Bulgaria to commemorate communist ‘People’s Court’ slaughter on February 1

The craters left by the Allied bombing of Bulgaria’s capital city Sofia were convenient. Most suitable for pre-dug mass graves.

To these scars in the earth, they were led to the slaughter – the senior office-bearers of Bulgaria’s Second World War government, those of the pro-Nazi monarchist regime, those less culpable; in any respect, those which the communists wished to dispose of, by bullet in the back of the skull, hastily dispatched by moonlight, their presence to be concealed by hasty spade and the darkness of a new era.

Thus it was, this new episode, among the most painful and shameful in Bulgaria’s post-Second War history. Most estimates are that 30 000 people died at the hands of the communists as the Soviet-backed thugs clawed and bludgeoned their way to a monopoly of power, after the tanks and troops had rumbled into Sofia, the vanguard of a new regime, a new brutality to outdo in its repression anyone who had gone before.

A new regime that would succeed one that had planned to collaborate in the annihilation of the Bulgarian Jews, but which when faced with the courage and nobility of Bulgarian society in opposition to that vile plan, had been thwarted in that. A new regime that would be indiscriminate in the suffering that it would bring to all, in the decades to come.

A time now commemorated, in a post-communist Bulgaria, on February 1, the day remembered, by some but by no consensus politically, as the Day of Commemoration of the Victims of Communism.

This year, 2019, some will be there at the monument, in central Sofia, laying floral tribute and bowing their heads in tribute to those lost, murdered, slain in the name of the “justice” of those heady, sanguine, days. Others will let the day pass with no comment. Others, still, have their own days, the days that they will pay tribute to the glorious liberation by the Soviet Army of a fascist Bulgaria. Or so they say. It depends where you stand. And which monuments and which you revere, and which you despise.

Among the most bizarre travesties of justice was that some of those murdered by the communists in the months before the formal tribunals began were put on trial post-mortem (in some cases, the court records showed the accused dead as “absent”); convicting them was seen, in a twisted way, as legitimising their deaths.

The list of enemies was a long one. From the formerly high and mighty, the regents who succeeded Boris III at the close of the war, to political enemies real and imagined, to ordinary people, intellectuals, doctors, priests, police, military officers – and even those courageous members of parliament who had resisted deportation of Jews from Bulgaria to Nazi death camps.

The formal trials resulted in many hangings and shootings; the numbers can be established with some certainty. Other deaths were less formal, less tidy, more prolonged, more agonising.

Add in those who were done to death in detention camps spread throughout Bulgaria, and it is understandable why, so a historian friend told me, he suspects that there are mass graves in this country yet to be found, if anyone ever made an effort to look.


Daniel Krapchev, editor-in-chief of Zora newspaper, as he was being beaten to death in a street in September 1944, cried out: “People! People! Bulgarians, come to your senses!”

That was at the time before the formal People’s Tribunal process started.

Seven years later, in a detention camp, a group of prisoners was ordered into the freezing Vardar River on New Year’s Eve to pull out a stuck tractor. One who died as a result, a Dr Vassil Ivanov, cried out amid the icy water: “Bulgaria, do you see this?” (There were similar incidents in other camps, in which prisoners were soaked in water outside in sub-zero temperatures, until they died encased in ice – a method the communists copied from the Nazis.)

Bulgarians did see this. In the case of the People’s Tribunal, they were meant to.

But as noted, the killing had started before then. When the Soviets invaded Bulgaria, communist partisans emerged from hiding, their numbers strengthened by opportunistic commonplace criminals and by those who suddenly styled themselves as having been “anti-fascist fighters”.

Murders took place everywhere from Sofia to other cities, small towns and villages. Military officers, police, municipal officials and priests were favourite targets. Others who fell victim often were killed simply as a settling of old scores that had nothing to do with politics. Hristo Troanski has written that a common denominator among many victims was that they had property that could be seized, once their corpses were stepped over.

Bulgarian articles written after the early 1990s beginning of the transition to democracy give explicit detail of the killings of that first period; sparing that detail, suffice to say that the axe, club and butcher’s knife joined the pistol and machine-gun in the armoury of the murderers.

There was nothing spontaneous about the orgy of killing. Historians recount the role at the top of Georgi Dimitrov, Stalin’s close associate and the leading light in post-war communist Bulgaria. Many other bosses had a hand in passing on the orders and seeing them carried out. One of them was Traicho Kostov, Bulgarian Communist Party general secretary. Of Kostov, more later on.


The People’s Tribunal began in November 1944 and wound up in April 1945.

Modelled on Soviet show trials, its judges were hand-picked by the Fatherland Front and “evidence” frequently included confessions and other forms of self-recrimination in the dock, more often than not the result of torture.

The Tribunal, which consisted of more than 130 trials, was hardly the only such kangaroo court in the first years of Bulgaria’s communist history. Later trials, such as those of Roman Catholic priests (whose martyrdom would, some decades later, result in their beatification by Pope John Paul II) were in the tradition established in the 1944/45 Tribunal process.

The charges at the Tribunal, more or less, related to conduct during the Second World War, with indictments frequently dressed up in the claptrap jargon of Marxism-Leninism.

As reported by journalist Hristo Hristov in a latter-day article, a total of 21 024 people went on trial. The death sentence was pronounced against 2730, among them the three regents appointed after the death of Boris III, including his brother Kiril, uncle of Simeon Saxe-Coburg, then too young to ascend the throne. Those sentenced to death included a group of 22, variously former prime ministers and cabinet ministers, 67 members of parliament and 40 generals and other senior officers. The executions of Kiril and many others took place at Sofia Central Prison on February 1 1945 (the reason that this was picked in 2011 as the official date of commemoration).

As recorded in a Bulgarian Medical Association publication in 2003, a surgeon, Professor Alexander Stanishev, was at hand on that February night to sign death certificates after each volley of fire rang out – until he himself was shot, also having been convicted by the Tribunal.

More than 1000 people were sentenced to life in jail, some in solitary confinement; more than 4000 were jailed from one to 20 years; close to 1000 were given suspended sentences. Thousands of families were sent into internal exile. Especially in the case of intellectuals, it became common to force “former people” out of Sofia into remote areas, out of circulation and barely able to eke a living, and never away from the scrutiny of State Security.

Dimitar Peshev

The deputy speaker of the Bulgarian parliament, Dimitar Peshev, is among those honoured at Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for his role in resisting the deportation of Jews from Bulgaria to Holocaust death camps.

In January 1945, Peshev was on trial at the People’s Tribunal, and – as related in an article by Gabriele Nissim – it was only through a sterling performance by Peshev’s lawyer, Joseph Nissim Jasharoff, that Peshev was spared the death sentence, facing “only” 15 years’ hard labour.

Such as Jasharoff’s performance that, out of keeping with the practice of the Tribunal, the defence lawyer’s peroration was greeted with an ovation from members of the public and some of Peshev’s co-accused.

The communists went further, rewriting history and teaching school pupils that the obstruction to the Jewish deportations had been the work of communists, even awarding a completely fictitious starring role to then-partisan and later long-time dictator Todor Zhivkov.

Norbert Yasharoff, writing about the trial of Peshev, said that the sentence would later to be commuted and Peshev was free to languish in poverty at the home of relatives. He was not allowed to practice law or any other profession.

Peshev died in 1973 poor, persecuted by the communists, forgotten by all – except for those of us on his very, very long rescue list, who are alive today, leading normal lives in the United States, Bulgaria, Israel and many other countries around the world.

Traicho Kostov

Communist boss Traicho Kostov had helped to sate the monster with blood; in turn and in time, it devoured him.

Along with Dimitrov and Vassil Kolarov, he had been among the most powerful figures in the Bulgarian Communist Party, helping it on its ascendant from its origins as an entity that in preceding decades – including in the context of previous regimes hostile to it – had paltry popular success.

Kostov, a failed law student who had joined the communists in 1919 and later edited a party mouthpiece, signed “circular number five” in September 1944, which included a passage ordering “resolute and efficient purging of the entire state apparatus of all malicious enemies of the people and of the Fatherland Front, and for an energetic and firm liquidation of the still undestroyed nests of fascist resistance”.

Later the same month, amid the murders throughout the country, Kostov sent Dimitrov a message saying that “Bulgarian chauvinism, nationalism and anti-communism are to be burnt with a red-hot iron”.

Kostov’s downfall came in 1949. Having criticised some of the economic practices of the Soviet Union, for example in using tobacco imported from Bulgaria for resale at prices that undercut Bulgarian cigarettes, Kostov was ousted as deputy prime minister and from his post in charge of the economy and finance, and was briefly – of all things – head of the National Library.

He was put on trial with 10 others, facing three main charges, made up of counts of treason, conspiring to spoil relations with the Soviet Union, spying for the British, United States and Yugoslavian secret services and of actions aimed at ruining Bulgaria’s economy (given that Kostov was a Marxist, communist judges probably saw no irony in that latter charge probably being the only one with any validity).

The trial last seven days. Kostov was sentenced to death, along with forfeiture of his property. Two days after the end of the trial, he was hanged.

The phrase “the enemy with a Party membership card” entered currency. Later, others were persecuted on the grounds of being “Kostovites”. Reports in Pravda described the Yugoslav embassy in Sofia as a nest of illegal arms supplies, espionage material and operations and attempts to subvert Soviet communism.

Nikola Petkov

An agrarian and among the last significant politicians to remain as an opposition figure, Petkov was stripped of his immunity as a member of parliament from prosecution and arrested, within the lobbies of parliament.

His Bulgarian Agrarian National Union quit the Fatherland Front into which he had led it earlier and he had spoken out against the widespread abuses.

Petkov was put on trial in 1947 for, allegedly, having tried to overthrow the state and “restore fascism in the country by conspiring with military organisations”. The death sentence was pronounced and with customary swiftness, carried out. Radio Sofia reported the execution as saying that “a dog” had been given “a dog’s death”.

Priests and intellectuals

The process of show trials continued into the 1950s.

After having been arrested and tortured, a group of 40 Roman Catholic clergy, among them Bishop Eugene Bossilkov, Kamen Vichev, Pavel Djidjov and Josaphat Chichov, was put on trial in the supreme court in Sofia.

The indictment was a lengthy one, in short a charge of conspiring through a covert organisation to “invert, undermine and weaken the popular democratic power through a coup d’etat, insurrection, revolts, terrorist acts, crimes and foreign armed interventions”.

Sentence was handed down on October 3 1952, timed to coincide with the opening of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union congress in Moscow. Bossilkov, Vichev, Djidjov and Chichov were sent to the firing squad, while with the now-customary order for the confiscation of property was issued. Investigating after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Vatican established that sentence had been carried out on November 11 1952, at Sofia Central Prison.

In all, counting the four shot by firing squad, a total of 54 priests were convicted in five espionage trials in 1952.

Historian Tsveta Trifonova records how the sixth panel of the People’s Tribunal indicted members of the intelligentsia – editors, professors, lecturers, teachers. Some phrases: “career-seeking intelligentsia that have lost touch with the people”, “mercenaries of the pen and speech”. A special tribunal dealt with journalists and intellectuals; cartoonists who found disfavour with the regime were included in this category.

Over time, there was also extensive detention without trial, with intellectuals passing through the hands of State Security and on to “labour-correctional communities” – political prison camps were conditions where conditions were appalling and death could come through illness, starvation, exhaustion or beatings.

The Bulgarian Medical Association’s 2003 publication records the large number of doctors an medical professors who were sent to these camps, many ending their days there and lacking even the most basic equipment even to treat their colleagues as assaults and abuse brought death.


Visiting Bulgaria in May 2002, Pope John Paul II, at a ceremony in Plovdiv, confirmed the beatification of the priests executed by the communists.

During the communist era, some of those who had been killed during the People’s Tribunal process were officially rehabilitated, among them Traicho Kostov, in a Sofia supreme court decision in 1956 that was not made public at the time.

After the end of the Zhivkov regime, the first years of the transition to democracy saw formal court decisions expunging the convictions of many of those who had faced the People’s Tribunals.

Attempts that began in spring 1992 to prosecute a number of former detention camp officials for murder came to nothing, stumbling over procedural delays and reluctance in Parliament to continue with the process, citing the statute of limitations. The Bulgarian Socialist Party, the renamed lineal successor to the Bulgarian Communist Party, was significantly unenthusiastic about the process.

Post-communism, there also have been memorials erected for victims of communism. Among those memorialised is Nikola Petkov.

It was former presidents Zhelyu Zhelev and Petar Stoyanov who campaigned for a day of commemoration, and Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s Cabinet that approved the idea. Borissov periodically recalls that among those who fell victim to the communists after the seizure of power in 1944 was his great-grandfather.

Gabriele Nissim quotes the final passages of the memoirs of Dimitar Peshev, looking back on his trial at the People’s Tribunal: “It was a tragedy that surpassed anything anyone could have imagined or invented, and would weigh on Bulgarian history forever..

Perhaps one day, when the past can be viewed from a distance, some sensitive writer will use these events in order to recount the drama of a period, a time that future generations will look upon with disbelief and shock. Let’s hope that they will be more cultured, more intelligent and nobler, and that they do not attempt similar acts of political fanaticism.”

Pay heed, as the second month of this year 2019 begins, and on February 1, some will speak of the People’s Court, and some will not. Some will pay tribute, and from others, not a word will pass. This is Bulgaria today, divided on its past, and in that, divided in its present, and thus, not only divided about its memory, but also, divided about its future.



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.