Select language:

In English

Home > Database > Bulgaria > Historical Overview

Get Informed

Print this article

Historical Overview

Communism in Bulgaria to 1944

The origins of the Bulgarian Communist Party lay in the Social Democratic and Labour Party of Bulgaria, known as the Tesnyatsi (Tesni socialisti, tesni (тесни) means narrow), which was founded in 1903 after a split in the Social-Democratic Party. The party's founding leader was Dimitar Blagoev and its subsequent leaders included Georgi Dimitrov. The party opposed World War I was sympathetic to the October Revolution in Russia and applied to join the Communist International upon its founding in 1919. Upon joining the Comintern the party was reorganised as the Communist Party of Bulgaria, which fully followed all instructions of Comintern.
Rise of communism was supported by internal problems of Bulgaria after the I World War. Country was in miserable shape and torn by the contradictions. In 1923 the government was overthrown by the military coup which was followed by the agrarian uprising. The Bulgarian Communist Party took up a neutral position on the 9 June coup d'état and the subsequent June Uprising because it regarded what was happening in the country as "struggle for power between the urban and rural bourgeoisie". This position was provoked by the belief, that the conditions were not ripe for a revolution in Bulgaria yet. Communists also wanted to move all possible competitors out of their way to take over the country. The moment looked to be ripe after some months.
In early August 1923, a plenary session of the BCP Central Committee was called. During the session, the young and radical party activists, headed by Georgi Dimitrov and Vasil Kolarov, backed by the Comintern, won the support to the idea of a uprising. Through its secret service government got information on preparations of the uprising and took precautions to prevent it, arresting more than 2,000 noted BCP activists in September 1923. As a reaction to the arrests, the uprising broke out without plan in isolated areas, initially around Kazanlak. On 20 September, a BCP Central Committee decided to proclaim the uprising on the eve of 23 September. The plan involved a mass uprising around Vratsa followed by the formation of an organized militia which would capture the capital Sofia.
Aleksandar Tsankov's government, not enjoying wide popular support but relying on the army, declared a martial law and mobilized sizable forces to suppress the uprising. Groups of volunteers were also organized to fight against the rebels. The lack of an uprising in Sofia allowed the government to use its best military units from Sofia to crush the uprising in other parts of the country. As a result the uprising was quickly crushed and repressions followed. Casualties among the civil population amounted to more than 2,000 people. After the crushing of the uprising, its leaders Georgi Dimitrov and Vasil Kolarov fled to Yugoslavia and then to the Soviet Union. Some of the rebels remained in the country and acted as isolated militia in the mountains, other emigrated to Yugoslavia.
After the failure of the uprising in 1923 and the prohibition of the BCP, the Communist Party found itself in a difficult situation. Now communists moved to the way of direct terror. A Special Punitive Group was established as part of the Central Committee of the BCP, and small isolated terrorist groups ("шесторки", "shestorki") were created that carried out individual acts of terrorism. The plan was born to kill some high-rank official and then carry out a really large-scale attack during his funeral service to eliminate in one stroke all political and military leaders of the country. The largest Cathedral in Sofia, St. Nedelya Church was selected as place for the assault. During a couple of weeks a total of 25 kg of explosives were secretly hided to the attic of church at the beginning of 1925. The explosives were mounted in a package above one of the columns of the main dome, situated by the south entrance to the building. The plan was to detonate them by a 15 m-long cord that would allow the assailants a chance to escape. Comintern officially not approve the proposal, as it thought such an action should first be preceded by preparations for a large-scale uprising that would follow the attack. Local communists nevertheless moved on, assassinating General Georgiev as a start of the operations. One of the organizers of the attack, Marko Fridman, confessed afterwards that the organization of attack was financed and supplied with weaponry from the Soviet Union,
The funeral service of General was set for 16 April 1925, Holy Thursday. In order to increase the toll, the organizers of attack sent forged invitations on behalf of the Association of Reserve Officers. In accordance with the terrorists' plan, when the people had gathered and the service began, the church was detonated by the bomb. The explosion demolished the main dome of the church, burying many people inside. 150 people died during the assault and another 500 were injured. By chance, all government members and Tsar Boris III survived as they were not in the church at the moment of explosion. This was the biggest single terrorist act in the world until the Oklahoma city bombing of 1995. After the assault, martial law was declared in Bulgaria. The attack caused a wave of violent repressions, which effectively destroyed the communist network in Bulgaria. Involvement in terrorist activities decreased the popularity and support for communists, and decreased its influence.

Communist takeover in Bulgaria 1944-1953.
New chance was offered for Bulgarian communists in 1944 when victorious Red Army moved towards Bulgarian borders, that in the war has been ally of Germany. Through the summer of 1944, various coalition governments tried to leave the Axis and negotiate peace with the Allies, but failed due to Soviet intransigence, who were interested to achieve full control over Bulgaria. Although in September 1944 Bulgaria broke with Germany and declared war on it, Russia did not relent and declared war on Bulgaria. On the night of September 8, 1944, pro-Soviet army officers carried out military coup and government of the "Fatherland Front" was declared, heavily dominated by the Communists.
The model for takeover was simple but effective. Communists took control over the "power" ministries and launched then terror against all possible opponents. After the occupation of the country by the Red Army, between 2,000 and 5,000 people were killed intentionally and without any legal basis. In 1944-1945, so-called ‘People's Courts' pronounced 9,115 verdicts with 2,730 people sentenced to death. The first concentration camp began functioning as early as the end of September 1944 in the village of Zeleni Doli. Several such camps were subsequently established. As of September 1951, over 4,500 people were held in these labour camps. Another figure that should be added to the labour camp statistics is that of the forced labour mobilisations and the internment and relocation of families. In 1945-1953, 24,624 people were forcefully relocated or interned.

Terror did not only beheaded the pre-war elites but also instilled a real fear in the population. This was needed for destruction of every possible opposition, where leading role was played by popular Agrarian Party. Even when the Communists could thanks to Soviet pressure control the government, opposition was loud and active. Unfortunately, it did not receive any real support from the West. Understanding this, the Communists arrested the leader of the parliamentary opposition, Nikola Petkov, in 1947, sentenced him to death and subsequently executed him. The Agrarian Union, with its 150,000 members, was banned and many of its activists arrested. After the destruction of Petkov, the Communists moved quickly to consolidate a full takeover, passing the new ‘Stalinist' constitution and liquidating the last signs of democracy. As a result Kremlin considered Bulgaria fully under control, as a result the Red Army units were moved out from its territory.

The resistance nevertheless continued. The armed resistance against the communists began actually after the Communist takeover in 1944. Thousands took to the mountains to escape the Communist terror and the firing squads. They formed groups; each equipped with weapons, and declared an armed resistance, giving birth to the ‘Goryani' (Forest People) movement. Some of the Goryani squads consisted of 50-70 men and the movement was mainly active around Sliven, Pazardkijk and in the Rhodopi mountains. Although the total number of Goryani is still debated, it is known that around 2,000 armed men backed by 10,000 supporters organised themselves into 28 larger detachments and dozens of smaller units. At the end of the 1940s, the movement was strengthened by an influx of peasants escaping collectivisation. According to Soviet data, about 440 partisans were killed and 806 fighters arrested during the 1949-1956 period.

To keep the society under control the communist authorities continued to spread the atmosphere of fear. Levels of fear were to be maintained by: land collectivization, which hit 80% of the population, the maintenance of concentration camps, the everpresent threat of "internment" to outlying areas and the discrimination of the children of "bourgeois elements" and by the maintenance of one of the largest, per capita,, political police and Communist Party structure in the Soviet block. Large part of Bulgarian society was also at the beginning tempted by the communist programme of "modernization without capitalism" that had considerable support in 1920s.

The fear was kept up also by purges of the Communist Party, which was typical feature of Stalinism in the Communist block. According to Brzezinski, an average of one out of every four party members was purged in each of the East European parties. In Bulgaria nearly 100,000 Communist Party members were under investigation between 1948 and 1953, many of them were imprisoned and some executed. In addition to rank-and-file member purges, prominent Communists were also purged and some of them were subjected to public show trials. One of Stalin's trustees in the region, Bulgarian leader Gheorghi Dimitrov, announced, ‘it doesn't matter what someone's services and merits might have been in the past. We shall expel from the party and punish anyone who deserves it, no matter who he might have been once upon a time.' The show trials were mostly instigated and sometimes orchestrated by the Kremlin or even Stalin himself, as they had been in the earlier Moscow Trials. These high-ranking party show trials included Traicho Kostev in Bulgaria, who was purged, arrested and executed. Kostev retracted his confession in the court and refused to admit his guilt. The public broadcast went silent and the trial was finished without Kostev. The Church was also repressed. The first purge of the Orthodox Church came in 1948, when the head of the church was forced to retire into ‘voluntary exile'. In 1949, representatives of the Evangelist Church were sentenced to life imprisonment while in 1952, several trials were held against ‘agents from the Vatican', with many Catholic priests being imprisoned and four of them executed.

Bulgaria 1953-1989

By the late 1950s Bulgaria was quiescent and cowed into submission. Thanks to the generous Soviet support country was really modernized, developing faster as most other countries in the Communist block and decreasing difference with them on the level of development. Such development was nevertheless not sustainable, as it actually led to absolute dependence upon the Soviet Union and bankrupt. When Moscow asked for its money by the end of the 1950s, the Bulgarian leader, Todor Zhivkov, secretly handed over the national gold reserve to the Kremlin. In July 1963, Zhivkov decided to cut the country's losses by dissolving Bulgaria and integrating it into the USSR as the sixteenth republic. When the Soviet leadership declined, fearing that to do so might incur geopolitical problems, Zhivkov raised the question again in 1973, hoping in this way to pay its debts to Moscow. In order to keep its satellite afloat, the Kremlin decided to subsidise Bulgaria's economy with up to $600 million annually for agricultural produce and support with subsidised oil. In real terms, Bulgaria could not compete with those of the Western European countries. Productivity was still poor and most of the goods produced were not competitive on world markets, with the result that they could only be traded on the closed socialist markets. During the 1980s Bulgarian economic growth stopped and country moved to more and more serious economic problems, undermining the authority of the communist system.

Resistance against the system was not very large during these years in Bulgaria, becoming mostly act of individual self-sacrifice. In 1955 dr Ivan Georgiev founded the Bulgarian National-Revolutionary Party and ended up in prison. In 1956-1957 a handful of intellectuals distributed texts supportive of the Hungarian revolution and were also sentenced. In 1968, students were imprisoned for supporting "Prague Spring". Individual resistance went on through the 1970s, landing dissidents in prison. In 1985 two long-time dissidents were killed in the Pazardjik prison.

In attempt to raise their popularity Bulgarian communist leaders also played out the national card. In the winter of 1986-1987 the regime unleashed wave of mass repression against the Turkish minority, which comprised one-eighth of the population. The use of the Turkish language and Muslim rituals were banned and muslim names were replaced by Slav sounding names. Even the dead were renamed, retrospectively. Turks were declared to fifth column of Turkey, which was by Bulgarian leaders preparing to annex the southern half of Bulgaria. In the spring of 1989, the regime decided to push the entire Turkish minority across the border into Turkey. The dislocation dealt the final death blow to the communist economy while the international uproar isolated Bulgaria, preparing so the fall of communism.

The fall of communism in Bulgaria.

After perestroika began in Moscow, the opposition movement in Bulgaria had gathered strength. The local hardliners under the leadership of Todor Zhivkov refused to follow the Soviet model of perestroika and initiated top-down reforms. This ensured that anyone who desired change would have to look outside the Party. In order to win the support of the population, the Communists intensified the pressure on the Turkish minority. In contrast to the Communists' expectations, however, this led instead to both organised resistance and public sympathy for the victims of the oppression. The renewed pressure on the Turks backfired badly, as did the regime's other attempts to flex its muscles such as the arrest of a school child for celebrating the birthday of John Lennon. In 1988, the Club for Glasnost and Perestroika was established in Sofia. Although its founders were sacked from their positions, they were not jailed. This opened the floodgates and by the end of the year, several anti-regime organisations had been set up, including the trade union confederation ‘Podkrepa' (Support), modelled on Poland's Solidarity. Although the official media kept quiet about these developments, most of the country was aware that dissident organisations were springing up by the dozen, making the regime look weak and indecisive. By the end of 1989, the success of Solidarity in Poland, the changes taking place in Hungary and the increasing number of protests in East Germany had undermined the regime's authority even further. On 3 November 1989, the anti-regime organisations came together to march on Parliament and present it with an environmental petition. Very quickly, the chants of the ten thousand-strong crowd turned from environmental to political issues, with ‘Freedom' becoming the main demand. The authorities had no plan for dealing with this turn of events. A week later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the panicked Communist Party deposed its leader, Todor Zhivkov. On 7 December, the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) emerged from the dissident movements and, by January 1990, had declared itself ready to take power from the Communists. A national round table began to discuss the introduction of democracy and decided to hold free elections in June 1990.

The Bulgarian situation was at the same time deteriorating. A Yugoslav journalist, Slavenka Drakulic, wrote of the situation in Bulgaria at the beginning of 1990, that ‘Bulgaria's foreign debt stands at $12 billion and the decay of the economy is evident in the shops: only one kind of cheese, no vegetables except cabbage and potatoes, one kind of salami, no milk, no fruit, no chocolate or candy ... nor much of anything else.' Girard C.Steichen describes the situation in Bulgaria before the start of economic reforms as follows: basic foodstuffs are scarce or have disappeared altogether from Sofia's store shelves. Sugar, cheese, flour, eggs, and cooking oil are rationed, along with fuel oil and gasoline. Lines at Sofia's few gas stations snake for miles through city neighbourhoods and the wait for a tank of gasoline can be more than 12 hours. Electricity is shut off for long periods each day in many neighbourhoods. Only a fraction of the city's street lamps are switched on at night.'

Bulgarian communists were nevertheless so organized, that they could avoid real change in Bulgaria. No real cut with former communist system was made, which led to serious problems and painful transition until the former communists were ousted from power.