Every 2 June, at exactly noon, the civil defence systems all over Bulgaria are switched on. The sirens wail for a minute; a minute when many people stop whatever they are doing and stand still.
Botev's monument in his native Kalofer
The sirens are the noisiest part of the commemorative events for the death of Hristo Botev (1848-1876), arguably the greatest poet Bulgaria ever produced. He died, along with many of his fellow revolutionaries, in a battle with the Ottoman forces, while trying to start an uprising in Bulgaria's north-west.
Botev was a flamboyant personality whose passion is obvious whether he was writing poems or sarcastic articles on the shortcomings of the Ottoman Empire and his fellow Bulgarians. He was equally passionate when he argued with his opponents or planned to take up arms, hijack a steamboat and enter Bulgaria, rousing it to revolutionary fervour against the "Turkish tyrant."
Inevitably, Botev became one of the icons in the heroic pantheon of the young Bulgarian nation. His poems are in school textbooks, and his portraits hang next to those of fellow revolutionary Vasil Levski (read more in Vagabond Nos. 65 and 77) in schools and politicians' offices. Every Bulgarian town has a street bearing his name, and many have a bust or a statue of him.
Botev is also the focus of some dispute. Was he really a proto-Communist and is he the author of the Credo of the Bulgarian Commune? Yes, and yes were the answers given by historians during the years of actual Communism in Bulgaria; today, many disagree. Was he killed by a Turkish soldier, as the most popular version of his death goes, or it was the action of a disappointed fellow revolutionary? Was Botev a tactical genius, or was he a great poet who cared more about dying gloriously and less about military tactics? Was he a womaniser and as handsome as his rare photographs show (as if this is of any importance)?
Botev's family house, Kalofer
Still, Botev is little known to ordinary Bulgarians. As with Levski, they know bits and pieces about him. They can recite some of the verses of his most popular poems, Hadzhi Dimitar and Obesvaneto na Vasil Levski, or The Hanging of Vasil Levski. They know he died fighting for their freedom against the Ottomans. His deeds and poems, however, remain stuck in textbooks, and after decades in the grinder of mass education with its over-serious approach to every classic and national hero, Botev has become just one of those bores you need to endure at school and hurry to forget once you are out of it.
As a result, even academics are completely unaware of how brilliant a publicist Botev was. His satires are still easily read and the things he criticised still exist in modern Bulgaria: corrupt officials in power and a lazy clergy, while the nouveau riche grab what they can from a largely indifferent population whilst the intelligentsia are stuck in their own provinciality.
Botev was a wanderer. His larger-than-life personality took him far from home from his teenage years, and for the rest of his short life he travelled here and there, looking for education, for a job, for ways to bring revolution and freedom to Bulgaria. His last days, those he spent in Bulgaria with his doomed group of revolutionaries, have been turned into an annual march organised by the Bulgarian Tourist Union.
We suggest you take another route, the one which follows his wanderings from cradle to his (unknown) grave.
THE BIRTH OF A REVOLUTIONARY
Hristo Botev was born on 6 January 1848 in Kalofer, the first child of renowned Odessa-educated teacher Botyo Petkov and Ivanka Petkova. His upbringing proved crucial to his later development. The songs his mother sang influenced the rhythm of Botev's poetry later on, while his father did his best to give him a good education. After studying in nearby Karlovo and in his native Kalofer, at the age of 15 Hristo Botev was sent on a stipend to study in Odessa.
The house in Bucharest where Lyuben Karavelov - Botev's friend and foe - lived and worked. The metal bas relief has been stolen probably to be sold for scrap metal
There, he came across the books of Russian Socialists and revolutionary democrats like Alexander Herzen and Nikolay Chernyshevsky. Their ideas were far more emotive than the dull school curriculum, and in 1865 Botev dropped out. He didn't return home. Sheltered by friendly Poles, he studied for a while at university, read a lot and wrote his first poem, Maytse si, or To My Mother. For several months he was a teacher in the Bulgarian village of Zadunaevka, in Bessarabia, but at the beginning of 1867 he was forced to return home. His father had fallen ill, and Botev had to replace him at the school.
There is a monument of Botev in Odessa, and a bas relief on the wall of the school where he studied. There is a monument, too, in Zadunaevka.
Botev returned to Kalofer a changed man. He openly talked about revolution and social justice, and regarded wealthy Bulgarians as equally responsible for "the tragic situation of the Bulgarian people" as the "Turkish tyrant." Many people were not happy with this, as Kalofer profited from the wool, meat and woollen braid trade with the Ottoman authorities, and such talk was dangerous, even in this town, famed for its independent spirit. Botev did not care. On the day of Sts Kiril and Metodiy he made a provocative public speech, and soon afterwards was strongly advised to leave the town immediately.
He did so, never to return.
Kalofer and Botev did not part on the best of terms, but the town has long been proud of its most famous son. In 1944, one of the houses where Botyo Petkov's family lived was turned into a museum. A statue of Botev's mother was placed nearby. The school where the poet studied and taught became a museum too, and the rock from which Botev gave his fateful speech is still in its original place.
Sadly, you cannot see much of Kalofer as it was in the days of Botev. In the 1970s the old houses and streets in the centre were demolished to make way for a new, soulless square. Only the Botev home and the school were spared. A new museum (open daily from 8 am to 5.30 pm, no website) was built, and a grandiose statue appeared on a hill, visible from every part of the town. The latest (so far) monument to Botev in Kalofer was unveiled in 2009, in front of the city council. It is a bronze bust by a Chinese sculptor, donated by the Chinese Embassy, and is a replica of a statue of Botev in Beijing.
BOTEV IN EXILE
From 1867 onwards, Botev led an itinerant life in Walachia, a popular destination for revolutionary outcasts like him. He travelled around, changing places and occupations. He studied medicine for a while, and was a village teacher in Alexandria, where there is a monument to him, and in Izmail (both in today's Ukraine). He socialised with revolutionaries and enlisted in an armed band, which planned to enter Bulgaria and ignite an uprising, but never managed to cross the Danube. He worked as a printer and befriended the still unknown revolutionary Vasil Levski. He lived hand to mouth: "I'm in such poverty, that I'm not only with no shoes and clothes, but barely have anything eat," he wrote to a benefactor. He wrote a book of poems, but was unable to publish it. He wrote articles and published them in revolutionary newspapers. He did not forget Socialism. He translated some books into Bulgarian, and smuggled revolutionary literature into Russia. In 1871, when the Paris Commune was established and subsequently crushed, he hailed and lamented it, cursing Europe for its tragic end. The same year, in Braila (a monument to Botev there) he at last started his own project, a newspaper called Duma na balgarskite emigranti, or The Word of Bulgarian Emigrants. It survived for only five issues.
In 1876, Botev hijacked the Radetzky steamboat to start a revolution in Bulgaria. In 1966, a replica built with money collected by Bulgarian children was moored at Kozloduy
In 1872, Botev was arrested and jailed for revolutionary activities, but was soon released. Shortly afterwards, he settled in Bucharest (a monument to him there), and became a close friend of Lyuben Karavelov (1834-1879), a popular writer, journalist and leader of the clandestine Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee, or BRTsK. It was a hectic year, as the BRTsK envoy in Bulgaria, Vasil Levski, was busy establishing revolutionary committees, or dormant cells ready to rise up against Ottoman rule. Revolution was in the air, and Botev eagerly joined in. He became a contributor and an editor of Karavelov's radical newspapers, Svoboda, or Freedom, and Nezavisimost, or Independence. Their collaboration went so deep that often when you read the articles it is hard to say who wrote what.
Revolution, however, did not materialise. In December 1872 Levski was arrested, and in February 1873 he was executed. The secret committee network was shattered and there was no one to take care of it. Botev and the others did not give up, however. He published the short-lived satirical newspaper Budilnik, or Alarm Clock, wrote some of his finest poetry, and joined the BRTsK in 1874, establishing the Zname, or Banner, newspaper as its mouthpiece.
Disaster was looming, however. Karavelov was becoming disaffected with the idea of armed rebellion as a shortcut to Bulgarian freedom, and maintained more and more that Bulgarians needed proper education first. Botev vehemently disagreed. He believed that political freedom should be acquired first, and he knew – or at least he believed he knew – how to achieve it. Bulgarians should rise up against the "tyrant," and the support of foreign powers (read Russia) and of armed groups coming from abroad would be crucial for its success.
By the spring of 1875, the breach between the former friends was already beyond repair, while other important events followed. Botev married Veneta Vizireva, and published his only book of poetry, with co-author Stefan Stambolov, who later became one of the most controversial prime ministers of free Bulgaria.
In the summer an uprising broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, wreaking havoc in the Ottoman Empire and inspiring the Bulgarian revolutionaries in Bucharest to follow suit. However, the revolutionary committees, neglected after Levski's death, did not rise up as planned. In September 1875, only a handful of men participated in the calamity, now called The Stara Zagora Uprising.
Botev was devastated. He discontinued Zname, and left the organisation.
LEADING HIS MEN
In the winter of 1875-1876, the émigrés in Walachia again began preparations for an uprising, to be staged in late spring. It would be organised on the spot, using Levski's network, by so-called apostles. Few people outside BRTsK knew about it. Botev was one of them.
Burning with enthusiasm, he decided to help the rebellion, and in February 1876 started collecting money, weapons and volunteers for an armed group which would cross the Danube and join the uprising. "I will turn my hands to hammers, my skin to a drum, and my head to a bomb, and will come and fight the elements," he wrote at the time. In April, he made an agreement with the leaders of the revolutionaries in the Vratsa region to join and help them.
Between 1947 and 1991, the monument at Okolchitsa Peak was adorned with a Communist star as the original cross had been removed to avoid any indication of religion. Botev's supposed atheism is still debatable
In May, Botev already had 205 men and a plan. They would disguise themselves as gardeners and embark from different ports onto the Austrian-Hungarian steamboat Radetzky. They would hijack it and force it to bring them across the Danube. Once on Bulgarian soil, they would continue to Vratsa to unite with the rebels, stirring up local support on the way.
On 28 May, Botev boarded the Radetzky at Giurgiu, and seized it the next day without violence. He sent his last letter to Veneta, who had born him a daughter a month earlier, and dispatched telegrams to some European newspapers, saying he was on a patriotic mission. Then he and his men disembarked on Bulgarian soil, near Kozloduy.
At first it all went according to plan, but soon disaster struck. The rebels were spotted by the Ottomans, and had to fight before they ever reached Vratsa. The people in the villages they passed through were at best indifferent to the rebel's appeals, and only eight local men joined them. Vratsa itself was quiet, without any sign of an uprising.
Indeed, the committee in Vratsa had received two weeks late the news that the general uprising had started on 2 May, instead of the agreed date of 23 May. The leaders were baffled – should they join in, or should they wait. They decided to wait. By 23 May, however, the actual uprising was already crushed, and Vratsa's garrison had been reinforced.
When the news of Botev's landing at Kozloduy reached Vratsa, the committee decided to rise up anyway. However, few men turned up, and by the time Botev arrived they had already been arrested. The city fearfully awaited likely Ottoman reprisals.
Botev sought the safety of the Milin Kamak peak, where he came under siege. After a violent battle with heavy losses, the rebels who were left escaped and headed for the western Stara Planina.
The place where Botev died, identified by a member of his band who revisited 25 years later
On 2 June, they fought again, at the Okolchitsa peak. Botev was among those killed.
After his death, the rebels continued into the mountains. Seeing that their effort had been in vain, they now fled for their lives. They divided into several groups, but most of them were killed in skirmishes with the Ottomans. Few managed to escape.
Botev became an icon of the revolutionary movement soon afterwards. The young poet Ivan Vazov, whose poetry Botev used to mock, wrote a poem about the seizing of the Radetzky that same year. It was put to the melody of a popular German lullaby, and Tih byal Dunav se valnuva, or The Quiet White Danube Is Ruffling, became an instant hit. It still is.
A humble wooden cross appeared at the place of Botev's landing in 1878. In 1882, a stone cross was erected there, and in 1939, after decades of campaigning and fundraising, a larger monument was built. In 1966, a replica of the Radetzky steamboat was moored nearby. It is now a museum (open from 10 am to 6 pm except Mondays, www.radetzky.slovo.bg). The annual In the Footsteps of Botev's Band march, organised by the Bulgarian Tourist Union, starts from here.
Okolchitsa peak, the place of Botev's last stand, received its 35-metre cross-shape monument in 1936-1939. In 1947, it was heavily remodelled – the cross was removed and a star was added. The monument was restored to its original appearance in 1991, and is now the centre of the 2 June commemoration events.
From the peak, a clearly marked path follows the final steps of the rebels to a ravine where Botev died.
Vratsa got its first monument to Botev in 1890, on the spot where the Ottomans exposed the severed heads of the fallen rebels. The monument was removed in 1955, when one of Bulgaria's top apparatchiks decided it was "too bourgeois." After several years, during which a humble bust served as a substitute, a grander Communist monument appeared in its place.