[Reader-list] Voices from the Gulag
jeebesh at sarai.net
Fri Jun 18 10:51:39 IST 2004
Having read about what happenned in the Abu Gharaib prison, and in
Guantanamo Bay, one begins to wonder about whether the brutal abuses of
confinement are not a systemic feature of the legacy handed down to us
by the history of the twentieth century. Here, is a brief note about the
history of confinement in post second world war Bulgaria.
Perhaps the excavation of such realities in every society can help us
deepen our understanding of the (tragic) certainties of twentieth
century political practices.
Voices from the Gulag: Life and Death in Communist Bulgaria
The Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania, 1999
*Historical Summary* (pg 37 - 42)
Modern Bulgaria was born in 1878, when five hundred years of Turkish
occupation were brought to an end by a war between czarist Russia and
the Ottoman Empire. This event, known to all Bulgarians as the
Liberation, was followed by the establishment of a constitutional
monarchy. In the wake of World War I, during / which Bulgaria was allied
with Germany and Austria-Hungary, national elections brought the
Agrarian Party to power. Led by the charismatic Aleksander Stamboliyski,
the Agrarians were initially supported by the Communist Party. However,
in June 1923 Stam- boliyski was assassinated and the government
overthrown in a coup d'etat. Though the Communists at first adopted a
wait-and- see attitude, in September they sparked an insurrection, one
that was drowned in blood and forced a number of Communist leaders to
flee the country. For the next decade and a half, a series of
authoritarian regimes governed the country. At the outbreak of World War
II, Bulgaria was allied with Nazi Germany. However, the coun- try
neither took an active part in the war effort nor' cooperated in the
persecution of its native Jewish population. The Communist Party was
declared illegal, which led to the creation of several resistance-or
partisan-groups by 1941.
Bulgaria's postwar fate was decided at the Yalta Conference, which
assigned the country to the Soviet zone of influence. This fate was
sealed on 9 September 1944, when the Red Army entered and occupied
Bulgaria. In the aftermath of this second "liberation," the Fatherland
Front, which was the name given to the wartime antifascist coalition in
Bulgaria, came to power. Though they were just one among a number of
participating parties, the Communists held the critical posts of
minister of the interior and minister of justice. Over the next few
years, the other coalition parties knuckled under to the Communist
ascendancy; those who resisted were labeled "oppositionists" and
executed (as was most notably the case with Nikola Petkov, the leader of
the Independent Agrarian Party}. Georgi Dimitrov, who was leader of the
Communist Party, "hero" of the Reichstag fire trial in 1933, secretary
general of the Komintern, and an active participant in Stalin's purges
after fleeing to the Soviet Union, returned to Bulgaria in 1945 and
became head of state. The first trials against veteran Communists
(echoing the prewar Stalinist purges of the Russian Revolution),
climaxing with the execution of Traycho Kostov, took place in 1948-49.
Upon Dimitrov's death in 1949, power soon passed to Vulko Chervenkov
(1950-56}, whose policies were inspired by the Stalinist model. It was
under Chervenkov that the farms were forcefully collectivized, the
peasantry was obliged to join cooperatives, and massive investments were
made in heavy industry. In 1956 Chervenkov was forced from power, and
his place was gradually assumed by Todor Zhivkov.
Bulgaria pursued an orthodox pro-Soviet policy under Zhivkov, but by the
1980s a new element was added: the persecution of native Turks.
Frightened by the growth of the Turkish minority, the Bulgarian
leadership ordered the Bulgarization of names, outlawed the use of the
Turkish language, and forbade Muslim religious practice. This policy of
cultural repression sparked a massive exodus of the persecuted minority
into Turkey. On the eve of 1989, Zhivkov sensed that the wind was
changing direction, and he tried to present himself as a reformer. But
the effort failed, and he was deposed by yet other Communist reformers
in November 1989. Finally, in the legislative elections of late 1991,
the non-Communist opposition won a majority of the seats and assumed the
reins of government.
Let us now return to the days immediately after Bulgaria's "liberation,"
which heralded the Communist repression. In September 1944 the partisans
"avenged" themselves by summarily executing tens of thousands of
victims. This hecatomb included active fascists and members of the
political police, but also many others whose sole crime was to belong to
the non-Communist intelligentsia, professional or bourgeois classes. In
fact, the crime could extend to simply displeasing a Communist cadre.
Dimitrov actively encouraged these massacres: in a telegram sent from
Moscow just a week after the Red Army had arrived in Sofia, he called
for the "torching of all signs of Bulgarian jingoism, nationalism, or
anti- Communism." Following suit, the Central Committee, in a circular
dated 20 September 1944, called for the liquidation of all the nests of
"anti-Communist resistance" and the extermination of all "
In October 1944, the People's Tribunal was created, a special court
devoted to the postwar purge. The death penalty was pronounced 12,000
times, and more than 2,700 individuals were ultimately executed. By way
of comparison, between 1941 and 1944 - the years of active Communist
resistance-357 people were sentenced to death and actually executed (all
crimes included). The political and social repression was given a
juridical basis in early 1945. A government decree authorized the
creation of the so- called Work Education Centers, known in Bulgarian as
the TVO, or Trudovo-vuzpitatelni obshtezhitya. TVO was a euphemism for
concentration camp. All of the constituent parties of the Fatherland
Front, including those who would soon be its victims, approved this
decision. The profiles of those for whom the camps were created covered
two major categories: in one were placed pimps, blackmailers, beggars,
and idlers, while the second included all those individuals judged
political threats to the stability and security of the state. The task
of executing this decree was given to the Ministry of the Interior-more
precisely, the omnipotent Office of State Security- rather than the
Ministry of Justice. A series of laws and decrees enacted over the next
ten years reaffirmed and sharpened the powers of the state police.
There were six major stages in the history of the concentra- tion camps
(1) 1945 to 1949. There was forced labor at numerous work sites across
Bulgaria. The camps were built in the vicinity of dams under
construction, coal mines, and certain agricultural areas. Among the most
notorious were Bobov Dol, Bogdanov Dol, Rositsa, Kutsian, Bosna,
Nozharevo, and Chernevo.
(2) 1949 to 1953. Political prisoners were gathered from other camps and
regrouped in the camp of Belene, located on Persin, a small island in
the Danube and bordering on Romania.
(3) 1954 to 1956. Deportations to the camps were dramatically reduced,
if not ended altogether. Belene nevertheless continued to operate.
(4) 1956 to 1959. Belene welcomed a number of new prisoners in the wake
of the failed Hungarian revolt in the fall of 1956, as well as a crime
wave in Sofia in the early months of 1958.
(5) 1959 to 1962. Following a hunger strike among the prisoners, Belene
was closed down in 1959. Those prisoners who were not freed-according to
certain documents, there were 166-were transferred to a new camp at
Lovech, which bordered a rock quarry. Several thousand new prisoners
eventually joined this first contingent. In September 1961, a hundred or
so women prisoners were sent to a neighboring camp in Skravena. In
November, the quality of camp life at Lovech was noticeably improved. In
the following spring of 1962, the Political Bureau created a commission
led by Boris Velchev to visit Lovech. As a result, the camp was shut
down in April.
(6) 1962 to 1989. State repression had its high and low points during
this period. A decision rendered by the Political Bureau in 1962
established that an individual, without trial in court, could be
imprisoned and assigned to forced labor for up to five years. This
repression was solely administrative, aimed at those accused of "social
parasitism" or "loose morals," and often a response to information
provided by "people's organizations" such as the neighborhood sections
of the Fatherland Front. In the 1980s, numerous members of the Turkish
minority in Bulgaria were also sent to Belene.
According to the statistics provided in 1990 by an inquiry commission
created by the Communist Party, between 1944 and 1962 there were
approximately one hundred concentration camps in a country of eight
million individuals. Some 12,000 men and women passed through these
camps between 1944 and 1953, and another 5,000 between 1956 and 1962.
One witness affirms that in 1952 there were, in Belene alone, about
7,000 inmates. Yet another estimates that there were 186,000 prisoners
during this entire period. For the moment, it is very difficult to know
the precise numbers.
The camps were not the only means the government used to rid itself of
pariahs during this same period. The government also used the
administrative practice of deportation, which entailed forced residence
in distant corners of the provinces. It is known, for example, that
between 1948 and 1953 approximately 25,000 people were deported.
For the period of Lovech and Skravena (1959-62), which is the context
for the majority of the following accounts, we can re create an
organizational chart of state repression as it pertains to these camps.
(Though the principal political and bureaucratic actors are listed, the
reader must keep in mind that this list is far from exhaustive.)
(1) At the head of the Party and state is Todor Zhivkov, who in turn is
assisted by a succession of prime ministers, including Anton Yugov, who
was a former interior minister.
(2) Under their orders are placed the Interior Ministry, run by Georgi
Tsankov, with the assistance of Mincho Minchev, who was attorney general
and whose signature was required for any and all internments.
(3) At the next tier we find Mircho Spasov, who was vice- minister of
the interior and in charge of the concentration camps. Alongside him was
Colonel Delcho ChakUrov, director of the Office of Internment and
(4) The camp at Lovech was run by Colonel Ivan Trichkov (1959-61), who
had previously commanded Belene. He was succeeded by Major PetUr Gogov
(1961-62). The next in command was Major Tsviatko Goranov, who oversaw
the work details, and Lieutenant Nikolas Gazdov, who was the camp's
representative from the Bureau of State Security. All of these officers,
moreover, had pre- viously served in other concentration camps.
(5) The camp's commanding officers were assisted by a team of
low-ranking officers, noncommissioned officers, adjutants, and brigade
chiefs, these last recruited from the criminals assigned to the camp.
Finally, a few words need to be said about the camp at Lovech. The city
of Lovech, which gave its name to the camp, is located in central
Bulgaria, at the edge of the Balkan Mountains. An abandoned rock quarry
outside the city became the site for the last and harshest of the
Communist labor camps. Before 1959, the labor camps had been spread
across Bulgaria. But most were closed following the fall of Chervenkov,
and the inmates were transferred to Lovech. The camp was under the
direct authority of the Ministry of the Interior rather than the
regional authorities. Most Bulgarians did not know of the camp's
existence, yet for those who went afoul of the state, Lovech had a
sinister reputation: it was known to be a place that one might never
More information about the reader-list