Ghostly remains bear witness to dozens of villages destroyed under Communism to make way for reservoirs
Issue 51-52, December 2010 - January 2011
by Bozhidara Georgieva; photography by Anthony Georgieff
Fishermen are reluctant to engage in conversation with strangers, as this usually scares off the fish they hope to catch. And "Where is the church?" is not a question one would usually ask near a reservoir that is several kilometres from the nearest village. However, when you're on the southwestern bank of the Koprinka Reservoir, in the Sredna Gora, the question is pertinent – despite the reluctance of the local anglers.
The church of St Atanas rises from the marshy bank of the reservoir, hidden behind a group of trees. When the water is high, it floods the roots of the surrounding trees and the foundations of the building and the bell tower, lending a surreal guise to the church. Built in 1835 and painstakingly restored in the early 20th Century after brigands set it on fire, the church is abandoned now. The roof has collapsed and there was no bell in the bell tower; what used to be a garden had become a wilderness.
The church was forsaken in 1960, the same year as the village. The place was called Viden then and its population was resettled, since their birthplace lay in the path of one of the Communist regime's megalomaniacal construction sites: the Georgi Dimitrov Reservoir (its current name is Koprinka). This is the reservoir at the bottom of which was the Thracian town of Seutopolis.
Viden and St Atanas were not isolated cases. Everywhere that Socialist Bulgaria's largescale construction, in the form of reservoirs, was "creating goods for the working people", settlements and historical monuments were martyred in the name of progress.
Some of them are still poking up above the surface of the water.
Some 20 kilometres from the Koprinka Reservoir, on the bank of the Zhrebchevo Reservoir, is the St Ivan Rilski Church. Once there used to be a village there, Zapalnya, but the only reminders for it are the church and a segment of the cemetery. You can find out what happened from the memorial plaque, which states: "The village of Zapalnya, 15th Century. [Population] [d]isplaced in 1962."
It is not hard to picture what the submerged villages looked like. This is how the writer Yordan Radichkov (1929–2004), a magic realist and twice a nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, described his native village of Kalimanitsa in his memoir Recollections of Horses. "The village had 473 inhabitants, us two included; additionally there was the cattle; the two watermills; the village fool; two stationary stills and one movable, drawn by a pair of horses and used chiefly for the illegal distillation of rakiya and for rapid movement, well, right under the nose of the excise duty collectors; a fortune-telling woman; a teacher; a deputy of the mayor; not to forget also ghosts, vampires and countless water goblins." The village used to be near Mihaylovgrad, today's Montana, and was deleted from the maps following the construction of the Ogosta Reservoir in the 1960s and 1970s.
Kalimanitsa was not the only victim of the reservoir. The neighbouring village of Zhivovtsi also disappeared.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers