The Bulgarian revival

Georgi Stoikov Rakovski
Georgi Stoikov Rakovski

In the middle of the 17th century the feudal Ottoman empire plunged into serious decline. Significantly behind Christian Europe in a technological aspect, it gradually began losing the 'holy war against the unfaithful'. In 1571 the bells of the Holy league of Christian fleets tolled the beginning of the end of its military might at Lepanto. By force of habit the Ottoman war machinery kept pushing the imperial troops towards the heart of Europe, but their strength was obviously no longer up to the task. In 1683, after a series of ups and downs and at the expense of heavy bloodshed, the Ottoman armies were brought to utter catastrophe at Vienna by the troops of the Holy league. The latter combined the efforts of the European states to which Muslim aggression was a menace Venice, Austria, Poland and Russia. Christian Europe was already on the offensive and thereon the European possessions of the Ottoman empire were to be consistently shrinking.

Incapable of reforming itself in the spirit of the new times, the decrepit empire sank into a deep economic and social crisis which was never overcome. Dry rot had long been growing into obvious corruption all over the Ottoman government and economic administration. This created favorable conditions for the preparation and the actual attainment of Bulgaria's national liberation. In its essence this process had the features and the character of a bourgeois- democratic revolution. As a result of the all-round economic, political and cultural uplift of the Bulgarian society in the l7th-l9th centuries, there arose a natural conflict between the new Bulgarian bourgeoisie and the Turkish feudal state. The specific conditions of life, peculiar to Bulgaria and its people, determined the character of this conflict. Unlike the other economic analogues in Europe, it was not only of social but also of national bearing. The decline of the Ottoman Turkish state, paradoxical as it may sound, was one of the strongest incentives for the economic upsurge of the Bulgarian people. Exempted from participation in the imperial armies, the Bulgarians did not suffer the monstrous losses, incurred during the post-seventeenth century unsuccessful wars which had reduced the number of the Turkish population in the Bulgarian lands several times. Lacking in basic living culture and obssessed with the Muslim fanatical prejudice that no disease cure could be better than the one from the hands of Allah, the Turkish population had tangibly shrunken as a result of the frequent plague epidemics. These did not affect the Bulgarians who had the experience, the knowledge and the will to fight any illness. Despite its losses in the previous centuries, the Bulgarian Christian population considerably outnumbered the Muslim part of it through the whole of the 18th century. In some towns and even in whole regions, the Turkish population was represented only by the families of the local administration sent to work there.

In the new conditions the labour-devoted Bulgarians, quite unexpectedly, turned out to be much better off than the sparse Muslim population lacking in economic experience as a result of its centuries long sole responsibility - to be part of the war machinery of the empire. Slowly but steadily craft manufacture - the foundation of all manufacturing industry in the Bulgarian lands, passed into the hands of the nascent Bulgarian bourgeois class. This Bulgarian-manned crafts industry was reorganized on the basis of new bourgeois manufacture principles. The incorporation of the Ottoman empire into the European capitalist economic system gave further impetus to manufacture and trade. International trade was chiefly carried out by Bulgarian merchants, who had accumulated capital to invest it in the expansion and modernization of new enterprises. Upon the official abolition of the feudal system of land ownership, the bourgeois style of production penetrated in agriculture, too. The peasants started buying their land back from the Ottoman authorities or from Muslims nearly ruined and got down to organizing prosperous private farms. Big farms called chifliks occupied themselves with wholesale food production. Towards the end of the Ottoman rule in the Bulgarian lands the chifliks comprised about twenty five percent of all land and of the total agricultural produce.

The economic development of the Bulgarians was impeded by the Ottoman political reality. As late as the middle of the 19th century, a number of historical factors made the Turkish government 127 unable to abolish the medieval feudal pattern of statecraft and management of its economy Heavy tax, absence of state protection, corrupt administration, lack of legal guarantees and national discrimination - these were some of the hindrances to substantial industry. A scrutinizing look at the Turkish state realities and potentialities for headway development brought the various strata of the Bulgarian society to the conclusion that there would be no future for them within the boundaries of that state. The Bulgarians from all walks of life, the Bulgarian bourgeoisie in particular, were interested in restoring the Bulgarian independence and building up a modern Bulgarian state. It was the bourgeoisie who were at the head of the Bulgarian national liberation movement during the 19th century.

The struggle for national liberation flared up with several parallel actions launched almost at the same time. The movement for national enlightenment and for independent Bulgarian church was the first to break out as it was possible to wage with methods prescribed by the law. This slant was extremely important in the first decades of the 19th century since the Bulgarians were not officially recognized as a separate people within the Ottoman empire. When the Turks conquered the country at the end of the 15th century, they placed the Bulgarian bishoprics under the oecumenical patriarchal in Constantinople and considered all Christian peoples one Romilet i.e. a Roman people. That Graecized Christian institution with corruption pervading it, unloaded fresh tax burden on the Bulgarians, and yet, the consequences of the official introduction of the Greek language in public worship and in schools were much more detrimental. This tendency extended particularly after the establishment of the Greek state independence in 1829. The Greek bishops in the Bulgarian lands became ardent supporters of the so called Greek state megali idea, envisaging restoration of the Byzantine empire within the boundaries of the Balkan Peninsula. They did not acknowledge the Bulgarians existing as an independent ethnic community and waged persistent struggle aiming at their denationalization.

The Bulgarian society reacted sharply to the nationalistic ambitions of the patriarchal in Constantinople. The local communities led a stubborn struggle against the Greek bishops' presence in the Bulgarian bishoprics. Meanwhile a network of Bulgarian elementary and secondary schools was set up. The Bulgarian initial demands boiled down to requests for the replacement of the Greek bishops with Bulgarian ones and for the wide-spread use of the Bulgarian language in church service. The patriarchal in Constantinople was relentless which made the Bulgarians claim full independence of the Bulgarian church immediately after the Crimean War in 1858. Between 1856-1860 the Greek bishops were expelled from everywhere. A national center took shape around the Bulgarian community in Constantinople, attracting eminent writers and public figures. That center took up the leadership of church independence struggle. On 3 April 1860, during Easter Sunday service in Constantinople, the Bulgarian bishop Illusion of Makariopol expressed the will of the whole Bulgarian people by solemnly proclaiming the separation of the Bulgarian church from the patriarchal in Constantinople. The day commemorating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ coincided with the resuscitation of the Bulgarian people. However, that unilateral act of the Bulgarians was not sanctioned either by the see of Constantinople or by the Turkish government. Russia, in her capacity as patron of the Orthodox peoples within the boundaries of the Muslim empire - a right obtained as a result of her victories over the Turks, did not approve of it either. The struggle continued for another ten years. It was only when the Catholic propaganda in the Bulgarian lands became disturbingly successful that Russia changed her attitude and, eventually, forced Turkey to recognize de jure the situation which had existed de facto. In 1870 a firman of the sultan decreed the establishment of an autonomous Bulgarian church institution - the Bulgarian exarchate. All lands inhabited by Bulgarians in Moesia, Thrace, Dobrudja and a large part of Macedonia came under its jurisdiction.

The independence of the church and the establishment of national educational institutions became heralds of the victory of the Bulgarian national revolution for at least two reasons: they put an end to the assimilation of the Bulgarian population and led to the formal international recognition of the Bulgarian nation.

The struggle for autonomous church and for national enlightenment and culture was waged along with the struggle for the political liberation of the country. On this problem the Bulgarian bourgeoisie was not united. Some circles were of the opinion that the Bulgarians had not been up to carrying out the armed revolution by themselves and thus prescribed help from abroad, mainly from the neighbouring Balkan countries and Russia. The upholders of this standpoint cared to organise large Bulgarian armed detach- ments for both the Russo-Turkish wars and the liberation uprisings of the other Balkan peoples. Their opponents thought it possible to achieve the cherished political independence by duplicating the so called 'Hungarian pattern' - a velvet revolution within the Turkish state by gradually infiltrating the upper tiers of power in the economy, local government, culture and education and then, by turning the Muslim empire into something like the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

The most radically-minded part of the Bulgarian bourgeoisie saw no other way to the liberation of Bulgaria except the one passing through the cathartic flames of a nation-wide armed revolution. The first leader of that ideological trend was Georgi As for the tactics, obviously influenced by past experiences of the haidouk movement, he envisaged the setting up of Bulgarian armed detachments in all of Turkey's Balkan neighboring states whose task it would be to make their way into the Bulgarian lands. Rakovski expected these armed main bodies to grow into an avalanche of discontented Bulgarians who would spontaneously join in to ultimately form a strong national army capable of winning the country's independence.

Rakovski's attempts in the 60s to carry out the Bulgarian national revolution with 'pressure and sword' failed. Taking advantage of conflicting situations between the Balkan states and their Muslim neighbor Rakovski tried, on several occasions, to make his dream of shaping up the kernel of the Bulgarian national army come true. However, upon the settlement of any of these conflicts, the governments of Serbia and Romania always found their own reasons and excuses to limit Rakovski's activity. In 1867 Rakovski died. His death put an end to one of the significant stages of the Bulgarian national revolution.

Rakovski's revolutionary activity awakened the Bulgarian immigrants in Romania and Russia. Their activity was a direct after- effect of the changes taking place in European political life. The unification of Germany, the liberation of Italy, the autonomy of Hungary - all these events inspired hope for the approaching settlement of the Bulgarian national question. Several centers of revolutionary activity had been set up to unite various groups of the Bulgarian immigrant bourgeoisie looking for the best possible way to national liberation. Their quests ranged from political combinations with Balkan and European powers, through revolutionary printed propaganda to the dispatch of armed detachments to the Bulgarian lands. In 1868 the last one of these, known as the cheta of Stefan Karadja and Hadji Dimiter, consisted only of 120 men but they had both the Balkans and Europe lost in admiration for their heroism. Leading ceaseless battles against the Turkish regular and mercenary troops many thousands strong, the cheta crossed Moesia. Stranded and besieged in the Balkan Range, the revolutionaries fought to the last bullet. Rather than surrendering they died in a desperate man-to-man battle.

After the failure of Rakovski's tactics and the utter defeat of the detachments in 1867-1868, the Bulgarian liberation movement entered a phase of total reassessment of its revolutionary strategy and tactics. In Bucharest in 1869, young revolutionaries moving in the circle of the eminent Bulgarian intellectual Liuben Karavelov and his newspaper Svoboda (Freedom) formed a group which was the precursor of a Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee I (BRCC), set up before the end of that year. This new center had I the revolutionary trends merge and come under the same hat. The center's political programme subjected to criticism the social situation in Turkey, condemning it as an indecent anachronism in the modern European civilization and exposing the Turkish government as the obvious adversary to human rights and human progress. Karavelov's notion of the liberation revolution placed, first and foremost, reliance on the Bulgarian people and then, on aid from a foreign power. He wrote: 'The Bulgarians should not count on Napoleon Ill, Alexander II, Pius IX or Queen Victoria, they should rely only on themselves'. In this the staunch democrat saw a prerequisite for Bulgaria 'to set its state in order, according to the best ordinances (read 'constitutions') which had already been used by the enlightened peoples - the American, the Belgian and the Swiss'.

However, in 1869-1870 the BRCC confined its activities to nothing else but verbose public statements. The center did not undertake any real practicable measures. For this reason, a group of radically-minded associates with Vassil Levski at the head of it, launched some resolute and efficient initiatives aiming at the political liberation of Bulgaria.

Vassil Levski, whom the present-day Bulgarians consider their greatest national hero of all times and epochs, was born in Karlovo, a prosperous center of craftindustry in 1837. At the age of twenty four he took the vows of a deacon. The lot in store for the young Bulgarian was obviously not the one of a monk living in resignation to the world. In 1862 he fled to Serbia and enlisted as a volunteer in the Bulgarian legion raised by Rakovski. The legion took part in the Serbo-Turkish hostilities. Between 1862-1868 Levski participated in almost all Bulgarian armed assaults against the Ottoman empire.

The revolutionary theory which took form in Vassil Levski's mind towards the end of the 60s, turned out to be a leap forward for the Bulgarian liberation movement. Levski viewed the national liberation revolution as a concomitant armed upheaval of the whole Bulgarian population in the Ottoman empire. It followed that this uprising had to be well-prepared in advance, with all adequate military training and proper coordination on the part of an internal revolutionary organization branching out into committees in each living area. That organization was supposed to operate independent from the plans or the political combinations of any foreign powers which, as known by previous experience, had brought only trouble and failure to the national revolutionary cause.

Levski also determined the future form of government in liberated Bulgaria - a democratic republic, standing on the principles of the Human and Citizen Rights Charter of the Great French Revolution. That was the only document hitherto known to guarantee the individual freedom of expression, speech and association. In their essence Levski's ideas tallied with the most radical ideas of the European bourgeois-democratic revolution.

In more practical terms, in 1869 Levski addressed himself to the task of setting up local committees. By the middle of 1872 he had scoured the Bulgarian lands with the dedication of an apostle, and succeeded in establishing a strong network of committees in hundreds of Bulgarian towns and villages which were in constant contact with and subordination to the clandestine government in the town of Lovech. They provided weapons, organized combat detachments, and got traitors and Turkish officials punished.

In May 1872, the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee and the Internal Revolutionary Organization, convinced that a coordination of the efforts would be for the general good, merged into one organization. Revolutionary uplift overwhelmed the whole country.

This enthusiasm was short-lived as only a few months on, in the autumn of that year, during a robbery of a Turkish post-office meant to procure money for weapons, the Turkish police picked up the trail of some committees in northeast Bulgaria including the organization headquarters in Lovech. Numerous arrests of revolutionaries followed, threatening the organization to fall through. karavelov demanded that Levski should immediately rise the Bulgarians in revolt. Levski, who was in Bulgaria at that time and was well-aware that the population was yet unprepared, refused to fulfil the order and tried to take into his charge all documentation belonging to the organization - a safety precaution against its getting into Turkish hand, which could destroy the movement completely. Unfortunately, he himself fell in the hands of the Turkish authorities who put him on trial and sentenced him to death by hanging. Levski was sent to the gallows in Sofia in February 1837. The death of Vassil Levski - a generally recognized leader of the national revolutionary movement, caused temporary crisis. The Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee was groping for new ways and means. A number of revolutionaries undertook actions without coordinating them with the underground headquarters, while others sank into apathy.

By 1875 a group of young revolutionaries - Hristo Botev, Stefan Stambolov, Nikola Obretenov and others, was ready to play an important role in the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee. They attempted at and partly succeeded in restoring the internal revolutionary committee network. Taking advantage of the deep crisis of the Ottoman empire (in 1875 Turkey was adjudged bankrupt, while Bosnia and Herzegovina were shaken up by uprisings), the young revolutionaries speeded up the preparation for an armed uprising. It broke out in the spring of 1876 and was recorded in the annals of Bulgarian history as the April uprising.

However, that uprising did not spread all over the Bulgarian lands. Only the towns and villages, nestling among the mountain hills surrounding Plovdiv - the capital city of Thrace, rose on a mass scale. In the other regions only guerilla detachments had been set up. After several days of heroic fighting, it was crushed with cruelty unheard of in the human history. The Turkish atrocities were unprecedented. The troops made a massacre of the population both in rebellious and non-rebellious settlements. In some places the inhabitants were killed to the last man without distinction of age or sex. The Bulgarian immigrants in Romania formed a detachment of 200 rebels. Led by Hristo Botev, they seized the Austrian packet boat 'Radetzky' and, eventually, landed on the Bulgarian bank of the Danube. It took some heroic battles for this cheta (detachment) to be defeated, too. That happened in June 1876 when the Bulgarian liberation uprising was fought to its bitter end.

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