On June 16, 2022, Marshall Lee Miller was awarded the Badge of Honor St. Kliment of Ohrid, with a necklace, by Sofia University for his longstanding friendship and staunch support for Bulgaria’s premier educational institution. The America for Bulgaria Foundation’s longest-serving board member, Mr. Miller was instrumental in securing ABF support for the participation of student teams from the university in the prestigious Philip C. Jessup International Moot Court Competition in Washington, DC since 2010.
Mr. Miller’s connection to Bulgaria and Bulgarian scholarship, however, goes even further back — to 1964.
Marshall Lee Miller’s first visit to Bulgaria was inauspicious. Sofia, the capital, was freezing cold, the streets were dark, food was scarce, and to reach his accommodation, he had to take a ramshackle bus to the mountainous outskirts of town. The country’s security services kept tabs on his every move.
Bulgaria fifty-eight years ago may not have been the most welcoming place for a young American, but he remained a lifelong friend.
“Back then, it seemed that no one in the West knew anything about Bulgaria. To me that was interesting, like a great adventure,” says Marshall, who was a fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, at the time.
He convinced his alma mater, Harvard University, to finance the adventure and spent the better part of the next few years in Bulgaria researching the country’s recent history. He was one of only three Americans, apart from the US diplomatic mission, in the country at the time.
“Back then in Bulgaria, there was great distrust and fear of foreigners,” Marshall says. Even so, the locals were friendly and helped him, likely disarmed by his genuine interest and droll sense of humor. The Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the National Library, the Sofia Synagogue Archives, the Institute for Balkanistics, the Museum of the Revolutionary Movement, the Central State Historical Archives, and Sofia University opened their doors to him. “I even had access to the mensa [the student canteen, ed.],” Marshall notes dryly. The fare there was the object of many a student joke over the years.
“[Despite the challenges] I very much enjoyed it here,” he says.
His research focused on topics related to the death of Tsar Boris III, Bulgaria’s last ruling monarch, the salvation of the Bulgarian Jews, and diplomatic battles among the great powers being waged in Bulgaria. Marshall even managed to outline the route of every partisan unit during every day of the war.
The result was his Bulgaria During the Second World War book, published by Stanford University Press in 1975. The book received enthusiastic reception abroad (not so much in Bulgaria due to its failure to glorify the Bulgarian partisans’ role in the war) and is still considered one of the defining works on the subject.
In the meantime, Marshall completed a JD degree from Yale University and was a fellow at Heidelberg University. In the United States, he went on to work in the areas of law, environment, and state administration. He served as US Assistant Deputy Attorney-General and has also held senior positions at the Department of Labor and other governmental agencies. He also helped establish the US Environmental Protection Agency and wrote a dozen books on the environment.
Marshall has been an editor with the Yale Law Journal and has lectured at universities and institutions all over the country. In addition to a dozen modern languages, Bulgarian among them, Marshall has studied ancient Greek, Latin, and Akkadian.
His high appointments and accomplishments notwithstanding, he never lost his interest in Bulgaria. He even brought his wife, Marlene, to Bulgaria on their honeymoon in 1970.
(“The marriage survived,” Marshall notes in a monotone. Accidentally or not, he had forgotten to tell his wife that the Bulgarian head gestures for “yes” and “no” were opposite to what she was familiar with. Although that led to a few embarrassing situations and somewhat delayed Marlene’s conversion to a fan of Bulgaria, she has accompanied her husband on each one of his biannual trips to the country in the past thirty years.)
In 1991, President George H. W. Bush appointed Marshall as his personal observer of the first free elections in Bulgaria.
Soon after that, President Bush nominated Marshall to be one of the first founders of a new type of investment fund in Bulgaria whose aim was to develop the private sector in the country. The Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund was a resounding success, thanks in part to the efforts of directors like Marshall, turning a $55 million grant from the citizens of the United States into almost $500 million. This profit endowed a charitable foundation, the America for Bulgaria Foundation, which has given more than a quarter billion dollars to educational institutions, underserved communities, historical heritage, and cultural organizations across Bulgaria since 2009.
Marshall accepted the Sofia University distinction by recognizing the Fund’s and the Foundation’s management, saying: “They are true heroes. And I am proud to accept this great honor from Sofia University today not only on my behalf, but on behalf of all working to make Bulgaria a better place. I thank you. We thank you.”
After a thirty-year service, Marshall’s longest-standing engagement, he is stepping down from the ABF Board at the end of this year. But his term’s limit is not an end to his involvement in Bulgaria, he says, “because the job isn’t done.”
He quickly adds: “I also love kepabche [grilled meat stick, ed.], lyutenitsa [pepper and tomato dip, ed.], kyopolou [eggplant dip, ed.], and the overpriced lavrak [sea bass, ed.].”
The adventure continues.