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YURI VENELIN AND THE BULGARIAN REVIVAL

Author: Dimitar Raykov

 

Summary - I: The standard history of the Bulgarian revival, The Ancient and Present Day Bulgarians in Their Political, Ethnographic, Historical and Religious Relations with the Russians (1829) by the Ukrainian historian and Habsburg-trained slavicist Yuri Venelin, illustrates some of the implications for the ancient Bulgarian history.

Here is the story in brief. The founding fathers of Slavic Studies and 'archeologists' of Slavic Europe, as it is well known, came from Germany, Prague and Vienna. Researchers like Stritter (1740-1801), Thunmann (1746-1778), and Schloezer (1735-1809) gave flesh to Leibnitz's proposition that historical origins should be studied through language classification, placing thereby philology firmly at the center of the study of racial origins and history. The central problem of Slavic studies thereby became focused on the role of the Cyrillic alphabet and "Old Bulgarian". Accordingly, the central issue of Bulgarian historiography, from Paisi to M. Drinov became the weighing of the Slavic against the Asiatic origins of Bulgarians. As some authors rightly noted, "... these and related problems gave Bulgaria a key place in the world of European scholarship".

But at the hands of the Pan-Slav historians of the 19th century, such as Venelin, the obsession with this issue had several regressive effects, such as bringing to Bulgaria the ideology of elected Slavdom. As regards Slavic civilization Bulgaria became a classical reference point, as Greece was with respect to European civilization: "... the classical country for Russia, Lithuania and Hungary" and "... the home of our sacred tongue", as Venelin states of Bulgaria. Through Venelin's exalted Pan-Slavism, Bulgarians first became acquainted with (German) romanticism and (what happened to be, Bohemian) nationalism.

Prof. N. Saveliev-Rostislavich, Venelin's fervent disciple and popularizer, was no less highly regarded and especially by some key figures of national education like Vassil Aprilov and Konstantin Fotinov. A painstaking research has made it clear, that if Fotinov and the considerable number of readers of his journal happened to know something about significant European thinkers like Bacon, Vico, Herder, Gibbon, Thiéry, Michelet etc., the credit should be given to this passionate pan-Slavist. Besides, it is through the work of Rostislavich and Venelin, that the architects of modern Bulgarian genealogy like Fotinov and Rakovsky acquired and widely applied the etymological method, whereby they could prove the pristine ancient origin and the global presence of Slavic Bulgarians. For Rakovsky's grand plot, for instance, the pathos, the findings and the conclusions of early Russian Pan-Slavism must have been no less important, or at least compatible with his theory about Bulgarians' founding role in the European culture and not just an imitation of Greek Antiquity.

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Summary - II: Although it was the Serb Rajich, who furnished Bulgarians with a more accessible history than Paisi's manuscript, it was the Russian Venelin who not only fired the historical and national imagination of the young leaders of the patriotic revival but whose meteoric appearance completely overshadowed Paisi until his ressurection by Marin Drinov.

Stimulated by the discoveries of the founding fathers of Slavic studies in Prague and Vienna, Admiral Shishkov, president of the Russian Academy, had hoped to import the leading "Austro-Slav" scholars - including Hanka, Shafarik and Jungmann - subsequently, to occupy chairs of Slavic studies to be created in the leading Russian universities. Advised, however, to develop their own resources and the Russians found a constructive device in combining their growing political interests in the Balkans with officially sponsored field research. One of the first of these academic emissaries was a twenty-six year old fugitive from the medical profession - Yuri Venelin (1802-1839) - whose mission was to collect historical documents in the wake of the Russo-Turkish war of 1828.

Venelin was of the stuff of which pan-Slavs were made. A Ukrainian born in Hungary, he was educated in Poland and studied medicine in Moscow, only to become an amateur archaeologist, philologist and historian. The first product of his researches, The Ancient and Present Day Bulgarians in Their Political, Ethnographic, Historical and Religious Relations with the Russians (1829), not only created a sensation among the Bulgarian intelligentsia of the thirties, but more important it started the trend which drew the center of Bulgarian intellectual and eventually political gravity from the West to Russia.

Though oversensitive himself, Venelin frequently indulged in vigorous, tactless and sometimes inaccurate pontifications on Bulgarian matters of all kinds. This generated heated controversy but also healthy activity. In any event, young Bulgaria's historical vanity was tickled and all who saw him or his books were in turn transported by his infectious enthusiasm and his printed evidence of an almost forgotten history. There was no exaggeration in the epitaph, which the grateful Bulgarians placed on Venelin's grave: "He reminded the world of the oppressed, but once famous and powerful Bulgarian people and passionately desired to see their rebirth. God fulfill the prayer of thy servant".

Having stirred up the Bulgarians more than anyone before or since, Venelin's interest in Bulgarians affairs waned - partly, because of publishing activity and partly because of other difficulties that his theories encountered. Commensurably, his pan-Slav interests were broader than Bulgaria. Aside from a study of South Slav folksongs, which had considerable influence in initiating Bulgarian interest in this field, Venelin had only one other item published before his premature death in 1839 - namely, a biographical-bibliographical survey of modern Bulgarian literature and which was the first contribution to writings on contemporary Bulgarian history to stimulate interest abroad as well as among Bulgarians themselves in the Revival period. However, an unpublished Bulgarian grammar is mute testimony to his failure to comprehend the essence of the Bulgarian language.

In contrast to the "history" of his unknown spiritual ancestor Paisi, Venelin's work had both an immediate and direct effect. His most ardent press agent was the former Odessa vodka merchant Vasil Aprilov, whom Venelin converted into a kind nationalist of the Bulgarian renaissance. In addition to promoting a variety of cultural causes and championing a Russian solution for Bulgaria, Aprilov contributed to Bulgarian historiography an essay on Cyril and Methodius and a history of contemporary Bulgarian education.

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Summary - III: This integrative all-Russian philosophy, which became popular in the Slavic world following the rise of pan-Slavism, was part of the auto-ethnography established by the Russophile intelligentsia from the Sub-Carpathia. They sought to establish the individuality and cultural worth of their own people and of each Slavic nation toward the ideal of re-establishing Slavic unity. The defense of any of the small, dispossessed Slavic nations was a contribution to the reclamation of their own patrimony.

One of the members of the Sub-Carpathian intellectual emigration became known as the "national awakener" of the Bulgarian nation. Yuri Venelin, who came to Russia in 1823, was educated in Uzhgorod. He taught in a seminary at Kishineu and attended a Moscow medical institute, but abandoned medicine to concentrate on historical studies. In his published work he initiated and defended the idea, that the Bulgarians were not of Turkic descent but were Slavs, and that their language was related to the Russian. In fact, his interest in Bulgaria was part of a broader concern with the interrelated Slavic peoples. Acad. Shishkov, president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, backed Venelin's application for support in his studies and cited Venelin's intention to investigate the relationship between modern Bulgarian language with the Little Russian, Carpatho-Russian and Great Russian dialects.

In 1830, under the auspices of the Academy of Sciences, Venelin traveled through Moldavia, Bulgaria and Romania - subsequently, collecting and studying manuscripts, while in an effort to compose the first program for teaching Slavic studies in Russia. As one of the fathers of Slavistics, Venelin's example influenced K. S. Aksakov, A. S. Khomiakov, M. P. Pogodin and other emerging Russian Slavophiles. Prof. Pogodin referred later to Venelin in the Moskovskii Vestnik, as "a native Carpatho-Russian, who knows Hungary, Transylvania, Galicia and Bulgaria intimately, and has provided us with information about everything relating to these countries".

 

Pictures 1, 2 & 3: Born in the village of Velika Tibava, located otherwise in modern day Ruthenia, Ukraine and some 100 miles south of the city of Lvov, Yuri Venelin (1802-1839) was like a Balkan Phoenix for the resurrection of the bulgarians.

1) Yuri Venelin made first attempt to write a scholarly narrative for this long forgotten nation and in their own Cyrillic vernacular.

 

2) "History of the Bulgarians" in two volumes (v. I - 1829).

 

3) "History of the Bulgarians" in two volumes (v. II -1841).

 

 

Copyright © 2007 by the author.