by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria's first dictator, international media celebrity, and embalmed exhibit

georgi dimitrov.jpg

In central Sofia, between what is now the National Art Gallery and the green garden of the National Theatre, there is a granite platform. Even on the sunniest of days, few people bother to climb up to the platform.

About 25 years ago it was the complete opposite. That platform marks the place where stood the last remains of Georgi Dimitrov's mausoleum, a building which was the heart of Communist Sofia, receiving far more attention than the Parliament and St Alexandr Nevsky Cathedral. Military and civilian parades would be held in the yellow brick road in front of it, with students, workers and intellectuals waving banners, slogans, and flowers at a bunch of senior apparatchiks lined on the mausoleum's terrace.

Who was the man who, for four decades, had the dubious privilege of being exhibited in his own mausoleum in the heart of Sofia?
Georgi Dimitrov was Bulgaria's first Stalinist dictator. He dragged Bulgaria into Communism, and the consequences of his politics are still felt, years after the collapse of the regime and the demolition of the mausoleum.

Georgi Dimitrov was born on 30 June 1882, oddly into a poor Protestant family; in Kovachevtsi village, near Pernik. Four years later, the family moved to Sofia and settled in the capital's poorest working-class neighbourhood, Yuchbunar. At the age of 12, Dimitrov dropped out of school, as his family could not afford his further education. He worked as a typesetter in a printing house and, according to his hagiography which, under Communism, children would have to memorise, spent his days making newspapers and his nights studying at home, to make up for what he had missed in school.

Georgi Dimitrov

A John Heartfield photomontage depicting Georgi Dimitrov and Hermann Goering at the Leipzig trial

While in the printing house, Georgi Dimitrov was inspired by the ideas of the then nascent Socialist movement in Bulgaria. In 1902, he became a member of the Socialist party and, after the party split the following year, he joined its radical wing. Dimitrov soon immersed himself in politics, heading a worker's trade union and organising a miners' strike in Pernik. In 1909, he was already a member of the party's leadership team, and in 1913 was elected an MP. Aged only 31, Dimitrov became the youngest MP in the Kingdom of Bulgaria.

1913 was a year of patriotic upheaval. The First Balkan War had brought significant territorial gains to Bulgaria, but people were still upset over the fate of Macedonia. This region was now divided between Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece, in spite of the fact that the majority of its population was Bulgarian. The Bulgarians were ready for revenge (which eventually led to the disastrous Second Balkan War and the Great War). Dimitrov disagreed with the general notion that Macedonia should be a part of Bulgaria, and believed in the establishment of a Balkan Socialist Federation, with Macedonia as a constituent republic within it.

This unorthodox idea met with little sympathy outside his party, but in 1918 Dimitrov found a larger and more eager audience. Bulgaria was in its third year of the Great War, with a vastly outnumbered, starving and increasingly demoralised army stuck on the Macedonian Front. Dimitrov had been against Bulgarian participation in the war from the very beginning, and now he started using his parliamentary immunity to visit the Bulgarian lines and incite the soldiers to give up their arms.

In August, he was arrested and sentenced to prison, but soon afterwards the soldiers on the Macedonian Front mutinied, and Bulgaria eventually capitulated.

Georgi Dimitrov & Stalin

Georgi Dimitrov discusses politics with Stalin, a painting from the Museum of Stalin in his birthplace, Gori, in Georgia

Dimitrov was released and fell under the influence of the Bolsheviks and the Comintern, an organisation created in 1919 with the aim of spreading Communism throughout the world. In September 1923, he and his affiliate Vasil Kolarov followed the orders of the Comintern to ignite a "farmers' and working class" uprising in Bulgaria. The revolt was doomed from the beginning, as few Bulgarians joined in, and those who did had no proper arms or organisation. The uprising was brutally crushed by the government, unleashing a witch hunt that resulted in the torture and killing of a number of leftwing politicians, intellectuals and ordinary Bulgarians. The modernist poet Geo Milev was among the most prominent victims. The Communists retaliated with brutal terrorist acts, including the bombing of St Nedelya Church in Sofia, on 16 April 1925, which killed 134 people.

For several years, Bulgaria was on the brink of a civil war, but Dimitrov and Kolarov did not stay to witness the results of their blind obedience to the Comintern. At the first sign that the "uprising" was going wrong, Dimitrov and Kolarov fled to Yugoslavia and settled in Austria. In the following decade, Dimitrov lived in Central Europe, working for the Comintern and the Soviet secret service.

And then came the Nazis and... the crowning moment for Dimitrov.

On 27 February 1933, only four weeks after Adolf Hitler had been sworn in as chancellor, Berlin's Reichstag caught fire and burnt down. A Dutch citizen, Marinus van der Lubbe, plus four Communist leaders were captured and accused of arson and plotting against the state. Georgi Dimitrov, along with two other Bulgarians, was among those accused, and in July 1933 faced trial.

Georgi Dimitrov

Georgi Dimitrov's was all over popular art and everyday objects, usually used in Communist Party's clubs and offices but also in schools. A lot of these trinkets were in the collection of the Museum of the Revolutionary Movement of Sofia, but after it was discontinued in the 1990s, they ended up in Kovachevtsi

The Leipzig Trial became one of the biggest public events of the year. The Nazis tried to use it to demonstrate to the public the dangers of Communism, and Communists from all over Europe spared no effort in denouncing the arson as a Nazi provocation. The trial was even broadcast live on radio, and here Dimitrov made such an impression that he turned into a hero in the eyes of the international media.

He declined the state-appointed lawyer, and did not shrink from posing a few questions to Prime Minister Hermann Göring himself (later hagiographies would claim that Dimitrov became fluent in German during his several months in prison). In putting his case, Dimitrov hailed the USSR as the largest and greatest country in the world, and championed Bulgaria's long history and civilisation. "You call my country Barbarian, but when the Bulgarians wrote in their own language, Charlemagne spoke German only to his horses," said Dimitrov, referring to the Cyrillic alphabet and the tradition of the mediaeval European elite to use Latin for worship and writing.

Repeated ad nauseam in Communist Bulgaria, this sentence is arguably the most popular saying of Dimitrov, and is even used by young people. The other is, "The friendship between Bulgaria and the USSR is like the sun and air for all living creatures," which dates from his period as dictator.
In December 1933, Van der Lubbe was declared guilty, but the other defendants were acquitted of the charges, probably because the trial was held in the last independent court in Germany, before the judiciary became Nazified.

The three Bulgarians were sentenced to nine months in prison for using forged papers during their stay in Germany.

Georgi Dimitrov

Plenty of pictures of Georgi Dimitrov with Bulgarian children – a favoured personality cult trope – are on display at his museum in Kovachevtsi village

When they were freed, the three went to the USSR, where they became Soviet citizens. Dimitrov became a close associate of Stalin and ended up chairing the Comintern, a position which had previously been held by his colleague, Vasil Kolarov. The other two took different paths. Vasil Tanev had a modest career as a Soviet apparatchiks and, after Hitler attacked the USSR in 1941, he volunteered for the Red Army. Tanev died the same year during an unsuccessful insurgency operation in Greece. Blagoy Popov, for his part, fell victim to the Stalinist purges. In 1938, he was accused of plotting to kill Dimitrov and Kolarov, and was sent to the Gulag. He survived and returned to Bulgaria in 1954, after both Georgi Dimitrov and Stalin were dead.

Stalin may have been notoriously paranoid, but Georgi Dimitrov flourished under him. He chaired the Comintern until it was dissolved in June 1943, allegedly as a measure by Stalin to reassure Churchill and Roosevelt that he was not planning a worldwide Communist revolution. As for Dimitrov, he entered the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, and was also a Soviet MP.

Stalin, however, had other plans for Georgi Dimitrov, and for Bulgaria.

During the Second World War, Bulgaria sided with the Axis but, although it declared war on the USA and Britain, it never did anything against the USSR. On 5 September 1944, however, Stalin declared war on Bulgaria, which was already trying to get out of the war with the least damage possible. On 8 September, the Red Army entered Bulgaria and marched through it, meeting no resistance. On 9 September, the Bulgarians awoke to the news that the Communists were in charge.

The Communists immediately started to purge their political opponents, aiming to strengthen their grip on Bulgaria. Dimitrov, however, remained in the USSR until the allegedly manipulated referendum of 15 September 1946 declared the country a "people's republic," with 95.6 percent of the votes in favour. Bulgaria was now firmly under the Soviet sphere of influence, so Dimitrov went home and in November was elected Prime Minister.

Within a few years, Dimitrov transformed Bulgaria into a small scale copy of the Soviet Union. Nationalisation and collectivisation of agrarian lands began, together with the building of large scale industrial facilities. The opposition, both external and internal, was brutally crushed and labour camps for political prisoners were opened. Even the old Bulgarian institutions, such as the education system, were turned upside down in order to mimic the Soviet model.

Georgi Dimitrov mausoleum

Under Communism, Georgi Dimitrov's mausoleum in Sofia was the centrepiece of all parades and rallies © BTA

Dimitrov also copied Stalin's personality cult. In 1947, he personally approved that the new city a hoard of enthusiastic youngsters were building in southeast Bulgaria should bear his name – Dimitrovgrad. Just as the Hitler Youth organisation bore the name of the Führer, the Bulgarian Communist youth organisation was called Dimitrov's Pioneer Organisation "Septemvriyche".

Probably the only dark cloud in Dimitrov's shining dictatorial sky was Macedonia. Since the mid-1930s, the Comintern and Stalin had supported the idea of Macedonia as an independent nation until it could become a constituent republic within the borders of a future Communist Balkan Federation. As a Macedonian nation did not exist at that time, the Communists put a lot of effort into creating it, advertising its existence and transforming the local Bulgarian dialect into a separate, Macedonian language.

This was how, out of the blue, in the census of 1946 more than 160,000 people in Bulgaria declared themselves Macedonian by ethnicity. No such group had ever been recorded in previous censuses.

In the late 1940s, Dimitrov was ready to grant cultural autonomy to Pirin Macedonia, the chunk of Macedonia which Bulgaria had acquired after the Balkan Wars. It would be the first step toward the full separation of Pirin Macedonia.

Then, in 1948, Stalin and Tito, the maverick leader of Socialist Yugoslavia, fell out with one another. The idea of creating a Socialist Balkan Federation was dismissed and the Bulgarian Communists made a 180-degree turn politically. In the final year of his life, Dimitrov was severely criticised because of his support for the federation.

On 2 July 1949, Georgi Dimitrov died in a sanatorium near Moscow, from a combination of heart failure, diabetes, and cirrhosis. There are still people, however, who believe that he was killed by Stalin.

Dimitrov received a pharaonic burial. While he was being embalmed in Moscow, a solid, menacing mausoleum was built in only 10 days in central Sofia. The dictator's body arrived in Bulgaria on a black-draped train, and was laid in the mausoleum in a ceremony attended by thousands. "Even the sky cried for him," went the propaganda story taught to children afterwards.

Georgi Dimitrov was succeeded as prime minister by his old comrade, Vasil Kolarov, but Kolarov too died six months later, and was also buried in the mausoleum. The third in line, Valko Chervenkov did his best to impose his own personality cult, but then Stalin died in 1953, and during the Secret Speech of 1956, the new leader of the USSR Nikita Khrushchev denounced the dead dictator and his cult of personality. The Bulgarian Communists followed suit, with the rise of the opportunistic and more flexible Todor Zhivkov.

While Stalin's personality cult was hastily swept under the carpet, Dimitrov's remained untouched for the next 40 years. The only thing censored from his hagiography was that Macedonian fling.

Georgi Dimitrov

Dimitrov features on the-coat-of-arms of Kovachevtsi

Streets and squares, schools and factories were named after Georgi Dimitrov. Statues of him were everywhere, as were heroic paintings depicting him leading the people, kissing babies, defying the Nazis at the Leipzig trial. Children studied his biography, which was packed with educational anecdotes. One of them told of how young Georgi dropped the fresh banitsa his mother had made on the street, and lied about it – strikingly similar to the story of George Washington's cherry tree.

A visit to the mausoleum to view Dimitrov's embalmed corpse was an obligatory part of every school trip to Sofia, and his family houses in Kovachevtsi and Sofia became museums.

The end of Dimitrov's personality cult came only after the collapse of Communism in 1989. On 18 July 1990, his embalmed body was removed from the mausoleum and buried in the Protestant section of the Sofia Central Cemetery. His statues were removed from public spaces (even from Dimitrovgrad, which nevertheless kept its name) and streets, squares and schools were renamed. Dimitrov's Pioneer Organisation ceased to exist.
Empty and heavy with symbolism, Dimitrov's mausoleum became both a nuisance and a trigger for nostalgia about the "good old days." No one knew what to do with it. Drug addicts used it as a shelter, youths covered it with graffiti, the advertising agency promoting Disney's 101 Dalmatians painted it in black spots, and the Sofia Opera used it as a prop for open air performances of Aida and Prince Igor. The followers of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the reincarnation of the Bulgarian Communist Party, turned the mausoleum in a spot for political rallies.

In August 1999, the mausoleum was demolished, in a much advertised stunt of the democratic government of Ivan Kostov. The destruction, however, did not go according to plan. The hastily, but well constructed building resisted several detonations, until it finally collapsed on 27 August.

Georgi Dimitrov

Token globe promoting Pax Communista, from the personal belongings of Dimitrov, now in the Kovachevtsi museum

In the years that have passed since that August, the site of the former mausoleum remains empty, as if cursed. For a time, a group of priests of the alternative Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church used to hold open air masses there. After Bulgaria entered the EU, an ugly and short-lived garden with paths dedicated to the different members of the union stood over the remains of the mausoleum, but it, too, disappeared soon.

Georgi Dimitrov's home in Sofia is a museum no more, and is on the brink of collapse due to lack of maintenance. His birthplace at Kovachevtsi, however, is meticulously taken care of, and the grandiose Communist museum to Dimitrov in the village is open to visitors, offering a display of personal belongings, and not a line of explanation. Dimitrov is on the coat of arms of Kovachevtsi, and there is a statue of him in the square. The children who play around there know his name, but are completely unaware of what he did, apart from the fact that he, at a certain point, ruled Bulgaria.

Kovachevtsi remains the only place in Europe outside Gori, Georgia, which celebrates with such pomp its location as the birthplace of a Communist tyrant.

Georgi Dimitrov


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Obviously biased article.His behaviour an d the exposure of fashism/nazism in the Leipzig process are amazing .As to The Balkan federation - the best thing which could have happened for the Balkan peoples - nothing bad in a federation, on the contrary - there are many examples which there is no need to be mentioned.Macedonian people did not identify itself as Bulgarian as a whole and a proper attitude was needed to that issue

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