by Professor Hristo Matanov; photography by BTA

Bulgarians spend the Cold War trapped on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain

In the early 1950s most of Sofia’s old commercial centre was demolished for the Stalinist monstrosity that stands there to this day. Designed by architect Petso Zlatev, what now is the offices of the National Assembly used to be the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party

Stalin managed to force the Bulgarians to do something even Hitler couldn't make them do. After the Communist coup on 9 September 1944 the Bulgarian army did enter the Second World War. The Bulgarian Army stopped the German withdrawal from Greece, and in December it helped beat back the German counteroffensive near the Drau River. Bulgarian soldiers celebrated the end of the war on 9 May 1945 in Austria.

In the meantime the Communists were busy establishing the “people's democracy” back home in Bulgaria. The tautology was a Moscow brainchild - and there was nothing democratic about it. It was a thinly-veiled tactic for seizing power. At first, the Communists paid lip service to democracy and allowed other parties to function. Soon, however, they were outlawed, leaving only the leftwing Otechestven front, or Fatherland Front, which blindly obeyed Stalin.

The new government had a frightening weapon at its disposal - the Narodna militsiya, or People's Militia. Created on 10 September 1944, it was responsible for the wave of repression that overwhelmed Bulgaria. Yet it was nothing in comparison to the so-called Naroden sad, or People's Court, whose farcical trials served as a smokescreen for crushing political opponents. From December 1944 until April 1945, nearly 11,100 “defendants” came before the court, including former ministers, MPs, royal advisers, military leaders and clergymen. The court sentenced 2,730 of them to death and another 1,300 to life in prison. At the Nuremberg Trials, which took place at the same time, only 12 of the 24 high-ranking Nazi officials accused were sentenced to death, including party secretary Martin Bohrmann, foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring. Siginificantly, Bulgaria's People's Court had been installed with the Allies, including Britain and the United States.

Communist-style consumerism

Communist-style consumerism

Freshly returned from the Soviet Union, Communists Georgi Dimitrov and Vasil Kolarov headed the new government. They spared no expense to reach their goal of imposing Socialism on Bulgaria. Elections were rigged, the monarchy was abolished in an illegal referendum, and anyone who dared think differently soon wound up in a labour camp, with all their property confiscated. Moscow directed the country's foreign affairs.

Getting into bed with the USSR had only one positive consequence. Thanks to Bulgaria's participation in the war's final phase, the peace deal signed by the victors in Paris didn't take away any territory although it did impose heavy reparations. By 1948 Bulgaria was a country with a single party - the Communist Party.


Bulgarians had their own Stalin and the accompanying personality cult. The tradition began with Georgi Dimitrov, who ruled from 1946 until his death in 1949. After that Vasil Kolarov and Valko Chervenkov stepped in to take his place.

Soviet fashion was everywhere, from army and police uniforms to the imposing governmental and party buildings in Sofia. Communist leaders of all ranks wore imitations of Stalin's trademark jacket and cap to show their sham solidarity with the working class.

Soviet influence went far beyond fashion, however. Villagers were forced to surrender their land to state cooperatives known as TKZS. Some rebelled openly - and unsuccessfully. Most, however, protested with their feet: hundreds of thousands of villagers left their homes to earn a living in the newly built factories.

There was no shortage of factories. Bulgaria wholeheartedly embraced Soviet enthusiasm for heavy industry, even though its metal, coal and mineral reserves were scarce and of poor quality. However, the “Planned Economy,” which rejects the idea of a free market, neglected to take that little detail into account. It also failed to recognise that Bulgaria is far better suited for agricultural development and light industry.

The consequences were at best dramatic. Grocery store shelves stood empty and ready-made clothes were almost nonexistent. Yet the government-controlled media continued to spout trumped-up news about the success of Socialist manufacturing.


In the 1950s a dozen Catholic priests were convicted of espionage and shot. In 1998 Pope John Paul II beatified the Bishop of Nikopol Evgeniy Bosilkov and three other victims. Sinisterly, the city of Varna was renamed Stalin. The Orthodox Holy Synod ordered priests throughout the country to hold masses for the dictator’s 70th birthday in 1949, and also renamed the bishop of Varna and Preslav into “Bishop of Stalin and Preslav”

Within a few short years the Communist Party had become synonymous with the state. Party functionaries controlled the factories, the TKZS's, the army, cultural and educational institutions, the judicial system - in short, everything. The Agricultural Union was a flimsy attempt to create the semblance of a two-party system - in fact, the Communists ran all the organisations, some of which were mandatory. Artists, writers and journalists were required to join state-run artists' unions. Children were subjected to ideological indoctrination in the Pioneer and Komsomol organisations. Individualists found themselves under surveillance. Those who listened to jazz and wore tight pants or miniskirts would be sent to labour camps...

The government had at its disposal a wide variety of repressive and persuasive tactics, which the State Security, or DS, enthusiastically employed. Most older professors at Sofia University were forced to resign. Some Catholic priests and Protestant vicars were convicted of being “imperialist spies” in sham trials. Even orthodox Communists were not immune to persecution. One prominent victim of the witch hunt for “the enemy with the party membership card” was Traycho Kostov, a party functionary accused of treason. He was sentenced to death after a political show trial in 1949.

Most “enemies of the people” were isolated in concentration camps, euphemistically called “labour-correctional camps” or “labour-educational dormitories”. Denied basic necessities and medical attention, the victims suffered exhausting labour and humiliation. Thousands died in the camps.

Even for “free” people, Bulgaria was an open-air prison. Travelling at will abroad was forbidden and the repressive regime spent a staggering amount of effort fighting Western influence.


For 45 years, Georgi Dimitrov was to Bulgarians what Lenin was to Russians. Elevated to the rank of demigod, the first Bulgarian dictator lay mummified in a mausoleum in the centre of Sofia, basking in the population's worship. Every Bulgarian child knew Dimitrov's biography. Born in Kovachevtsi in 1882, he worked as a printer from a young age and educated himself. In 1902 he joined the Communist Party and served as an MP in three consecutive national assemblies. Inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918, together with Vasil Kolarov he followed Moscow's orders to organise a Communist uprising in Bulgaria in 1923.

Stalin installed Georgi Dimitrov as supreme Communist boss in Bulgaria as gratitude for his unwavering loyalty

Stalin installed Georgi Dimitrov as supreme Communist boss in Bulgaria as gratitude for his unwavering loyalty

After the rebellion's failure, he emigrated and became a Comintern emissary. Posted to Germany, at the time of the National Socialists' rise to power - he was among those the Nazis framed for setting fire to the Reichstag in 1933. He was acquitted and returned to the USSR, where he served as general secretary of Comintern until 1943. He later returned to Bulgaria to impose Communism on his homeland from 1946-1949. His mummy was removed from the mausoleum and buried in 1990. Nine years later the mausoleum itself was demolished.


Between 1950 and 1956 the dictator Valko chervenkov ruled bulgaria in true stalinist style. however, he unfortunately witnessed Nikita Khrushchev's debunking of his idol in 1956. Todor Zhivkov took the cue from Moscow and overthrew Chervenkov. In the following years he was gradually demoted in the ranks and in 1962 was kicked out of the party after the Communists made him their fall guy for the repression of the 1950s. Chervenkov died in 1980.

Nikita Krushchev became the first Soviet leader to visit Communist Bulgaria in 1955. During his third visit, at the height of the 1961 Cuban missile crisis, Todor Zhivkov asserted: “Our political watch has been timed to the second with the Soviets. We go by Moscow time”

Nikita Krushchev became the first Soviet leader to visit Communist Bulgaria in 1955. During his third visit, at the height of the 1961 Cuban missile crisis, Todor Zhivkov asserted: “Our political watch has been timed to the second with the Soviets. We go by Moscow time”


When Stalin died in 1953, the Eastern bloc was shocked - and filled with hope. Perhaps the time for democracy had come? It certainly seemed that way at first. In 1956 Nikita Khrushchev denounced the personality cult and in April of the same year the Bulgarian Communists followed his lead. At the so-called April Plenary Session, Todor Zhivkov, the young first secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party, or BKP, also condemned the personality cult.

The only goal behind these changes, however, was to make room at the top for a new generation of Communists led by Zhivkov, who was little known at the time. By 1962 he had already eliminated his opponents and assumed the two most important posts in the country - secretary general of the Central Committee of the BKP and prime minister.

It would be difficult to call the 1960s and 1970s in Bulgaria more democratic, but Bulgarians were more satisfied. Although the living standard couldn't compete with that of Western Europe, it did improve. Unemployment was practically nonexistent - just like the opposition. Most Bulgarians had begun to believe that Socialism was here to stay and focused their energy on adapting to the new system.

Socialist prosperity, however, turned out to be a paper tiger. The low-quality products produced in Bulgarian factories were sold only in the Eastern bloc. Agricultural development was crippled by out-of-date machinery and an insufficient workforce. Most Bulgarians, from the lowliest workers to the most powerful directors, stole whatever and whenever they could. At the same time the government supported left wing revolutionary movements in the Third World with guns and money, and plugged the holes in its budgets with loans from Western banks. Bulgaria's foreign debt reached dizzying proportions.

The “April Thaw” in Bulgaria did not succeed in inspiring a revolutionary movement similar to those in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968. The Bulgarian Communists did everything in their power to prevent similar developments on their territory. The only change party functionaries were willing to make was to pack away their caps and jackets in mothballs and to put on Western-like suits.


A light jab to the leg and an apology from an unknown man who had bumped him with his umbrella - Georgi Markov hardly paid attention to the insignificant incident on Waterloo bridge in London on 7 september 1978. Four days later the dissident writer who had criticised Zhivkov's regime on radio Free europe was dead. the cause? pellets of ricin, driven into his leg with an umbrella - a weapon known ever since as a “Bulgarian umbrella”. Although definite proof has yet to surface, it is clear that the DS killed Markov. What's more, the date of the assassination is hardly coincidence - 7 September was Zhivkov's birthday.

At the height of his career, with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev

At the height of his career, with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev


An uneducated, aggressive simpleton, a crafty peasant, an opportunist - all of these descriptions fit Todor Zhivkov. Despite this - or perhaps because of it - he was Bulgaria's longest-standing ruler during the 20th century. Born in 1911 in Pravets, Zhivkov joined the Communist movement early on, but even after becoming Sofia's police chief in 1944, he remained inconspicuous until 1956. A zealous champion of close ties with the USSR, Zhivkov even suggested to Khrushchev that Bulgaria become the 16th Soviet Republic - Khrushchev turned down the offer. His position became shaky when Gorbachev came to power and on 10 November 1989 he was overthrown in an internal coup. Attempts to convict him for abuse of power failed, but he remained under house arrest until his death in 1998.

Todor Zhivkov was deposed as late as 1989

Todor Zhivkov was deposed as late as 1989


April-July 1945
The united Nations is founded in San Francisco

5 March 1946 Churchill introduces the idea of “the cold War”

1948 The state of Israel is created

1949 Mao Zedong seizes power in China

1949 NATO and the Socialist Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, or COMECON, are created, and Germany is split into the GDR and FRG

1950-1953 the Korean War

1952 IBM's first computer

1955 Eastern bloc countries create the Warsaw Pact as a counterbalance to NATO

1956 Soviet forces crush the Hungarian Revolution

1957 The European Economic Community, the forerunner of the EU, is created in Rome

1957-1958 The USSR and the United States launch the first man-made satellites

1960 Mass decolonisation of Africa

1961 The Berlin Wall is built

1961-1962 The Cuban Missile Crisis brings the USSR and the United States to the brink of war

1968 Warsaw Pact forces crush the Prague spring in Czechoslovakia

1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the Moon

1964-1973 US intervention in Indo-China and Vietnam

1978 The Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyła becomes Pope John Paul II

1979-1988 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan


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