The Most Cynical Country: Part 1

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Radoslav Dragov's picture

We've come a long, long way together,

Through the hard times and the good,

I have to celebrate you baby,

I have to praise you like I should


A very witty man once remarked: “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. Here we will talk about the third category of people: those who occupy their minds with the sewers. I shall waste no time in revealing the most cynical country in the world. It is a republic located in Southeast Europe called Bulgaria. Incidentally Bulgaria is also the country where I was born and raised.

I can assure you that this statement is based on facts and not a case of national solipsism. I am sure that your country has its fair share of rampant corruption, bloated bureaucracy, and moronic politicians that have rendered the general population more cynical than a thrice-divorced political commentator in Russia. But trust me, you haven’t seen anything yet!

This article will attempt to explain Bulgaria’s chronic unhappiness with the appropriate amount of flippancy and facetiousness that the subject requires. Ultimately, this article tells a bigger story about Eastern Europe, happiness and neighbourhoods.


Fun Facts

A 2010 research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers looked into the relation between national income and happiness. Their study revealed that Bulgaria is the saddest country in the world relative to GDP per capita. This study was the subject of “The Economist” article memorably titled “The rich, the poor and Bulgaria”.

Every year Gallup surveys people in 143 countries to create the global “suffering list”. Respondents rate their current and future lives on a scale from 0 to 10. Those who give a score of 4 or lower are labelled as “suffering”. Bulgaria has been the reigning champion for three consecutive years with the world’s largest percentage of “suffering” people.

The 2013 World Happiness Report ranked Bulgaria #144 out of 156 countries, just below Afghanistan and Cambodia. Bulgaria is not exactly the pearl of Eastern Europe but it’s a European Union member that ranks #57 on the Human Development Index (HDI) and #69 on the GDP per capita (PPP) ranking done by the IMF. And we have some of the best Quidditch players!


Life’s a Dog

By all accounts we Bulgarians should not be so extremely unhappy with our lives. There must be a certain quality in the national character that causes such soul-crushing despair. I chose to label it cynicism not (only) because the status quo is always criticised and reviled. If that were the case I would have proclaimed my dear fatherland as the most bitchy country in the world. This of course would have been at least etymologically correct – the word cynic comes from the Greek word for dog. I chose “cynical” because the most famous Cynic (Diogenes) used to walk with a lamp during the day and claimed to be looking for an honest man. And I believe “the (futile) search for an honest person” is the main pre-occupation of most Bulgarians.

Words betray the gloomy character of Bulgaria. Bulgaria is a resident in the bad neighbourhood of Europe (i.e. Eastern Europe), which is populated mainly by Slavs who give the word “slave” in the English language and many other European languages (“Slaaf” in Dutch, “Sklave” in German, “Slav” in Swedish, etc.). Bulgaria is situated in the Balkan Peninsula, which spawned the word “balkanization” or the “division of a region into smaller mutually hostile states or groups”. Bulgaria itself gives the word “bugger” that used to mean sodomite but now it generally denotes “an annoyingly awkward thing”. Bugger originates from a Medieval Bulgarian sect that believed the world was in fact created by the Devil. It seems even then Bulgarians were not a jolly bunch.  


You've Come a Long Way, Baby

To cure a current mental ailment a psychologist often examines the patient’s childhood. I won’t delve too much in the distant past because Bulgaria’s early history is too byzantine. Besides, like law and sausage making the intricate details of a country’s birth are better left unexamined. Suffice to say Bulgaria is one of the oldest countries in Europe; it was a cultural hub for Slavs in the Middle Ages, the Cyrillic alphabet (азбука) used today by around 250 million people was developed in the First Bulgarian Empire (that’s right! – an empire); during a severe and protracted lapse in modesty a great Bulgarian ruler created the now familiar title of “tsar” (from Caesar) for himself. For Bulgaria the first millennium was the good millennium.

One might suppose that a relatively glorious past might provide psychological buoyancy in bad times. I will argue that often the contrast between the fortunate past and present discontent can weigh down like a millstone. During the Middle Ages while Europe was languishing in cultural, economic and social decay the collective Islamic civilization was preserving classical Greek texts, writing outstanding poetry (e.g. Al-Mutanabbi) and advancing astronomy, mathematics, navigation, architecture and medicine. The reversal of fortunes and the current plight of many Muslim countries has been the cause of tension and a fair amount of soul-searching.

In a 2008 nation-wide vote Russians chose Stalin as their third greatest figure from the past. The gulags, the violent repression, and the man-made starvation that killed millions of people are trifle details when it comes to heft and fearful respect on the international stage.

After the WWII the heavily indebted United Kingdom slowly disbanded its empire (at its zenith it was the largest empire the world had ever seen) and tried for a long time to reconcile with its new demoted position and wilting economic power. The bigger they are the harder they fall.



Hell is Other Countries

Nations not only compare their present situation to the past but also to other countries. Like most things in life happiness is relative. If I can give one advice to all aspiring parvenus it will be this: do not move to a very rich neighbourhood. The social treadmill effect will slowly drain your health and sense of humour. The fact that you have several high-end German and Italian cars in your garage would be rendered nil if your neighbours own yachts and fly on private jets.

Perceived low status triggers a fight-or-flight response in the human body that ultimately results in an unhealthier, shorter life. Don’t believe me? Insurance companies still do not provide protection against the success of friends and peers. Because they’ll go bankrupt in a month.

There is a reason why I dubbed Eastern Europe the bad neighbourhood of Europe. The close proximity and association with one of the most highly developed regions in the world (Western Europe) is the cause of much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. The scientific term for this kind of anxiety is EUstress. (It’s ironic because eustress is a real medical term that denotes helpful stress.) So a large amount of Bulgaria’s unhappiness can be explained by EUstress and my country’s geographical position in Eastern Europe, more specifically – in Southeast Europe.

It is no accident that Western Europe is colloquially referred in some Congolese languages as “the heaven”. Eastern Europeans feel benign envy and compare their countries to Western European ones. Kind of like how the lower class today in developed countries live better than aristocrats century and a half ago but are collectively very unhappy. Comparison to other people and places is just a biological inevitability.


Divide and Conquer

The division of Europe into East and West started well before the Great Schism of the 11th century but (in principle) there was nothing to stop Eastern European nations from reaching the heights of their neighbours. Like any impartial observer of history I will blame current problems exclusively on outside circumstances: the expansion of the Ottoman Empire and the drawing of the Iron Curtain.

The first event turned Southeast Europe (Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Albania, etc.) into a backward region, and negatively impacted many Eastern European states. Around the 14th century the Ottomans initiated their groundbreaking strategic plan titled ‘pillage and murder’ and as a result captured all of Southeast Europe, even reaching the gates of Vienna twice. It was coffee and croissants for the Viennese and centuries of oppression for the people of Southeast Europe. No hard feeling of course, if we look far enough into history every territory has been invaded.

The Ottomans were pretty skilled at conquering but not so much at the whole enlightenment business. They said ‘no’ to mechanical clocks, new financial instruments, standardised weights, empirical science and most importantly – the printing press and translation of books. Otherwise they could have read Edward Gibbon and realised that overconfident empires eventually fall. The Ottoman Empire was no exception.

By the mid-19th century the Ottoman Empire was known as “the sick man of Europe”. Around that time a pan-Slavic movement emerged and a number of Southeast countries including Bulgaria (with the help of Russia) fought and won their independence. But the damage had been done. The states that emerged were far behind West and Central Europe. Cheating or stealing from the government (represented by the Ottoman Empire) were seen as patriotic acts of defiance. Many centuries of harsh Ottoman rule deeply instilled pessimism and general mistrust in the national character of many societies. Southeast countries had no reason to subscribe to the unquestioned “belief in progress” that gripped many European states after the Enlightenment. It is difficult to root out national characteristics that have been accumulating for centuries.


In the Hood

Despite widening differences the newly emerged states still thought themselves as European. The definition of Europe has always depended on one’s current location. When Mozart travelled west from Vienna to Prague he described the event as crossing the oriental border. The delineation of Europe depends more on certain cultural and political characteristics than topographical reality.

In their historiographies Poles, Lithuanians, Serbs, Croats, Hungarians and Romanians have at some point or another presented themselves as the main protector of the edges of Europe. Being a border state (real or self-proclaimed) ensures a certain degree of pride and a feeling of inclusion in a collective identity. Stressing a country’s “Europeanness” is a process that can be visibly seen today in Ukraine. 

Deciding to be a valiant guardian of the collective European Civilization with all its sophistication and enlightened ideals might seems like a noble undertaking especially if no one asked you for it. In this sense Eastern European countries would like to be counted as middle-income residents in a rich neighbourhood. That’s not a recipe for happiness. Keeping up with the Germanys and Frances of the neighbourhood is impossible and creates a very dreadful inferiority complex. It creates the feeling (especially for Southeast nationals) of being second-class European citizens. No one wants to be labelled as the group responsible for the mortal sin of driving down property prices. 


Read Part 2