It was a throwaway phrase in the introduction to the superb Alexander Bozhinov book which I picked up earlier in the week which alerted me “Stoyan Venev pled for him before the People’s Court”. So even this Bulgarian trailblazer of satire (67 years of age when the communists swept into power in September 1944) was caught in the net of deranged and murderous suspicion (by virtue apparently of his foreign travels and bourgeois life-style) and condemned to a year in prison. He was lucky – compared to the fate of thousands of his compatriots!
As I was compiling my little book on Bulgarian Realist painters of the 20th Century I had noticed that many had had to emigrate in the immediate aftermath of the communist takeover – whether from painting (into cinema or theatre design) or from the country altogether. And that some who remained in the country (like Nikola Boiadjiev and Boris Denev) were totally banned from any artistic endeavour. But I had not understood just how savage the communist takeover in Bulgaria was in 1944 – by far and away the worst in the Soviet bloc.
Forgive the length of this post - but we owe it to those killed in such circumstances to remember them - particularly when the nature of their demise is known by so few outside the country. A recent issue of the Vagabond journal has the clearest statement
The killings of opponents of the Soviet system started as early as 9 September 1944, the very day the Communists seized power in Bulgaria.
Nobody knows how many Bulgarians lost their lives in the first weeks of the "people's democracy," their only crime being their political opinion or their social position. However, the number of victims of the so-called People's Court, which was created to give legitimacy to the murder of politicians, artists, writers and even physicians considered "dangerous" to the new regime, is well documented. From December 1944 to April 1945 the court issued 9,550 verdicts, with 2,680 death sentences and 1,921 life terms. To understand why the Bulgarian Communists were a lot more cruel than anyone else in Europe at the time one needs to go no further than the numbers: the Nuremberg Trials against top Nazis issued just 17 death sentences.
If you are looking for a single day when the Bulgarian political class was decimated with one blow, you get 1 February 1945. On that day the People's Court sentenced to death 67 MPs and 22 ministers who had held office between 1940 and 1944, including the former prime ministers Dobri Bozhilov and Ivan Bagryanov. Also killed were the regents Prince Kiril, Bogdan Filov and General Nikola Mihov, nine secretaries to the palace, publishers and journalists of national newspapers, and 47 generals and senior military. They were shot dead on the same day, beside an unused pit left on the outskirts of the Sofia Central Cemetery after the Allied air-strikes in the winter of 1943-1944, and were buried on the spot. The mass grave was left unmarked and several years later was turned into an ordinary burial ground. In 1995, in lot 124 of the cemetery, a monument to the victims of 1 February 1945 was finally erected. The following year the Supreme Court posthumously repealed the death sentences.
The victims of the People's Court are just a fraction of the number of Bulgarians who suffered various forms of repression during Communism. Between 1944 and 1989 thousands of opponents of the regime were detained, interned or denied education or work advancement. The reasons for the repression were many and varied: accusations ‒ usually bogus ‒ of espionage and plotting against the Communist state, or opposing the forced collectivisation of agricultural land, or disagreeing with the Bulgarianisation policies toward the country's Muslims. Telling political jokes, wearing mini-skirts, having a "bourgeois" past or the "wrong" relatives could all land you in a labour camp. So could listening to Elvis Presley music. The total number of those repressed between 1944 and 1990 is estimated at about 300,000.
The date of the communist coup – 9 September 1944 – was a signal for revenge and the start of blood-drenched Bacchanalia on the territory of the entire country. The victims of the class wrath were not only politicians, businessmen, lawyers, civil servants, police and army officers. The self-proclaimed “people’s revengers” attacked the Bulgarian intellectuals with the same zealousness: teachers, priests, journalists, writers, editors, artists, professors, lecturers and all kinds of people of the pen, of culture and of the spirit perished without trial or sentence in the cities, little towns and villages. It would be logical to ask ourselves why was the country’s cultural elite branded and persecuted as the most dangerous “enemy of the people”?
The indictment produced by the Sixth Panel of the so-called “People’s Tribunal” attached the following qualifications to the cultural elite: “career-seeking intelligentsia that had lost its touch with the people”, “public evil that needs to be cut out so that it would not contaminate the public organism”, “mercenaries of the pen and of speech”, “instigators and collaborationists” of the persons responsible for the national catastrophe, etc. The answer is very well known: propped on the bayonets of the occupiers, the communist upper crust followed the example of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917-1921. Without choosing its means, it showed determination to deprive the nation of the voice of free speech, and – as it proclaimed itself – “to cut the democratic values from the public organism”, to obliterate the notions of democracy, freedom and fatherland from public space, the carrier of these notions being the patriotic intelligentsia.
Thinking people are a barrier before any dictatorship, therefore the first task of usurpers is terror and genocide on a mass scale against the intellectual class.
Outstanding representatives of Bulgarian culture perished without trial or sentence in the first wave of the red terror: Danail Krapchev – journalist, writer and editor of the Zora [Dawn] newspaper, Yordan Badev – literary critic, Nencho Iliev-Sirius – writer, Konstantin Gindev – talented young poet, Boris Roumenov – satirist, Professor Lyubomir Vladikin, Rayko Alexiev – humorist, satirist and cartoonist, publisher of the Shtourets [Cricket] newspaper, beaten to death in prison.
A second large group of writers, journalists, scholars, artists and intellectuals were thrown into the Central Prison in Sofia and were given sentences of different length, combined with confiscations and fines. Among them were the writers Zmey Goryanin, Fani Popova, Yordan Stoubel, Dimiter Simidov, Georgi Kanazirski, Boris Makovski, the cartoonists Konstantin Kamenov, Alexander Bozhinov and Alexander Dobrinov, the journalists Hristo Bruzitsov, Krustyo Velyanov, Atanas Damyanov and Stefan Damyanov, Stefan Tanev, Matey Bonchev-Brushlyan, Dr. Peter Djidrov, Dimiter Gavriyski, who wrote for the leading daily papers in Bulgaria: Zora, Utro, Dvenvik, Slovo, etc., as well as dozens of other eminent figures in the sphere of culture. That group also included Professor Stefan Konsoulov, Professor Georgi P. Genov, the literary historian Professor Mihail Arnaoudov, Minister of Education in Bagryanov’s government for two months. Their life in prison is colourfully described in the miraculously preserved notes of Zmey Goryanin, "Sketches and Stories". Even when they were at such a critical moment in their lives and their endurance was put to the test, these internationally famous scholars succeeded in preserving their dignified behaviour and continued to live with their science and with their ideas. Their example has proven that only a man of the spirit is capable of bringing light, sensibility and nobility during times of sinister arbitrariness and social cataclysms, that only man’s creative genius has the strength of withstanding the sinister downfalls of history.
A part of the intellectuals who passed through the cells of the State Security and of the Central Prison were dispatched without trial or sentence directly to concentration camps that had been established under a special law and were given the name of labour-correctional communities: Bogdanov Dol, Koutsiyan, Rossitsa, Sveti Vrach, Belene, Doupnitsa, etc., where the writers Dimiter Talev, Slavcho Krassinski, Chavdar Moutafov, Pavel Spassov, Zvezdelin Tsonev and Yordan Vulchev, as well as the artists Alexander Bozhinov, Alexander Dobrinov and Konstantin Kamenov, were sent. A new phenomenon – political-literary toponymy – emerged in the geography of the Bulgarian literature. It linked the colourful names of small villages, localities and small towns in the countryside with the saga of prominent writers and creative artists. The spiritual elite of Bulgaria were banished to mines and stone quarries, to be replaced in the cultural centres by aggressive ignorance, marginal individuals and vulgarity. The concentration camps turned into coexisting spaces accumulating the energies of violence and the suffering, amongst which the freedom-loving spirit of the Bulgarian nation waned and died.
New martyrs were added to the prisoners of the first wave shortly after 9 September 1944 in 1946-1947: together with thousands of opposition figures from the Nikola Petkov Bulgarian Agrarian People’s Union and the Bulgarian Social-Democratic Party, emblematic names of the legal opposition became victims of terror, having stood up against the hegemony of the camouflage Fatherland Front: Trifon Kounev and Tsveti Ivanov – Editors-in-Chief of the newspapers Narodno Zemedelsko Zname [People’s Agrarian Banner] and Svoboden Narod[Free People], and also writers, journalists, public figures and freedom fighters. Standing at the crucial historic dividing line, they were condemned to suffer both for their political and moral compromises, and for their dignified and valiant fight to defend the democratic ideals and the independence of Bulgaria. Together with political leaders like Nikola Petkov and Krustyu Pastouhov, the writers carried on their shoulders the heavy cross of their re-enslaved nation and proved that the real artist is ready for self-sacrifice to defend his national dignity.
During the autumn of 1944, more than 30 thousand peaceful Bulgarian citizens were killed: slaughtered with axes, bludgeoned to death, shot at point blank, thrown off cliffs into precipices, burned, hanged or buried alive. The sense of impunity and arbitrariness, encouraged openly or behind the scenes by the leaders of the ruling Communist Party, notably Georgi Dimitrov, Traycho Kostov, Tsola Dragoycheva and Anton Yugov, made the public atmosphere fraught with aggressiveness of the reactions and with frenetic hatred. Mass paranoia, thirst for blood and vindictiveness flared. Frenetic mobs shouting death slogans attacked homes and offices, lynched, stampeded and clubbed to death innocent people in the streets merely because a finger had been pointed at them as “enemies of the people.” That was not a nationwide revolution, nor an uprising, nor a civil war, because there were no two fighting armed groups, as in 1923 during the insurgence. That was a political slaughterhouse. Life and the individual had lost their value, humanity was trampled and forgotten in the gigantic social and geopolitical collision. After World War II, when Bulgaria did not have even one casualty at the frontline, instead of peace and a spirit of constructivism on the basis of the protected status quo, the country was involved in a catastrophic psychological situation of self-extermination and moral genocide. The land of Bulgaria was covered with thousands of secret graves, its tolerant people were desecrated by fratricide and were stained with the blood of its own worthiest and most talented sons. The mass act of insanity reveals how it is possible with the mechanisms of ideology and politics to bring to extremes the mentality of the community so as to be directed in the service of party, power and imperialist goals. The unabated wartime aggression of the masses was easy to manipulate and to transform into political revenge-seeking by ideological profiteers and central offices of the party. The normal behavioural thresholds of the extremist individual were deliberately undermined in the direction of regression and barbarianisation so as to serve hidden power goals. And again, literature anticipated, caught and depicted the shadows of horror, fear and death in the spiritual space of Bulgaria. The writer Yana Yazova, a contemporary and witness of the events, recreated both concrete events and the frenzied rhythm of historical time, revealing its paranoid symbols and states. In her political and psychological novel "War", which was published in 2001, i.e., 25 years after her death and 55 years after the actual events, Yana Yazova documented the social, political and existential psychological motivations of terror and hatred, depicting the traumatically distorted mentality and the images of the “revengers” susceptible to manipulation, as well as the sufferings of the defenceless victims.
Bulgaria had apparently about 100 concentration camps in the post-war period to deal with its various “dissidents” – in most cases those whose dress or joke sense was not acceptable.
Voices from the Gulag – life and death in communist Bulgaria(1999) looks in harrowing detail at this.
The photograph of bombed Sofia in 1944 is one of a series