HOW WOODROW WILSON AND CHARLES DARWIN CAME TO SOFIA

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Why some streets in the capital are named after Americans, Britons and Irishmen

Monument to US President Woodrow Willson

The names of foreigners, mainly Russians, are common across the map of Sofia – from Alexandr Dondukov and Count Ignatieff to Alexey Tolstoy (a Communist-era Soviet writer not to be confused with Leo Tolstoy) who has a whole housing estate named after him. An understandable situation. After Bulgaria's Liberation as a result of the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, the new nation was eager to express its gratitude to the Russian Empire, its diplomats and administrators who had laid the foundations of the modern Bulgarian state. Another bunch of Russian names on the street map appeared when Communist Bulgaria became the USSR's most loyal satellite.

However, on Sofia's street signs you will also encounter a number of English names. Some of them belong to men who helped the young Bulgaria during the turbulent early 20th century, when the country went through two national catastrophes as a result of its losses in the Second Balkan and the Great War, from 1913 to 1918. Others were educators, scholars and people of faith who worked in the Bulgarian lands even before the liberation from the Ottomans. Yet others have nothing to do with Bulgaria. They are people whose work benefited humanity in general.

Lozenets neighbourhood has two venues named after foreigners with connection to Bulgaria, James Bourchier Boulevard and Major Thompson Street

Irish journalist James Bourchier (1850-1920) is an excellent example of an English-speaking foreigner with strong ties to Bulgaria and the Bulgarians. He was Balkan correspondent of The Times newspaper and lived in Sofia from 1892 to 1915. Bourchier was a firm supporter of the Bulgarian national cause for including all Bulgarian-inhabited lands in a single country, and expressed his sympathies in his publications. Bourchier was a Bulgarianophile, but first and foremost he was an honest journalist. Consequently, he often clashed with the local politics of the day and especially with Bulgarian King Ferdinand I. Eventually, he had to leave the country and settled in Crete, where he continued to report on the Cretan independence movement. When Bourchier died, his final wish to be buried in Bulgaria was honoured. His grave is beside Rila Monastery. One of Sofia's major boulevards is named after him.

A whole neighbourhood is named after the Buxton brothers, Charles (1875-1942) and Noel (1869-1948). The reason? The English politicians actively advocated for Bulgaria during and after the Balkan Wars and the First World War, and insisted that the region of Macedonia should be in Bulgaria proper.

Another champion of Bulgarian Macedonia was Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), the American millionaire and philanthropist, who opposed the way the Great Powers treated Bulgaria during and after the 1913-1918 wars. It was his idea to organise and fund an International Commission to Inquire Into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars, in 1913. The commission's report, known widely as the Carnegie Report, aimed to prove that the population of Macedonia and Thrace was Bulgarian and hence those territories should be part of Bulgaria. Now a street in Sofia is named after him.

George Washington Street

British politician and Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809-1898) is the namesake of a street in central Sofia for a number of reasons. When he heard of the massacres of Bulgarian civilians during the suppression of the April 1876 Uprising against the Ottomans, he published a pamphlet condemning this action. By doing so, he influenced public opinion in Britain to a degree that London did not prevent Russia from declaring war on the Ottomans in 1877. Gladstone also supported the liberal Constitution that young Bulgaria had adopted, in 1879, and its unification with the Ottoman province of Eastern Rumelia, in 1885. He also believed that Macedonia should belong to Bulgaria.

The massacres of 1876 became known to Europeans thanks to the reports of two Americans, journalist Januarius MacGahan (1844-1878), and the US consul in Constantinople, Eugene Schuyler (1840-1890). They visited the affected areas and recorded the horrors they saw. Both have streets in Sofia named after them.

Curiously, the Irish aristocrat, politician and philanthropist Pierce O'Mahony (1850-1930) has both a street and a square in his name. When he heard of the brutal quelling, in 1903, of a Bulgarian uprising in the Ottoman controlled territories of Macedonia and Thrace, he went to Sofia and opened the St Patrick's Orphanage for children who had lost their families in the atrocities. O'Mahony adopted all of them, gave them his last name and ensured that they received good education. Before the Great War, O'Mahony unsuccessfully tried to prevent Bulgaria from entering into an alliance with Germany. Unable to accept the decision of King Ferdinand I, the philanthropist left Bulgaria, never to return.

In the first half of the 20th century, John D Rockefeller's foundation spent heavily to provide modern healthcare, agriculture and education to Bulgaria. The National Centre for Infectious and Parasitic Diseases is still in the building erected with Rockefeller's money. Astonishingly, there is no Rockefeller street in Sofia, although there is one in Petrich, where his foundation helped to get rid of malaria infested swamps.

The Rockefeller Foundation sponsored the construction of the building of the National Centre for Infectious and Parasitic Diseases

The list of British and American clergymen, scientists and educators who left a mark on Bulgaria reflects another aspect of the connection between Bulgarians and the English speaking world in the 19th and early 20th century. While the Bulgarian lands were still under the Ottomans, American Protestant missionaries began to arrive, striving to proselytise. In the process, they established modern schools and became involved in matters of national importance, such as the first translation of the Holy Bible into the modern Bulgarian language. They also championed the Bulgarian national cause during and after the 1913-1918 wars.

Dr Albert Long (1832-1901) is one of the most prominent. An American, he went to Bulgaria in 1857 as a Methodist Episcopalian missionary and, along with a colleague, Dr Elias Riggs, he helped with the translation of the Bible. The so-called Protestant Bible was printed in Constantinople in 1871. But Dr Long's contribution to Bulgaria goes further. In 1876, he and Dr George Washburn (1877-1903), the president of Robert College in Constantinople, published reports of the atrocities that followed the April 1876 Uprising and pressed the American minister to the Ottoman Empire to investigate. This was why Schuyler and MacGahan went to the affected areas. Today, in Sofia there is a street and an United Methodist church named after Dr Long. Dr George Washburn also has a street, but nothing is named after Dr Elias Riggs.

In 1926, Dr Floyd Black (1888-1983) became the first director of the American College of Sofia, established by American missionaries of the Congregational Church in Bulgaria. Floyd Black has a lane named after him. Logically, it leads to... the American College.

Sir Steven Runciman (1903-2000) is the best known international historian to research Bulgarian medieval history. He visited Bulgaria numerous times, and in 1930 he published his History of the First Bulgarian Empire, a detailed and comprehensive insight into the origins and early history of Bulgaria. Runciman also lived in Bulgaria, between 1934 and 1940, when he was the press attaché at the British Embassy in Sofia. As in 1940 Bulgaria declared a "symbolic war" on the United States and Britain, Runciman had to leave for Istanbul. A year later, he was almost killed there when a bomb exploded in the hotel where he stayed. Was he the target or not? It is not clear. Runciman is believed to have been a spy at the time, but he always denied the allegations. Today, he has a street named after him.

The author of The Neolithic Period in Bulgaria: Early Food-Producing Cultures in Europe, the American Lt Dr James Harvey Gaul (1911-1945), was less lucky in life. He made the first comprehensive and detailed English language anthropological analysis of the Neolithic period in Bulgaria and the surrounding region. In 1941, he joined the US Navy Reserve and three years later was transferred to the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA. In the autumn of 1944 he was sent to Slovakia to help the local resistance against the Nazis. He was captured and in January 1945 was executed as a spy. The Neolithic Period in Bulgaria was published in 1948. A square in Sofia is named after James Harvey Gaul.

Academician Sanders street is named after the American sociologist Irwin Taylor Sanders (1909-2005), who studied village communities in Bulgaria and Greece from the 1930s to the 1950s, and in the 1930s taught Western history and culture at the American College in Sofia.

President Lincoln Street

Since the collapse of Communism in Bulgaria, in 1989, Bulgarians have often been curious about what American ambassadors think of local issues – from corruption to likely abolition of travel visas. Through time, a number of US diplomats have been vocal on these problems and some of them have tried to leave their marks. One American ambassador to Bulgaria has a street named after him: Dominic Murphy (1847-1930). He was the first American diplomat resident in Bulgaria, in 1915-1917. During his stay, he focused on the welfare of Allied prisoners of war, but also helped the Bulgarian government to maintain good relations with the United States during the Great War, even though they were on opposing sides. Another is James Pardew, who was ambassador in Sofia in 2002-2005, a crucial period in Bulgaria's bids to join NATO and the EU. Pardew, who had a background in military intelligence, never shied away from the difficult issues of the day. Now he has a street after him, inaugurated with the assistance of the America for Bulgaria foundation.

The namesake of a street in Lozenets, Major Frank Thompson (1920-1944), had a short but impressive life. He was a British officer who acted as a liaison between the British Army and the Bulgarian Communist partisans during the Second World War. In 1944 he was parachuted into Bulgaria and successfully joined the Communist resistance. Later that year Thompson took part in a battle with the Bulgarian police at the village of Batuliya in the Iskar Gorge. He was captured and executed in the nearby village of Litakovo. After the war the Communist government in Bulgaria turned Thompson into a hero. They even merged a couple of hamlets near Batuliya and renamed them after him.

Those who have no connection to Bulgaria but to whom streets in Sofia have been dedicated include Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, US Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and John Lennon. Lennon never visited Bulgaria, but he was immensely popular among the local intelligentsia and university students in the 1970s and 1980s, an all too obvious symbol of freedom in the stifled Communist society. Some of his fans even took great personal risks to express their feelings. On the day after Lennon was shot, they spontaneously gathered by the Sofia Notary Office and covered a wall in flowers, obituaries and graffiti. The street that is named after Lennon, however, is not in central Sofia, but in Students’ Town, where a significant part of his fan base lived.

US President Ronald Reagan in Sofia's South Park

In the 2010s and the 2020s, Sofia found a new, more impressive way to express its gratitude and respect to prominent Americans: statues. Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) did many great things as president – from environmental protection to establishing voting rights for women and the creation of the League of Nations that was supposed to prevent yet another brutal world war. His racist views and support for segregation are not that great, but for Bulgarians Wilson is a hero: after the First World War he went to great lengths to dissuade the victorious Great Powers from punishing the losers too harshly (they did not listen, hence the Second World War). During the 1919 peace treaties, Wilson insisted that Bulgaria should keep Aegean Thrace, South Dobrudzha and the Western Territories. He failed in this, too, but, more importantly, he halted the plan that Bulgaria should be divided into three and given to Greece, Romania and Serbia. For this, Wilson had a statue unveiled in Sofia, in 2021, in front of the Central Baths.

President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) looks on from an alley in South Park. In the United States, Reagan's legacy is contentious, but many Bulgarians hail him, along with Margaret Thatcher, as the hero who won the Cold War and effectively ended Communism. There is (still) no monument of Lady Thatcher, however.

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