Bulgaria’s Todor Zhivkov: Man, “Papa,” Dictator, Communist?
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Blog Post - August 20, 2011
*Additional Bulgaria-related article by the author: A Drop in the Ocean: A Discussion of Bulgaria’s NATO Membership and Black Sea Geopolitics. European Security. December 2008. (Vol.17, No. 4). http://bit.ly/a5cjY2
Todor Zhivkov was Bulgaria’s ruler for over three decades, making him the longest serving ruler of the Warsaw Pact. Zhivkov’s importance in the greater Cold War game is sometimes not valued enough as he secured the Soviet Union’s southern flank from potential threats. Even though he was not a die-hard Communist, his relationship and faithfulness to Moscow was close enough that Washington never took interest in that country, labeling it as the Soviet Union’s 16th republic. There is little that can be seen as Todor’s legacy to Bulgaria; he was a harsh ruler, without a clear political ideology, and was more interested in his own power and position than in the ideology war around him. Todor Zhivkov was Moscow’s dark but faithful knight in the Balkans, and that’s how he may end up being remembered
"[Zhivkov] served the Soviet Union more ardently than the Soviet leaders themselves did."
Georgi Ivanov Markov -Bulgarian dissident who was assassinated in London by agents of the Bulgarian secret police assisted by the KGB (September 11, 1978).
Todor Zhivkov was the ruler of Bulgaria, serving as First Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party, from March 4, 1954 until he was ousted by the party on November 10, 1989. He was the longest serving leader of any of the Eastern bloc nations during the Cold War. I aim to make a profile of Todor, analyzing his actions as leader, “papa” in Todor’s opinion, of Bulgaria and putting him in the proper context of the Cold War and the East vs. West ideological struggle. Was Todor really a Communist? Or simply a greedy man who followed Moscow’s wishes in order to stay in power? It would be unwise to simply label Todor as a member of the “dictator’s club” that Moscow kept in power for decades, like for example Nicolae Ceacescu of Romania, without doing a profile of Todor’s intentions and motivations. He certainly was a dictator and oppressor, he ruled Bulgaria with an iron fist, much to Moscow’s liking, however at the same time he managed to create a cult around himself that gave him a degree of popularity. Indeed, many Bulgarians still refer to him as the “papa” of Bulgaria (a term that has been adopted by other iron-fist leaders, like Saparmurat Niyazov calling him “Turkmenbashi” of Turkmenistan”).
Coming to Power and Staying in Power
In 1951, Zhivkov became a full member of the Politburo, and was made first secretary of the Bulgarian Central Committee, the youngest of any of the Eastern bloc leaders. For the first two years of Zhivkov's tenure as first secretary, the Stalinist Vulko Chervenkov remained the country's real leader, but the latter was forced out of power in 1956 in the wave of Eastern European “destalinization” that followed Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Joseph Stalin.
Zhivkov is one of those characters that emerged in the Cold War, a time when the fate of the globe was played like a gigantic chess game, and his place in history can be described as a pawn. But he was an astute pawn. I argue that his goal in life was not to advance and consolidate Communism or Socialism, but to consolidate his power and status in Bulgaria. He was astute in the sense that he knew the global game that was been played around him and was aware of what he had to do to please his masters in Moscow. He was not a Communist at heart, but would pretend to be one in order to stay in power. Given Bulgaria’s strategic location in southeastern Europe, any attempt by Zhivkov to draw away from Communism and Moscow’s wishes would have most likely earned him a bullet in his head; therefore the most logical option was for him not be too ambitious or daring regarding the geopolitical game.
Within Bulgaria Todor’s actions differed from other dictators around him. He had a dictatorial-type of government for most of his time, as he oppressed his people, had dissidents murdered (or who simply disappeared), while his decisions as a ruler hardly ever were for the benefit of the Bulgarian population. In 1986, when a meltdown occurred at the nuclear plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, Zhivkov did not inform his countrymen in order to avoid chaos that could hurt his rule. The difference between him and others like Ceaucescu (who was summarily trialed and executed in Christmas 1989, a month after Zhivkov himself was sacked from power) is that he managed to create a cult around him in his native Bulgaria, which assured him that he had the support of at least part of the local population. Even today there are die-hard Communists in Bulgaria that see Zhivkov as a good leader and call him, as the whole country was forced to do at one point, by the nickname that he chose for himself: “papa.”
Todor Zhivkov’s place in Cold War history is that of an astute, Moscow-controlled pawn. He was not a visionary, nor an idealist, much less a Communist. Zhivkov wanted power, and he obtained it, at the cost and suffering of the people of Bulgaria.
I. Background: Todor as “papa” and dictator
Zhivkov, following the pattern of oppressive rulers the Balkans have seen for centuries, was not in any way tolerant to dissidence. He was also known for sending potential rivals as well as critics of his government to jail, or at the very least getting out of their positions of power. One of these critics was Boris Taskov, who was purged from the politburo and from his post as minister of trade during the spring of 1959 (1). Another example is what happened with Vulko Chervenkov (kown as “Little Stalin”) who had ruled Bulgaria as first secretary of the party before Zhivkov came to power. During the plenum of the Bulgarian central committee on November 28-29 of 1958, Zhivkov expelled Chervenkov, essentially his mentor, from the politburo, the central committee, and his government post as deputy premier (2).
The most famous murder attributed to the Bulgarian government was that of Georgi Markov, a BBC World Service journalist and Bulgarian dissident who in 1978 was murdered in London by being injected with ricin from the tip of an umbrella.
One event that probably helped Zhivkov’s decision to violently clash on dissidents was an attempted coup d’etat against him in 1965 when disgruntled military officers and Party members attempted to overthrow Zhivkov. This was the first ever such occurrence in a communist state. It is true that there had been over occasions where there were uprisings against Communist governments prior to 1965, most notably the Hungarian uprising of 1956, however what made the Bulgarian attempt different is that it was not a popular movement, but that it came from within the Communist party and the military. It can be argued that Khrushchev’s fall from Soviet power in 1964, greatly shocked Zhivkov and political opponents saw this as the best time to strike. According to Stefan Svirdlev, a colonel in the state security who defected in 1971, between 1965 and 1971 there were no less six coup attempts aimed at the forcible overthrow of the Bulgarian first secretary (3).
The 1965 attempt, known as the “April conspiracy,” had General Ivan Todorov-Gorunia as leader, who later killed himself to avoid arrest. He was joined by the commander and deputy commander of the Genov detachment, Tsolo Krustev and Major General Tsviatko Anev. Among the others who were brought to trial were two active-duty major generals. According to the official version of the case, the conspirators sympathized with Maoism and wished to impose a Chinese ideology in Bulgaria (4). Unofficially, rumors flew that they did not like Zhivkov’s sub-ordinance to the Soviet Union, or simply were angry about the favoritism Zhivkov had for other partisan veterans, particularly those of his own Chavdar brigade (5). In an interview with the author, Vladimir Stoinov, ex member of the BCP and deputy-major of the municipality of the Bulgarian town of Elin Pelin, mentioned that according to his memory, even a tank brigade from Sofia was involved in the coup attempt (6).
Following the 1965 coup attempt was the crash of a Bulgarian Airlines flight on November 1966. The crash killed 82 people including the Bulgarian opera singer Katya Popova. However, what made news was that among the dead was also the Bulgarian Ambassador to East Germany and the former head of the Bulgarian army’s general staff, Ivan Buchvarov. The ambassador had been for a long time on Zhivkov’s black list for being involved, even though it is not clear to what extent, in the 1965 coup attempt by Todorov. While officially the crash was blamed on bad weather, it would be very much like Zhivkov to sacrifice the lives of over 80 individuals just to kill one potential adversary (7).
Even the cultural life of Bulgaria was affected by Todor Zhivkov. In 1963 he charged writers who supported cultural liberalization as being guilty of formalism, pessimism, decadence and infatuation with Western forms alien to Bulgarian national traditions, demanding that they adhere to socialist realism and a strong infusion of partinost (party spirit) into cultural life (8). The magazine Literaturni novini (Literary News) was closed down and liberals were removed from the editorial staffs of other publications. Zhivkov also installed Georgi Dzhagarov as head of the Writer’s Union and in 1971 was promoted to deputy chairmanship of the State Council, effectively becoming Zhivkov’s viceroy in Bulgarian literature life (9). The critic Lazar Tsvetkov was jailed for circulating the works of Russian dissidents while Blgada Dimitrova, a great Bulgarian writer, suffered a campaign of denunciation in 1982 when her novel Litso (Face) offended the party leadership with its depiction of cynicism and hypocrisy among the elite (10).
Finally it is necessary to mention the existence of prisoner camps in Bulgaria, following the model of Hitler’s concentration camps and the Russian gulags. The most infamous of these camps was located in Belene, a city close the Danube River, where a major TVO, which translated from Bulgarian means labor training communities, was built and operated for most of Zhivkov’s rule. The camp opened in 1949 but closed in 1953. It was reopened in 1956 via Protocol “B” due to the Hungarian uprising and with a recently appointed Zhivkov probably still alarmed that his control could crumble like in Hungary. The individuals sent to Belene and later to Lovech were mostly political dissidents, opposition leaders and in some cases actual criminals. For the government, these 500-600 individuals were “hopeless” as there was no way that they could be freed because of their beliefs, so simply disappeared in these camps, as they were worked to death. Camp survivors reported that they were not given meat in their meals, just vegetables and 700 grams of bread. The meals were given only once in the evening while washing was done in the polluted Osam river which was close to the camp. The detainees had to use old soldier’s clothes filled with parasites; the ex prisoner Neno Hristov from Izvorovo village explained that: “I’ve never seen before sores on people’s bodies full with worms. The only thing one could do about it was to ask a friend to pee in the sores on our backs... there was no other way. (11)”
Out of the 1500 inmates that were in such camps at one time or another, around 155 died. Interestingly, there were never any written orders given at these camps, simply oral commands from one officer to another, so there is no paper trail that can be used to put on trial the officers who ran these camps and the government officials who ordered their existence (12).
Unlike many other communist leaders, Zhivkov proved himself a fairly acceptable handler of the economy. In 1956, Bulgaria was still an agrarian country, where the rural economy still outweighed the industrial sector. A 1957 edict of the Executive Council on one of the Sofia districts designated the specific locations where domestic animals and poultry could be bred. As Rossitza Guentcheva writes, the average Bulgarian citizen in the 1950s was most likely to be disturbed by the mooing of cows than anything else (13). The 1960s, with the country already under Zhivkov rule, saw an aggressive push for industrialization. Among the decisions carried out by Zhivkov for the “better of the people,” was building compact buildings where people would live, with a flat being 75 square meters big, as dictated by the Council of Ministers (who did not live in such flats) (14).
What occurred in Bulgaria under Todor was a state-backed program to ethnically homogenize the nation, very much like Ceausescu was doing in next-door Romania vis-à-vis the ethnic Hungarians of Transylvania. The 1971constitution -- Zhivkov’s Constitution -- spoke of “citizens of non-Bulgarian extraction” (Art. 45 (7)), while in 1977 the BCP proclaimed that Bulgaria already was ‘almost of a single ethnic type and was nearing complete homogeneity’. The term “unified Bulgarian nation” appeared in the official press in 1973. In 1977 the Communist Party daily Rabotnichesko Delo, defined Bulgaria as “almost completely of one ethnic type and moving toward complete national homogeneity.” In 1979, party leader Todor Zhivkov claimed that “the Bulgarian national question has been solved definitively and categorically by the population itself.”
In reality, Bulgaria is a very cosmopolitan country, where its citizens include not only ethnic Bulgarians by a grand diversity of different ethnic groups. During Todor’s time, one ethic group that was particularly targeted with repressive means were the Turks. There has always been an unstable relationship between the Bulgarians and the Turks as the latter were the former’s masters for close to 500 years during the Ottoman Empire. When the communists came to power in Bulgaria, a large number of ethnic Turks sought to migrate to Turkey, as their schools were nationalized and their farmlands were confiscated (15). The Bulgarian government demanded in August 1950 that Turkey accept 250,000 Turks over three months time. After many discussions the Turkish government eventually accepted and almost 155,000 Turks migrated to Turkey over a two-year period (16). Bulgaria began a campaign of forced assimilation of ethnic Turks, which included name changes, prohibition of Islamic religious customs, the closing of mosques, and the banning of Turkish music and traditional clothing as well as the use of the language in public. (The practice of using force on minorities to adopt Bulgarian names had been carried out against the Pomaks [Slavic Muslims] between 1972 and 1974 and against Turkish-speaking Roma between 1981 and 1983) (17).
In 1984 there was a radical change of strategy regarding the minorities: the Bulgarian government excluded the term “Turk” from official discourse, and replaced it by “Muslim Bulgarian citizens” or “Bulgarians with restored [Bulgarian] names,” implying that the so-called “Turks” were “Bulgarians” in origin. New history books were written to avoid the term “Turks”. During the mid 1970s most Turkish schools were closed and Turkish language newspapers and journals were terminated. In 1984 the Zhivkov government forced the Bulgarian Turkish minority to adopt Slavic names. Vladimir Stoinov explains how the Elin Pelin municipality received the order ( by word to mouth, nothing written) that if a Turk changed his name, they had immediately to find him work , a place to live and money if necessary (18). When news of the Bulgarian actions reached Turkey in early 1985, there was agitation in the Turkish media and public protests throughout the country. Bulgarian authorities attempted to deflect accusations made from Turkey by pointing to Turkish treatment of its Kurdish minority (19).
It is generally and accepted that minorities like ethnic Turks, Gypsies and Pomaks were not represented in the Bulgarian government in accordance with their number in the general population. For example, in the 1981 central committee there were 3 Jews, 1 Turk, 1 Pomak and no Gypsies (20). It would take the eventual ouster of Bulgaria’s president Todor Zhivkov in November 1989 and legislation the following year before minority groups would be allowed to restore their names and to practice their faith and customs freely (21).
II. Todor in the Cold War
Bulgaria was important for Moscow during the Cold War. Its geopolitical position made it imperative to have a very Moscow-friendly government in place as the Balkan peninsula had at the time two NATO countries, Greece and Turkey. At the same time Romania’s Nicolae Ceasescu was more of a self-centered dictator than a Moscow-ally, which made him unreliable. Moreover, Yugoslavia had broken away from Moscow’s grip, which made it a security issue. Given such a geopolitical reality, it was necessary to keep Bulgaria as very pro-Moscow to protect the Warsaw Pact’s southern flank.
Pawn of Moscow
In his memoirs, former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria Raymond Garthoff explained that “Ambassador Basovsky, as the Soviet representative in Bulgaria […] had great influence [and] event acted virtually as an adjunct member of the Bulgarian leadership. He even appeared in public along with members of the Bulgarian politburo flanking Zhivkov on the reviewing stand for parades. (22)” During the 1968 Prague Spring uprising, Bulgarian troops take part in Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to quell the rebellion. During most of Zhivkov’s rule, Bulgaria’s lack of independence was seen by the West as an example that this country was essentially the sixteenth Soviet republic (23).
An important factor to mention is how Soviet leaders continuously sought to restrain Zhivkov from some of his desires to industrialize (for example, an industry utilizing petroleum products, the raw materials for which Bulgaria obtained largely from the USSR at below-world-market prices) (24). Such small differences between Bulgaria and the Soviet Union did exist however they were never openly mentioned, hence the relationship, in the eyes of the rest of the world, continued to be that of a major power dealing with a close satellite. An additional aspect that cemented this union was the historical relationship between Russia and Bulgaria, with the latter regarding the former as their “Slavic big brother,” which can be traced as far back as the Crimean War ( a war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire) and the liberation of Bulgaria in 1878 from Ottoman rule.
In general terms though, Zhivkov was Moscow’s preferred friend, particularly during the Khrushchev era. After coming to power, Khrushchev adopted an aggressive policy to “de-Stalinize” the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, namely getting rid of anything and anyone that had to do with the Stalin era. The Bulgarian leader Chervenkov was one of these leaders who simply had to be removed in Khrushchev’s time. In May of 1962 Khrushchev and a high-ranking Soviet delegation visited Bulgaria, with the Soviet leader praising Zhivkov and the “normalization” in Bulgarian party life that had taken under his leadership. It was clear that Zhivkov had become Khrushchev’s chosen instrument to rule Bulgarian, for the Soviet leader praised several times as well as stressing their “warm personal relationship (25).” In 1978, the Varna-Illichevsk ferry opened this was an important event as it permitted the movement of Soviet military forces to Bulgarian soil without having to go through Romania (26).
With the advent of perestroika in the Soviet Union, the first cracks began to appear in the thirty-five-year regime of Bulgaria's former dictator Todor Zhivkov. After 1985, opposition groups began to form, despite the still-powerful and repressive government. At the behest of the Soviet Union, Zhivkov initiated reforms in 1987, but these measures were half-hearted and largely ineffective. There are some plausible theories that the Soviet Union encouraged Zhivkov's ouster as the Soviets had become increasingly unhappy with the pseudo-reforms undertaken by Zhivkov during his last four years in power, and it is possible that they instigated or supported BCP attempts to remove the dictator. While the Soviet Union almost certainly did not bear full responsibility for the overthrow, President Gorbachev could not have been displeased with the fall of the Bulgarian leader (27).
Bulgaria in the Cold War
During the Cold War, Bulgaria was part of Moscow’s sphere of influence, particularly when it came to foreign policy. Bulgarian support for Third World national liberation movements included financial backing, paramilitary training and sanctuary for members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization as well as several radical African movements (28). At a personal level, Todor Zhivkov was friends with leaders like Fidel Castro, Muammar al-Qaddafi and Yasser Arafat.
We also have to discuss relations with Turkey, Bulgaria’s southern neighbor as well as Sofia’s relationship with other Balkan countries. Sofia’s Balkan policy was also another issue that sometimes put the country at odds with the Soviet Union. Relations with Greece had been particularly tense after the Hellenic country joined NATO and agreed to have American missile bases on its soil. To tense relations even more, the Greek government was upset that Bulgaria allowed its territory to be used as a refuge by leftist opponents of the Greek regime (29). Only in 1964 did relations improve, when the Bulgarian foreign minister visited Athens to sign different agreements, including one in which Bulgaria agreed to pay Greece $7 million in reparations for World war II. The 1967 Greek military coup did not change much relations between both governments, but relations did improve when the military regime in Athens fell and Andreas Papandreou won the Greek elections in 1981 (30).
Relations with Romania were generally good because of the personal friendship between the two dictators, Zhivkov and Ceausescu. In the late 1970s, both leaders began the tradition of an annual exchange of visits and agreed to take joint projects along like development along the Danube (31). An interesting historical fact is that when Ceausescu, with the support of Bulgaria, called for developing a Balkan “nuclear-free zone,” the Turkish government rejected the proposal as it remained firmly committed to NATO.
Regarding Turkey, as previously mentioned, the issues of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority was the main obstacle preventing normal relations between both countries (not to mention that Turkey was a NATO member like Greece). Relations improved after a 1969 agreement where Turkish Bulgarians where allowed to emigrate; between 80 and 90 thousand individuals, about 10% of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority, left the country (32). In December 1975, Turkey and Bulgaria signed a Declaration of Principles of Good-Neighborliness and Cooperation, which included pledges of nonaggression and respect for their common frontier, assurances similar to the ones Bulgaria had given Greece a few months earlier (33). Following the Turkish military coup in September 1980, the Soviet media attacked the regime as being repressive and all too willing to collaborate with the United States; yet state-to-state relations remained generally normal and Turkish-Soviet trade increased. Turkish-Bulgarian relations were also business as usual; when Turkey was under military rule, there were mutual visits betweenr Zhivkov and his Turkish counterpart, General Kenan Evren (34). It is important to note that although Bulgarian foreign policy under the communists reflected that of the Soviet Union, such was not necessarily the case during Gorbachev’s rule, especially regarding bilateral ties with Turkey. Even as early as December 1984, months before Gorbachev came to power, Turkish-Bulgarian relations were deteriorating as a result of the Bulgarian government’s treatment of its Turkish population (35).
Finally, relations between Sofia and Belgrade were at odds during the 1960s and 1970s, coming from several declarations by Zhivkov about the historical Bulgarian character of Macedonia and denying the existence of a separate Macedonian nationality (36). Both Zhivkov and Tito were stuck in a war of words over this issue, however not even Tito’s death improve the situation. In August 1983, the Bulgarian press suggested that only in the Bulgarian Pirin region do Macedonians enjoy genuine freedom (37). The controversy never took a higher dimension than just a word of words between the authoritarian leaders of the two countries. For Bulgarians, as John Bell argues, emphasis on the Macedonian question promoted patriotism and diverted national feeling away from resentment for Zhivkov and the government being subjugated to the USSR (38). In addition, since Moscow was at odds with Belgrade because of Tito’s breaking away of the Warsaw Pact, it is not difficult to believe that policymakers in Moscow saw with happy eyes tensions between its satellites and Yugoslavia, further isolating the latter country.
Throughout the Cold War, Bulgaria was regarded by Washington as firmly in Moscow’s sphere of influence, hence there was no major attempt to improve relations between both countries. Relations had been severed by the U.S. in 1950 after the Bulgarian government had accused a U.S. diplomatic official of being a spy and contact for a Bulgarian political opponent who was executed (39). Relations were only restored in 1959 but even after their restoration, there were constant incidents that kept relations cool. In the late 1970s, for example, the Bulgarian government continuously jammed the broadcasts of Voice of America in the country (40).
In the 1970s the U.S. embassy in Sofia was a fairly small mission, with a staff numbering only some sixty-one people, of whom 26 were Americans and 35 local Bulgarians (41). In 1979 the staff of the American embassy was lowered to a class- IV (42). This is an internal way of organizing the importance of missions abroad by the State Department; a higher ranking embassy simply meant that the country was given more attention by the State Department ( for example Bucharest was a class II). Vladimir Stoinov adds that it was Todor’s daughter Ludmila who kept contacts open with Washington, but Moscow was always an obstacle. He adds that an example of this occurred when the Bulgarian politician Ognjan Doinov was taken from power because he tried to bring Bulgaria closer to Japan and West Germany (43).
In any case, relations with the U.S. as well as with the West in general reached were generally strained due of a number of issues, like for example Bulgaria’s support for the USSR’s interventions in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979. Furthermore there was the murder of dissident Maikov in London. Finally, in May 1981, Pope John Paull II was victim of an assassination attempt while he was in St. Peter’s Square. The would-be assassin was a Turkish militant named Ali Agca who stated that the Bulgarian government hired him to kill the Pope. No concrete proof ever came that proved Bulgaria’s, and by default Zhivkov’s, role in the assasination attempt, however in 1984 the U.S. Senate adopted a resolution branding Bulgaria a “terrorist nation (44). ”
III. Todor the Megomaniac or Communist
In the spring of 1956, Todor Zhivkov proclaimed the end of the personality cult but, in reality, he became a generator of an even more oppressive cult about himself. This dictatorial sort of ruler was exactly what was favored in the conditions of the socialist system and the Kremlin-imposed political and social order in the countries of Eastern Europe. Todor Zhivkov and his associates were never lacking in ideas about Bulgaria's economic development. At the numerous party congresses, they molded their ideas into resolutions but the inherent wrongness of the very foundation of the totalitarian system and the rules of the Kremlin-directed game doomed those ideas to failure, no matter how promising they might have seemed at first glance.
Zhikov was a power hungry individual. In the 1971 tenth party congress, a new constitution was approved to replace the Dimitrov constitution of 1947. Thanks to the new constitution, the Council of Ministers became a subordinate to a State Council, whose chairman became the official head of state; Zhivkov resigned his post as prime minister, the title he had held until then, to assume his new post (45). Zhikov’s ability to replace his subordinates like an expert chess player greatly helped stabilize his power to minimize new potential coups against him.
Even though Todor was Moscow’s most trusted pawn in the Balkans, it is not appropriate to call him a Communist. His decision to go into the Communist path and, as head of state, continuously follow Moscow’s wishes (either in Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Afghanistan in 1979), had more to do with him recognizing who his masters were that kept him in power than ideological respect. Any attempt to follow another course of action, like breaking away from Moscow’s influence, might have earned him a bullet in the head. Furthermore, seeing how repressive the Bulgarian government was against dissidence, one could speculate that Todor was continuously afraid of any kind of movement that could take him from power (like almost happened in 1965) and stayed with Moscow because he did not think he could survive as ruler of the country without outside help. Vladimir Stoinov mentions that he did not think Todor was a Communist or Socialist; he highlights decree 56, which allowed for private property, as an example of this (46).
The Bulgarian leader’s reluctance to follow with perestroika and glasnost during the late 1980s, as dictated by the head of the Soviet Union Mikael Gorbachev is another prove of Todor’s reluctance to follow all of Moscow’s orders. If Zhikov had been a true communist, he would have followed the orders at once as dictated by Gorbachev himself, but he only did so with great reluctance. Todor probably guessed that these processes could undermine his rule and could eventually help him losoe power –which ultimately became true.
The “Papa” Cult
John Bell writes that “despite his steadily firmer grasp on power, Zhivkov did not introduce a personality cult like those of Stalin, Chervenkov or his northern neighbor Nicolae Ceausescu (47).” Bell explains that Zhivkov, or “Bai Tosho” ( which is Bulgarian for “papa,” as he came to be widely called), cultivated a common touch that, whether natural or feigned, was in line with the country’s egalitarian tradition. In this author’s point of view, Bell’s statement is not correct. While perhaps Zhivkov was not as fancy of building statues of himself or making shrines out of places where he had been before, he slowly became regarded as the “papa” of Bulgaria. Reviewing his achievements, he argued that in 1956, when he assumed power, Bulgaria had been 'the most backward of the members of the Warsaw Pact and CMEA'. Under his rule it rose to third place in per capita income and on the eve of his fall Bulgaria was producing more in three days than in the whole of 1939. This was made possible by 'socialism' but, in Zhivkov's view, it also needed his own enlightened leadership (48).
He also placed his kids, particularly Ludmila Zhivkova and later Vladimir Zhivkov in government positions, essentially trying to make a dynasty that would maintain power. For example, Ludmila was, until her untimely death, the head of Bulgaria’s cultural policy, spending millions to buy works of art from around the world. Her husband, Ivan Slavkov, was made a boss of the state-controlled Bulgarian Television, and later President of the Bulgarian Olympic Committee. Meanwhile, Vladimir led a playboy style of life. His drinking bouts made it impossible to promote him further than the top ranks of the Komsomol. Ludmila also introduced strange ideas related to Far Eastern philosophy which were not welcomed by the Bulgarian old guard; some sources maintain that her death in 1981 was due to Soviet meddling.
Towards the end of his reign, Zhivkov made several limited attempts to modernize Bulgaria, such as scaled down versions of glasnost and perestroika, while keeping the country under his control. However, these failed to prevent the collapse of Communism and his ultimate own ouster. In 1989, he was expelled from the Bulgarian Communist Party, and arrested in January 1990. Two years later, Zhivkov was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to seven years in prison. However, due to his frail health, he was allowed to serve his term under house arrest. Todor Zhivkov died of pneumonia in 1998.
Todor Zhivkov’s legacy to Bulgaria and the world is fairly direct and simple. He was Moscow’s pawn in the Balkans, loyal and securely tied to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. While Todor was not as harsh as some of his contemporary rulers (i.e. Ceaucescu in neighboring Romania), the decades he spent in power hardly ever benefited the Bulgarian people. The “papa” name, as some Bulgarians still remember him by today, may diminish in the coming decades if more information of Todor’s actions becomes more widely known and people realize that the cult was not created by the masses out of love, but imposed from above. Todor Zhivkov was a non-Communist, authoritarian and egomaniac ruler; unfortunately that might not be the way he planned to be remembered after this death.
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Schopflin, George. “The End of Communism in Eastern Europe.” International Affairs. Vol. 66, No. 1. January, 1990. Pp. 3-16.
Stoinov Vladimir, ex member of BCP and vice - major of Elin Pelin `s municipality. Interview with the author. November 17, 2005. Special thanks to Anita Georgieva for arranging this interview.
Todor Zhivkov: Statesman and Builder in New Bulgaria. Second Revised Edition. Pergamon Press. Oxford. 1985.
1. Bell. The Bulgarian Communist Party from Blagoev to Zhivkov. pp. 119.
2. Bell. pp. 123.
3. Bell. pp. 125.
4. Bell. pp. 126
5. Bell. Pp. 126.
6. Stoinov Interview.
7. Temkov. “I was a Conspirator”. In Bulgarian.
8. Bell. pp. 138.
9. Bell,. pp. 139
10. Bell. pp. 140
11. Hristov. "The crimes during the time of communist reign” In Bulgarian. 13.11.2004.
13. Guentcheva. Sounds and Noise in Socialist Bulgaria. Pp. 212.
14. Guentcheva. Pp. 215.
15. Bishku. “Turkish-Bulgarian Relations: From Conflict and Distrust to Cooperation.” It should be noted that with Bulgaria’s annexation of southern Dobrudja in 1940—recognized by the Soviet Union in 1947—Bulgaria acquired between 100,000 and 150,000 additional Turks. Thus the Turkish ethnic group in Bulgaria totaled about 750,000, more than 10 percent of that country’s population.
16 Ibid. A former Turkish ambassador to Bulgaria notes,“This haste could be explained by the fact that the Bulgarians were probably acting on behalf of the Soviets, who wished to ‘punish’ Turkey for its participation in the Korean War.” Turkish authorities could afford to take in only about thirty thousand immigrants to start with. They protested that the action by the Bulgarians would result in a mass expulsion and a flagrant violation of Turkey’s 1925 treaty with Bulgaria concerning the voluntary exchange of populations. Nevertheless, the Bulgarians sent Turks across the border without entry visas, and by October 1950, Turkey closed its frontier. In December the Bulgarian government accepted Turkish conditions that it wait for entry visas to be issued and that it allow illegal immigrants to be returned, but it sent Roma across the border using forged Turkish visas and refused to readmit them. Turkey was forced to close its frontier once again in November 1951; in retaliation, Bulgaria issued no more exit visas.
17. Bishku. Pp.89.
18. Stoinov. Interview.
19. Bishku, Pp. 89.
20. Bell. pp. 131. Also Stoinov Interview. Stoinov explained how there were attempts to appoint Gypsies to the local militia, however these individuals would go on robbery rampages where a Gypsy policeman would provide cover while the other Gypsies would rob stores. The Gypsies were kicked out because of this. Interestingly, when it came to housing, there was a rule to appoint one Gypsy family to live in each building with Bulgarian families.
21. Bishku, Michael B. “Until then, Turkey brought up the issue of Bulgaria’s treatment of ethnic Turks at international conferences and in its diplomatic discussions with Western and Islamic countries as well as the Soviet Union. Such moves did bring some action prior to Zhivkov’s ouster; Azeris in the Soviet Union held demonstrations of sympathy for Bulgarian Turks, while the Soviets at the urging of Turkey attempted to reconcile matters between it and Bulgaria. Prior to the Bulgarian leader’s ouster, in May 1989, he expelled some two thousand Bulgarian Turk activists and demanded that Turkey open its border; when Ozal did so, about 310,000 Turks entered Turkey until August, when Turkey reestablished visa requirements and, in effect, closed its frontier. As it was difficult to provide shelter for the masses of immigrants, Turkey desired an agreement that would regulate their numbers. By January 1990, with a changed political climate, some 130,000 of the immigrants returned to Bulgaria.
22. Garthoff, Raymond L. A Journey Through the Cold Warpp. 308.
23. Bell . pp. 142.
24. Garthoff . pp. 317
25. Bell. pp. 123.
26. Bell. pp. 143.
27. Chiodini. “Bulgaria: An Eastern European Revolution in Suspension.” Pp. 47.
28 Garthoff. Pp. 312. Also read Todor Zhivkov’s speech: Internal and Foreign Policy of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. Speech delivered at the Tenth Session of the Seventh National Assembly Sofia, 27 April 1979. Available: Todor Zhivkov: Statesman and Builder in New Bulgaria. Second Revised Edition. Pergamon Press. Oxford. 1985. pp. 235-63.
29. Bell. pp. 144,
30. Bell. pp. 144.
31. Bell. pp. 145.
32. Bell. pp. 144..
33. Bishku. Pp. 88.
34. Bishku Pp. 88.
35. Bishku. Pp. 89.
36. Bell. pp. 145.
37. Bell. pp. 145.
38. Bell. pp. 146..
39. Garthoff. pp. 310
40. Garthoff. pp. 311.
41. Garthoff. pp. 305.
42. Garthoff. pp. 306.
43. Stoinov Interview.
44. Bell. pp. 147.
45. Bell. pp. 129.
46. Stoinov Interview. Decree 56 was passed on 01.01.1989 - the decree for the private property. There’s a following Government’s decree No36 , 28.06.1989 that says that the state manufactures become shared property.
47. Bell, John D. pp. 127.
48. Ex-Communist Party in Bulgaria whitewashed and ready for the EU. Agence France Press.
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