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NEWS 01 Feb 18

Bulgaria Remembers Victims of Communist Purge

Survivors, family members and liberal-right politicians on Thursday marked 73 years since 'Bloody Thursday' in 1945 – when Bulgaria's new pro-Soviet courts and government began the mass execution of the so-called bourgeois elite.

Martin Dimitrov
 Bulgarians marked the Remembrance Day on Thusrday. Photo: BIRN.

Bulgaria marked the Day of Remembrance of the victims of communist repression on Thursday with a commemorative service and a prayer in Sofia.

A couple of hundred people, mostly victims of the communist regime and their family members, as well as centre-right and liberal politicians, gathered at the Memorial of the Victims of Communism, close to the National Palace of Culture, lighting candles and giving brief speeches.

The day, known as “Bloody Thursday”, has been marked since 2011 after a decision of Boyko Borissov's first government, which approved a proposal made by the first two presidents of post-communist Bulgaria, Zhelyo Zhelev and Petar Stoyanov. Stoyanov also attended the commemoration service.     

February 1 marked the 73rd anniversary of the sentencing – and almost immediate execution – of almost the entire pre-World War II political elite of Bulgaria.

Among those killed were two former prime ministers, Bogdan Filov and Dobri Bozhilov, ministers and members of parliament, as well as Prince Kiril Preslavski, brother of the last King, Boris, and General Nicola Mihov, both regents to the then-underage heir to the throne, Simeon.

They were tried by the First and Second Chambers of the extraordinary “People’s Court”, created by the Soviet-backed Fatherland Front provisional government in late 1944, and then summarily shot outside the cemetery near Orlandovtsi, in northern Sofia.

“Those were the most symbolic sentences, an ominous prelude to how court trials would take place in the rest of the country,” said Mihail Gruev, director of the National Archive, adding that “Bloody Thursday” practically marked the annihilation of the old bourgeois elite.

A man holds poster with pictures of the Bulgarian communist leaders (on the left) and their victims (on the right), saying "What came to us?" and "Bulgaria lost people like them". Photo: BIRN

Apart from the 12 supreme chambers of the extraordinary court, there were 68 regional ones busy purging presumed “enemies of the people”.

The court tried hundreds of cases with more than 10,000 accused and operated outside any constitutional framework.

It remains unclear how many people were killed in these first few months after the pro-Soviet coup.

Figures vary immensely from 2,730 [the number of death sentences] up to 30,000, including all those killed without trial by the partisans right after Bulgaria joined the Allies in September 1944.

“This date is emblematic of both the arbitrary and the systematic nature of communist terror and goes into history as the largest post-WWII war tribunal. By comparison, Nuremberg tried 19 individuals, sentencing 12 of them to death,” Louisa Slavkova, director of Sofia Platform, an organisation dedicated to promoting teaching about the communist past in schools, said.

She added that Bulgaria is still struggling to establish the exact numbers of victims of the communist regime.

Under Mihail Gruev, the National Archives has launched a digitalization process that has seen a major part of the trial documents put on the internet.

In the coming 18 months, the director says his institution will complete a list of names that will finally clarify the exact number and names of all victims of the post-WWII regime.

A debate about the communist past still haunts Bulgaria.

About 200-300 people gathered to pray for the victims of the pre-1989 regime. Photo: BIRN

Declarations condemning the pre-1989 regime are occasionally read in parliament, but the heir to the old communist party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, claims that too much focus is being put on communist crimes.

On Thursday, while a declaration was being read out in parliament about the victims of communism, the Socialist deputy speaker of Parliament Valeri Zhablyanov insisted that there should a commemoration of the victims of monarcho-fascism as well, interrupting the minute of silence.

Borislav Skotchev, author of the recently published book “Belene Concentration camp, 1949-1987”, which recalls the atrocities that occurred in the largest labour correction facility during communism, thinks the lack of conclusion to this debate derives from the way suppression of family memory worked during communism.

“Two generations were spared the truth about the deaths in their families. Keeping one’s mouth shut was a way of survival," says Skotchev, adding that, unlike in the aftermath of a civil war, when people have scarred but living memories of suffering, long-lasting totalitarian suppression makes reconciliation even harder.

The names of over 7000 victims are engraved in black stone at the commemoration place near the National Palace of Culture, Sofia. Photo: BIRN

Louisa Slavokva adds that another reason for the continued debate in Bulgaria is the fact that not talking about communism became one of the founding pillars of the post-1989 settlement.

“Unfortunately, part of the consensus of the early years of transition in Bulgaria included neglecting the communist past, rather than parting with it. The neglect resulted in forgetting or never learning the truth about the brutality and the dimensions of the atrocities of communism,” she said.

According to Mihail Gruev, Bulgarians are slowly coming to terms with the crimes of communism, however, and a social consensus is forming around it, but it is not due to debates and discussions but because of the “unforgiving passage of time” and the changing generations.

“With the archives open, no one can now remain indifferent to the horror of the massacres," he said.

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