by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff, BTA

More than 25 years after he was toppled, Bulgaria's Communist strongman continues to enjoy popularity, influences politics

todor zhivkov statue_0.jpg

It is notoriously hard to evaluate historical figures while they are still alive, but the appraisals of Todor Zhivkov, the dictator who ruled Bulgaria between 1956 and 1989, are particularly contradictory.

For those who suffered during his regime, he is still the embodiment of hardline Communism. He masterminded what would go down in history as Zhivkovism, a system that sucked the energy from the local economy, culture and social life until it turned them into a mire of mediocrity where only subservient apparatchiks could thrive. For a growing number of nostalgists, however, the man whom they affectionately call Bay Tosho, meaning something like Old Man Tosho, was good – he provided millions of Bulgarians with a life that entailed few freedoms, but that brought on relative comfort as well as social and economic security. The generation born after Zhivkov's downfall, in 1989, is largely unaware of this period of Bulgarian history. The dictators grand-daughter, Zheni Zhivkova, had a political career and is a well known fashion designer. His grandson, also named Todor, was recently on a local reality show, in spite of his booze-related antics. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who in the 1990s was Zhivkov's bodyguard, says that Zhivkov was an exemplary politician who made Bulgaria prosper. Borisov makes no attempt to conceal his admiration for his erstwhile customer.

As a person, Todor Zhivkov continues to be despised by some Bulgarians as an uncouth yet cunning peasant. Yet, many hail him as a crafty politician who knew how to play the game of thrones and how to charm Big Brother in Moscow, for Bulgaria's greater good. Pravets, the village of his birth which he promoted to a town and showered with projects, proudly has a statue of Zhivkov at its centre. The dictator's former home is now a museum unabashedly displaying gifts bestowed upon him by dignitaries from the United States to China and from West Germany to Vietnam.

The man who still stirs debate in Bulgaria, years after his death in 1998, was born on 7 September 1911 and joined the Communist movement in 1929. In 1943, he became a member of the clandestine Communist resistance. What exactly the young man bearing the undercover name of Yanko did in those days remains unclear. The main account for the Yanko period in Zhivkov's life is from his own, obviously whitewashed memoirs. Today, many of the claims he made have been contested by researchers, but the actual truth remains vague.

On 9 September 1944, a Soviet-backed coup put the Communists in charge of Bulgaria. In the following decade, Zhivkov made steady progress in the ranks of the BKP, or Bulgarian Communist Party. He worked for a while in the police force, renamed to "People's Militia," and came out on top in the BKP infightings that plagued the party in the late 1940s. In 1951, he was already a member of the coveted Politburo of the Central Committee, the structure which effectively ran the country. In 1954, Zhivkov secured the key position of the Central Committee's first secretary, becoming the head of the BKP.

Exhibit from Todor Zhivkov's museum at PravetsExhibit from Todor Zhivkov's museum at Pravets

It was a crucial moment. Stalin had died the previous year and Valko Chervenkov, the Bulgarian prime minister and BKP first secretary, sensed that times were going to change with the new Soviet leadership. He knew he should distance himself from his Stalinist past. But he made a grave mistake. While he remained prime minister, he made the young and seemingly harmless Todor Zhivkov head of the Party.

Zhivkov was young but he was not as harmless as most older apparatchiks thought. Soon, he proved that in Communist Bulgaria controlling the Party was more important than controlling the government. In 1956, the year of Khrushchev's Secret Speech which denounced Stalinism, Todor Zhivkov secured the approval of the Soviet leader to make changes in Bulgaria. On 2-6 April 1956, Zhivkov organised a BKP plenum in Sofia and publicly denounced Prime Minister Valko Chervenkov for his Stalinist policies and personality cult.

Though Chervenkov was now out of the way, Zhivkov still restrained himself from taking all the power for himself. He waited until 1962 to become prime minister as well. From then to 1989, Zhivkov remained the head of both the BKP and Bulgaria.

In Moscow, Zhivkov played the reformist, but at home he was far from that. After the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, the dreaded political prison at Belene was reopened and remained so until 1959. There, many were starved or worked to death.

In the 1960s Zhivkov acquired complete power, but not everything in his garden was rosy. Socialist Bulgaria's planned economy was struggling, the birthrate was in steady decline and the country's international debt was on the rise, resulting in the debt crisis of 1960-1964. Zhivkov initiated half-hearted economic reforms, which failed to introduce even a modicum market principles and decentralisation in the state-owned companies. The USSR "saved" Bulgaria from bankruptcy, and between 1962 and 1964 about 22.5 tonnes of the Bulgarian gold reserves were sold to Western Europe, with the help of the USSR, to refinance the Bulgarian debt.

Leonid Brezhnev and Todor Zhivkov Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Todor Zhivkov seal with a kiss the renewed cooperation agreement signed in Sofia, in 1967. Zhivkov knew how to secure the backing of Soviet top men: during his last visit to Bulgaria in 1979, Brezhnev granted the last instalment of Soviet money and oil to Bulgaria

In 1963, Zhivkov did something which Bulgarians still struggle to comprehend – he proposed to Khrushchev that Bulgaria join the USSR as its 16th republic. The Kremlin declined, but even modern historians are at a loss to explain Zhivkov's motivation. Did he really want Bulgaria to be a Soviet republic, or was the whole thing a tactical move to secure the position of the country as Moscow's most loyal satellite with all the benefits that this brought?

Almost until the end of his rule, Zhivkov followed a simple principle: if the USSR sneezed, Bulgaria caught a cold. In 1968, he sent Bulgarian troops to suppress the Prague spring. The Soviets paid back: in the 1970s Bulgaria again fell into a debt crisis but Leonid Brezhnev helped out by supplying cheap Russian petrol. As a result, Bulgaria never experienced anything like the 1973 Great Oil Crisis.

In 1971, Zhivkov finally gave the green-light to a project which had been in the planning for some time – the creation of a new Bulgarian Constitution. The so-called Zhivkov Constitution was approved in a referendum, with 99 percent of the votes in favour. Its infamous Article 1 cemented the "leading role" of the Bulgarian Communist Party and signalled the amalgamation of the BKP and all spheres of Bulgarian political, social and cultural life.

Todor Zhivkov left the post of prime minister to a trusted colleague, and appointed himself head of the newly created State Council. With absolute power secured, he was ready to forge his own personality cult.

In the 1970s and the 1980s, Zhivkov's birthdays and jubilees were celebrated with pomp and circumstance. Movies and books were churned out by the increasingly docile Bulgarian intelligentsia. Zhivkov was the subject of a book of poetry, April Hearts, filled with odes to him by the country's most famed poets. History was twisted, too, to fit the glamourised image of Comrade Zhivkov. He was hailed as the leader of the clandestine Partisan Movement and even as the sole person responsible for the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust.

Todor Zhivkov greets Muammar QadhafiTodor Zhivkov greets Muammar Qadhafi on Sofia Airport, in 1978. In the 1980s Bulgaria tried to gain oil recovery concessions in Libya, but ultimately failed to secure a good enough contract

The few who openly opposed Zhivkov were given a very rough ride. The State Security network was expanding and becoming more paranoid, and even telling a joke about Zhivkov could result in prosecution. The regime was so omnipresent and omnipotent that Bulgaria never saw any dissident movement like the one in Czechoslovakia, Poland and even Romania.

The strengthening of Zhivkov's personal regime resulted in the promotion of his family in public and political life. His daughter, Lyudmila, became the youngest member of the Politburo and rose to the post of culture minister. There, she spearheaded another of the significant impacts of Zhivkov's rule over Bulgaria – state sponsored nationalism.

In the early years of Communist rule, patriotism was a bad word as it was associated with the "retrograde" bourgeoisie. The true Communist should be an internationalist and, following this principle, in the late 1940s Bulgaria renounced any claims to Macedonia, which it had engaged in several wars to win over.
The breach between Stalin and Tito, however, reversed this, and in the mid-1950s the Bulgarian Communists started to change their attitude towards Macedonia and Yugoslavia. In 1963 the government officially returned to the " bourgeois" idea that there was no such thing as a Macedonian nation. In the ideological war waged between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia in the 1960s-1970s, Bulgaria's glorious past was resurrected to strengthen the Bulgarian position. Patriotism and reinvigorated enthusiasm in history, however, were also used to distract the ordinary Bulgarians from everyday problems like the lack of proper housing in the cities or the food shortages.

The upsurge of nationalism peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Under Lyudmila Zhivkova, Bulgaria spent vast amounts of money on the celebration of the 1,300th anniversary of its founding. Historical movies were shot, novels were published, fortresses were restored and monuments were built.

Saddam Hussein visited Bulgaria in 1980Saddam Hussein visited Bulgaria in 1980. In the 1980s, Communist Bulgaria sold weapons to Iraq, effectively becoming a major creditor to this country. Bulgaria finally managed to receive some repayment in the 2000s

But the patriotic "revival" had an uglier side – the Bulgarian Muslims did not fit the picture of the happy, homogenous nation that Zhivkov's government wanted to promote. In 1962-1964 and in 1971-1972, the state staged two campaigns to "help" the Pomaks – the ethnic Bulgarian Muslims – to "rediscover" their identity, by forcing them to change their Muslim names to Bulgarian ones. The Turks were next. In the winter of 1984-1985 the so-called Revival Process forced about 850,000 of them to change their names to Bulgarian ones. People, however, resisted passively as well as actively, and at the beginning of 1989 the situation was so tense that Todor Zhivkov "invited" the Bulgarian Turks to leave the country. About 360,000 of them left in the so-called Great Excursion, the biggest forced migration Europe had seen since the Second World War.

In the 1980s, minorities were only a small part of the troubles facing Bulgaria. The economy was struggling again, but the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev was reluctant to help Bulgaria as his own empire became increasingly unstable. Perestroyka, with its reforms of economic and social life, was looming on the horizon.

This time, however, Todor Zhivkov did not want to follow what Bulgaria's Soviet Big Brother was doing. He was convinced that all that Perestroyka thing would be a short-lived folly and that soon things would go back to normal. "We will keep low for some time," he said in an infamous speech, "until we see which way the wind blows when the storm passes."

Todor ZhivkovStanding at the Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, Todor Zhivkov used to wave to parading Bulgarians in celebrations of events like the 9 September 1944 Communist coup. Ordinary people tried to make guesses about the inner workings of the Communist Party by detecting who was positioned how close to Zhivkov – or absent altogether

Meanwhile, there was more bad news. In the winter of 1985, Bulgarians experienced severe electricity shortages. In the spring of 1986, they were taken aback when they learned that the government had concealed the news about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster for two weeks, giving millions of people zero protection from the radiation spillover. The aftermath of the disastrous Strazhitsa Earthquake on 7 December 1986 exposed the inability of the state to provide housing for those who had lost their homes. The state also did nothing to stop air pollution in Ruse by a chemical factory on the Romanian side of the Danube. The public outrage over this eventually spawned the Bulgarian dissident movement, in 1988.

Ordinary Bulgarians, however, were completely shocked when, on 10 November 1989, they turned on their TVs to see a perplexed Todor Zhivkov hear the news that he had been dismissed.

This radical change was neither the doing of the new Bulgarian dissident movement, nor the Ruse protests. It was an internal coup, backed by the USSR. Both Gorbachev and the younger Bulgarian apparatchiks were fed up with Zhivkov and wanted change.

After the initial shock died down, Bulgarians rejoiced: democracy was promised and Bulgaria would soon become "like the West," with all the benefits of free movement, high salaries and bananas in the shops all year round. In those first enthusiastic months, people wanted to see Zhivkov pay for his actions.

primer 1986Todor Zhivkov's portrait features in a 1986 primer


On 18 January 1990, the 81-year-old dictator was arrested, and became Defendant Number One, the most famous in Bulgaria's recent history. In the following years, charges in five different cases were pressed. Zhivkov was accused of the forcible name changing of the Turks and the Great Excursion, and of crimes committed in the political prisoners' camps. He was also indicted for the illegal disposal of state properties and assets, for the state funding of the international Communist movement, and for bad credit deals which saw Bulgaria, itself heavily in debt, pouring cash into the hands of "fraternal" regimes in the Third World.
Zhivkov was sentenced to seven years in prison on the charge of the illegal disposal of assets and property, but he was later acquitted. The trials continued until his death, on 5 August 1998.

Yet, on his deathbed, Zhivkov had the last laugh.

Todor Zhivkov in the 1990sIn the 1990s, even some Bulgarians Muslims were nostalgic for the times of Zhivkov, explaining the forced name-changing campaigns as his only error committed by him under the influence of unnamed secondary apparatchiks. To the right in this picture is Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, then bodyguard of Todor Zhivkov

The deposed dictator had the good fortune to see how the initial outrage against him had died down, extinguished by the economic crisis which shook Bulgaria in the 1990s. Oblivious to the fact that Zhivkov's policies had left Bulgaria with an international debt so huge that the state went practically bankrupt in April 1990, many Bulgarians soon became disillusioned with democracy and started feeling nostalgia for the ostensible security of Bay Tosho's times. In a few years, the public perception of Zhivkov changed from that of the feared tyrant to one of the victim of political changes, and he readily played the part of the benevolent, but wronged granduncle. His memoirs, published in 1997, became a bestseller. Unlike the monstrous 39 volumes of Zhivkov's Selected Works which were published and sent to all libraries and institutions in 1975-1989, Bulgarians actually read the 1997 memoirs.

Todor Zhivkov finished his book with the words: "I, Todor Zhivkov, used all the power I had for the wellbeing of my people."

Todor Zhivkov, 1991The deposed dictator reading a newspaper called Free People. Free speech and media proliferated in the 1990s for the first time since before the Second World War

Many, such as Boyko Borisov, believe him, but Zhivkov's legacy is much more traumatic and complicated. The Bulgarian planned economy, which was adapted to the unsophisticated tastes of Eastern bloc customers, struggled to find its place in the global market, resulting in the closure of hundreds of factories, rocketing unemployment and mass emigration. The repression of the Bulgarian Muslims gave rise to the DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms, with its controversial role in Bulgaria's politics and economy. Nationalism runs strong and is increasingly used by political parties for their own perilous ends.

Bulgaria in 2015 is of course very different from what it was in 1989. Free speech is tolerated, there are no longer dollar shops, and the Penal Code has been changed to decriminalise the possession of hard currency. Indeed, "hard currency" is a term that the overwhelming majority of Bulgarians have forgotten. Still, many people feel nostalgic because they think that the outrages in post-Communist Bulgaria by far outshine the bad things under Zhivkov, without being ready to admit that much of what angers them today is to be attributed to the system created by good old Bay Tosho.

Todor Zhivkov memorial PravetsThe memorial to Todor Zhivkov at his museum in Pravets repeats the last sentence of his bestselling 1997 memoir: "I, Todor Zhivkov, used all the power I had for the wellbeing of my people"


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