by Professor Hristo Matanov; photography by Antoni Georgieff, BTA

Despite opposition from the British Empire, Russia and an American journalist help the Bulgarians free themselves from the Ottoman Empire - in part, at least

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Anarchy in the empire

How did the Eastern Question turn into the Eastern Crisis? The answer is complicated, but the seriousness of the problem was clear by 1875.

Rebellion broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, yet the sultan's only response was to raise taxes and declare partial bankruptcy. The Great Powers were stunned, and even the most passionate supporters of a weak but unified Ottoman Empire, as opposed to a mosaic of aggressively nationalist Balkan states, began to wonder whether to change their tune. The revolutionary enthusiasm among Bulgarian émigrés in Rumania also reached the boiling point, especially after poet Hristo Botev joined the leadership of the Bulgarian Central Revolutionary Committee, or BRTsK, in Bucharest in 1874.

A notorious luda glava, or hothead, the young man continually irritated his more moderate associates with his anarchistic beliefs. Botev felt an obsessive admiration for the revolutionary leader Vasil Levski, who was hanged in 1873, and wrote one of his most celebrated poems about his death. However, the impatient poet did not agree with Levski's argument that the Bulgarian revolution required long and careful preparation.

Commemoration in Kalofer for poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev, who was born in the town

Commemoration in Kalofer for poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev, who was born in the town

For Botev, rebellion shouldn't require any advance planning; instead, he assumed Bulgarians would rise up as one against their Ottoman rulers at the first sign of insurrection. His brilliant propaganda won over many fellow exiles, and the most radical revolutionaries gravitated around Botev's newspaper Zname, or Banner.

They were all convinced that at the first sign of Bulgarian unrest, Russia and the Great Powers would rush to their aid to settle the Bulgarian Question once and for all. One of the first things Botev did after becoming chairman of the BRTsK in 1875 was to begin preparations for action – spectacularly unsuccessfully. The conspirators attempted to buy weapons and organise an insurgent group to commit arson attacks in Constantinople.

However, the only ones who “rose up in revolt” were a dozen brave souls in Stara Zagora. Bitterly disappointed, Botev resigned from the committee in September and shortly thereafter the BRTsK ceased to exist.

Do what you have to do, come what may: the defiant exiles clung to this belief and did not abandon their dreams of rebellion despite the Stara Zagora fiasco. They realised, however, that the uprising would have to be organised within Bulgaria. So they moved from Bucharest to Gyurgevo, just across the Danube from the town of Ruse, and quickly cooked up an action plan. They divided Bulgaria into four revolutionary regions, centred around the cities of Veliko Tarnovo, Sliven, Vratsa and Plovdiv, each with a leader called an apostol, or apostle. The apostol had a number of deputies to assist him, yet the conspirators also relied heavily on the internal network of secret revolutionary committees founded by Levski several years earlier.

In December 1875, the apostles still did not have an overall plan for the uprising. But this didn't stop them from crossing over the frozen Danube into Bulgaria to start their campaign. An unpleasant surprise awaited them across the river: while a few towns and villages such as Koprivshtitsa, Panagyurishte, Batak and Perushtitsa were ready to rebel, in most places nobody wanted to rush into revolution.The lack of a unified strategy meant each of the revolutionary regions had to come up with its own plan of action. In Sliven they decided to organise bands of hayduti, or guerrillas, to fight the Ottomans in the mountains. In Vratsa they counted on the support of armed Bulgarian groups from Rumania.

Things went the most smoothly in Plovdiv. The revolutionaries organised fortified rebel camps and moved their headquarters to the town of Panagyurishte. The entire town and surrounding countryside joined in the revolutionary efforts, making bullets, sewing uniforms and flags, and preparing rations. The men even participated in improvised boot camps. Deputy apostle Georgi Benkovski, who gradually took the reigns from apostle Todor Kableshkov, was so optimistic that he called a general meeting in Oborishte for all revolutionaries in the Panagyurishte region. The participants in what many historians consider the first Bulgarian parliamentary meeting mistakenly thought that all the revolutionary regions were equally prepared and decided to begin the uprising on 1 May.

There was only one caveat: if circumstances demanded, the rebellion could start even earlier. The delegates also didn't know that an Ottoman spy had infiltrated their ranks. The moment the authorities caught wind of the Oborishte decision, they decided to nip the rebellion in the bud and dispatched a special military unit to Koprivshtitsa. The Bulgarians reacted unexpectedly, however: on 20 April Todor Kableshkov began the rebellion there. He wrote a letter to nearby towns urging them to follow his example, dramatically ending his plea with a cross drawn in the blood of the first zaptie, or Turkish mounted policeman, killed in the uprising. Since then his letter has been known as Karvavoto pismo, or The Letter in Blood.

A fateful April

The euphoric Bulgarians in Plovdiv needed little elbowing to rise up against the sultan. The other Bulgarian regions were not so enthusiastic, however. In Veliko Tarnovo only a few guerrilla bands turned up. In Sliven absolutely nothing happened, just as in Vratsa, despite the fact that Hristo Botev himself had crossed the Danube with a group of fighters to fan the flames of rebellion there. Actually, Botev arrived a bit too late. By the time he and his men crossed the river – committing the first hijacking in history when they commandeered the Austrian steamer Radetzky – the Ottomans had already crushed the uprising in Plovdiv. Botev's band did not receive the support they expected from local Bulgarians and were all but annihilated in several battles with Ottoman forces. Botev himself died on 2 June on Vola Peak, near Vratsa, and the few surviving rebels fled to Serbia. Despite the initial enthusiasm, the uprising in Plovdiv lasted only a month and ended in fire and blood.

The uprising started, unplanned, in Koprivshtitsa

The uprising started, unplanned, in Koprivshtitsa

The revolutionaries' weapons were inferior, and their home-made cherry-wood canons did little to stop the advancing Ottoman troops. But the most terrifying enemies were the bashi-bazouks, Muslims from the nearby towns and villages mobilised by the Ottomans as irregular fighters.

These brutal and undisciplined mercenaries unleashed unspeakable terror on the Bulgarian population. Objective statistics indicate that they killed 30,000 people, burned 80 villages and towns, and looted another 200.

The worst atrocities took place in Batak, Panagyurishte, Perushtitsa and the revolutionary camps in the Central Balkan Mountains. The Ottoman leaders hoped that their quick suppression of the rebellion would prevent news of it from leaking out to the wider world. But an American journalist arrived and changed everything. In June 1876, Daily News correspondent Januarius MacGahan visited the rebellion areas with a delegation including the US Consul General in Constantinople Eugene Schuyler and Prince Tseretelev, a Russian vice consul from Plovdiv.

MacGahan's descriptions of the atrocities suffered by the Bulgarian population provoked outrage in Europe, Russia and America. Public opinion demanded a quick and radical solution to the Bulgarian Question, as did luminaries such as William Gladstone, Charles Darwin, Victor Hugo, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Otto von Bismarck, Leo Tolstoy and Dmitri Mendeleyev. In Britain, the Bulgarian Question became a domestic issue. The Liberal opposition leader Gladstone seized the opportunity to attack the Conservative Lord Disraeli, who argued for preserving the unity of the Ottoman Empire.

The Letter in Blood

Kableshkov himself offers the best description of the events in Koprivshtitsa on 20 April in his Letter in Blood


Yesterday Nedzheb Aga from Plovdiv arrived in our town and wanted to arrest several men, myself included. When I heard of your decision at the Oborishte meeting, I called together a few brave men and after taking up arms, we went to the Ottoman town hall and killed the police chief and some zaptii…

Now, as I write this letter, our flag waves above the town hall, rifles are firing, accompanied by the tolling of church bells, and brave men greet each other joyfully in the streets!...

If you, my brothers, were ever true patriots and apostles of freedom, then follow our example in Panagyurishte as well...

Koprivshtitsa, 20 April 1876

T. Kableshkov


One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter

Perceptions of violence shift with time and standpoints. Botev and his men seized the Austrian civilian steamer Radetzky and diverted it to the banks of the Ottoman Empire to start an armed rebellion. If this had happened at the end of the 20th Century it would have prompted terrorism-related headlines. To Bulgarians, however, it remains one of the most noble feats in their history.

The Great Powers in Constantinople

The Great Powers knew very well that the weakening empire had to be reformed – by force if necessary. In 1876 they gathered in Constantinople to discuss possible changes in the Ottoman Empire and the question of Bulgarian autonomy. Diplomats from Britain, Germany, France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia – the Ottomans themselves were not allowed to participate – united around an Austro-Hungarian proposal to create two autonomous Bulgarian regions.

A map of Bulgaria after the 1876-1877 conference in Constantinople

A map of Bulgaria after the 1876-1877 conference in Constantinople

The eastern one was centred in Veliko Tarnovo and the western one in Sofia. The population in these territories had identified themselves as Bulgarian in a census during the establishment of the independent Bulgarian Exarchate in 1870.

Before the plan could be realised, however, the Ottomans – with secret help from Britain and Germany – took action, orchestrating a coup and ratifying a constitution for the first time in their history. It gave equal rights to all Ottoman citizens, regardless of their faith and ethnicity and sufficiently “reformed” the empire, making the diplomatic conference's plan unnecessary.

Russia goes to war

The diplomatic failure in Constantinople offered Russia a golden opportunity. The Russians had long sought to extend their influence in the Balkans and the Bosporus, which was their only outlet to the Mediterranean Sea. They also knew that the Bulgarians would be forever in their debt if they started a war with the sultan on their behalf. In March 1877, the Sultan rejected the London Protocol, in which the Great Powers demanded his quick resolution of the Bulgarian Question.

Attack of General Skobelev's unit

Attack of General Skobelev's unit, a painting dedicated to the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War

This gave the Russians the green light to go to war. There was only one catch: to guarantee the other Great Powers' neutrality, Russia agreed to maintain the status quo in the Balkans. Fighting raged along the Danube and in the Caucasus, despite the fact that Emperor Alexander II's manifesto declared the liberation of the Bulgarians as the war's main aim. To encourage Bulgarian participation, the Russians created the Balgarsko opalchenie, or the Bulgarian Volunteer Corps, that even had its own flag, a gift from the citizens of Samara. In June 1877 Russian troops crossed the Danube.

Their strategy was to blockade Ottoman forces in Dobrudzha and northwestern Bulgaria. General Gurko, infamous for his role in stamping out a rebellion in Poland a few years previously, commanded a detachment that was supposed to quickly cross the Balkan Mountains and invade Thrace, thus forcing the sultan to make peace. The Bulgarian volunteers joined his troops. But plans went awry. The Ottoman forces in Vidin managed to reach Pleven, and the brilliant General Osman Pasha transformed the town into an impregnable fortress. General Gurko's detachment reached Stara Zagora, but after fierce battles with Ottoman troops called in from Montenegro, he was forced to retreat and defend positions in the Balkan Mountain passes. Major battles took place near Shipka in August 1877.

The heavily outnumbered Russian soldiers and Bulgarian volunteers managed to hold off the Ottomans. For Bulgarians, the events at Shipka Pass are the equivalent of the Battle of Thermopylae between the Spartans and the Persians, with one major difference: unlike Xerxes, the Ottomans never made it through the pass. Pleven, however, remained a problem. After three unsuccessful attacks, the Russians were forced to blockade the city. In December, Osman Pasha attempted to break the siege, but after his efforts failed he surrendered the city to the Russian commander General Totleben and Rumania's King Carol.

The fall of Pleven dramatically changed the course of the war. Despite the harsh winter, the Russians crossed the Balkan Mountains and captured Sofia, as well as a Turkish fort at Shipka-Sheynovo. In February 1878 the Russians arrived in Odrin (modern-day Edirne in Turkey) and were nearing Constantinople. The sultan was forced to plead for peace.

Reenactment of a battle from 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War

Reenactment of the Pleven Battle

A good war but a bad peace

Russia wasted no time in capitalising on its war-time victories. Alexander II knew that the Great Powers would alter any peace deal he'd made with the sultan, but he also knew that this was his chance to win the Bulgarians' eternal gratitude. For this reason the peace treaty between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, signed on 3 March 1878 in the Constantinople suburb of San Stefano, was exceptionally generous to the Bulgarians, who were, of course, ecstatic. Even today the peace terms remain an unattainable but cherished dream.

The Treaty of San Stefano created the Principality of Bulgaria, whose boundaries encompassed all regions identified as Bulgarian during the 1870 census. This included northern Bulgaria and almost all of Thrace and Macedonia. The only Bulgarian territories that remained outside the new state were the Rhodope and northern Dobrudzha. The Russians gave the latter region to the Rumanians for their participation in the war and as compensation for Russia's occupation of Bessarabia. Indeed, the treaty terms were too good to be true. Britain and the Austro-Hungarian Empire immediately demanded that Russia reconsider the concessions, and the Great Powers met in Berlin.

The Treaty of Berlin divided the Bulgarian lands into five parts, thus determining the course of Bulgarian history and national identity crises for years to come. Northern Bulgaria and the Sofia region formed the Principality of Bulgaria, an Ottoman vassal-state. The majority of Thrace became the autonomous region of Eastern Rumelia, while Macedonia and the Odrin region of Thrace were returned to the Ottoman Empire. Serbia received the regions near Niš, Pirot and Vranje, while Rumania kept northern Dobrudzha.

Ever since the Congress of Berlin, Bulgarians have nursed the fatalistic belief that no matter what they do, in the end some “great power,” usually Britain, will always appear and impose its will.

Body count

According to popular belief generated by years of indoctrinated schooling, especially under Communism when the Russian imperial forces were represented as “liberators” rather than invaders, 200,000 Russian soldiers died in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. Russian archival evidence indicates that the real number of victims was closer to 30,000. Nearly half of them perished at Pleven. Bulgarian casualties were also in the thousands. They included not only volunteers, but also the victims of massacres and fires during the Ottoman advance into Thrace in the summer of 1877.

Shipka Pass

Shipka Pass

The capture of Pleven by the Russians led to a drastic transformation of the town. The entire Turkish population fled, and just a third returned when order was restored under the new Bulgarian state. The place left vacant by the departed Turks was immediately occupied by Bulgarian newcomers from the villages. With their bigger families they eroded the percentage of Muslims altogether. In the decades before the Great War most of the Ottoman buildings in the town were demolished. A huge Russian Neo-Byzantine mausoleum came to occupy the site of the mosque. The bones of Russians and Rumanian soldiers were placed partly in that mausoleum, partly in large war cemeteries. The skeletons of tens of thousands of Ottoman soldiers, however, were dug up and sold to a British firm to be turned into fertiliser for English agriculture.

Most Bulgarians would only know about the Russian imperial war in the Balkans, but it is important to remember that there was an eastern front as well. As a result of it Russians captured some sections of eastern Turkey, including the city of Kars (pictured), which it held until 1922. The eastern front of the 1877-78 war had signifi cant implications for the Armenians and the Kurds in eastern Turkey that reverberate to this day.


3 March 1875
Bizet's Carmen debuts at the Opéra Comique in Paris

May 1875
Russia and Japan sign the Treaty of St Petersburg, giving Russia the Sakhalin Peninsula and Japan the Kuril Islands

May 1875
The Convention du Mètre in Paris establishes metric standards

Summer 1875
Rebellion in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the beginning of the Eastern Crisis

Britain takes control of the Suez Canal

January 1876
America forces its native peoples onto reservations

Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone

June 1876
Serbia and Montenegro go to war against Turkey

23 December 1876
The Ottoman Empire ratifies its first constitution

January 1878
Cleopatra's Needle arrives in London


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