A cunning peasant, a Balkan tyrant or a saviour? Twenty years after his fall from power, some Bulgarians still pine for Todor Zhivkov
Todor Zhivkov, who was toppled from power on 10 November 1989 after an internal party coup, was notorious for his peculiar sense of humour. In the 1980s he said: "I am the doyen of the first and general secretaries of all the Communist parties in the Socialist republics in Europe. A doyen does not mean the oldest but the longest in office." Zhivkov was right. He would manage to stay at the helm of the state and his party for a full 33 years.
In fact, the political longevity of this petty Balkan dictator is remarkable whatever standards we use to measure it – especially bearing in mind that, when he began working his way up the ladder to power in the early 1950s, nobody thought he would stay at the top for long. He seemed too uncouth, but stay he did. The only Communist dictators to rule longer than him are Enver Hoxha, Kim Il-sung (from 1948 until 1994) and Fidel Castro (from 1959 until 2008).
Todor Zhivkov's phenomenal political longevity was not the result of either good physical health or good luck. It was the result of a brutal authoritarian regime clothed in empty talk about Developed Socialism and imaginary "patriotic values." The Communist system and the socalled "state planned economy" were the formal, outer side of the fact that Bulgaria was ruled by a dictator.
Inaugurating a statue of Todor Zhivkov while he was still alive and in office, in his native Pravets, in the early 1980s. Among the present is Zhivkov's closest crony Andrey Lukanov, who would topple him in 1989. The monument would later be taken down, reputedly on Zhivkov's orders
In Zhivkov's 33-year-long rule, two instances in particular have not so far been given enough attention. The first one is the April Plenum of 1956. Zhivkov, who had been general secretary of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, or BKP, since 1954, took the opportunity to condemn the Stalinist policies of the previous leader, Valko Chervenkov, in practice gaining control of the state. The plenum was something more than a party meeting: it was a successful bloodless coup. All through its sessions, which lasted from 2 until 6 April, military detachments and militia units from Sofia stood by ready for action. Zhivkov himself had prepared his rise to power at a secret meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev. As would happen so many times in Bulgaria's post-war history, the Kremlin was the only authority to give the green light.
By an ironic quirk of fate, in 1989 Zhivkov was ousted by the same tactic that he had used to usurp power in 1956. The "reformers," led by Petar Mladenov and Andrey Lukanov, conspired to bring about Zhivkov's dethronement with Moscow's blessing.
The second incident is even less well known. Immediately on learning of his removal, on the very same day, in fact, 10 November 1989, Zhivkov made an attempt to regain power.
With Saddam Husayn in the late 1970s
On 9 November, the day the Berlin Wall fell but nobody thought to tell the Bulgarians, the Politburo convened to determine what decisions would be taken at its plenum on 10 November. This was common practice: under the totalitarian regime, all decisions about state government were first made at a Communist Party meeting. Politburo member Yordan Yotov would testify that Todor Zhivkov was misled at this preliminary meeting. He thought that his party colleagues would ask for his resignation only from the position of general secretary of the BKP, and not from that of chairman of the State Council (a post equivalent to president) too. At the plenum on 10 November, Zhivkov was shocked to learn that everyone wanted him to leave both posts. This explains the perturbed, distressed expression on Zhivkov's face that Bulgarians saw in the footage accompanying the TV report of this important event.
Todor Zhivkov died on 5 August 1998
So far, it has been assumed that Zhivkov instantly accepted his dismissal. New evidence reveals that immediately after the end of the plenum he summoned his closest associates and told them to do anything in their power to reinstate him as chairman of the State Council.
The nostalgia that some Bulgarians feel for Zhivkov's time can't be denied. A similar feeling exists in Albania for Enver Hoxha, who plunged his country into a self-imposed, bunker-guarded isolation. For the nostalgically minded, Todor Zhivkov's era was a Socialist paradise when everybody had a job and somewhere to live, and went on a fortnight's holiday to the seaside every summer.
It should be kept in mind, however, that Zhivkov's rigid and unbroken rule had a lethal effect on Bulgaria's development. All the intelligentsia – writers, artists, actors and musicians – had to work in collaboration with the regime. Any attempt at freethinking was punished. The legacy of this policy of brainwashing and repression largely accounts for the reluctance of present-day Bulgarians to take a public stand on any issue.
Personal freedom was suppressed by the agents of the sinister State Security, or DS. Every citizen was completely aware that his actions and words were closely monitored – by a friend, colleague or relative – and reported. Anyone who held a position of any sort of responsibility knew that, if caught in "wrongdoing", they would be punished with total isolation. At the beginning of Zhivkov's rule, in the 1960s, penalties were even harsher: people were sent to labour camps, deported to live in the country or deprived of their pensions. The only expression of discontent was found in the "Golden Bars" political jokes, so named because anyone telling them risked gaining an intimate knowledge of Bulgarian jails.
In 2001 the people of Pravets erected another monument to their notorious fellow citizen, to mark his 90th anniversary. The monument is standing to this day © Anthony Georgieff
Zhivkov's rule was autocratic. He tried to conceal – not particularly conscientiously – its totalitarian character with the generous use of terms such as "Socialism", "justice" and "equality." However, some Bulgarians, specifically the Communist nomenklatura, were more equal than others. Their perks and privileges stood in sharp contrast to the way of life of the ordinary Bulgarian. The former lived in spacious apartments and villas and the latter in pre-fabricated blocks of flats. While the children of the elite studied abroad, ordinary kids had to pass "political reliability" exams to enter university. The establishment ate, drank and wore Western products imported from the so-called "second direction" countries, a Communist by-name for the West where one had to pay in hard currency. Ordinary Bulgarians queued long and humiliating hours for yoghurt and toilet paper and waited for years to buy a television, a car or a flat. The elite could travel abroad freely. The rest had to get a visa, even when they wanted to visit the "fraternal" East bloc countries. Nobody had the right to take an economic initiative. The country's whole economy was dependent on the USSR, which supplied raw materials which Bulgaria made into low-quality, shoddy goods that could be sold only on the Soviet market. When Communism fell, the Bulgarian economy collapsed and this brought about years of general poverty and unemployment.
The "Socialist society" experiment became a dictatorship, and came to an inglorious end. Ironically, Zhivkov was the first to cynically admit this. Several days before 10 November 1989, he said at a secret meeting with the chief editors of the newspapers he controlled: "Socialism was prematurely born."
It has become a commonplace that people tell political jokes at times of crises. Under Communism, telling jokes about Todor Zhivkov could result in imprisonment, dismissal or, in the worst case, being sent to a labour camp. But the rich legacy of Communist-era jokes is perhaps the best indicator that not everyone in Bulgaria got along by going along, and that although Bulgaria had no organised dissident movement like Czechoslovakia or Poland, or Samizdat like the USSR, the Bulgarians did laugh about their sad fate.
Armenian Radio was asked: "Is there a cult of personality in Bulgaria?" Armenian Radio answered: "Yes, there is a cult, but there is no personality."
A Bulgarian defected to the United States and went to visit a fellow countryman who had emigrated a few years earlier. He met him sitting in an office at an expensive desk, with Todor Zhivkov's portrait hanging above his head. "How come? What do you need this portrait for?" the newcomer asked. "Why do I need it? Against nostalgia."
At a special convention, the Holy Synod declared Todor Zhivkov a saint. Patriarch Maxim handed Zhivkov a golden crosier, saying: "Saint Todor, we are presenting you with this crosier because you have managed to do what the church has not. For centuries, we have been trying in vain to teach the Bulgarians to fast. You and your rule have made every Bulgarian fast six days a week."
Zhivkov paraphrased the old Bulgarian saying "You can't get a dye from a fart." At a Communist Party congress he proposed the slogan: "With one fart fewer, two dyes more!"
Two friends are talking: "Do you know the joke about Todor Zhivkov running along Oborishte Street with a knife stuck in his back?" "No, I don't, but the beginning is promising."
Vladimir, Zhivkov's son, had to become a minister. But of what? "I want to become a minister of oceans," Vladko told his father. "Impossible," Zhivkov shrugged his shoulders. "You know we don't have oceans." "Impossible?" asked Vladko. "We don't have culture either, but my sister Lyudmila became chairwoman of the Committee for Culture!"
In 1988, Todor Zhivkov was giving a speech while half the room were asleep. Suddenly, a rat appeared. Those awake started shouting: "Get him! Kill him!" A man awoke and, startled by the cries, began calling: "And his son too! And his son too!"