[Reader-list] Voices from the Gulag

Jeebesh Bagchi jeebesh at sarai.net
Fri Jun 18 10:51:39 IST 2004

  Dear all,

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
Tzvetan Todorov

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 " 
counterrevolutionaries. "

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 
in Bulgaria.

(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 
leave alive.

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