Communist Bulgaria's most notorious political prison still stands
Belene is a backwater of a town on the Bulgarian bank of the River Danube. It is inhabited by less than 8,000 people. Yet, for more than one reason, its name is known to all Bulgarians.
To some, it is the location of a planned nuclear power plant whose failure to materialise illustrates how corruption and incompetence in post-Communist Bulgaria can ruin what was to become a major power engineering project. To others, it is synonymous with the most atrocious crimes of the former Communist regime.
To understand the place that Belene has held in the Bulgarian consciousness for decades, we need to go back to the first years after the 9 September 1944 Soviet-backed Communist coup swept over Bulgaria. One of the first things the Bulgarian Communist Party had to do as it strengthened its grip over Bulgarian society and the economy was to "deal" with its real or imaginary opposition.
Fully in keeping with the Stalinist commandment of the day, the Bulgarian Communists considered an enemy everyone who wasn't a friend. "Bourgeois" intellectuals and politicians from the dismantled democratic parties, high school and university students, and farmers refusing to give up their lands for forcible collectivisation were among the perceived foes. Others included former military and police officers, entrepreneurs whose businesses and properties were nationalised, anarchists and even leftists who had become disgruntled with the new rulers. Then there was the clergy. Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Protestants and Muslims were seen as subversives or spies. As this is the Balkans, the personal element always came first. The perceived "enemy groups" were enlarged, often completely arbitrarily, to include anyone some new Communist ruler disliked – or whose property he had eyed.
In the first weeks after 9 September, many people who belonged to the tsarist regime were just killed without a court trial. In 1945 the so-called People's Court sentenced thousands to either death or long prison sentences. Though the People's Court was endorsed by the victorious Great Powers, its proceedings in Communist Bulgaria often did not even have a semblance to a proper legal process. As a result both people directly responsible for Bulgaria's alliance with Nazi Germany and people who had nothing to do with it were sentenced alongside each other. The Communists did not discern between victim and victimiser.
A notorious pontoon bridge connects the Island of Persin to the mainland
Not even that was enough. The obvious solution, the Bulgarian Communists had learned from their mentors in the USSR, was to set up prison camps for whoever they considered a political opponent.
The first camp for political prisoners in Communist Bulgaria was opened as early as January 1945. Over the next few years, several new facilities were inaugurated. With a few interruptions, the political prisons system in Bulgaria operated until 1962. It was modelled almost entirely on the Soviet Gulag. In fact the only difference between what went on in the USSR and its Bulgarianised version was the size of it.
There is no precise data, but it is thought that from 1944 to 1953 about 12,000 people spent time in these camps. Between 1956 and 1962 that number was an estimated 5,000. There were a total of about 40 labour camps of this kind in Bulgaria.
The political prison in Belene was featured in several novels about 20th century Bulgaria, including Solo (2009) by British-Indian writer Rana Dasgupta and Shadow Land (2018) by American bestselling author Elizabeth Kostova
Today the locations of most of those have been forgotten. Yet the name of one of them has become the symbol of all: the camp on Persin Island in the Danube River, near Belene.
Belene was the most notorious political prison in Bulgaria. The first inmates arrived in 1949, when the Communist Party fought not only against its obvious opponents, but also with "enemies with a party ticket" – a concept directly lifted from the Soviet Union to designate a comrade who had fallen out of favour.
Like the Gulag system in the Soviet Union, the location of Belene was chosen to be out of sight. It was on the outskirts of the country and on the outskirts of life. Even if anyone managed to escape from the island, the only place they could go to was Communist Romania – from where they would be sent back instantly.
The sinister notoriety of the former labour camp surpass what is left of it
At the end of 1949 there were about 4,500 political prisoners in Bulgaria, 800 of whom were in Belene. In 1950 a decision was made to "concentrate" all political prisoners at Belene and by the end of that year the camp had 2,348 inmates. Some of Belene's famous inmates included the last Bulgarian prime minister before the Communist coup, Konstantin Muraviev, as well as the politician Stoycho Moshanov. The camp was run by State Security.
Belene was officially shut down in 1953, after Stalin's death and the subsequent thaw. Some of the inmates were freed, but the rest – about half of the camp's population – remained in detention.
The failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956 played a significant role regarding the Belene camp and the fate of Bulgaria's political prisoners. Fearing the emergence of an organised opposition at home, Todor Zhivkov, who had just become the de facto ruler of Bulgaria, ordered the reopening of the Belene prison. It remained active until 1959, and when it was closed some of its inmates were sent to another, even harsher political prison near Lovech. Some of Belene's notoriously sadistic prison guards were relocated as well.
Cow farm at Belene Prison
Significantly, the overwhelming majority of people sent to Belene had not been tried in a court of law – not that a court of law in a hardline Communist state meant much. Belene was not officially considered a prison but a "correctional labour camp." A sentence was not needed. These people were disposed of by the feared State Security – often on mere allegations of "wrongdoing," which might have included telling political jokes or listening to Western music. Again, as this is the Balkans, the personal element came first. Some inmates had to endure the bestial conditions at Belene, or die there, simply because some Communist apparatchik had eyed their house – or their wife.
Twenty-five years later, in 1985, Belene reopened again. About 500 men and women, mainly ethnic Turks, who protested against the forcible Bulgarisation campaign against Bulgaria's Turkish minority, were sent to Belene.
As many as 10 percent of all Belene prisoners died. The scars that the camp at Belene left on the Bulgarian consciousness went far beyond its immediate effect on the prisoners and their families. Having a relative who had been in Belene was unspoken damnation. It affected the second and even third generation of former prisoners, preventing their sons and daughters from attending university or having a good career. The camp's name spread by word of mouth, whispered in fear, and would become a byword of being stigmatised for the rest of your life.
Belene island tries to reinvent itself as a wildlife haven
Stories of the horrors that had taken place at Belene began to emerge as soon as Communism collapsed in 1989. Most of them were real, some were exaggerated. Belene became one of the slogans of the inchoate anti-Communist movement.
Attempts to bring some of the perpetrators to justice ensued. Those included some of the people who had given the orders as well as some low rank officials who had run the camp and done the actual beatings. None of those were sent to prison, often because there was no sufficient evidence. Some of them died in the course of their trials. One committed suicide.
What was left was a lack of closure, a lingering trauma that continues to divide Bulgarian society as it is used, even in the 2020s, by various activists and "researchers" to suit current political purposes.
Unlike other former East bloc countries that have turned Communist prisons into museums, Bulgaria has nothing of the kind. Persin Island is now an ordinary prison. The humble remains of the political camp – some crumbling dormitories and farm outhouses – are still there. The easiest way to visit them is during the annual commemoration of the victims of Communism organised by the Island of Belene Foundation. The only witnesses of the past are a memorial plaque and an unfinished monument to the victims of the camp.
To the prison or the nuclear power station? Street signs in Belene are thought-provoking
For the ordinary people of Belene, who are old enough to remember, talking about what happened on the isle of Persin under Communism is difficult. Just like those who would in the 1930s-1940s live near Nazi camps, many of them claim they knew nothing about what was going on on their doorstep. And it is even more difficult for them to admit that in fact everyone who lived in Belene in those times had been trained to treat anyone suspicious, any unknown face in the neighbourhood, as a potential escapee – and turn them in. Tacit collaboration with the Communist masters was obligatory.
Some of the worst aspects of Communism continue to live on in Belene in the 2010s and 2020s as illustrated by the following example.
Belene is the home of a large Roman Catholic community, which has existed since the 17th century and whose life revolves around the church of the The Nativity of the Holiest Mother of God, built in 1860. The church is near the infamous pontoon bridge entrance of the prison and has a chapel dedicated to perhaps the best-known Catholic in Bulgaria, Bishop Evgeniy Bosilkov. He was sentenced to death and executed by the Communists in a trumped-up trial, in 1952. In 1998, he was beatified by the Pope. His blood-stained shirt is now exhibited in the chapel. The church is now run by an Italian priest, Father Paolo.
Suspicion of if not outright hostility to outsiders continues to this day. In 2017 the town arose against the planned settlement of a family of Syrian refugees. The local government and the police looked on. The only person who stood up for the refugees' rights was... the Italian, Father Paolo.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners