by Professor Hristo Matanov

How some Americans influenced who the Bulgarians are today

Vute was strolling around the centre of Sofia, when he suddenly caught sight of his friend, Nane, on Eagles Bridge holding a bouquet of flowers. "Who are you waiting for?" Vute asked. "The Americans!" replied Nane. Socialism was at its peak. "Are you out of your mind?" said Vute. "Didn't you wait here for the Russians on 9 September too?" "Well, they showed up, didn't they?" answered Nane.

The truth is, Americans arrived in Bulgaria long before this Communist-era joke was contrived. In fact, they initially turned up when Bulgaria was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Since then, they have witnessed some of the country's most important historical events.


The first Protestant missionaries were already proselytising in Bulgarian lands in the second quarter of the 19th Century. They opened centres in larger cities and in 1860 established a men's school in Samokov, followed by a girls' school in Stara Zagora. Later the schools were combined to create the American College in Simeonovo. Missionaries actively participated in the translation of the Bible from Church Slavonic to Modern Bulgarian, and also published Zornitsa, or Morning Star, one of the longest running Bulgarian Revival Period newspapers.


Does a tree falling in the woods make a sound if there's no one there to hear it? Would the West have found out about the Ottomans' brutal repression of the Bulgarian April Uprising in 1876 if American journalist Januarius MacGahan and Eugene Skyler, American consul general in Istanbul hadn't reported on it?

At American Ambassador to Turkey, Horace Maynard's request, the two men set out for Batak to investigate the suppression of the rebellion. The ambassador had heard news of atrocities committed there, but wanted objective information. And he got it - in the form of Skyler's report and MacGahan's articles for the London Daily News. The shocking reports provoked outrage, which eventually became one of the grounds for the final Russo-Turkish War. The avalanche had already begun to crash down - and even the Ottomans' insistence that Skyler be recalled couldn't stop it.


Believe it or not, Bulgarians were behind America's first modern hostage crisis. In 1901 a group of revolutionaries fighting for the independence of their fellow countrymen in Macedonia decided to draw the world's attention to their cause. During the summer they ambushed United States missionary Miss Ellen Stone and kidnapped her along with her pregnant Bulgarian companion. They demanded 14,000 Turkish gold liras as ransom - to buy weapons - and after six months of negotiations, they got the money.

Miss StoneMiss Stone was not only the first political hostage - she was also the first kidnapping victim to develop the Stockholm syndrome. When she returned to the United States, she held public lectures filled with sympathy for the Bulgarians.

Two years passed after this incident before Bulgaria and the United States established diplomatic relations. John Jackson, the United States plenipotentiary minister to Greece, Romania and Serbia, presented his credentials to Prince Ferdinand in 1903. The first Bulgarian ambassador to Washington, Stefan Panaretov, a teacher at Robert College, presented himself to President Woodrow Wilson much later, in December 1914.


When the Second Balkan War ended in 1913, the various peoples living on the peninsula were furious with each other - and especially with the Bulgarians. An objective viewpoint on the situation could only come from outside - in this case, the neutral observer was the American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. He organised and financed a commission made up of both American and European scholars to investigate war crimes and repressions of civilian populations.

The questionnaire came out at the beginning of the First World War. It didn't hide atrocities committed by Turks, Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians, but it confirmed that the populations who had suffered most were Bulgarians in Thrace and Macedonia.


The First World War ended badly for Bulgarians, who were forced to give up their dream of national unity. For that reason, they openly adored President Wilson. His post-war Fourteen Point Program stressed that there could be peace in the future only if Europe's borders were defined in terms of national principles. Unfortunately, the victors did not implement it and the losers indulged in a dangerous revanchism that led to the Second World War.


Although Bulgarians consider themselves among the best educated and most intelligent nations in the world, few know that John Rockefeller gave away some of his cash in Bulgaria. The philanthropist's donation went towards building Sofia University's Department of Agronomy. Between the two world wars, Bulgarians also received other United States contributions. A committee collected funds for victims of the devastating earthquake in Chirpan in 1928, and Miss Elizabeth Clark founded an American-style kindergarten in Sofia.


The Second World War began for both the United States and Bulgaria with declarations of neutrality and peace on the diplomatic front. In any case, Washington believed that although the Balkan nation was drawing closer to the Axis, any condemnation of its policies would only lead to Bulgaria's speedier entrance in the coalition. On 1 March 1941 Bulgaria entered into the Tripartite Pact and the United States froze Bulgarian bank accounts. The Americans only took a tougher stance when Bulgarian forces occupied Vardar Macedonia and the Aegean region.

The attack on Pearl Harbour changed everything. As early as 12 or 13 December, Bulgaria - under pressure from the Germans - declared a "symbolic war" on the United States and stopped issuing exit visas for American citizens. Even the Bulgarians themselves didn't take the situation seriously, however. The Americans were also not particularly worried about this new enemy. Roosevelt recommended ignoring the "war," while the Director of the American College in Simeonovo Floyd Black summed up the situation as "ridiculous". The American press jokingly published "news reports" that the Bulgarian Navy would attack New York. This symbolic war, however, quickly turned anything but symbolic on 5 June 1942, when at the USSR's urging, the United States declared war on all German satellites. A year later Bulgarian politicians began to realise that Germany might not win the war. They then scrambled to find a way out of the conflict, turning towards the most "friendly" of the Allies - the United States.

Industrialist Georgi Kiselov and Bulgarian banker Angelo Kuyumdzhiyski - who was also a colonel in the US intelligence services and whose house is now the American ambassador's residence in Sofia - attempted to establish contact with the United States. In the meantime, from November 1943 to April 1944, US warplanes bombed the country, destroying Sofia.

The Bulgarian government acted so timidly, however, that real negotiations only began in July 1944. By August Soviet forces had already reached the Danube and Stalin had made it crystal clear that he wanted Bulgaria within his sphere of influence. In September the country fell under Columnist rule.

The Americans backed off - slowly. Political representative Maynard Barnes supported the Bulgarian opposition. He even hid opposition politician and British agent G.M. Dimitrov and arranged his escape in 1945.


After 1947 the USSR and the United States became enemies. Bulgaria, of course, remained in the Eastern Bloc. Washington protested against the show trial of opposition leader Nikola Petkov and his subsequent murder. The Soviets, however, kept a careful eye on Bulgaria. One of the charges used to sentence Communist Traycho Kostov and a group of Protestant pastors to death in 1949 was the accusation that they were American spies. The United States responded by vetoing Bulgaria's entrance to the United Nations because of human rights violations.

Tension peaked in 1950, when the US official representative in Bulgaria Donald Heath was declared persona non grata. The United States broke off diplomatic relations. Bulgaria made the first attempts to re-establish them in 1953, hoping this would allow the country into the United Nations. Most United States senators and congressmen were opposed. Worse yet, the CIA's analyses indicated that changes in Bulgaria were cosmetic and in practice there was no open opposition to the regime. The two countries finally re-established relations as late as March 1959.


After a few calm decades, tension mounted again in the beginning of the 1980s. American journalist Claire Sterling discovered a Bulgarian connection - or more precisely, a connection to Bulgarian State Security, or DS, which was serving the KGB - in the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981. Bulgaria was accused of terrorism, drug trafficking and weapons sales. The United States even considered the possibility of breaking off diplomatic relations. Soon a new accusation joined the growing list - Bulgaria practised state terrorism. The American charge criticised the country's policy of forcing Muslims to change their names to Christian ones during the 1980s.


When the democratic changes began at the end of 1989, the United States and Bulgaria quickly became fast friends. Bulgaria was one of the beneficiaries under the Support for Eastern European Democracy Act, receiving a total of $510 million in funds. In 1990 Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev met with George Bush in Washington, and Vice President Dan Quayle returned the favour with a courtesy call to Sofia. The first visit by a sitting United States president, however, came much later - in 1999 Bill Clinton arrived in Sofia to celebrate 10 years since the beginning of the democratic transition.

In 1991 the United States gave Bulgaria its most-favoured-nation trade status. The Fulbright Programme for Educational Exchange was also extended to the country and an American Centre was opened in Sofia. Bulgaria supported its new ally in military operations against the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and stood by the United States and NATO during the Kosovo crisis, which began in 1999. After 11 September Bulgarian forces participated in the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they still maintain military detachments. In late March 2006 the two countries agreed to open four military bases for joint use on Bulgarian territory.

So in the end, that old Socialist joke might turn out to be right - American soldiers really will be coming to Bulgaria soon!


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