by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Cunning politicians left, right and centre justify their actions with Bulgaria's greatest national hero

vasil levski portrait.jpg

Assert that you agree with, like, respect, adore and pray to Vasil Levski (1837-1873), Bulgaria's greatest national hero, and you are likely to get away with almost anything. Levski's portrait hangs in classrooms and factories, in police stations and, sometimes, even in private houses. Levski regards us from postage stamps and T-shirts. There is hardly a town or village in Bulgaria that does not have at least one street named after him. One of the leading football teams bears his name and recently he was voted the greatest Bulgarian in all history, outshining even the founder of the nation, Khan Asparukh.

Significantly, Levski hangs behind almost every senior Bulgarian politician, regardless of party or allegiance, as if to justify whatever their own political agendas may be by the fact that Levski sacrificed himself in the name of his people and so, presumably, would they.

Any attempt to portray Bulgaria's national hero other than as sainted, larger-than-life is doomed to a vitriolic reception and accusations of "national nihilism" by a blasphemous enemy of the country.

But do Bulgarians actually know who the real Levski was?

Conduct an informal vox pop on one of Sofia's streets and ordinary folk will immediately identify Vasil Levski as a fearless conspirator and fighter against the Turks. He was betrayed by his fellow Bulgarians, however; then captured, tried in what was a parody of justice, and hanged on the outskirts of Sofia. This is the heroic story that embodies the ideal of the ultimate sacrifice on the altar of Bulgarian freedom.

Some might also know that in the 20th Century his grave was discovered in one of Sofia's churches but was ignored and then destroyed by reckless – or evil – archaeologists. Readers of the sensationalist press would probably know that he never had a woman or, alternatively – depending on the kind of tabloids they get, that he did have a girlfriend and she was a nun.

Then come the lesser known but still "official" facts: though Levski's death is commemorated on 19 February, in reality he was executed on 6 February 1873. After the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in Bulgaria in 1916, this date should fall on 18 February.

But these are just details. What matters most is not the way Vasil Levski died, but the way he lived, and what he accomplished during his lifetime.

Vasil Ivanov Kunchev, born in Karlovo on 18 July 1837, had a remarkable life. His father died when he was a toddler. At 18 he agreed to become assistant to his uncle, a cleric, who promised to send young Vasil to study in Russia. For one reason or another, the uncle reneged on his promise, and at 22 Vasil took his vows and became an Orthodox monk under the name Ignatiy.

Whether Levski truly had a religious calling is a matter for debate. The officially atheist Communists played down his clerical past, while the officially observant non-Communists of today claim that he continued to be deeply religious until the end of his life. Whatever the truth, Ignatiy soon absconded from the monastery. Impressed by Georgi Rakovski, a revolutionary who was trying to foment a rebellious spirit from abroad, Vasil left the monastery in 1862, ran off to Belgrade and enlisted in the Rakovski-led military unit called the First Bulgarian Legion.

Set up with the support of the Serbian prince, who was trying to shake off the rule of the Ottoman sultan, the legion was the first Bulgarian military formation since the end of the 14th Century, when the Ottomans had invaded. Non-Muslims were not allowed to serve in the Ottoman army, and the Legion had two goals: to provide military training to young Bulgarian men and to help the Serbs in any future war against Constantinople. The clash broke out in 1862 and Levski and the Legion took part in the hostilities at the siege of Belgrade.

After the Ottoman siege of Belgrade in 1862, the Legion was disbanded under international pressure and Levski returned to Bulgaria. During the next few years he succeeded in getting himself sentenced to prison, took part in a botched paramilitary campaign designed to stir up the apathetic Bulgarians to revolt, and got a job as a village school teacher. In 1867 he was again in Serbia to enrol in the Second Bulgarian Legion. However, acute appendicitis landed incapacitated for months. He made a somewhat successful recovery, but was left with an abdominal wound that failed to heal for the rest of his life.

The years 1867 and 1868, though hard, were decisive for Levski. He realised that all previous attempts by the Bulgarians to gain their independence from the Ottoman Empire by military means had been doomed to failure. Most had been masterminded by émigrés in Serbia and Walachia. They surmised that their compatriots in Bulgaria-proper would rise up the moment they saw an armed band shouting "To arms!" The failure of a series of armed campaigns to spark a rebellion, Levski thought, could be reversed by an uprising prepared in advance inside the country by secret local committees, a network of revolutionary cells that would stay dormant and that would be activated at the right time. Levski realised that a future revolution would need planning, tactics, weapons, disciplined members and leaders who possessed proper military training.

Significantly, the émigré communities had made another major mistake, Levski thought. To start an uprising they had sought foreign support, usually from Serbia and Russia. Levski disagreed. In a letter dated 1872 he wrote: "He who would liberate us would later enslave us."

In the winter of 1868 Levski arrived in Bulgarian territory on a clandestine mission. During much of the time until his capture on 27 December 1872 he toured the country on bogus papers, changing identities and setting up the secret network of revolutionary committees. His tactics were simple, yet effective. Each individual committee, or cell, did not know the whereabouts of any other cells, nor who was responsible for them. No one knew where the central organisation was. Famously, Levski would explain that it was "everywhere and nowhere."

The conspiracy network, wittingly or unwittingly adopted later by similar organisations throughout the world, had its own communications system, intelligence, counterintelligence and secret police, as well as channels for smuggling weapons. Munitions were critical for the ultimate success of the enterprise, and Levski had no illusions that only a considerable amount of money would buy the necessary arms. As an excellent example of a revolutionary fundraiser, Levski wrote, in 1872: "Where there's money we can ask for, we shall ask for it; and if we're denied it, we'll take it ourselves."

While Levski was busy setting up a consolidated organisation for revolution inside the country, the émigrés were divided and many of them still favoured the idea to import a revolution into Bulgaria-proper. In 1869-1870 Levski secured the support of Lyuben Karavelov, a journalist and one of the most influential revolutionaries in Walachia, and together they set up the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee in Bucharest.

The BRCC was the principal organising body of the future revolution. In 1872, at Levski's request, the BRCC met in Bucharest to decide what course the future revolution would take. Importantly, they also spelled out what the future independent Bulgaria would look like. The programme called for an all-out battle "through propaganda, press, weapons, fire, death and so on" and determined the future Bulgaria as a state that would have "freedom of the people, of every individual, and of every religion."

Within a couple of years Levski had succeeded in building a real state within the state, evading the Ottoman authorities who had a vague idea that there was a "ghost-like" brigand that they would eventually capture, but he always managed to escape at the last minute.

A pitcture of Vasil Levski as a monk

The beginning of Levski's end came in 1871. The BRCC appointed an ill-disciplined man, Dimitar Obshti, as Levski's assistant. Obshti had fought with Garibaldi in Italy, but Levski disliked him. Soon Obshti fell out with Levski and, on 23 September 1872, he disobeyed a direct order and stormed the Turkish postal convoy at Arabakonak.

The Ottoman police soon discovered and arrested the perpetrators. Following interrogation the Turks realised that they had come across a massive conspiracy network against the state. One discovery led to another, and Dimitar Obshti, perhaps driven by a desire to add political colour to the case and thus attract international attention, named the chief organiser.

Levski was at a safe distance at that time, but he was soon forced into the open. The news about the damage to the committee network north of the Stara Planina, the failure of a messenger to reconnoitre, and the suspicion that there was a traitor in the Lovech committee forced Levski to go and see for himself. It was a fatal move and he was captured by the police at the inn in the village of Kakrina. Whether this was pure chance or an act of betrayal remains unknown.

Levski was taken to Tarnovo, where he was identified, and then transferred to Sofia. A special Ottoman court interrogated him, but Levski, did not reveal much more than the Ottomans already knew. He was sentenced to death and hanged on 6 February 1873.

The news of Levski's demise had a shattering and long-lasting effect on the revolutionaries both within and outside Bulgaria. The committees ceased their activities. In 1873 a rumour that the betrayal of Levski had been perpetrated by the treasurer of the Lovech committee, a priest named Krastyu, began to circulate. In 1875 Hristo Botev made his contribution to the immortalisation of Levski by writing a moving poem. It was then that the name of Levski, his activities and his death began to become a legend.

Despite Levski's accomplishments, the revolutionary organisation he left behind failed to keep on the track to organised resistance against the Ottomans.

Levski believed that the uprising must not take place until all the committees had amassed enough weapons and personnel, and that it should start in winter, when the movement of the Ottoman army would be restricted. The young men who started the preparations for the 1876 April Uprising spent only a few months in planning before setting a date in the spring. The same year Hristo Botev, too, suffered a reverse. He decided to come to the aid of the rebels by infiltrating from Walachia, but to his bemusement few in Bulgaria-proper showed any willingness to fight. Most of Botev's band, including himself, were killed in action by the Ottoman army.

The Bulgarians did welcome the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 with enthusiasm, and it did result in Bulgaria gaining partial independence. However, as if to prove Levski's adage about the foreign "liberator," Russia immediately started meddling in the internal affairs of the new Bulgaria, the consequences of which can be felt to this day.

The young nation soon discovered that to build its national identity it needed a hero. Levski, a person of the highest moral stature – he neither drank nor smoked and led a life entirely devoted to his mission – fitted perfectly. In 1881-1884 the popular poet Ivan Vazov wrote an inspired poem about Levski, which is still on the school curriculum. Zahari Stoyanov's biography of Levski became a bestseller. However, the arguments about the real Levski started as early as that time. Zahari Stoyanov was perhaps the first victim. He was publicly accused of representing the Apostle of Freedom, as Levski was now known, as a flawed personality, just because he related in detail his tactics of revolutionary terror.

Inevitably, Levski was elevated into a untouchable national saint. He was turned into a propaganda instrument to serve successive governments. Each subsequent ruler would emphasise or downplay certain aspects of Levski to suit their own political needs. During the Balkan wars he was used as a source of inspiration. In the Communist period his critical attitude towards Russia was ignored. In 2012, if discussed at all, he is mainly quoted on his ideas about the "unblemished republic" where all ethnicities would be treated equally.

In any case, Levski's real personality has always been left aside. The documents and witness accounts that have not been distorted by the desire to represent Levski as a superhero are not very many. Still, they are sufficient to draw a relatively realistic picture of who Vasil Levski was as a person.

Perhaps the most genuine description is that given by Hristo Botev. He and Levski met in the winter of 1867-1868, long before either of them became cult historical figures. At that time they were young, poor and unknown émigrés in Romania, united by their common poverty and revolutionary ideals. Lack of money led them to live in an abandoned windmill near Bucharest, and Levski made such a deep impression on Botev that in a letter to a friend he wrote: "I am living with my compatriot Vasil, the deacon. Ask not how we get by, because it's only every two or three days that we find some bread to quench our hunger... My friend Levski is of unheard-of character. When we are at our most critical, he is so merry as when we are in the best of situations. In moments of hellish cold, and when we have been hungry for two or three days, he is still happy. In the evening, when we are going to bed, he is singing; in the morning when we open our eyes, he is singing again. No matter in what desperate situation you might find yourself, he would always make you laugh and make you forget all your sadness and suffering. It is good for one to live with such people."

Indeed Levski had a good voice, and it seems that he was fond of singing. In his diary, he jotted down a few important things: his favourite cures for stomach ache, jaundice and tooth ache, matters about the organisation of the revolution, an account of small sums from the organisation's finances that he spent himself... and some songs.

Levski's letters to the revolutionary committees show to what lengths he went to train the conspirators, who until then had been unused to discipline. He used all the methods of a modern-day manager, from excusing small errors, through persuasion and stimuli, to strong criticism and reprimands. "Here's what is being done by muddled brains," he wrote in 1872 about the stubbornness of a conspirator. "Let's not work one day and spend the next ten days in quarrelling... and attacking each other."

In another letter, to Karavelov in 1872, Levski described an event that seems to have troubled him deeply. The conspirators had asked for money from a wealthy Bulgarian, but he turned them down. Levski decided it was time for decisive action. "I wanted to kill him and take the money, but no matter what I thought, it turned out differently. We were hiding in his house. His family had gone to the Troyan Monastery, and he had stayed behind with his apprentice, a 24-year-old lad. I had asked about his goings-on and had learnt that he usually returned from his shop once every hour and a half; but it did not turn out so. At about 3 o'clock his apprentice came, he opened the door that was locked from the outside, and entered... My comrade met him. The boy started shouting, 'People, quick! Here!' It took me some time to get there from where I was; the boy was still shouting, fighting my friend. I arrived. I knifed him to death so the crowd outside might hear the voice differently, as the street was full of people. He didn't die at once. He started shouting even louder, which was no more to be concealed. I jabbed him once again to end his misery and to prevent him from telling about his attackers. It's a pity for the innocent boy!"

The episode is known, but rarely mentioned. Those who have heard of it know it because of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, surprisingly. A few years ago a public committee proposed that Levski be beatified as an Orthodox saint. However, the Holy Synod refused. Levski may have amassed enormous credit for the liberation of the Bulgarians, but while he was doing this he was fully aware that his actions violated the commandments not to steal and not to kill.

The idea of canonising Levski still has its supporters. Icons depicting him can be seen in a number of churches, and they have been put up with the consent of provincial bishops. One of the main sanctuaries to Levski's memory, either as a saint or not, is also a church – the small, medieval St Petka Samardzhiiska, in the TsUM underpass in Sofia. It is the place where, according to the prevalent urban legend, Levski was buried.

After he was hanged, Levski's body was buried in a graveyard for criminals. When Sofia became Bulgaria's capital city, this graveyard was demolished and no one knew or remembered where exactly Levski's resting place was. However, according to a 1930s account, one day after his death Levski's body was secretly dug up and re-buried in the St Petka Samardzhiiska Church.

In 1956 the church was excavated. Archaeologists found there three skeletons covered with stone slabs shaped like crosses. One of the skeletons had been buried in the apse, with his legs in the wall of the building. The remains of the three were taken out of the church and ignored until 1985. At that time, the writer Nikolay Haytov published a book in which he claimed that the bones in the apse were those of Levski.

Archaeologists tried to explain that there was no way to scientifically establish that the bones in the apse belonged to Levski. A conference on this issue was held in 1988. Typically for Bulgaria and the Balkans, someone had mislaid the bones: the skeleton in question could not be found in the vaults of the Museum of Archaeology. DNA analysis was thus rendered impossible, even though Levski's hair has been preserved and he had some distant living relatives. Today those who support the theory that Levski was buried in St Petka Samardzhiiska Church believe that the archaeologists knew whose bones they had found, but destroyed them on the orders of the Communist Party. The Communists did not want a place of pilgrimage mere metres away from the huge statue of Lenin, which used to stand in front of what is now Unicredit Bulbank.

Levski has his place on the Internet, too. There are several websites dedicated to him and a lengthy Wikipedia article. His name often pops up in online discussions on topics covering anything from national politics to minority issues. Levski is freely quoted by both ultra-nationalists and liberals.

Levski has even become a central figure for the "news" created and distributed by a blog for made-up stories, called neverojatno.wordpress.com. In November 2008 the site published the "last letter" of Levski, "written" before his hanging and full of advice to his fellow Bulgarians. It combined genuine Levski phrases like the well known "We are within time and time is within us, it changes us and we change it" with fabrications like "For those who under the veil of patriotism create laws but don't obey them and use them to get rich, the punishment is death, death and death again." It struck a chord. People glorified the genius who had predicted the evils of the new Bulgarian politics in the 21st Century and blamed themselves for being unable to meet the high moral standards that Levski had set.

There are still people who believe that the letter is authentic.

In March 2011 the blog "leaked" another ground-breaking "news item." It "quoted" the current American Ambassador to Bulgaria, James Warlick, as suggesting that the Bulgarian parliament should remove mention of Levski from history textbooks because of his "terrorist activities" and "anti-democratic attitudes," contradicting NATO's military intervention in Libya. Putting words into the ambassador’s mouth, the author of the letter even gave advice about the easiest way to make the Bulgarians forget about Levski. "Let the lessons concentrate on biographical details, leaving his ideas out. Pay more attention to details of little significance, like that of his betrayal, or where he was buried, and omit every mention of his letters altogether," the anonymous owner of the site wrote.

Predictably, all hell broke loose in the comments section and elsewhere on the Internet. Obviously many people took it as genuine. Few of the commentators seemed to realise that the "proposed" measures had, in fact, been implemented by several Bulgarian governments, presidents, prime ministers and even Volen Siderov a long time before.


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