by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

In 1923, Bulgaria experienced an undeclared, but brutal civil war. Today it is largely forgotten

september 1923 uprising maglizh.jpg

Raised hands, bodies frozen in a pathos of tragic defiance: Bulgaria, especially its northwest, is littered with monuments to an event that was once glorified but is now mostly forgotten. It took place 100 years ago, yet researchers disagree on how to label it. Some call it an uprising, a word that evokes the gravity of organised and targeted efforts to achieve a clearly set goal. For others, it was an ill-fated rebellion of a handful of peasants foolish enough to believe the sweet talking of a political power outside of Bulgaria, Moscow's Communist International.

What exactly happened in Bulgaria in September 1923 and why does it still matter today?

A monument to the participants in the September 1923 Uprising in front of the Montana railway station

In the autumn of 1923, Bulgaria was reeling from the 9 June coup that toppled the government of the Agrarian Union, or BZNS. Led by the charismatic Aleksandar Stamboliyski, the BZNS was a political party with a peculiar philosophy. It believed that Bulgaria should be governed by its most numerous, yet least represented social group, its farmers. After fighting in three wars and losing two of them, between 1912-1918, the Bulgarians were so disappointed with traditional parties that they voted en masse for the BZNS. The party ruled a country in a deep economic, political and moral crisis for four years. Thousands of lives had been lost, cherished lands had become part of other countries, and the struggling economy had to pay huge reparations. Scores of refugees scraped to make a living. In these four years, the BZNS got some things right, such as the democratisation of education. Elsewhere they failed. They fine-tuned election rules to obtain a first-past-the-post majority in parliament and they formed a paramilitary organisation of mostly thugs to intimidate political opponents. In short, Stamboliyski managed to step on so many political toes that in 1923 he had little support outside the peasantry. From the military and the Church to the intelligentsia and even to Communists and anarchists – everyone had a reason to dislike him.

On 9 June 1923, the military toppled the BZNS government. Aleksandar Stamboliyski and many of his functionaries were brutally murdered. A new government, a broad coalition that called itself the Democratic Alliance, led by Law Professor Aleksandar Tsankov, promised to restore law, order and democracy to Bulgaria.

The complete opposite happened. While the killing of Rayko Daskalov, a BZNS minister, in Prague in August was still reverberating in Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Communist Party was in turmoil. The Moscow-based Communist International was unhappy that Bulgarian Communists had not supported the Agrarians in June. They had missed a golden opportunity to spread the Bolshevik revolution in Bulgaria, the Comintern believed.

A participants in the September 1923 Uprising memorial on the edge of the picturesque cliffs above  the Lakatnik railway station. According to Communist history, the government forces threw captured rebels into the abyss following a fierce battle on 26 September 1923

Bulgarian Communists were aware that the Comintern's idea would not work. Bulgaria had industrialised and urbanised rapidly enough in the previous 40 years, and leftwing ideas were popular among city workers and the poor. However, this was far from a mass following, and a revolt would be futile.

Despite this, the Communist International overcame the local comrades' resistance and practically installed two loyalists at the helm of the party. Under the watchful eyes of Georgi Dimitrov and Vasil Kolarov, the BKP started to prepare an uprising.

It started on 14 September, earlier than planned, because the government learned about the plan and started arresting Communists preemtively. None of the big cities with significant numbers of Communists joined in. Instead, the revolt started in a village at the southern foot of the Stara Planina mountain range, Maglizh. It spread in the area, but the main outbreaks were in Bulgaria's northwest. Besides Communists, participants included leftist Agrarians and anarchists, members of a now forgotten, but very popular and active movement in the Bulgaria of the 1920s.

The evolution of revolution: a mosaic from a former cinema in Montana depicts the tragic failure of the September 1923 Uprising to the left and the glory of victorious Communists in 1944 to the right. The two groups are divided by a personification of supposedly freedom. After 1989 the cinema was closed and converted into a bank

Professor Tsankov's government was quick to act. Special legislation was invoked, and both the army and paramilitary forces were sent to deal with the rebels. Hundreds were killed, including civilians, often in disputed circumstances. Georgi Dimitrov and Vasil Kolarov just fled. They escaped the battlefield and continued their party career in exile. Later, they survived the dangers of being a part of Stalin's inner circle and returned to Bulgaria after the Communist coup of 1944. Dimitrov became its first Stalinist leader, and was succeeded after his death by Vasil Kolarov.

By 29 September the uprising was over, but violence continued for almost three years afterwards. The Communist party became radicalised and spiralled into political violence that culminated with the bombing of the packed St Nedelya Church, in April 1925. Hundreds of people were killed or wounded.

Professor Tsankov's government responded to each Communist-perpetrated killing or incident with increasing brutality. The special Defence of the State Act removed any restrictions in dealing with all sorts of real or imagined terrorists and political opponents. Some of Bulgaria's brightest minds fell victim to this state terror, such as the journalist Joseph Herbst, for his unbiased reporting of government violence, and poet Geo Milev, for writing and publishing a fiery poem extolling the September 1923 Uprising. Both disappeared at the hands of the police. Years later, Milev's body was discovered in a mass grave outside Sofia. His remains were identified by the glass prosthetic that he wore in place of an eye he lost as a soldier in the Great War.

An abandoned monument to Georgi Dimitrov (left) and Vasil Kolarov in the Petrohan mountain pass

The atmosphere in Bulgaria seemed to spiral out of control in the hands of Tsankov's government, described in Time magazine as "the worst and most ruthless in Europe." It ended when the moderate wing of the Democratic Alliance and King Boris III forced Tsankov to step down.

In the following years, law, order and democracy finally returned to Bulgaria, but not for long. Less than a decade later, the king had established an authoritarian government, and in the 1940s political violence returned to Bulgaria in full force. First, it was the conflict between the Nazi-supporting government and the Communist guerrilla bands. The 1944 coup overturned the tables, and the young Communist government did not shy away from using the full might of state force and repression on its opponents – from sending them to labour camps to staged trials to assassinations.

This stone near the village of Gintsi marks the location of a former inn where the organisers of the September 1923 Uprising, Georgi Dimitrov and Vasil Kolarov, "broke their journey for a rest"

Under Communism, the September 1923 rebellion was hailed as "the world's first antifascist uprising." Its victims and participants were extolled as heroes and turned into martyrs for the new regime. Building monuments for the September 1923 Uprising started shortly after 1944 and continued up until 1989. The most important monuments were located where the rebels were most active: in Maglizh, in the Stara Zagora region and in the northwest. The year 1923 can also be spotted on many monuments to other historical events such as the 1878 Liberation from Ottoman rule and the Communist coup of 1944. In this way the government wanted to reassert the continuity and evolution of the Socialist revolutionary movement in Bulgaria.

The monuments for the September 1923 Uprising have a specific visual language. They represent the rebels as tragic heroes who sacrificed their lives for the freedom and happiness of the generations to come. Today all of these monuments are abandoned, rundown and overgrown.

After the Communist regime collapsed, a new narrative about the September 1923 Uprising emerged: it was a pointless revolt, inspired and organised by Moscow as a way to destabilise democratic Bulgaria. It was neither heroic, nor extensive. About 800-1,500 people died in it. The government repression of 1923-1926 was somewhat justified, particularly after the 1925 bombing of St Nedelya church. Yes, Bulgaria had adopted some emergency legislation, like the Defence of State Act, but it was far from a dictatorship, let alone fascism. Bulgaria remained a democracy because... its Constitution was democratic in spirit.

The steam engine and the cannon used by Priest Andrey, known as the Red Priest, to win a key battle at the station of the Boychinovtsi village, during the September 1923 Uprising. On display at the Montana Railway Station

The revisionism of this event ignores an important witness of the times, one that has captured the zeitgeist like no other historical source: the literature created in the immediate aftermath of the uprising. In a literal (pun unintended) answer to Bertold Brecht's lines about the silence of poets in dark times, some of Bulgaria's best authors at the time penned passionate poems, short stories, and novels dedicated to the uprising, its crackdown and its aftermath. All of these take the side of the rebels: from the emblematic poem September, that led to the death of its author, Geo Milev, to the nightmarish novel Horo written by the otherwise apolitical Anton Strashimirov. His is also the famous description of the government's violence against both rebels and civilians: "they slaughtered the people like no Turk ever slaughtered them." All of these authors published their works at great personal and professional risk. Nobody raised a voice in support of the government and its forces.

This can be explained not only by the authors' political leanings, but also by how many ordinary people felt in their bones the chilling realisation that Bulgarians killed and tortured other Bulgarians for the first time since 1878. This was the first internecine war that the nation experienced in its modern history. The one that followed in the 1940s was born from it.

However, the post-1923 trauma went even deeper. Despite the failure of the uprising – or probably because of it – the Communist International used the government violence that followed as a tool to cement its influence over local Communists. This was the pivotal moment when the Bulgarian Socialist movement tied itself to the USSR, and replaced its old tactic of peaceful propaganda and educating the masses with political violence. Ever since then, in the minds of both the Bulgarian left and its opponents, Communism in this country has been unequivocally associated with the USSR and Russia. This is why, even today, the great majority of leftist supporters and intellectuals are pro-Russian.

This idea is so strong today that few people except for some historians can imagine how different the Socialist movement in Bulgaria before 1923 was. Its founder, Dimitar Blagoev, summed it up shortly before his death in 1924. "They destroyed my beautiful party," he said of the organisers of the September 1923 Uprising. Blagoev never supported the uprising, and he was right for all sorts of reasons: from the pointless loss of life to the radicalisation of Bulgarian society to the transformation of the leftist movement in this country.

Professor Aleksandar "Blood-Thirsty" Tsankov evaded justice. On 5 September 1944, just four days before the Red Army invaded, he fled for Vienna, where he founded a self-styled Bulgarian government in exile, supported by the Nazis. After the war he was arrested by the Americans but released. He died in 1959 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In 1945 he was sentenced in absentia to death by the so-called People's Court of Communist Bulgaria. His sentence was repealed in 1996, and his professorship was fully restored.

Places to visit: Maglizh, Nova Zagora, Petrohan Pass, Montana Railway Station, Lakatnik


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