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Balkan Smoke: Tobacco and the Making of Modern Bulgaria by Mary C. Neuburger (review)

From: Ab Imperio
1/2014
pp. 455-459

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

On the cover of Balkan Smoke , an alluring, ostensibly modern woman enjoys a cigarette while the smoke drifts through the words of the title. The image of the enticing smoking woman embodies many of the themes that arise as Mary Neuburger describes the growth of the Bulgarian state and a Bulgarian identity. At times during the twentieth century, Bulgaria produced the highest number of cigarettes per capita in the world (P. 6). Accompanying the economic trajectory of cigarette production and consumption in Bulgaria are underlying issues of morality, modernity, and leisure – each of which occupies complex ideological ground as Bulgaria and Bulgarianness take shape. Neuburger addresses each of these adeptly as she demonstrates the integral place of tobacco in Bulgaria’s emergence as a geopolitical and cultural entity.

One of the strongest contributions of Balkan Smoke is Neuburger’s method. She uses tobacco and smoking as a lens through which to rethink the parameters of Bulgarian history. In doing so, she argues that tobacco production and consumption spurred deep transformations and brought a “modern condition” to Bulgaria’s tobacco-growing regions. While Neuburger makes it clear that she does not view tobacco as the sole driving factor in Bulgaria’s economic and cultural development, she presents a solid case for tobacco’s integral role. Through the study of tobacco’s consumption and production, the reader finds that Bulgaria rarely fits neatly into terms used to describe other groups and nations. Bulgaria’s transfiguration into a modern state involved a complex array of internal and external negotiations that ranged from cultural, to economic, to technological, to political. Tobacco runs through each topic and it is evident that they are all tied to the others in both obvious and hidden ways. And this is precisely where Balkan Smoke shines.

From the nineteenth-century kafene (Ottoman coffeehouse), wartime ties to Germany, through industrialized production in the second half of the twentieth century, Bulgaria experienced a constant and changing negotiation of eastern and western influences. These influences played out upon a region with long traditions of confessional and ethnic diversity. Through the course of Balkan Smoke , Bulgaria transitions from a part of the Ottoman Empire to an independent nation-state, then returns to an arguably imperial situation behind the Iron Curtain. The geopolitical transformations covered by Neuburger coincided with political and cultural shifts and changing international alliances, each of which was tied to tobacco consumption and production, either tangibly or symbolically.

The economic influence of the tobacco industry is obvious throughout the book. At times, Bulgarian tobacco and cigarette production involved almost 25 percent of the population and transcended ethnic, confessional, political, and economic lines (P. 201). In the late 1960s, Bulgaria was the world’s largest exporter of tobacco. Thus, on a very concrete level, Bulgarian tobacco is a natural “hero” of Neuburger’s study. Neuburger extends her examination of tobacco far beyond a purely economic analysis. Tobacco is not only a symbol of economic livelihood but also takes on deeply cultural meanings.

Beginning with an examination of the public spaces where smoking occurred, especially the kafene , she argues that the rituals of coffee and tobacco consumption facilitated “the discovery and invention of ‘Bulgarianness’” (P. 12). It was in the public spaces of smoking and sociability that both Ottoman and European influences entered the lives of Bulgarians. As Balkan Smoke begins , the kafene is still heavily Ottoman and is frequented primarily by Muslims. As the nineteenth century progressed, increasing numbers of Bulgarian-speaking Christians expanded their spaces of socialization to include the kafene , which Neuburger’s sources frequently portrayed as the sober opposite of the more traditionally Bulgarian krŭchma (tavern). Following the Crimean and Russo-Turkish Wars, Bulgaria experienced increasing European influence reflected in part by Viennese influences on café and smoking culture. However, instead of clear Europeanization, Neuburger describes a cultural exchange where Bulgarians remained wary of both eastern (Ottoman) and western (European) foreign influence. It was from conversations in these public spaces of smoking that the beginnings of modern Bulgarian culture and nationalist politics emerged. 1

Not only does the reader encounter the highly contextual nature and understandings of what is “modern,” but the lens of tobacco and smoking paints...



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