by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria's first dictator or genuine democrat

Monument to Aleksandar Stamboliyski in front of the Sofia Opera and Ballet house

When you visit the Sofia Opera and Ballet House you will see an imposing bronze statue of a heavy-set man beside the grand entrance. Dressed in an old-fashioned suit and overcoat, a curled moustache on his round face, he must be an important singer, right?

Wrong. This man has nothing to do with opera or any of the arts for that matter. He is Aleksandar Stamboliyski (1879-1923), one of Bulgaria's most controversial politicians. He rose to prominence in the early 20th century, created his own political ideology and tried to turn it into reality. He failed and met a gruesome end, leaving behind a legacy that still divides the nation.

To understand the role this man played in early 20th century Bulgaria, you need to go back to the first years after Liberation from Ottoman rule. In the 1880s and the 1890s the Bulgarian society was at a crossroads. The country's economy and its society were overwhelmingly rural, consisting mainly of small-time farmers who used primitive technology to till their lands. In its efforts to Europeanise Bulgaria as quickly as possible, the government invested mainly in urban development, infrastructure and industry.

Understandably, many villagers felt left behind and disenfranchised. In the 1890s, led by the rural intelligentsia, they started to form coops and unions to help them acquire modern farming technology and improve their lives.

In 1899, a government decision galvanised the peasantry. After years of bad harvests, various outbreaks of disease affecting farm animals and the rise of personal debt in rural Bulgaria, a government default on international creditors was looming. The government decided to return to taxing villagers in kind, but the peasantry was far from happy: being the most populous sector of the nation, it was already the largest tax payer. Why, then, were they not properly represented? The same year they formed their first national professional organisation, the Bulgarian Agrarian People's Union, or BZNS.

The union quickly became politicised, and in 1901 it launched a political party with the aim of giving both voice and power to the peasantry.

aleksandar stamboliyski as prime minister

Stamboliyski was just 40 years old when he had to lead the nation during one of its darkest times and sign a humiliating peace treaty with the victorious Allies after the First World War

Enter Aleksandar Stamboliyski. Born in Slavovitsa, a village near Pazardzhik, he had studied philosophy and agronomy in Germany for a while before participating in the founding of the BZNS in 1899. Assertive and ambitious, he soon rose through the ranks and was among the initiators of its transformation into a political party. By 1905 he was the de facto leader and in 1908 he was elected to parliament.

The following year, he published his best known political treatise, Political Parties or Professional Organisations. His ideology was partially inspired by popular ideas of the time, including Marxism, but with a strong Bulgarian slant. Stamboliyski maintained that Bulgarian society could not be divided along class lines, and that political parties were useless in serving the people. Instead, Bulgarian society should be divided on an estate principle, with all the power vested in the peasantry, which he viewed as the embodiment of traditional Bulgarian values. Though they were by far the most populous sector of the population the peasants were exploited by rich urbanites with their deeply corrupt lifestyles and mores.

Stamboliyski's unorthodoxy ran in many different directions. He was a republican, and he opposed the prevailing nationalistic sentiment to unite all the Bulgarian-inhabited lands into one Bulgarian state, with the emphasis on Macedonia. While Bulgaria was preparing for war with Serbia over Macedonia, he advised peace and friendship with the Serbs.

Stamboliyski was ready to pay for his ideas. When he opposed Bulgaria joining the Great War in 1915 on the side of Germany, advocating neutrality, he was sentenced to life in prison.

He did not stay in jail for long. By September 1918, it was evident that Bulgaria had backed the wrong horse in the war. While the government was negotiating a truce, the soldiers on the Thessaloniki frontline mutinied and headed towards Sofia – a violent group of dissatisfied, exhausted men hungry for revenge on those responsible for what would become known as the Second National Catastrophe (the first was in 1913, after Bulgaria lost the Second Balkan War and much of its territory, including Macedonia).

With the rebels approaching Sofia, the government sent Stamboliyski to negotiate a settlement with the mutineers. Stamboliyski became their leader instead.

The revolt was brutally crushed by pro-government forces and, fearing the consequences, Stamboliyski went into hiding.

The setback did not last long, however.

In October, King Ferdinand I, who had led Bulgaria into both national catastrophes, abdicated and his son, King Boris III, ascended the throne. In December, participants in the soldier's rebellion were pardoned, and Stamboliyski quickly reentered political life, where his star rose rapidly.

In January 1919, he became a minister in the coalition government that was trying to save Bulgaria from the impending economic and political crisis, and to negotiate peace terms with the victors of the Great War.

memorial water fountain to aleksandar stamboliyski

Memorial water fountain to Stamboliyski near his home village, Slavovitsa. In 2021, it was vandalised – the words "National traitor" were red-painted on it. The politician is buried in a stone mausoleum in the village. BZNS members and activists gather there on 14 June to mark the anniversary of his murder

That government failed and Bulgaria spiralled into a deep crisis. Radical political ideas took hold among the dissatisfied, impoverished population. In the August election the majority voted for the BZNS and the Socialists. Compromised by their political failures, the established parties seemed embarrassingly inadequate.

In October 1919, a year after the failed soldier's rebellion, Stamboliyski became prime minister. Within a few weeks, on 27 November 1919, he had to undertake one of the toughest tasks a Bulgarian politician had ever faced: to sign a humiliating peace treaty, at Neuilly-sur-Seine in France. Reportedly, after signing he broke his pen in anger.

For Bulgarians, that day remains one of the darkest dates in their history. Bulgaria lost long-coveted territories and had to take in thousands of refugees, while struggling with a ravaged economy, huge loss of life and heavy reparations. Bulgaria was ordered to maintain a defence force no greater than 30,000, including police and border guards.

Stamboliyski's first cabinet was in coalition with some of the old, liberal parties, but these soon withdrew. By 1920, the government was already in the hands of the BZNS.

They wasted no time, pushing through legislation against the "culprits of the national catastrophes," which quickly turned into a tool to deal with any political opposition.

The BZNS also initiated radical reforms that fit their ideology. Ownership of farm land was limited to plots a single family could till. The state bought the excess land cheaply, and redistributed it to refugees. Some large-scale industrial concerns were also nationalised.

The BZNS made education for children aged 7-14 years compulsory and free, and opened more schools. It also invested in higher education and in culture, and modernised Bulgarian grammar and the alphabet (some of their changes are still in use today).

To solve the problem of labour shortages, the BZNS mobilised young men and women to work for free on infrastructure projects. This both helped the economy and bypassed some of the peace treaty restrictions, as it provided men with basic military training. However, conscripts could pay themselves out of service. Obviously, the situation benefitted the well-to-do and created fertile ground for corruption.

Stamboliyski's policies quickly antagonised the upper and the middle classes, but this was just the tip of the societal iceberg. The intelligentsia, the Church and the military were also not spared. For the BZNS, these were all parasites living on the backs of the poor peasantry. The salaries of teachers, professors and others were reduced, the activities of military officers were closely monitored and some Church properties were nationalised.

The fact that Stamboliyski's policies were enforced by the brutal Orange Guard, a paramilitary organisation whose weapon of choice was the club, hardly made him a darling among the growing number of opponents. By 1922, these included even the Communists, who were the BZNS's only proper opposition in parliament.

Stamboliyski's foreign policy made him even more enemies. He wanted to normalise relations with the Kingdom of Serbs, Croatians and Slovenes (future Yugoslavia). The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, or VMRO, which was rapidly transforming from a revolutionary movement to a terrorist structure with a deep influence in Bulgaria, was far from happy. In 1922, the VMRO tried to assassinate Stamboliyski but failed.

And there were the corruption scandals. Stamboliyski ranted against the low mores of the intelligentsia and the urban elites, but his personal life was far from exemplary, if the rumours were to be believed. There were also hints of widespread corruption and embezzlement among the BZNS ranks.

Stamboliyski did not concern himself with much of this, a classic case of hubris. In the elections of April 1923, the BZNS won 52 percent of the ballot that, according to a newly-introduced system, translated into 212 seats in a 245-member Parliament. Was he heading towards a dictatorship?

Stamboliyski's foes believed this was the case, and that a coup was the only way to get rid of him. On 9 June a clandestine organisation, the Military Union, backed by some of the old political parties, and supposedly King Boris III himself, overthrew the BZNS government. The Communists decided to stand on the sidelines of what they said was a conflict between two bourgeois classes.

The coup was not only quick, it was brutal. A number of high-ranking BZNS members were killed. Here and there, villagers rose up to defend the BZNS government, but the so-called June Uprising was quickly put down. Stamboliyski organised some resistance, but was overpowered and arrested in his villa in Slavovitsa. What happened there is one of the most infamous events in 20th century Bulgarian political history. Left in the hands of some VMRO fighters, Stamboliyski was tortured and murdered, his dead body mutilated beyond recognition.

september 1923 mural

A mural made under Communism in Kilifarevo, a town near Veliko Tarnovo, represents the agrarians, who rose to defend the BZNS government in June 1923, and the Communists, who took power in the country in a Soviet-backed coup in 1944, as brothers-in-arms fighting for people's freedom. In reality, the Communists did not support the June 1923 revolt

According to the Bulgarian officers who finally restored order, millions of leva, allegedly embezzled by Stamboliyski, were discovered in his cottage.

The death of Stamboliyski set in motion a series of events that transformed Bulgarian society. The BZNS leader might have been heading towards dictatorship, but democracy was far from restored in Bulgaria.

In September 1923, following orders from the Comintern in Moscow which had interpreted the situation in Bulgaria as ripe for a Bolshevik revolution, Communists rose in a poorly thoughtout and badly organised "uprising." Many BZNS members joined them, but the rebellion was brutally crushed by the government of Aleksandar "Blood-Stained Professor" Tsankov. This led to a vicious circle of retaliation, arrests of leftists and violence.

The BZNS somehow survived and in the following years split into several factions which sometimes made it into parliament and sometimes did not. After the 1944 Communist coup, its leftwing incarnation was the only party allowed to exist as a token opposition that kept up the pretence of Bulgaria as a parliamentary democracy.

After the collapse of Communism, in 1989, some of the BZNS returned to the political scene, but times had changed. Bulgaria had not been a rural based society or economy for decades. After a brief flourish, powered mainly by nostalgia for the supposedly good old days when everyone lived in a rural idyll, the BZNS slipped into political oblivion.

The man who embodied the organisation's bolder and more violent past remains a controversial figure. After 1944, the Communists forgot their animosity and lionised Stamboliyski. One of Sofia's largest boulevards is still named after him and there is a Stamboliyski town, among others. There is the statue in front of the Opera, too, because that plot of land was initially purchased by the BZNS in the early 1920s for its headquarters. Construction started after the Second World War, and the building was designed with two purposes in mind: as the BZNS headquarters and as an opera and ballet venue. For years, the whole building was called the Aleksandar Stamboliyski Memorial House.

Monuments to the 1923 September Uprising built under Communism are all over Bulgaria. The so-called 1923 June Uprising has received far less prominence.

The house where Stamboliyski died is a gruesome museum. In one of the rooms, on the fading wallpaper, you can still see Stamboliyski's initials and the year 1923. He wrote it with his own blood: possibly a provocation to both his enemies and to posterity.

Opinion on whether Stamboliyski was a hero or a villain is still divided. According to the political left wing, he was an idealist who tried to give a voice to and empower the voiceless and the powerless; an ideologue who broke new ground and tried to build a new type of democracy, one without political parties. His stance against the intelligentsia was misinterpreted; he opposed only a cultural elite that was completely detached from the plight of its own people.

Liberals will never stomach the brutality of Stamboliyski's authoritarian regime. According to his most fervent critics, his ideas were either a semi-literate hodge-podge without any real value, or were in line with those of Italian fascists and German nationalists, or both.

Intellectuals will never forget his dismissiveness. They see his hatred towards the cultured elite as a progenitor of the purges of the intelligentsia by the Communists immediately after 1944. Even today, some Bulgarians have a strong, and sometimes justified, distrust of any person of intellectual bearing.

For nationalists, Stamboliyski was a traitor, a man who abandoned the plight of Bulgarians in Macedonia.

As with so many other historical figures, Stamboliyski might have been all of the above. In early 2020s Bulgaria, his story seems more poignant than ever, replete with an uncanny resemblance to this nation's current political affairs.


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