Dedicated to the 100 million victims of communism worldwide.
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National Exhibit
National Exhibit
Bulgaria Under Communism: 1944 – 1989

The last multi-party elections in Bulgaria were held in October 1946. Despite the persecution of opposition activists and the systematic falsification of electoral results in the countryside the opposition still won 28% of the votes. The rest were captured by the communists who appointed Georgi Dimitrov Prime Minister. The sole constraint the BCP and their Soviet allies had to reckon with disappeared in early 1947 when Bulgaria signed the Paris Peace Treaty and British and US representatives left the country. In June 1947 Nikola Petkov was stripped of his immunity and arrested while delivering a speech in parliament. Charged with high treason, he was sentenced to death and hanged in September. Soon thereafter non-communist organizations were banned, opposition deputies were arrested, and all remnants of political pluralism were extinguished.

As the process of monopolization of power reached its final phase, the BCP initiated a massive effort to build a Soviet-type economy. By the end of 1949 all privately owned businesses, industrial enterprises, banks and trading companies were confiscated, and most of the owners and their families were exiled to the countryside. That same year a Five Year Plan was adopted. The last campaign against private property targeted the rural areas, where a Soviet-style collectivization of land got underway in the late 1940s. Officially described as “voluntary,” this campaign quickly turned violent. In several regions of the country peasants rebelled and even engaged in guerilla warfare. Private farmers were eliminated as a social group only after a series of punitive campaigns during which hundreds of people were murdered and thousands detained in concentration camps.

By the mid-1950s Bulgaria was a typical Stalinist polity characterized by a one-party dictatorship, an all-powerful secret police, periodic purges that victimized “enemies” both among the population at large and within the party itself (claiming the lives of prominent communists like Traicho Kostov), a fully nationalized economy and a cult for the national leader (initially Dimitrov, and after his death in 1949 Vulko Chervenkov, Dimitrov’s brother-in-law and successor).

It bears emphasizing that communist autocracy became consolidated only after several waves of terror. This belies the assertion that a Soviet-type regime grew organically out of local conditions in a country permeated by pro-Russian sentiments, anti-capitalist sensibilities and authoritarian mores. Those who argue that Bulgaria was naturally predisposed to embrace communism must answer the question why the BCP was compelled to unleash large-scale repressions in order to solidify its hegemony.

Eventually, Bulgaria did become Moscow’s most docile satellite; however, this circumstance should be attributed not to cultural and historical factors, but to the traumatic way in which communist rule was established, namely through the physical extermination of non-communist elites and the brutal victimization of entire social groups.

Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign launched at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1956 had an immediate impact on Bulgaria. BCP’s leadership was reshuffled and Chervenkov was forced to share power with the relatively unknown Todor Zhivkov, who was appointed General Secretary in April 1956. By the early 1960s Zhivkov had outmaneuvered his rivals and established himself as the undisputed leader of the party and the country – a position he was to retain until his downfall in November 1989, thus earning the distinction of Eastern Europe’s longest-serving dictator.

During the Zhivkov era terror was no longer the preferred mode of dealing with the regime’s opponents, defeated party rivals were retired rather than shot, and interventions into the citizens’ private sphere became less obtrusive. At the same time, post-Stalinism in Bulgaria was characterized by the almost complete absence of political liberalization. While a handful of writers were granted permission to publish more daring works, in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution of October 1956 BCP’s new leadership demonstrated its readiness to fight “reaction” by systematically arresting individuals whose social origin or cultural background rendered them “suspicious.” It was during Zhivkov’s tenure, in late 1956, that one of Bulgaria’s most horrible concentration camps, Lovetch, came into existence. Over the next years almost 200 musicians, journalists and peasants were beaten and tortured to death there. Likewise, intellectuals could discuss more freely the aesthetic dimensions of socialist realism, but a strictly enforced system of censorship allowed little room for deviations from Marxist orthodoxy.

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Location:  Eastern Europe
Capital:  Sofia
Communist Rule:  1944-1990
Status:  First free elections (June 1990)
Victims of Communism:
222 000