THE BULGARIAN GULAG

by Hristo Hristov, Dnevnik Daily; photography author’s archive

Thousands were killed in forced labour camps but the thugs responsible evaded conviction

Memorial to the victims of Communism, Sofia

Marin Georgiev's nightmare began in April 1961. A shepherd from Straldzha, he was peacefully minding his sheep when two State Security plainclothes agents arrested him. Georgiev was sent to a labour camp in Lovech without trial. His crime? He had refused “voluntarily” to give his land and livestock to the collective farms, the only type of holding permitted in Communist Bulgaria.

Georgiev endured a year of hell in Lovech, comparable to the treatment suffered by Nazi concentration camp prisoners. “As soon as we'd arrived, the older inmates beat us. They gave us stained, filthy clothes and shaved our heads. We slept in a kind of barn, in triple bunk beds, without any mattresses, just a blanket. Everybody had to work, whether fit or ill.” Georgiev still remembers three of the camp's officers, who behaved “like animals”. Their names were Gogov, Gazdov and Goranov.

By this time the Soviet gulags had long been defunct. In other Eastern bloc countries, like East Germany or Hungary, the authorities could not even contemplate such measures without stirring revolution. Bulgarian Communists, on the other hand, were unconcerned. After all, they had exterminated most political opponents in the years after 9 September 1944, when they had seized power in a Soviet-backed coup.

In the streets of Sofia - genuine anger at the atrocities of Communism at the early 1990s

In the streets of Sofia - genuine anger at the atrocities of Communism at the early 1990s

The first camp for dissidents – or “enemies of the people” – opened in January 1945 in Sveti Vrach, near Sandanski, now a spa resort popular with British tourists and holiday home buyers. Like subsequent ones, it was euphemistically termed Labour Correctional Facility (TVO). In March of that year a second camp opened by the Rositsa, or present-day Stamboliyski, Reservoir and operated until 1947-1948. From October 1945 until the end of 1946, members of the White Guard who had fled to Bulgaria after the 1917 Russian Revolution were held in the Kutsiyan Mine near Pernik. When the Communist Party cancelled its alliance with the leftwing faction of Nikola Petkov's Bulgarian Agrarian People's Union (Petkov was executed in 1947), the Kutsiyan camp filled up with its members. The camp became so overcrowded that in 1948 it was split in two. Some detainees were moved to a TVO by the village of Bogdanov Dol, near Pernik, (closed in 1951) and others to a TVO by the village of Nikolaevo near Kazanlak (closed in 1949).

Two other early camps were in the proximity of the villages of Boshulya near Pazardzhik (operating from 1945 until 1949) and of Nozharevo near Silistra (operating from 1947 until 1952). The first women's camp was set up in a monastery near Veliko Tarnovo, but in 1947 it was moved to the village of Bosna, near Tutrakan.

No photographs of the camps were ever taken

No photographs of the camps were ever taken, but Krum Horozov, a former political prisoner, published some sketches of the Second Site of the Belene Camp, where he spent a year. The sign over the door reads: ''An enemy who refuses to surrender must be destroyed - Dzezhinsky''

Belene, the largest Bulgarian gulag, and the scene of horrendous atrocities, opened in April 1949. The Council of Ministers, chaired by Vasil Kolarov, an eminent Communist answering directly to Stalin, made the decision. Three years later, the Interior Ministry reported to Prime Minister Valko Chervenkov that Belene housed 2,323 inmates, – 2,248 men and 75 women. Among them were government ministers, MPs, police and army officers who had served royalist Bulgaria, former White Guards, “anarchists” and “disseminators of malicious rumours and enemy propaganda”.

In the autumn of 1954, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BKP) closed the camp. However, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution quickly convinced the Communists that they had acted rashly and, at dictator Todor Zhivkov's behest, Belene reopened in 1958. The official explanation was the “fight against hooliganism”. A “hooligan” was deemed any man in a beard, long hair and tight trousers, and any woman wearing a mini skirt. Basically, anything reeking of Western influence was viewed with suspicion. Yes, this was the time when Bulgarians really were sent to concentration camps for listening to jazz!

Pressure from the West prompted Prime Minister Anton Yugov to announce in 1959 that there were no camps in Bulgaria. The TVO in Belene was turned into a “proper” jail. Its 276 political prisoners and 981 “criminals” were released. Only 166 people, designated “incorrigible”, remained. However, the Interior Ministry planned to “rehabilitate” them by prescribing “compulsory physical labour in stone quarries”. These 166 “incorrigibles” became the first inmates of the last Communist camp, near Lovech.

Nikolay Gazdov, the DC officer at the Lovech camp, was tried in 1992

Nikolay Gazdov, the DC officer at the Lovech camp, was tried in 1992

Internment at Lovech required no trial. The establishment quickly filled with “undesirables”, moved into the shacks formerly used by builders of the Lovech-Troyan railway. Todor Minkov, from Sofia, remembers that “we had to run with the stones from the quarry to the trolleys, which were 150-160 m, or 490-525 ft, away, and through a gauntlet of militiamen, who hit us with sticks”.

In Lovech, the working day began at four or five in the morning – whatever the season. Food was scarce. The daily ration of bread was 700 grams, or 1.5 lb. Breakfast consisted of cold tea and marmalade. At noon they took a one-hour break for a meagre lunch without meat. The day only ended when its target output was met. For each man, this meant carrying eight to 20 cubic metres of stone. “We worked until late in the night, because many people could not meet their quotas,” Todor Minkov recalled.

Hygiene was abysmal. The only place where the “incorrigibles” could bathe was the nearby Osam River. Their old army uniforms were liceinfested and their shacks full of bedbugs and fleas. For over a year, medical care was nonexistent. “I had never seen people with festering wounds containing worms. We had to ask somebody to urinate on the wounds so they could heal,” Neno Hristov, from the village of Izvorovo, recalled.

Following the collapse of Communism in 1989, the Military Prosecutor's Office began an investigation. Medical experts concluded that “inmates were denied contact with the outside world and could not make demands or lodge complaints to preserve their self-respect and human dignity… Living conditions were marked by inexcusable sadism.”

Citizens' rally to commemorate the victims of Communism at the Lovech camp, 1990

Citizens' rally to commemorate the victims of Communism at the Lovech camp, 1990

The man who oversaw this barbaric regime was General Mircho Spasov, Deputy Interior Minister and a close associate of Todor Zhivkov. “Everything was done according to Spasov's orders. He banned all visits, refused the sick access to hospital, and ordered that the dead be kept from relatives,” said Petar Gogov, the camp's chief officer. “Mircho Spasov gave orders to toil from sunrise to sunset. ‘They must labour under the hardest conditions, from dawn till dusk! Work until they drop dead!'” Tsvyatko Goranov, head of the quarry, recalled Spasov saying.

When interrogated in 1990, Mircho Spasov said: “Everybody, including Todor Zhivkov, knew that the camp's regime was very strict, even severe. Instructions to maintain such conditions came from the Interior Ministry and the Politburo.”

If Spasov was the one who laid down general rules for Lovech, specific acts of violence had another face. Nikolay Gazdov, the camp's State Security officer, was an unrivalled torturer. His favourite trick before killing a man was to call him to the front of the ranks and give him a mirror “to look at himself one last time”.

During the Lovech camp's four-year history, 1,500 people passed through its gates, of whom 151 died. Robbed of a dignified death, they were also deprived of a proper funeral. Those killed in the quarry were covered with straw canvas and returned to the camp, then dumped by the latrine overnight. In the morning they were transported by lorry to Belene, from where they were taken by boat to be buried on one of the islands.

Despite the barbaric treatment, Nikola Nikolov, the head of the Belene prison, cared only about its image. In a 1961 report, he wrote: “This is a Catholic village. Many of the local prison warders do not keep secrets, so the almost public disposal of the corpses may be used by enemies to damage the prestige of the People's Rule.” However, Mircho Spasov ordered “maintaining some level of secrecy regarding the transportation and disposal, although there was nothing illegal”. All relatives of the dead received were their blood-stained clothes.

Ivan Karadochev, a fur merchant and father of the popular Bulgarian singer Bogdana Karadocheva, was among those killed in the camp near Lovech. The authorities sent him there after receiving a report containing unsubstantiated allegations of illegal trading. Karadochev died after just two weeks, from diabetes, according to his death certificate. But Krastyo Nikolov, a surviving inmate, tells a different story: “Karadochev was sitting on a broken trolley. Group leader Dimitar Tsvetkov kicked him hard in the middle of his chest several times and then finished him off by striking him repeatedly on the head with his stick.”

Citizens of the newly-democratised Bulgaria cross infamous pontoon over the Danube leading to the Belene camp

Citizens of the newly-democratised Bulgaria cross infamous pontoon over the Danube leading to the Belene camp

Fabricated explanations were given for many of the deaths. The death certificate of Alexander “Sasho Sladura” Nikolov, for example, attributes his demise to angina. The former member of the Bulgarian Royal Symphony Orchestra, who had to earn his living after 1944 playing in restaurants, was interned in Lovech for telling political jokes. He died eleven days later. Prisoners said that he expired following a severe thrashing from Gazdov and other warders.

The camp near Lovech might have operated far longer were it not for the escape of two prisoners in the winter of 1961-1962. Their shocking reports about life in the TVO provoked a surprising reaction from the repressive system. Charged with the investigation, General Dimitar Kapitanov and his deputy, Gatyu Gatev, were so appalled that they decided to act behind Mircho Spasov's back and send the evidence directly to the Central Committee of the BKP. Spasov, then responsible for investigations on behalf of State Security, was furious and threatened Kapitanov and Gatev. Yet the inquiry, held by the Central Committee, came to some awkward findings, including the fact that Todor Zhivkov had ordered, and Mircho Spasov had organised, the murders. In spite of this, the only person to be fired was Interior Minister Georgi Tsankov. Spasov remained in office.

The Lovech camp was closed down in April 1962 – in complete secrecy, as it had been established – and its inmates released. The 30 women prisoners, who were moved from Lovech to a cow shed by the village of Skravena near Botevgrad in the autumn of 1961, had been released some time earlier. Here is how an Interior Ministry report described the occasion: “When the bus pulled out, the released women started shouting ‘BKP, BKP! Long live the Central Committee of the BKP!'”

Little did they know that the same Communist Party leaders who had freed them were also the ones responsible for their ordeal. They did not foresee that the camps would reopen in the 1980s to hold Bulgarian Turks who protested against the forced namechanges during the Revival Process. They had no idea that Spasov and Gazdov would escape punishment or that no member of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (the BKP's successor) would apologise. In Bulgaria, it seems, it's easier to talk about human rights' violations in Libyan jails than in those of our own country.

Mircho Spasov was put on trial in 1992

Mircho Spasov was put on trial in 1992

DOG DOES NOT EAT DOG

In 1962, when the truth about the horrors in Lovech emerged, Todor Zhivkov told the Politburo: “We have received information about outrages at the Lovech camp. This is a scandalous nuisance. We must not allow such cases in the future. We said that they had to go there and work. Now we do not need a camp. Dismantle the camp! There are people to blame: both Comrade Tsankov and Mircho Spasov. Mircho has to be moved to another job. He is a disciplined man. This case has broken his heart. I was very harsh with him. I asked him, ‘Are you an idiot to allow such a thing?' He is a man of gold, very loyal, but a bit impulsive. Let's give him a Party punishment.”

Addressing the military prosecutor in 1990, Todor Zhivkov conceded that inappropriate decisions had been made but blamed Soviet influence: “There were incorrect doctrines about the enemy within. In such circumstances a decision had to be taken to establish a camp for the detention of people without trial. We also relied on Soviet experience. There were Soviet counsellors in the Defence Ministry, the Interior Ministry - everywhere. Today, I would absolutely object to the establishment of camps. I personally fought against the powers behind these aberrations in the camps. We punished Georgi Tsankov and expelled him from the Party. Mircho Spasov got a lighter punishment, due to the circumstances at the time, because the ratio of powers in the Central Committee was such. How we continued to promote Mircho Spasov, even to the position of a member of the Central Committee, I cannot say.”

WHAT BRITAIN KNEW

A confidential UK Foreign Office memorandum from 1954 proves that the British authorities knew of the inhuman conditions in what it describes as “Bulgarian concentration camps”.

The memorandum makes reference to a separate report entitled “Forced Labour in Eastern Europe”, which describes conditions at various prisons, including the notorious Belene camp. The British Government interpreted the camps as being in part a means to meet the need for “cheap labour to press ahead with ambitious economic plans (which would otherwise fail if ordinary wages – which are insufficient – were paid).”

British documents

The report mentioned in the memo described the misery endured by Belene's inmates. “Deaths from beatings by their guards and from exhaustion are common, especially in the severe winter climate when prisoners have no warm clothing.”

The memorandum goes on to say that the existence of the camps proves that opposition to the Communist regime is widespread. The British authorities viewed the camps as another example of “the continuing and cynical violation of human rights by Bulgaria”.

ZERO CONVICTIONS

Thanks to surviving witnesses and documents, the investigation of the Military Prosecutor's Office in 1990 focused on the camp near Lovech. Mircho Spasov, Petar Gogov, Tsvyatko Goranov, Nikolay Gazdov and warder Yuliana Razhgeva were charged with 14 murders. Goranov died of a stroke before the trial opened. Shortly after it began, Spasov went to hospital, where he also died. After his death, the case was set aside and not reopened until 2002. The Supreme Court of Cassation, the final court of appeal, ruled the case closed as the 20-year statute of limitations had lapsed. This statute was included in the Bulgarian Penal Code under Soviet influence. No Bulgarian government has dared follow Germany's example where Communist crimes are not statute-barred. This is why the only punishment for Gazdov and Razhgeva was the three years they spent under preliminary arrest.

Yuliyana Razhgeva, warder of the women's group at the camp, spent three years in detention during the proceedings. This was her only punishment

Yuliyana Razhgeva, warder of the women's group at the camp, spent three years in detention during the proceedings. This was her only punishment

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