bai Gano. Barth, Leipzig: 1928.


Mozejko, Edward. Yordan Yovkov, Slavica Publishers, Inc. Columbus, OH: 1984.


Yovkov, Yordan. Peisenta na Koleletata. Anubis. Sofia, Bulgaria: 2000.

Vazov, Ivan. Under the Yoke. Trans. Adamant Media, Boston:  2007.

Sincronía Summer 2009