When Bulgaria turned red: Remembering the thousands killed by the communists

February 1 2015 will see Bulgaria’s annual commemoration of the victims of communism, moments of remembrance first decreed by the cabinet in 2011 in honour of the memory of the many thousands of Bulgarians killed in the first years of the communist takeover.

The February 1 date was chosen because it is the anniversary of the 1945 “People’s Court” sentencing to death of the country’s three regents (who had stewardship of the country on behalf of boy king Simeon II), eight royal advisers, 22 cabinet ministers, 67 members of parliament, and 47 generals and other senior military officers.

The same day as the sentences were passed, this group was whisked off to a bomb crater and shot. The killings, part of the communist decapitation of what had been Bulgaria’s political, military and intellectual elite, were just part of a much wider slaughter, and represent one of the few cases where the precise number of those killed is known.

In all, counting in the “People’s Courts” and murders by communist gangs before that formal judicial process was declared, the number of Bulgarians killed has been estimated – conservatively – from 20 000 to 30 000, and probably beyond.

That is only to count as victims those who were killed. The communist takeover also saw jail sentences, internment in labour camps and internal exile. Add to that the eyewitness accounts (some from the boasts of perpetrators) of serious violent assaults to people in detention having been beaten to death, and the victim numbers rise higher still.

Bulgaria had allied itself to Nazi Germany in World War 2, at the last minute changing sides. In September 1944, the Soviet Union invaded Bulgaria, opening the way for the communist takeover.

The question of the number and activities of Bulgaria communist partisans during the war is disputed (the regime would later mythologise them beyond all proportion) but what is clear is that the Soviet presence emboldened them to emerge, to begin a murderous campaign against “bourgeois scum”.

A wave of killings began, of military officers, local mayors, priests, journalists, teachers, landowners. Some historians portray the bands of killers as largely made up of petty criminals, the disaffected and unemployed, seeing in the turmoil a chance to settle scores, murder and steal the property of their victims. Many of the accounts of the killings, carried out in villages and towns in various parts of the country, make deeply disturbing reading, given the methods used.

Estimates of the number of people killed at this stage variously, from the most conservative 5000, to figures of 18 000 or more than 26 000, both of the latter figures arrived at on the basis of calculations using figures of the officially “missing” from that period, from the Soviet invasion up to the end of November 1944. In turn, some of those killed during this phase were later sentenced to death by the “People’s Courts”, thus providing retrospective sanction for their murders.

The People’s Courts tried 135 cases with 11 122 accused. Such was the scale of the process that part of the Sofia University buildings were taken over for the trials because the existing court buildings in the city could not accommodate all the accused.

In Stalinist fashion, the outcome of the trials was pre-determined. For example, there are records of a cable from Vulko Chervenkov, later to be the communist strongman in Bulgaria, to Comintern chieftain Georgi Dimitrov, saying that a proportion of 70 per cent of those who had been MPs in the parliaments during the war would be sentenced to death.

A latter-day report on the People’s Courts by Bulgarian National Radio, after the government declared the day of commemoration for the victims of communism, noted that – among the death sentences adding up to 2730 people – “more Bulgarian generals and senior army officers were killed than in all wars Bulgaria fought after the country’s liberation from Ottoman rule in 1878”.

Of those 2730 death sentences imposed by the “People’s Court”, a total of 1576 were carried out. This was because, as noted, the others already had been murdered before being put on trial for their lives.

Further, more than 2000 people were sentenced to life imprisonment (within a total more than 6100 people given jail sentences), 5000 into internal exile while an estimated 10 000 went to labour camps, places where inadequate accommodation, poor hygiene and savage beatings accounted for more deaths.

Inevitably, as with all history, there is an alternative perspective. After the Bulgarian government declared the day of commemoration, some left-wing commentators criticised the move, saying that the victims being remembered had been fascists who supported Bulgaria’s alliance with Nazi Germany and who themselves had been guilty of human rights abuses.

That is, of course, a not dissimilar approach to the rationale behind the court process in the first place, that those on trial – members of all governments and all parliaments – had, among other things, been fascists who brought Bulgaria to national disaster. It does not address a number of important issues, such as the verdicts and sentences decided in advance, the extra-judicial killings of people in villages and towns who hardly had anything to do with the alliance with Berlin, such as well-off farmers, schoolteachers and priests, or the fact that the communists ultimately embarked on the killings to eliminate opposition to what never had been a popular party in Bulgaria.

One of the long-term effects of the killings and imprisonments was that domestically, it was crucial to the hegemony of power that the Bulgarian Communist Party held for so many decades, leaving aside the fact that – as happened elsewhere in the bloc – the Soviet military always was there to crush any resistance, if needed.

Another important long-term effect was, amid this elimination of “fascists”, the elimination of Bulgaria’s intelligentsia, with crippling effects for decades to come. This was aggravated by the fact that communist political interference in academic life saw the appointments of sub-standard “professors”, customarily on the basis of their “working class” pedigrees, political reliability and willingness, in many cases, to collaborate with State Security.

After the January 2015 mass murder at Charlie Hebdo, not a few Bulgarians recalled that the country had its own history of murdered caricaturists, notably Rayko Alexiev, killed in detention in the early days of the communist regime.

The annual commemoration in Sofia is a solemn occasion, with President Rossen Plevneliev having spoken memorably in past years about the meaning of the memorialisation.

For those who died before and during the People’s Court processes, some have been given a form of legal redress, when in 1996 the country’s highest court overruled some of the verdicts and sentences, finding that there had been no evidence to justify a conviction.

For the rest, it will remain to historians to research and – like others who care to discuss the period – to debate and argue, for the families of those who died, to remember, and for the country as a whole, to live with a legacy of a blood-soaked period that for decades was, in more than one sense, buried.



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

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), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.