Article Video

“The Older, The Worthier”: National Heroes as Conduits of Ethnonational Identity

In this video essay, Vanesa Valcheva examines how nationalist narratives usurp convenient historical figures, mythologising them as the cannons of a specific ethnonational spirit. Through the example of Bulgarian-North Macedonian relations, Vanesa investigates the necessity of history making nationalisms legitimate.

Video Transcript

Nationalism is illegitimate without history. Nationalist narratives can exist successfully if specific episodes of the past are aired in the present. Of course, nationalists conveniently omit episodes that do not align with their story and instead, usurp a past of glory in which the nation was a ‘fact.’ 

What we often see with nationalist re-sculpting of history is a certain infatuation with national heroes, making them heavily curated vehicles for different variants of identity. It is not just an age or a period of history nationalists draw legitimacy from, but rather, chosen heroes to project a distinct, often ehtnonational, spirit in a primordial light. We only ought to look at Putin’s frequent reach to Russia’s imperial past through Peter or Catherine the Great, to historically, and morally, justify the invasion of Ukraine and subsequently, the sacredness and absolutism of Russian identity.

The frequent, and frankly fan-boyish, mythologising of national heroes tells us a few things about the act of legitimising nationalisms. Firstly, nationalists sift through history for the most fitting idol and reconcile it with the present, in an effort to manufacture evidence for the historical existence of the nation. The most fitting being a notable ‘Great’ which makes violence in the name of the nation valid, and by the same token, validates the existence of the nation on the basis of violence. Secondly, the ‘Great,’ by being of certain ethnicity, sanctifies that ethnicity as absolute truth and subsequently, validates the existence of an ethnonational identity in the past. Thirdly, this is indicative of an effort to own history and its actors based on ethnonational claims. The logic here is that a certain ‘Great’ can only be of one ethnicity and therefore belong to one ethnic nation-state and its historical mythology, which we see in Bulgarian-North Macedonian relations.


In brief, the Macedonian question, familiar to European politics since the nineteenth century, encapsulates Bulgarian, Greek and Serbian interests in the Macedonian region on the condition that Macedonia is ethnically, linguistically, historically, religiously and culturally congruent to all three respective nation-states. 

It is not surprising that Bulgarian-North Macedonian relations have been oscillating between friendship and acrimony for over a century, given the unresolved political-turned-historical dispute that has become a prerequisite for a North Macedonian membership in the EU. The dispute is not about state – Bulgaria recognises a North Macedonian state and was, in fact, the first country to do so. This is a dispute about the existence of a North Macedonian ethnic nation; about its historical legitimacy; about identity.

Whilst North Macedonia claims that there is a distinct North Macedonian nation, language and history, Bulgaria considers it an artificially engineered identity whose language “did not exist until 2 September 1944,” when the North Macedonian language was codified. For Bulgaria, North Macedonia is an extension of the Bulgarian nation, language and history and as such, there is no distinct ethnic identity as ‘North Macedonian.’ There are Bulgarians that speak a dialect of the Bulgarian language and whose history is Bulgarian. The question of whether there is an ethnically distinct North Macedonian identity is consequently easily answerable by either camp, but of course, those answers are antithetical. Crucially, this loaded question has become an auditorium for petty historiographies and politics that fuel nationalist sentiments, and raise questions about the ethics of nationalism and its engagement with history. 

This saga resembles a sibling brawl. Much like siblings stealing each other’s clothes, or in this case, one ‘stealing’ the historical heroes of the other. Who is who in this brawl differs depending on who is telling the story. More poignantly however, it’s a saga that displaces the role of national heroes from fixed, mythical agents to active sources of credibility where ethnonational identity is concerned. In claiming these heroes as theirs, North Macedonian nationalists attempt to legitimise their ethnic nation as a historical fact, making it independent from Bulgarian identity. The latter consider, on the other hand, the very act of claiming ‘Bulgarian’ historical heroes as North Macedonian as a testimony to their Bulgarian-ness, and likewise, an attempt to make the nation appear as having existed for longer than it actually has. 


There are a number of heroes the Bulgarian-North Macedonian tug-of-war has taken hostage, but three ‘Greats’ remain central: Tsar Samuil of the Bulgarian Empire and Cyril and Methodius, apostles of the Slavs. Outside of nationalist stories, the former is a medieval mercenary and the latter, a pair loyal to Byzantium before the Slavs. All are ethnically ambiguous, extremely useful emblems for insufficient identities and inconveniently difficult to claim by any Slavic nation. Perhaps it is because of this that they are recruited in the legitimisation of both Bulgarian and North Macedonian ethnonationalisms. This is also perhaps why they are a comfortable crop of heroes to ‘own.’ 

Tsar Samuil’s role in this saga is twofold. He acts, of course, as a legitimising factor for a distinct and separate ethnic North Macedonian nation, as the first Tsar of the ‘Macedonian Slavs.’ This nationalist verdict is based on geography. The centre of Samuil’s empire was Ohrid – then Bulgaria’s cultural centre, today, North Macedonia’s. For North Macedonian nationalists consequently, if Samuil’s Empire operated from a territory known officially today as North Macedonia, he is North Macedonian. Samuil then, is seen to justify not only the existence of a North Macedonian ethnic identity particularly based on geography, but also its longevity. In a similar vein, the geographical boundaries of the Bulgarian Empire under Samuil is proof, for Bulgarians, that ‘North Macedonians’ are in fact Bulgarians.

Samuil also validates the existence of not only a Bulgarian nation but also a Bulgarian Empire, as the political and ecclesiastical descendant of Simeon I and Peter I of Bulgaria, despite there being no blood relation. The existence of a Bulgarian Empire under Samuil is one of those ‘Great’ episodes that the nationalist mechanism extracts. Here the Bulgarian-ness of Samuil comes not from his birthplace but from the fact that he was the head of the empire. There is actually very little effort here to justify Samuil’s ethnicity in more solid terms and so, the primary reason for his Bulgarian identity becomes the Bulgarian crown he wore. 

The Saints Cyril and Methodius (826-869 and 815-885), known in Slavic history as having devised the Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets, are claimed by the entire Slavic populace. The saintly pair is paradoxically both a point of commonality between Slavonic nations and a point of distinction between forms of Slavic nationalisms. The mythicism and canonisation of Cyril and Methodius distracts extremely well. Questions about origins and ethnicity lack answers and if they do not, it would be guesswork. Perhaps however, it is again precisely because there is a lack of clarity that the myth of the brothers becomes so easily malleable. 

For North Macedonians, the saints codified not just the language of the Slavs but the language of ‘Macedonian Slavs’ in particular. The story is once again based on geography here. The region from which the two brothers are, was apparently populated by ‘Macedonian Slavs’ and as such, they were Macedonians themselves, hence the codification of the Macedonian language. For nationalists, casting Cyril and Methodius in ethnic terms enshrines the North Macedonian identity as a distinct fact.

For Bulgarian nationalist stories, the First Bulgarian Empire is the enabler of the saints’ civilising mission and therefore, the nation through which Slavic languages were codified, since the empire provided refuge for Cyril and Methodius after banishment from Moravia. For Bulgarian nationalists therefore, the Bulgarian nation emerges from an imperial and civilising mission, which assumes as its own. Being the bearer of Slavonic linguistics is a symbolic role that Bulgaria has often linked to its ethnonational identity in the Slavic world and to its longevity as having existed as a civilising ethnic nation in the past.

Mythologising national heroes is necessary for the legitimisation of nationalisms. In the Bulgarian-North Macedonian saga nationalist narratives do so by scrambling for ethnically ambiguous ‘Greats’ in a bid to make their identity variants complete, whilst making the other insufficient. What emerges from this dispute is an argument about which ethnonational identity predated which. It becomes a question of who came first: the chicken or the egg? A second conclusion also emerges, one that is concerned with ‘privatising’ history. By making it the exclusive belonging of a single nation-state, it attempts to prevent the use of this very history to support ehtnonational claims outside the nation it ‘belongs’ to. In an effort to settle a dispute along ethnonational lines, history and its heroes are weaponised to the point where an overlap between national histories is considered robbery. 

Featured Imagery: The edit is Vanesa’s own work. The links for the illustrations used are as follows: (1) Samuil (2) Cyril & Methodius (3) Map of Samuil’s Empire (4) Samuil’s Death.


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