by Vesela Ilieva; photography by BTA

Bulgaria's first Communist dictator was a bad boy who played truant from church

mausoleum destruction.jpg

It is the autumn of 1898. A pastor climbs with heavy footsteps down from the pulpit. A minute earlier his sermon had been interrupted. Girls are sobbing and crying, distressed by the sardonic laughter and loud voice of a young man. The pastor throws out the drunken troublemaker who continues ranting and raving in the street.

Two days later someone smashes the church windows. The Christian community has its suspicions about the culprit - a lad who had decided never to set foot in a church again after he'd been evicted from Sunday school for indecent and aggressive behaviour when he was only 10. At the age of 12 he was expelled from regular school for the same reasons. He'd developed a dislike of and a complex about Christians and intellectuals, and would seek revenge on them for the rest of his life.

His father will fall ill and die brokenhearted. His mother and two sisters will make attempts to bring him back to the Christian faith all their lives, but to no avail.

These events are not from some blackand-white film about the battle between good and evil in some backwater village. The action actually did take place in Samokov, western Bulgaria.

The pastor was a real person, Stoyan Vatralski, the first Bulgarian graduate of Harvard Univesrity, and the young man was Georgi Dimitrov, the would be Communist dictator.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, as a favour to his mother Parashkeva Dimitrova, and despite opposition from the church board, the aggressive atheist began work as a typesetter at the Evangelical mission's printers in Samokov. There, he stole money, paper and ink to print pro-Communist flyers and anti-religious brochures.

Georgi Dimitrov on the cover of Life Magazine

Georgi Dimitrov on the cover of Life Magazine

He even took the liberty of editing the Liberal Party's literature, newspaper and publicity materials that were printed in Samokov. Party leader Dr Vasil Radoslavov was impressed rather than angered by the corrections. In his view, this was an intelligent young man, capable of sorting out a huge amount of information, but he had one problem: he was obsessed with Marxist ideas.

Dimitrov became part of Dimitar Blagoev's Social Democratic circle, but felt uncomfortable amongst its educated members. After the dissolution of Bulgaria's Socialist movement and the Soviet Revolution, he joined the Narrow Socialists.

They were numerous, uneducated, belligerent and prepared to do anything in the name of Communist ideology. Having acquired self-taught knowledge and experience, Dimitrov quickly advanced to become their youth leader.

Despite his role in the organisation of the strikes and soldiers' mutinies after the First World War, the leaders of the democratic parties regarded Dimitrov as harmless. He remained in the National Assembly for 10 years and was the youngest MP there until he fled the country to live in exile after taking part in the 1923 uprising staged by the USSR, which Communist propaganda would later dub a "revolt".

At the Leipzig Trial

At the Leipzig Trial

Georgi Dimitrov had a penchant for beautiful and intelligent women. They were considerably younger than himself, because they were easier to control. He did not realise that what he sought in a woman were the bourgeois virtues that a true Communist should abhor. But his idol, Karl Marx, had similarly lived off Jenny, the virtuous daughter of a factory owner.

After meeting a succession of young women, Georgi Dimitrov married Ljubica Ivosevic, a delicate, beautiful, intelligent girl. The fact that she was not rich was counterbalanced by her Serbian origins: in those days it was trendy for Marx's followers to have relationships with Serbian or Croatian intellectuals.

Their correspondence shows that Ljubica loved Dimitrov wholeheartedly. Blindly devoted to this relationship, she became its victim and died alone, poor and suffering from tuberculosis in the USSR, where she was kept hostage by Stalin. Dimitrov's brother, Nikola, had a similar fate.

At that time, Georgi Dimitrov was living in Switzerland and Germany on Comintern funds, establishing a network of conspirators in Western Europe. This continued until 1933, when he was arrested with a forged passport in the name of a Dr Rudolf Hediger and was accused, with two other Bulgarians, Vasil Tanev and Blagoy Popov, of setting fire to the Reichstag.

When he was arrested, Dimitrov spoke German fluently. But according to Communist propaganda in Bulgaria, he learned the language during his six months spent in prison.Then he bravely faced the Nazi court and delivered his knockdown speech against Goebbels and Goering. The trial ended with the exchange, agreed by Hitler and Stalin, of the "heroes of Leipzig" for German officers. Bulgarian King Boris III also stepped in and appealed to the dictators to save the lives of the three Bulgarians. It is certain that the monarch took on this mediatory role as a result of the international campaign in support of the accused: left-wing western lobbyists and Comintern propaganda had resulted in widespread international public reaction in defence of the Bulgarians.

One of the first Dimitrov's acts in power was to accuse of treason many Catholic and Protestant clergymen. Dozens of them were shot

One of the first Dimitrov's acts in power was to accuse of treason many Catholic and Protestant clergymen. Dozens of them were shot

Later, when King Boris III was already dead, and Dimitrov headed Bulgaria, he would return the gesture and not kill the king's widow and children. Following Stalin's advice, he put them under pressure by killing their uncle, the Prince Regent Cyril. After all, human life did not matter much in the Communist revolution. The Great Leader had demonstrated this to his protege back in 1934. When the "heroes of Leipzig" were handed over to the USSR, Dimitrov was kept in the Kremlin, but on their arrival Popov and Tanev were immediately sent to the Gulag, where they died.

Stalin also provided Georgi Dimitrov with a second wife, Rosa. She was a Communist, was of an old Jewish family, and was cunning enough to be able to play by the rules of Stalinism. Dimitrov assumed control over her and even managed to make her wed him in church after he returned to Bulgaria in 1948.

Parashkeva Dimitrova was the reason for this rather illogical ceremony. She was a strong-willed woman who taught herself to read when she was 22 and had already raised two children. Being a refugee from Macedonia, she also knew pain and misery, but although strict with others, she was lenient with her problem child. She hoped that her maternal love and Christian attitude would have a positive influence in his life.

Shortly before her death, she made one last attempt to change the sick, alcoholic dictator, forcing him to marry in church. The atheists were married by pastor Vasil Zyapkov, the leader of the Bulgarian delegation of the World Council of Churches.

Stalin did not mind the wedding. Dimitrov was his "right hand man" but also his "left boot licker" in the Comintern and Bulgaria. Touchingly, Iosif Vissarionovich (Stalin) had himself equally obeyed his mother's will. He built a large chapel on his country estate for the old lady, who was a fervent Orthodox Christian.

Ceremonial welcome at a Moscow railway station. Dimitrov's mother is to the right

Ceremonial welcome at a Moscow railway station. Dimitrov's mother is to the right

When Parashkeva visited Georgi Dimitrov in the USSR, Stalin allowed them to pray in the chapel together. The former Orthodox seminarian found no conflict between melting at the thought of his mother kneeling before the icons in the chapel and ordering the execution of priests, monks and nuns. Georgi Dimitrov was given a prime example of how the two could be reconciled. Parashkeva died without seeing the consequences of her action.

Zyapkov was one of the 15 pastors Georgi Dimitrov sentenced to death or life imprisonment in a labour camp in the spring of 1949.

During the first four months after the Communist coup of 9 September 1944, 30,000 people were killed without trial. The victims of the Bulgarian camps and prisons opened in the next few years are estimated at about 250,000. They included members of all Christian denominations in the country: 15 high-ranking Orthodox clerics; over 120 Orthodox priests, clergymen and monks; 15 chief pastors of the Evangelical churches; and over 60 Protestant ministers, as well as Catholic priests.

The mausoleum for Dimitrov's mummified corpse turned in to a place for worship and military parades

The mausoleum for Dimitrov's mummified corpse turned in to a place for worship and military parades

On 2 July 1949, two months after obliterating the elite of Bulgarian Protestantism in the staged Protestant trials, the prodigal son of Protestant parents Parashkeva and Dimitar Dimitrov died, his liver eroded by alcohol abuse and his lungs riddled with disease.

In 1990, the dictator's mummified body was taken out of the mausoleum in central Sofia where it had been the object of worship for 40 years. In a final gesture of mercy, a Protestant pastor allowed the burial of Georgi Dimitrov's remains alongside the bones of his parents in Sofia's cemetery.


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