PRE-HISTORY As part of the relentlessly dynamic Balkan Peninsula, Bulgaria is and always has been the scene of change and transition. Geographically situated between Europe and Asia, it occupies a strategic cultural, economic and political crossroads, and throughout history has consequently alternated between being powerful and being overpowered.Tens of thousands of years ago during the Paleolithic era (the Old Stone Age), the Balkans, just as in much of the rest of Europe, held sparse populations of small, close-knit clans of nomadic hunters and gatherers near fresh water sources. Several prehistoric sites have survived the millennia and contain artifacts and tantalising clues about the original inhabitants of this area.Many of these sites are caves in the Stara Planina (Balkan Mountains), such as Magura Cave in north-western Bulgaria. Here among huge stalactites and stalagmites millions of years old, archaeologists have found evidence of ancient people dating back to at least 2700 BC and possibly several thousand years earlier. These prehistoric people left their mark in Magura cave, as evidenced by wall carvings and cave paintings made with bat guano, which portray people hunting and dancing, as well as creatures curiously resembling giraffes and kangaroos. Also found were pottery shards, remains of a fireplace and discarded flint tools and chippings.

With the climate in the Northern Hemisphere warming after the end of the last Ice Age, the Neolithic era began around 9,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent when ancient people first shifted from a nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle to that of a settled life based around agriculture. Migrating groups from the Near East probably spread their knowledge and experience of agriculture as they travelled westward across Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) onto the European continent. By around 5000 BC, people in the Balkans had also changed to a largely settled way of life based on domesticating plants and animals. With the resulting increase in stable food sources and food surpluses in agricultural areas across the Near East, Central Asia and Europe, populations grew rapidly and consequently, a need for space created new waves of migrations.

In particular, an Indo-European group known as the Aryans moved southward in great waves from central Asia into several areas, including Eastern Europe and Asia Minor. Along with groups migrating eastward from central Europe, such as the Celts, the newcomers mixed over the centuries with the original inhabitants.


By the second millennium BCE, the people in the central and southern Balkans were developing a unique culture and language, and subsequently became known as the Thracians. They prospered in the area for almost two thousand years, until the final conquest of the region in 46 CE, when Thrace became a Roman province. As they never developed a written form of their language, most of what is known about them today comes from direct archaeological evidence and from sources written by outsiders. Herodotus, the famous Greek historian, once wrote that the size of the Thracian population outnumbered any other in the world at that time, save for India’s. Despite a stream of later wars, invasions and eventual assimilation, they are still said to be one of the “bedrock” people of Bulgarians today.

A relatively advanced culture for their time, the Thracians were farmers and cattle-herders who were also superbly talented in the arts of war, horsemanship and craft working. Individual tribes were headed by powerful priest-kings and their greatest warriors were considered to be the aristocracy as well. Conflict between Thracian tribes was very common, and quite possibly was the only reason the group as a whole did not become the most powerful force in south-eastern Europe at the time. Occasionally, there were attempts to unite the tribes, most notably under the leadership of the Odrysae tribe in the fourth to fifth centuries CE, but the coalitions never lasted.

Their skills and bravery in battle were widely noted and feared by other regional groups such as Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, all of which later often hired Thracian warriors as mercenaries. Spartacus, the slave-turned-gladiator that led an almost-successful rebellion against Rome, is considered the epitome of Thracian strength, skill, tenacity and grit.

Although their culture and lifestyles were largely based on warfare, they were also very talented artisans. They produced extremely well-crafted gold and silver jewellery and utensils, very advanced weaponry and elaborately designed pottery and sculptures, indicating a society that was comfortably well off enough to devote much time to honing skills other than those of mere survival.

One of Europe’s most ancient gold treasures found to date is in fact a Thracian hoard found near Panagyurishte – an amazing collection of exquisitely ornate cups, plates and ceremonial urns dating from the third century BC and weighing in at about 6.5 kg. You can see this remarkable find as well as many other Thracian artifacts at the virtual tour site of Sofia’s National History Museum: http://www.historymuseum.org.

Often, written sources of the time describe the Thracians as being quite ‘barbaric’ as compared to the surrounding civilizations, and not just due to their ferocious battle behaviour, such as returning home after battle with the severed heads of their enemies while chanting and singing loudly! Tattoos were apparently quite common, and were possibly just for women. Young girls were encouraged to be promiscuous with many men until the time they were married (they were actually sold by their families to their new husbands), and many tribes practiced polygamy, where one man would have several wives.

This all seems to be in line with the overall form of religion the Thracians practiced, which was closely related to the worship of the Greek god of wine and debauchery, Dionysus.

Many religious rites centered on the belief in life after death and the cycles of rebirth. At the top of the social hierarchy, a king-priest was usually buried in a lavish mound tomb replete with elaborately painted wall murals and sculptures, fresh food, jewels and gold treasure, armour and weaponry, and everything else he could possibly need in the afterlife. This often included his dog and warhorse, which would be killed and interred with him, and his wives would fight for the honour of being the one to be sacrificed and buried alongside him.

Several fantastically preserved burial mounds can be found dotted across the region. Two tombs in particular, the UNESCO World Heritage sites near Kazanluk in the Valley of the Roses and Sveshtari near Razgrad, contain stunning murals and rock sculptures and are prime attractions. The tomb at Kazanluk is actually closed to the public in order to preserve its delicate paintings, and a replica has been created nearby for visitors to see.

When the Greeks set up colonies on the Black Sea coast around the seventh century BC, some conflict occurred, but there was also a new opportunity for both groups to trade. Food, crafts, clothes, tools, people and new political and cultural ideas inevitably crossed and mixed, tying the two cultures together perhaps more than they realised. One of the best known Greek legends is based on the historical figure of the Thracian king-priest Orpheus, who tried to woo his true love from Hades and the Underworld by using his enchanting lyre music. The musician failed and was ultimately (and literally) torn apart during a wild religious rite by a group of Thracian women who were drunk on wine.

Through the present location of different artifacts of Thracian origin, it seems they had quite an extensive trading system. This extended not only through much of the Balkan peninsula, but also south into the Aegean Sea region encompassing ancient Greece and Crete, further south into Egypt and Phoenicia and eastward into Asia Minor and the Middle East.


Thracian control began to dissolve because of internal strife among the tribes as well as increasing conflicts with external powers looking to encroach on the region, including the Greeks, the Persians and the Macedonians. In the fourth century BCE, Philip of Macedonia extended his power across the Balkans. He pushed east and along the way established the city Philippopolous, now called Plovdiv. When he was assassinated shortly afterwards, his son Alexander the Great continued the family reign and Hellenic influence over the area by extending the territory north to the Danube in 336 BCE.

When Alexander died in his early thirties, three top generals inherited pieces of his huge empire, which encompassed the eastern portion of the Mediterranean, across Persia and all the way to the Indus River. The Balkans remained a place of conflict during the ensuing two centuries as groups continued to vie for strategic pieces of land. Eventually, the Macedonians came under the strengthening Roman power in the second century BCE, but the Thracians held out for another two centuries until 45 CE, when they fell under Roman control as well.

The area of present-day Bulgaria was divided into two Roman provinces. To the north of the Balkan Mountains (Stara Planina) was Moesia Inferior and the land south of that retained the name of Thrace. After many years of violent warfare in the region, with Roman control came relative peace and prosperity for approximately 200 years. As in the rest of the Empire at the time, major projects were carried out to improve the infrastructure. Craft, industrial and trade industries were fostered, and the fertile fields of Thracian valleys were prosperous. Roads, aqueducts and fortified, modernised cities were built, and many preserved ruins and artifacts remain in Bulgaria today to serve as reminders of that era. One of the best is the amphitheatre in the old city of Plovdiv.

Several northern forts were built on the shores of the Danube, which served more or less as the frontier of Roman lands in this region. Beginning in the third century, however, great numbers of people began to move out of central and eastern Asia in what has been called the Age of Migrations. These tribes, including such feared names as the Huns, the Avars and the Goths, began sweeping down into Europe. The emperor Diocletian even divided Roman lands into Eastern and Western halves in 286 to facilitate administration and protection against increased attacks by the influx of these ‘barbarians’. Despite such efforts, the Western Roman Empire floundered and was eventually overthrown in the fifth century by invading groups such as the Visigoths and the Vandals.

During these times, the Balkans south of the Danube were part of the Eastern Roman Empire and ruled from the city of Byzantium (present-day Istanbul). The capital’s name was changed to Constantinople in 330 by Constantine, the first emperor to convert to Christianity. Although the Byzantine Empire generally flourished while that in the West crumbled, during the following few centuries there were alternating skirmishes and treaties with invading groups still arriving in waves from central and eastern Asia.

One such group was the Slavs, who were part of the great migrations out of central Asia. They arrived in the Balkans during the sixth century, and although numerous enough to absorb (and possibly drive out) most of the Thracian-Roman population living on the Balkans at the time, in general they were peaceful people who lived in fairly democratic farming communities. The Slavic language and customs spread across the region and took root, making it the dominant culture in the area by the time the next invading group came along in the following century.


Khan Asparoukh Khan Asparuh

In the mid to late 600s, a tribe of mounted horse warriors ethnically related to the Huns and Avars continued their migration from central Asia. Although smaller groups of Bulgars had already been present in the area, a large force of about 250 000 arrived at the Danube delta in about 680. They soon pressed southwards into the Slav territory, led by their khan, or chief, Asparoukh, and took control of land as they went.

Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV officially recognised the powerful new force to the north, and Khan Asparoukh firmly established the First Bulgarian Kingdom in 681, which lasted until 1018. With an administration centered in the northeastern city of Pliska, the First Bulgar Khanate stretched roughly from the Carpathians in the north to the Balkan Mountain range in the south and is generally considered the first Slavic state in history.

The more numerous Slavs did eventually assimilate the Bulgars into their culture, but fuelled by the Bulgars’ fierce warlike nature, a series of khans expanded the territory. Under the leadership of Khan Krum (803-814), the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) was almost captured in one of the many conflicts between the two powers. The greatest land gains were made under the rule of Krum “The Terrible”, whose nickname was partially due to having the skull of the conquered Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus made into a wine goblet (interestingly today one of Bulgaria’s finest wines is named after the khan!). By the end of his reign, Krum’s empire stretched from the Rila Mountains in the west to the Rodope Mountains in the south.

By the ninth century, Macedonian lands were also under Bulgarian control, and Khan Omurtag (852-889) forged a peace treaty with the Byzantines, paving the way for increased trade of goods, ideas and culture. Following Bulgarian kings were called tsars, or caesars, after the Byzantine tradition, and in 865, Tsar Boris I was converted to Orthodox Christianity. He then adopted the religion as the official faith of the Bulgarian kingdom, where the majority of the dominant Slav population had already been converted.


King Simeon

 However, Boris’ son Tsar Simeon put a bit more distance between his realm and that of the Byzantines by establishing the independence of the Bulgarian Patriarchy. Under Simeon (893-927), the Bulgarian Kingdom reached its greatest power and size. Sometimes called the Kingdom of Three Seas, it stretched from the Black Sea in the east, to the Aegean in the south and to the Adriatic at the western edge of the Balkan Peninsula. The capital was moved to Preslav, also situated in the north-east.

Simeon encouraged learning and education, and Slavic culture flourished. Brothers Cyril and Methodius from Thessaloniki (now in present-day Greece) are credited with inventing the earliest form of the Cyrillic alphabet, called Glagolithic, in order to best represent the sounds of the Slavic language. Their student, Kliment Ohridski, further developed the alphabet, which he named after Cyril, and founded the first Slavic university on the shores of Lake Ohrid, in present-day Macedonia.

Learning centres in Preslav and Ohrid created works of literature in Slavic, which was the first time in Europe that one of the traditionally sacred tongues of Hebrew, Latin and Greek were not used.

Simeon renewed the fight with the Byzantines, however, and coupled with internal discontent among the nobles, or boyars, the Kingdom of the Three Seas soon shrank. Serbia won back its independence in 933, and under the next tsars the Bulgarian Kingdom steadily lost land, including much of the eastern territory, once more to the Byzantines. The Bulgarians were finally left with a small holding called the Western Kingdom, with an administrative centre at Ohrid. Tsar Samuel (980-1014) won back a portion of the lost lands, but in a decisive battle in 1014 at Strumitsa, his army was defeated by the Byzantines. Emperor Basil II had the eyes of some 14,000 Bulgarian soldiers put out, with a few left with one eye in order to guide the maimed force back to Samuel. Legend has it that the Tsar died of a broken heart upon seeing the blinded men, and even Ohrid fell four years later.


  Veliko Turnovo 

The defeat of Samuel at Ohrid began a period of Byzantine political and cultural domination over the region. Especially influenced were the Orthodox religion and art styles, the effects of which can still be seen today in the innumerable icons throughout Bulgaria’s churches and markets. The Bulgarians staged several rebellions, but also had to deal with renewed attacks from northern groups coming down across the Danube, most notably the Magyars.

The Byzantines were successful in keeping down these uprisings until the late 12th century, when bolyari (noble) brothers Petar and Assen led a victorious battle against the empire’s army. They founded the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, with a new capital in the city of Veliko Turnovo. The brothers successfully fought off successive Byzantine attempts to take back the area in 1187 and 1190, and then set about expanding into the previous territory of the First Bulgarian Empire. First capturing Varna on the Black Sea coast and then pressing south into Thrace and east into Macedonia, the Second Kingdom steadily grew, particularly taking advantage when Constantinople was sacked by the Crusaders in 1204. Under Tsar Ivan Assen II (1218-41) the medieval Kingdom was again expanded to reach the Adriatic and the Aegean, and it was once more a time of prosperity and growth.

Veliko Turnovo, the capital of Second Bulgarian Kingdom        

However, after Assen’s death, instability set in as the Mongols retreated from their invasions in central Europe by trekking through Serbia and Bulgaria, laying waste to the lands they traversed. This left a weakened state prime for the Byzantines to once more attack, and they promptly took back much of Thrace. A group of Mongols called the Tartars settled on the far shores of the Black Sea and continued to randomly sweep down and attack from the north. Various other skirmishes with their Byzantine rivals as well as with the rising Serbian power to the west served to further weaken the Bulgarian state. Internal conflict and dissonance among the nobles, or bolyari, sealed Bulgaria’s fate as it lost its unity, and mistrust between the Balkan powers created an atmosphere which was not at all conducive to forging alliances against the new regional threat from the east.


The Ottoman Turks had been steadily marching through Asia Minor and the Balkans since the early 1300s. Winning a decisive victory over the Serbs in Kosovo in 1389 and conquering most of the Bulgarian lands as well as its capital Veliko Turnovo by about 1393, the Turks captured the last Bulgarian stronghold of Vidin in the northwest in 1396. Several rebellions against the Turks were put down, and when Constantinople itself fell in 1453, regional hope of continued resistance vanished and five centuries of “The Turkish Yoke” began.

It was the beginning of a bloody and violent era, and some estimate that almost half the Bulgarian population perished in massacres or was carted off to other parts of the Ottoman Empire to be used as slaves. The Turkish governor took up residence in Sofia and Turkish colonists poured in to live on the plains surrounding the city and other prime, fertile land. A more severe system of feudalism was established, whereby Bulgarians who had survived the initial massacres and enslavement were forced to live as serfs of the Spahis, the Turkish knights who were landowners. The government as well as the feudal lords imposed harsh taxes, and the most hated was the devshirme, or “blood tax,” where families were stripped of their oldest boys, who were taken away to be trained as janissaries in the Ottoman military. Only pomaks, or those Bulgarians who had been converted to Islam, were exempt.

Those who kept Christianity were called Rayah, or the “herd,” and many strived to keep the old traditions of Bulgaria and the church alive by living in hidden mountain monasteries. These establishments, too, were usually overrun and looted by the Ottomans, who forced the official Orthodox Church of Bulgaria to be subordinate to the Patriarchy of Constantinople, headed by Greek clergy faithful to the Sultanate.

Centuries of rule by the Turks took a huge toll on the Bulgarian population, who were robbed, raped, kidnapped and worse, yet they were generally left without recourse in the Ottoman court system. Periodic attempts to revolt throughout the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries were put down without mercy, but from these failures developed a thriving underground coalition of outlaws called haiduks. Helped secretly by the local population despite threats of retaliation from the government, the haiduks were a much-needed source of Bulgarian pride and steadily increasing resistance, and their memory is preserved in folk ballads that survive today.


The years of Ottoman rule served to isolate the Balkan region from the blossoming Renaissance period in Europe and consequently, the culture of this area was deeply affected by Turkish influences. However, continued efforts in isolated monasteries to nurture the native Bulgarian culture and religion gained momentum in the 17th century, aided by the inspiration of the haiduk movement. Contact was renewed with Orthodox Russia, a key relationship that would develop into eventual military assistance based on their common Slavic and religious backgrounds.

Several pieces of literature published outside the Ottoman sphere of influence also served to fuel Bulgarian determination to throw off the empire’s rule, beginning with Sofia bishop Petar Bogdan Bashkev’s History of Bulgaria in the 17th century, and Hristofor Zhefarovich’s History of the Serbs and Bulgarians in 1741. In 1762, Paisii of Hilendar’s piece, Slav-Bulgarian History, was particularly inspiring and the National Revival, a time of Bulgarian cultural renaissance, was born.

The cultural reawakening was aided by Bulgaria’s textile and agricultural business with the empire. Having the economic means and also the renewed emotional strength of the Revival behind them, middle class merchants and artisans went about developing secular Bulgarian language schools. To help adults learn the written language, reading rooms called chitalishta were set up, and by the later half of the 19th century, Bulgaria’s population was one of the most literate on the continent (literacy rates are still near 98-99 per cent today). Repeated efforts to gain religious autonomy from the Turks finally paid off in 1870 and marked another important step in increasing the momentum to regain national independence.

A defeat at Vienna in 1683 against Austria, and a combined force from Poland and Germany, marked the beginning of the end of Turkish control, and internal corruption and infighting among families in Constantinople vying for the sultanate further weakened the empire as a whole. A series of devastating wars in the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in great losses of territory, most notably when Russia recaptured Black Sea territories and Hungary was lost to Austria, then challenging the Ottomans as the dominant force in central and eastern Europe. In what became known later as the “Eastern Question,” powers such as Britain, Austria-Hungary and France, as well as Russia, hungrily looked to the Ottoman Empire’s waning control of the strategic Bosphorus Strait and the trade routes that passed through them.

Although Britain and France expressed increasing sympathy towards their fellow Christians in Bulgaria who were being repressed, their concern over increasing Russian power in the Balkans was greater. Western Europe began to fear Russia’s growing idea of a Pan-Slavic culture under their ultimate guidance and protection, which ultimately led to Bulgaria’s independence. Britain and France sided with the Ottomans against the Russians in the Crimean War (1854-56), even though the three had once fought alongside each other against the Turks to help the Greeks win independence some 30 years earlier. Russia lost the war, but the Turkish Empire remained in a downward spiral of lost territory and power.


  Vasil Levski                         Vassil Levski Throughout the 1800s, Ottoman authority in the Balkans had been breaking down, beginning with uprisings in Serbia. Exiled Bulgarian freedom fighters in groups called cheti stepped up armed skirmishes with the Turks from bases in Belgrade and Bucharest – led by revolutionary heroes such as Georgi Rakovski and Vasil Levski.

Levski is most noted for his immense efforts to raise the momentum of the Bulgarian underground rebellion by travelling across the country and setting up secret groups in preparation of a planned popular uprising. He was captured and hung just outside Sofia three years before the revolution started, but became a martyr for the Bulgarian people after his untimely death in 1873.

An uprising in September 1875, in Stara Zagora, was crushed by the Turks, and the following April, another revolt, prematurely started in the town of Koprivshtitsa, was also severely cut short. Tens of thousands of Bulgarians were killed in the rebellion – 15,000 in Plovdiv alone. Almost 58 villages were completely destroyed, including 5,000 men, women and children who were brutally burned and hacked to death in the town of Batak. Reports of these heinous killings reached Western Europe, who denounced the ‘atrocities’ and called for diplomatic action to resolve the Balkan situation. However, it was finally the Serbs and the Romanians who declared war on Turkey, and Russia also joined in to aid their Slavic Bulgarian relations in 1877, almost a year after the April Uprising.

Led by Alexander II, later called the Tsar Liberator by the Bulgarians, Russian troops won hard-fought victories at key points like Pleven and Shipka Pass, losing 200,000 troops by the war’s end the following year. The Turks realized the end was near when Russian troops came to within 50 km of Constantinople. They granted independence to Bulgaria as well as almost two-thirds of the Balkan Peninsula, from the Adriatic to the Aegean. Once again fearing possible future Russian control of the Bosphorus through its Slavic allies, western powers hastily put together the Congress of Berlin in July 1878 and reversed Bulgaria’s gains. Most of southern Thrace and Macedonia were returned to the direct control of the Ottomans, and the central territory south of the Balkan Mountains became an autonomous Turkish province called Eastern Rumelia. The land North of the Balkan Mountains was dubbed the Principality of Bulgaria and was a relatively independent state, and Alexander Battenburg, a German aristocrat who had fought under the Russian command during the war, was elected Prince of the constitutional monarchy.

Several decades of conflict and changes in Bulgaria’s leadership ensued, including an uprising in Eastern Rumelia and an eventual reunification with the Bulgarian Principality in September 1885, as well as the Serbo-Bulgarian War in the same year. Russia became concerned that its Slavic ally was becoming too bold and pro-Russian army conspirators deposed Prince Battenburg and ushered him out of the country.

Stefan Stambolov took the reins of power as the leader and Prime Minister of a Council of Regents, and brought in German Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to be the new monarch. Stambolov’s power was quite repressive and after his dictatorship ended in 1884, he was assassinated on Ferdinand’s orders in 1895 – the beginning of an absolute monarchy not afraid to use violence and fear. In 1908, Ferdinand declared himself king of all Bulgaria and complete independence from Turkey.


Ferdinand            Ferdinand Saxe-CoburgInstability and weakness in the failing Ottoman Empire led to the First Balkan War in 1912, when Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece joined forces against the Turks in an effort to win back territory. Istanbul was almost taken by the Bulgarians, who did win back some of Thrace and Macedonia, but conflict between the three allies over the rest of Macedonia resulted in the Second Balkan War in the following year. Serbia and Greece soundly beat Bulgaria and took away more land, but Bulgaria did end up with the Pirin region of Macedonia as well as Thracian land all the way to the Aegean.

As World War I unfolded in the Balkans, the Bulgarian government – again with their eyes on Macedonia – hoped to fight little, yet gain much land. Pro-German Ferdinand and Prime Minister Radoslavov entered Bulgaria into the war on the side of the Central Powers, even though the general popular opinion was with Slavic relation Russia and its allies, Britain and France. Ferdinand eventually abdicated after a September 1918 army revolt and his son Boris III took control. After the terrible toll of the war itself, the Treaty of Neuilly in 1919 exacted even more from Bulgaria. Land was lost on all sides to Serbia, Romania and Greece, the army was restricted and huge war reparation payments were required.

Amid growing social discontent, two political groups that had formed in the late 1800’s now gained strength. Representing the interests of peasants and the rural population, the Agrarian Party headed by Alexander Stamboliiski emerged victorious in the 1919 elections, with the Communist Party finishing a close second. Stamboliiski’s policies were fairly radical, and he made many enemies with his “peasant power” reforms, such as dividing up large land estates. Nationalists were outraged by his plan to foster better relations with Yugoslavia and especially by his idea to drop all Bulgarian claims to Macedonia. The IMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) was gaining strength at the time, fuelled by Macedonian refugees who had been pouring over the border into Bulgaria for decades to escape Serbian control. Extremists from the IMRO joined a right-wing army officer coup in June 1923, and before they assassinated Stamboliiski, they cut off the hand he used to sign the Treaty of Ni’s with Serbia.

After the Agrarians and Communists staged an unsuccessful uprising in September 1923, a period of terror and anti-Communist sentiment reigned under the power of Alexander Tsankov, who was in control until 1931. The Communist party was outlawed, thousands were killed, and their leader, Georgi Dimitrov, along with many others, barely escaped to Russia. In 1926, an amnesty helped quell some of the disorder of the time, and the League of Nations sent financial assistance to help resettle the Macedonian refugees.

The 1930’s saw several groups with differing agendas take control during the uncertain economic and political times of the Great Depression. On the heels of Tsankov’s repression came the right-wing extremist Zveno (“Link”) Military League, who took over and began a dictatorship in 1934, continuing the general trend across Europe towards more authoritarian control. Tsar Boris III followed suit in November 1935 and established himself as absolute monarch until 1943.


King Boris III

King Boris IIIWith the start of World War 2, Bulgaria was in a sticky position. It had just signed a treaty of “inviolable peace and friendship” with Serbia in 1937. Yet Germany by then had strong economic ties in the area, and with promises from the Reich of gaining back the ever-desirable Macedonian lands, Bulgaria reluctantly sided with the Axis powers in 1941. To avoid a revolt by the people, King Boris III refused to sign a declaration of war on the Soviets, and the Bulgarians avoided conflict with their traditional Slav allies for the duration of the war. Although he managed to resist Nazi pressure on that issue, Boris did die mysteriously after visiting Berlin in August 1943 (1991 scientific tests are said to prove that it was not poison which killed the king). He left behind a son, Simeon II, aged six, and a Council of Regency to rule in his stead.

Heavy Allied bombing raids destroyed much of Sofia in 1943-44, which served to increase the general anti-war and especially anti-Nazi sentiment. After declaring itself neutral and disarming locally stationed German soldiers, Bulgarians allowed the Red Army to pass its northern borders unopposed on September 8, 1944. The next day, a coalition of communist groups, which had been operating under the name of the Fatherland Front, took Sofia and then the rest of Bulgaria, and September 9 was deemed Liberation Day.


Georgi DimitrovBy the end of 1946, the monarchy was abolished and the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was declared with Georgi Dimitrov of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) as Prime Minister. The Party gradually gained absolute control over the decades in politics, economics and culture, and thousands of private enterprises, estates and industries were taken into the state holdings. In 1948-49, the Party severely restricted or forbid all religious activities and organizations, and under Stalin-appointed Vulko (“Little Stalin”) Chervenkov who was Dimitrov’s successor, over 90 000 dissidents were obliterated via expulsions, arrests and killings in an anti-Titoist purge in 1948-49.The 1950’s brought slightly more relaxed politics, mostly due to Stalin’s death in 1953 and Chervenkov’s loss in Party elections to Todor Zhivkov the next year. During Zhivkov’s era, Bulgaria towed the Communist line to the letter, often called (even by Bulgarians) the 13th Soviet Republic. In return for Party loyalty came a secure job, enough food, education, health care and the reputation of one of the most prosperous Eastern European countries at the time. Those who didn’t adhere to the strict Soviet policies were marginalized and denied access to educational, personal and job opportunities, so most had little choice but to accept what the Party had to offer.Most feared was the DS (Dirhavna Sigurnost), the State Security force, whose name is connected with the poison-tipped umbrella killing of dissident writer Georgi Markov in the London Underground in 1978, as well as a plot to kill the Pope in 1981, although in 2002 the Pope said he did not believe that Bulgaria had been behind the assassination attempt.Georgi Dimitrov

Todor ZhivkovUnder Zhivkov, Bulgarian Socialist nationalism grew, with many monuments erected in memory of heroes of Bulgarian history who had helped to bring the country to its Communist success, and therefore had not died in vain. Minority groups such as the Roma (Gypsy) and Turkish populations were not so glorified, and beginning in the 1950’s were systematically marginalized, denied access to basic services and forced to renounce their own names in favour of Bulgarian ones. Those who refused to do so were further marginalized or even sent to concentration camps, and in 1984 a violent spark was ignited over the issue. Amid growing concern over human rights issues from Western and even other Communist countries, five years later in 1989, thousands of ethnic Turkish Bulgarians left the country rather than be assimilated into Zhivkov’s increasingly disliked nationalist strategy.

Todor Zhivkov


Following the rest of Eastern Europe and the crumbling Soviet union, Bulgaria’s political and environmental dissident groups gained louder and stronger voices towards the end of the 1980’s, eliciting more moral support from the West. Massive anti-government demonstrations in 1989 forced the dismissal of Zhivkov from the BCP on November 10, the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Zhivkov was the first ex-Communist leader to be officially tried and convicted on charges of corruption and inciting ethnic unrest, and although sentenced to seven years in prison, he managed to arrange an early release and lived in luxury until his death in the late 1990’s.

Under the new leadership of Petar Mladenov, the Communist Party changed their name to the Socialist Party (BSP) and Mladenov’s close ally Andrei Lukanov became Prime Minister. Mladenov promised the first free, multi-party elections since The Second World War, and in the months leading up to the June 1990 vote, several opposition groups quickly put together political parties. These included a loose coalition of dissident groups under the name United Democratic Forces (UDF), and also the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), whose interests were in the protection of Bulgaria’s Muslim minority.

Mostly due to the traditionally conservative votes of rural and older people uncertain about change, the BSP won the election with 45 per cent of the vote. The UDF won a large portion of the remaining votes, and the DPS also received solid support. Later that same year, however, President Mladenov was forced to resign amid evidence that he had consented to the use of violence against protesters. The BSP dominated Parliament went against tradition and elected Zhelyu Zhelov, from the UDF, as the new President in August 1990. Tough BSP reform measures during the very difficult economic times, as well as UDF supporter discontent over election results, caused more mass demonstrations and strikes, forcing the BSP Prime Minister Lukanov to resign.

Zhelyu ZhelevZhelyu Zhelev

An interim coalition government was formed with independent lawyer Dimiter Popov as leader. The next year saw the beginning of many reforms which were needed to help speed up the transition, such as restitution – or the redistribution of land and holdings taken from private owners by the Communists and the slow process of privatising state holdings and releasing many price and salary controls.

In July 1991, the National Assembly approved the New Constitution, which is still in effect, and in October of the same year, Filip Dimitrov formed Bulgaria’s first completely non-communist government. Although Zhelev was re-elected in January 1992, the UDF was narrowly defeated in parliamentary elections later that year. The ethnic Turks enjoyed a newfound power in the Assembly, as they held the handful of votes which could swing decisions towards either the UDF or the BSP, who had roughly equal representation.

 More economic woes and increased social dissatisfaction spurred those displeased with changes to vote the BSP into power again in 1994, with Zhan
Videnov as leader. His government was also plagued by scandal and allegations of corruption. With a growing economic crisis in 1996-97, the Socialists were forced to resign after massive public demonstrations that winter.


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