While he was alive, he was considered a troublemaker. Soon after his death, he became a national hero
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.
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 northwest.
Botev was a flamboyant personality whose passion was 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 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 an early Communist? Yes was the answer given by historians during the years of actual Communism in Bulgaria. Yet, 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 Bulgarian? Was Botev a field 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?
One of the few photographs of Hristo Botev
Still, Botev is little known to ordinary Bulgarians. They can recite some verses of his most popular poems, "Hadzhi Dimitar" and "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, many Bulgarians are 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, nouveaux riches that grab what they can from a largely indifferent population, and an intelligentsia stuck in their own provinciality.
So, who was Hristo Botev?
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.
In 1950, Stara Planina's highest peak, which looms over Kalofer, was named Mount Botev
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, "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.
Botev came back 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. 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 told to leave the town immediately – and for good.
He did so, never to return.
In 1863-1865, Botev was a student in Odessa's Second High School, but soon rebelled against its strict discipline, which also included caning
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 and Izmail, 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 crossed the Danube. He worked as a printer. He lived hand to mouth: "I'm in such poverty, that I'm not only with no shoes and clothes, but barely have anything to 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 he started his own project, a newspaper called The Word of Bulgarian Emigrants. It survived for only five issues.
In 1872, Botev was arrested and jailed for revolutionary activities, but was soon released. Shortly afterwards, he settled in Bucharest and became a close friend of Lyuben Karavelov, 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.
However, revolution failed to 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 his associates did not give up. He published the short-lived satirical newspaper Alarm Clock, wrote some of his finest poetry, and joined the BRTsK in 1874, establishing the Banner newspaper as its mouthpiece.
Kalofer in the 1870s, an engraving by Austrian traveller Felix Kanitz
Disaster was looming, however. Karavelov became increasingly disaffected with the idea of an armed rebellion as a shortcut to Bulgarian freedom, and maintained 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. 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 independent 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.
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 of Freedom. Few people outside BRTsK knew about it. Botev was one of them.
Burning with enthusiasm, in February 1876 he started raising 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.
Botev got a monument in Vratsa, which failed to rise against the Ottomans and join forces with him, as soon as 1890. The 12-metre monument that currently stands in the town's centre was erected in 1964 as the then Communist government decided the original looked too "bourgeois"
Bulgarians indeed rebelled against the Ottomans, on 20 April. However, just one of the four "revolutionary regions," which should have been the hotbeds of activity rose in earnest – the one south of the Stara Planina. There were some activities in the Tarnovo area, but the regions around Sliven and Vratsa remained quiet. A couple of weeks later, the Ottomans crushed the April Uprising with great brutality, prompting international headlines.
Botev was not dissuaded. He already had 205 men – and a plan. They would disguise themselves as gardeners heading for seasonal work in Central Europe 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 borne 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.
When the news of Botev's landing at Kozloduy reached Vratsa 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.
Under Communism, Botev was featured on a regular basis on monuments to Communist guerrilla fighters, like this one in Pernik
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 Ivan Vazov, whose poetry Botev used to mock, wrote a poem about the hijacking of the Radetzky that same year. "The Quiet White Danube" is still sung today, mainly as a military march.
After the Bulgarian state was restored in 1878, Botev – who had spent his life a poor vagabond – became a major icon in the pantheon of new Bulgarian heroes. Monuments to him were erected all over Bulgaria, from his native Kalofer to Vratsa. Besides the ubiquitous ceremonies, 2 June commemoration events feature groups of people trekking in Botev's footsteps from Kozloduy to Okolchitsa. Under Communism, Botev's stardom was boosted further as he was hailed by the propaganda as a progenitor to the Communist resistance movement during the Second World War.
His most famed line, "He, who fell in fight for freedom, liveth for evermore," are now everywhere: from early 20th century monuments to Botev to memorials of Communist resistance fighters to T-shirts sold on souvenir stalls.
Sadly, when change is needed, most Bulgarians still resort not to these words, but to behaviour that Botev despised and bitterly mocked. They have a drink, they bemoan Bulgaria's misfortunes, they call for action and then do nothing but order a bowl of hot tripe soup for their hangover. The only difference is that this time they do not do this in some emigre tavern, but on Facebook.