Marking Soviet invasion on September 9 highlights red lines of division in Bulgaria

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In Bulgaria, commemorating the 70th year since September 9 1944 – the date that opened the way for the country to be absorbed into the Soviet sphere of influence – is either an occasion for mourning or for remembering a time that “Bulgarians began to live decently”.

The day is never without its rival strong emotions, perhaps more so in 2014 as Bulgaria heads towards early parliamentary elections.

September 9 continues to be a crucial date in the calendar for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, lineal successor to the Bulgarian Communist Party that held the country in its thrall for decades. During the time of the communist regime, September 9 was an official holiday, marked with mass “spontaneous” demonstrations in celebration.

In Sofia, those who view the date with revulsion were to gather, as they have every year in recent years, at a wall commemorating the victims of the Bulgarian communist regime, near a chapel close to the socialist-era mammoth pile of the National Palace of Culture.

After the September 9 1944 coup that saw the overthrow of the government of the then-prime minister Konstantin Muraviev and the incursion into Bulgaria of Soviet forces – Moscow having rejected Bulgaria’s belated change of allegiance in the closing stages of World War 2 after Sofia’s earlier alliance with Hitler’s Berlin – a mass slaughter began.

Murders, compounded by the later kangaroo courts, led to the deaths of an estimated 30 000 Bulgarians. Further, as a result of the “People’s Courts” and other repressions by the communist regime, many thousands of Bulgarians were herded into labour camps where appalling conditions led to further deaths.

The Reformist Bloc, a centre-right alliance standing in Bulgaria’s October 5 2014 early parliamentary elections, said in a Facebook post that September 9 was a “black date” in the history of Bulgaria.

The bloc invited supporters to take part not only at the commemoration service at the chapel and the memorial to the victims of communism, but also to gather at 7pm at the Soviet Army Monument in Borisova Gradina.

Soviet Army monument Reformist Bloc

It asked supporters to bring photographs of Bulgarian community leaders, politicians, intellectuals, peasants and workers who were killed in the first weeks and months after the Soviet army invasion, to stick on the monument “to show its true essence, an ugly symbol of an obscurantist regime”.

The Soviet Army Monument in Sofia frequently has been a canvas in recent years for redecoration by those opposed to the communist legacy in Bulgaria and, more recently, to Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine. Incidents of the monument being redecorated routinely have led to formal protests to authorities in Sofia by the Russian embassy.

ukraine soviet army monument sofia

Screengrab via Bulgarian National Television.

Screengrab via Bulgarian National Television.

In 2013, amid the heated political climate at the time of continuing anti-government protests against the cabinet then in power on the basis of a mandate handed to the BSP, there was outrage in protest circles when, soon after the then-BSP leader had been present at September 9 commemorations at the monument, people set alight a European Union flag.

Petar Stoyanov, who was Bulgaria’s president from 1997 to January 2002 after his election on the ticket of the centre-right Union of Democratic Forces, said that September 9 was a terrible day because it dramatically splits the Bulgarian nation.

The traces of division had not been eradicated even today when, 25 years after the end of totalitarianism in Bulgaria, there are people who celebrate September 9 as a bright holiday, Stoyanov said.

September 9 was a tragic date because it launched the bloody excesses of the criminal communist regime, Stoyanov said.

Division and hatred born on September 9 “continues to eat away at our society today,” he said.

Mihail Mikov, the former speaker of parliament and former interior minister who on July 27 was elected as the new leader of the troubled Bulgarian Socialist Party, said in a special message on the BSP website on September 9 that the 1944 date was a turning point in the development of Bulgaria and had defined for decades the fate of the country.

Mikov said that September 9 1944 had opened the way for a huge creativity in all fields of public life in the name of socialism, that had radically transformed Bulgaria.

It was the work of several generations – peasants, workers and intellectuals – teachers, doctors, engineers, agronomists, scientists, miners and builders, whose devoted work was incorporated in the new image of the country.

Mikov said that Bulgaria had become an economically developed country, with heavy machine-building, a chemical industry and metallurgy plants for semiconductors and computing, participation in the implementation of space programmes and rapid development of light industry – canning, textile, wood and others.

Continuing lengthily in this vein, the BSP leader said that illiteracy in Bulgaria had been eradicated in the 1950s, “art, culture, science and sport were respected and enjoyed the generous support of the state”, working people had houses (“with television sets, full refrigerators, sewerage, water and other municipal facilities”), everyone had a job and there was free nationwide health care, according to Mikov.

It was true, Mikov conceded, “that we could not reach the standard of living of the average American, German or Frenchman. But Bulgarian citizens were living decently, with dignity, in security and stability, with prospects for the future”.

Of course, he conceded further, “there were mistakes and perversions”. In his view, these were Party rule without corrective opposition, without real separation of powers, separation of Bulgaria from Europe, Cold War restrictions on free speech and restrictions on travel to the West.

Mikov said that it was true that “today we have a democracy” but he called into question its genuineness and added, “today Bulgarians live worse, in a far less social state, under constant stress and uncertainty about their jobs, their children, health care”. There was an acute shortage of social justice, the BSP leader added.

The state property that Bulgaria had built over decades had been distributed in a manner that unfairly made a few people very rich and some people very poor.

On September 9, Mikov said, “I want to congratulate all those for whom the ideals of social justice, freedom and solidarity matter, all who feel part of a community that has the strength and energy to continue to support a fair and decent living for themselves, parents and children.”

The BSP, Mikov said, was the “successor to the best ideals of September 9 1944” and he called on people to pay tribute to the fighters who had not waited for that date and “to our veterans who during the past 70 years worked and work honestly and faithfully to implement socialist ideals and more justice and dignity in life”.

Then-leader of the BSP, Sergei Stanishev at the Soviet Army monument in Sofia in 2013. Photo: bsp.bg

Then-leader of the BSP, Sergei Stanishev at the Soviet Army monument in Sofia in 2013. Photo: bsp.bg

In Sofia, Levski football club – one of the capital city’s two major teams and rival to CSKA, the “red” team with its antecedents in the communist-era army team – issued a September 9 declaration entitled, “we will not forget, we will not forgive”.

The declaration said that September 9 was the darkest day in Bulgarian history, and recalled how Bulgarians were divided into Party members and non-Party members, informers and people of operational interest, active fighters and enemies of the people.

It recalled how, without trial, doctors, teachers, priests, officers, politicians, bankers, financiers, peasants and entrepreneurs were slaughtered – adding the names of those who had been leaders and members and supporters of Levski FC’s predecessor.

The declaration detailed how the property of peasants was confiscated, factories and banks sequestrated. “The economy became Party, art became Party, medicine became Party, agriculture became the Party, education became the Party, the church became the Party. Sport too became the Party”.

Communism turned Bulgaria into “one big waiting room” as families waited for their members to return, those who wanted to study at university waited for approval from the local Communist Party, those who wanted to travel to the West waited.

“The closer communism came, the more waiting there was. Waiting for housing, waiting for a car, waiting for tiles, for bricks, for sofas, for everything.

“We started to wait for potatoes from Poles, onions from Hungarians. We waited for bananas at Christmas,” said the Levski FC statement

Noting that, today a group of people would celebrate the anniversary, “a date on which Bulgaria and the Bulgarian people were forcibly changed”, the declaration said that it was up to each Bulgarian to decide whether the date of September 9 was a good or bad one.

“Whoever wants, can forget, whoever wants can forgive. We, Levski, refuse to do so. For the sake of our ancestors, and for the sake of our children and grandchildren.”

(Main photo via the Facebook page of the Reformist Bloc)

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About the Author

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015).