An interview on the kuker festival in the Romanian village of Brăneşti and on the Bulgarians in Romania
Daniel Stoiciu is a Romanian citizen with a complex identity. He speaks Bulgarian language and knows the story of Bulgarians in Valahia. The blog “The Bridge of Friendship” has talked with him about the kuker festival in his village of birth – Brăneşti, and on some principle discords between the Bulgarians in Romania and the Bulgarians in Bulgaria.
Mr. Stoiciu, in the beginning of March 2020 in the village of Brăneşti, close to Bucharest, a traditional kuker festival took place (the kukers are men, disguised as evil spirits, who chase the evil in the beginning of the spring – note of the translator). This village was populated mostly by Bulgarians in the XIX century. What are the roots of this festival? What makes it different from similar festivities in Bulgaria and Romania?
The festival of the kukers used to take place in the villages in the regions of Călăraşi and Ilfov, where Bulgarian communities existed. It needs to be said that there were Bulgarians in almost all the populated places in between the cities of Călăraşi and Bucharest, and especially in the valley of the river Mostiştea and along the Danube. They were refugees from the Ottoman Empire in the times of Russian-Turkish wars.
These wars have devastates Valahia, where often Russian offensive and Ottoman counter offensives took place. The Bulgarian labour was very important and contributed to both to Romania of that times a to the present day Romania. Last but not least, the Bulgarian refugees in Valahia were recruited by Russians in military regiments, which have acted beyond the Danube.
Even though the kukers are a pagan tradition, they are related to the religious holiday of Sirni Zagovezni and the day of forgiveness. In Romania the kukers have remained as a people’s holiday only in Brăneşti, where until a few years ago they were about to disappear too. But recently they have been transformed in a festival in the model of the kuker festivals in Pernik and Yambol with all the political connotations that follow.
This year the kuker festival in Brăneşti was marked by the pandemia of the coronavirus in our region and in the world. What challenges did the coronavirus brought to the organisers? What was the festival like this year? What is similar and different in comparison with the kuker festivals in Brăneşti of the previous years?
Let me say that there is a difference between spontaneous popular tradition (which has resisted in the times of wars and in the regimes of the legionaries and the communists) and the festival, which among other things needs to take account of sanitary considerations.
As far as I understand the festival has obtained with difficulty the approval of the sanitary authorities and we can think that it was lucky, because one week later the gatherings of more than 1000 people were forbidden.
In spite of all that some groups from Romania and a few from abroad didn’t come. I think that the spectators were 20% less this year.
Brăneşti is almost a quarter of Bucharest. How does this influence the locals? To what extent do they associate with their Bulgarian predecessors?
There was a time, when the Bulgarians were the majority population in Brăneşti and even the ”ulafs” (vlahs) knew Bulgarian, but what needs to be clarified is that all performed their Bulgarian and Romanian customs. There were separate texts for the same songs in Romanian and Bulgarian. In spite of all that in the beginning the Bulgarians married only between themselves, because they had to find support in the places, where Bulgarians were living.
I would like to underline that at this moment the Romanian and the Bulgarian nations didn’t exist in the way we understand them today. The simple people, which used to live in the past never imagined that there will be countries like ours today. It is difficult for the Bulgarian Bulgarians to understand that the Bulgarians in Romania were always loyal to their country of birth – Romania, even when it fought against Bulgaria, as the Vlachs in Bulgaria have always served the country, where they lived.
When the communist period started, a lot of Romanian came to Brăneşti. This happened simultaneously with the loss of interest among local Bulgarians for preservation of their language and customs. After communism this phenomenon intensified. Today the dialect, spoken in Brăneşti, can be considered lost.
Various patriotic organisations from Bulgaria promote the Bulgarianism in Republic of Moldova, Ukraine and Romania. But it looks like they have greater success in the former Soviet Union. How do the Bulgarian from Vlahia refer to the activity of those organisations? What don’t we understand well about the Bulgarian communities in Romania?
As I said the loss of interest for the language created an important barrier, which doesn’t exist in the relations with the Bulgarian from the former Soviet Union. By the way today’s Bulgarian language is standardised in the sense of its appropriation to Russian in the times of communism. Bulgaria is the gate towards he EU for all the people from the former Soviet Union, who find not only spiritual, but also economic support in Bulgaria. In its turn Bulgaria declares that it wants to settle the Bulgarian-speaking immigrants in depopulated areas.
It occurred to me that such patriots asked me how many Bulgarians live in Vlahia and my answer was that there are not so many. They told me I lie. They said they knew better from Internet (you can compare the Wikipedia articles in Bulgarian and Romanian on Brăneşti). These are the patriots statisticians.
There is another category of high-pitched patriots, who become hysteric, whenever they try an appropriation with the Romanian Bulgarians and don’t hear what they want. Then they start numbering all the historical misgivings between Romania and Bulgaria (which are well-known by Bulgarians and are not known at all by Romanians). These are the combative patriots.
Happily, there are also people, who know and have worked in both countries. They are exceptional people, who help in a self-sacrificing way in the organisation of the festival or in the revitalisation of the Bulgarian associations. These people are real bridges and manage always to inspire both the Romanians and the Bulgarians.
This year you were invited to the reception for the Bulgarian National Holiday (3 March), which was organised by the Bulgarian embassy in Bucharest. How do Bulgarianness and Romanism coexist in your identity, in your thought and actions? To what extent do you think Bulgarians and Romanians know their cultural and historic appropriation? What do Bulgarian-Romanian relations lack on human level?
I was honoured to be present at the reception in the embassy in a space, which gathered at one place people, who live at the confluence of the two cultures and nations – Bulgarians and representatives of the communities in Romania. Such meetings are always interesting for me and they are full of positive emotions, whenever I have the occasion to acquaint special people.
Apart from these “elites” the common people live in their bubbles. Everyone has its worries. We pass through our countries’ endless transition towards nowhere. We don’t have other worries beside physical survival. Another language barrier puts great problems (especially before the Romanians). Apart from the language barrier, there is also a physical barrier, which is represented by the Danube and by the lack of infrastructure (bridges), which could facilitate the mutual acquaintance. And when we add the fact that we are not part of the Schengen area, are condemned to economic and social backwardness.
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