Fri, 07/28/2023 - 12:40

State Archives looks at 120 years of diplomatic relations

woodrow wilson.jpg
Drawing of President Woodrow Wilson by Bulgarian artist Sirak Skitnik

When John Jackson became the first US diplomat in Bulgaria, in 1903, the two nations had known each other for about a century. In the 120 years that followed a lot more was to happen, as politics of the day and world conflicts would separate and then bring Bulgaria and America closer.

An exhibition of the National State Archives presents a vivid picture of the two centuries of contacts, cooperation and conflict. It uses photos of men in old-fashioned suits, faded documents written in impeccable cursive or in shaky typewriting, and a couple of artworks to achieve its goal: to provide a portrait of the Bulgarian-American relationship.

The Bible translated into modern Bulgarian with US support

The exhibition starts with the 19th century Protestant missions in the Bulgarian lands, at that time still under the Ottomans, and their most remarkable result: the translation and publication of the Bible in modern Bulgarian, in 1871. The book was much needed – back then few people could understand the language of the clerical texts in dated, medieval Bulgarian. The old books had to be adapted to modern readers, and thanks to American missionaries, it finally happened.

America was also an inspiration for many 19th century Revival Period intellectuals and revolutionaries, who saw its democracy as an example that should be followed in the free Bulgaria of the future. US education was, too, valued as practical and progressive, and many Bulgarians enlisted in American schools such as the one in Samokov (that later became the American College) and the famed Robert College in Constantinople.

Ambassador Eugene Schuyler

In 1876, two Americans brought freedom to Bulgaria closer. In the aftermath of the April Uprising against the Ottomans, journalist Januarius MacGahan and diplomat Eugene Schuyler were allowed to visit some of the locations of the revolt. The evidence of massacres of civilians by Ottoman irregulars was still visible. MacGahan’s reports shocked Europe. The following year Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire that led to the restoration of Bulgarian independence, in 1878.

Journalist Januarius MacGahan

After Liberation, the role of America in Bulgaria changed – it became a sought-after emigration destination for thousands of Bulgarians, mainly from Macedonia, which was still under the Ottomans. Some of these would return to their homes, but others sent to their families boat tickets to America. Not everyone made it through the Atlantic. About 40 Bulgarians perished with the Titanic when she sank off the coast of Newfoundland.

Bulgaria sent its first ambassador, Robert College alumni Stefan Panaretov, to the United States, in 1914. The next year it joined the Great War and soon found itself opposed to America. When Bulgaria lost the war in what went down in history as the Second National Catastrophe, the United States was the only Great Power that actively worked for gentler sanctions to the defeated. President Woodrow Wilson even penned a plan that would be beneficial to Bulgaria. The other victors refused to apply it, but Wilson remains a hero in Bulgaria.

Bulgarian wrestler Doncho Kolev (centre) became a star in the United States known as Dan Kolov

In the interwar period Bulgarian and American relations evolved. Bulgarian emigration to the United States continued, and import of American goods and culture intensified. The Rockefeller, Carnegie and the Near East foundations focused on infrastructure projects, education and modernisation of the Bulgarian villages and agriculture. A wrestler known as Dan Kolov, who was actually a Bulgarian called Doncho Kolev, became a star in the US fighting rings...

Then came the Second World War and Bulgaria's exotic decision to declare a "symbolic war" to the United States and Britain, in 1941. It was actually a political manoeuvre that had to appease Bulgaria's German allies who wanted the country to send troops to the frontlines. However, it backfired. In 1941 the United States was far from Bulgaria, but in 1944 its troops were in the country's backyard. The heavy Allied bombings of Sofia, in early 1944, killed thousands of Bulgarians and left the city in ruins.


Later in the same year, Bulgaria was occupied by the Red Army. The Communist dictatorship was in the offing. As the relations between the former allies and victors in the Second World War – the USSR, Britain and the United States – turned sour and the Cold War began, America and its policies became a target to Bulgarian Communist propaganda.

In 1950, the American ambassador in Bulgaria was accused of spying, and was expelled. The two countries severed their diplomatic ties, a situation that lasted for a decade. In the 1970s and the 1980s, the efforts of Bulgaria to open to the world resulted in a private visit of former US President Richard Nixon in Bulgaria, in 1982. While in Varna, he met Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov: we see him visiting in a rare photograph in the exhibition.

President Richard Nixon visits Communist Bulgaria, in 1982

The relationships between the two countries were restored to the full after the collapse of Communism, and in 1999 Bill Clinton visited Sofia: the first official visit of an American president in the country.

The exhibition of the National State Archives has told this long and often complicated story by letting documents and old photographs speak for themselves. Some of these are shown to the public for the first time, such as Januarius MacGahan's official permission to travel in the Ottoman Empire.

Obviously, there is a lot more to the relations between Bulgaria and America than an exhibition of historical documents and photographs can show. There is for instance the notorious poem by Bulgarian writer Ivan Vazov, the "patriarch of Bulgarian literature," eulogising President Woodrow Wilson. Vazov had no problem with it, as he had had no issue of castigating British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli years earlier: Woodrow was sympathetic to the Bulgarian "national cause" whilst Disraeli wasn't. An important, if slightly off the topic, element of the long-standing relations between Bulgaria and the United States is the cash provided by John D. Rockefeller to dry up the malaria-infested swamps at the southern Black Sea coast. Had it not been for JDR, the modern Bulgarian city of Burgas would not have existed.

Discovering America. 120 Years of Diplomatic Relations between Bulgaria and the United States can be seen in the exhibition hall of the National State Archives, at 5 Moskovska St in Sofia, through the end of August

Issue 202 Bulgarian history 20th century Bulgaria Revival Period Communism PostCommunism

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