Communist Dictatorship in Bulgaria (1944-1989)

Bulgaria fell under Communist rule when a Communist government was set up after invasion by the Red Army. Soon after that, extensive purges, arrests and executions were launched to suppress opposition to the new political system. Civil society and civil liberties were terminated. For example, at least 746 officers were sacked from the army and most were later arrested. At the 1944-1945 show trials, 9155 persons were convicted and 2730 of them shot.

Opposition leader Nikola Petkov was hanged on 23. September 1947. From fall 1944 to 1962, at least 23.531 persons were sent t prison camps; 478 persons were sentenced to death as “public enemies” during 1952–1985. The Communist secret police hunted and killed Bulgarian dissidents both home and abroad. In addition to extensive human rights violations, the country’s Turkish minority suffered from measures close to ethnic cleansing. The Communist regime of Bulgaria fell in 1989, but its weighty legacy is yet to be resolved.

Historical overview

The full independence of Bulgaria from the Sublime Porte was proclaimed in 1908. The Kingdom of Bulgaria was declared as a constitutional, hereditary monarchy and parliamentary democracy with a multi-party system and the Orthodox faith as the state religion. In 1912-1913 Bulgaria took part in the Balkan Wars. Later, it also participated in World War I on the side of the Central Powers. Wars devastated Bulgaria demographically and materially. As a result of the peace treaty signed in 1919 it lost a significant amount of land. It was also disarmed and forced to pay war reparations.

Post-war Bulgaria suffered from political instability and corruption. A. Stamboliyski’s government (1919-1923) was overthrown by general A. Tsankov. In the mid-1930s another coup d’état took place and brought Tsar Boris III into power. Democratic freedoms were curtailed, and authoritarian tendencies surfaced.

The post-war crisis encouraged extreme opinions. In 1919, the Bulgarian Communist Party (BKP) was established on the basis of the principles of Marx and Lenin. It stemmed from the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (so-called Narrow Socialists), which was founded in 1903 on a platform of Bolshevism and appreciation of Bulgaria’s pro-Russian traditions. It instantly became one of the most active members of the Comintern, making it a useful instrument of Soviet foreign policy. Immediately after establishment, the BKP co-organised a wave of over a hundred strikes, which brought them social support and parliamentary seats in 1920. After the election in 1923 it became the second strongest political party in Bulgaria.

In September 1923 the communists (at first neutral to the Tsankov regime) co-organised an uprising against the military-backed government together with the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union and anarchists. It was ruthlessly put down and the BKP was outlawed in 1924. Around 2,000-3,000 BKP leaders and supporters escaped into the USSR, including some of the PRB’s future heads such as Georgi Dimitrov and Valko Chervenkov.

Despite repressions, the BKP continued to participate in official political life, cooperating with legal organisations and running in parliamentary elections. At the same time some of their activists supported anti-regime terrorist activity. In 1925 they killed a Bulgarian general and then blew up the Saint Nedelya Church during his funeral in an attempt to kill Tsar Boris III. Over 200 people were killed and over 400 injured, but the Tsar survived.

The change of government and policy liberalisation caused the communists to start preferring legal political actions. In 1927 they established the legal Worker’s Party, which gained 31 seats in the parliamentary election of 1931. In 1932 the government removed all its representatives from the National Assembly, and in 1934 the party was banned altogether. In 1934 a political crisis resulted in a bloodless military coup legalised by the Tsar, who soon organised another coup and took full power again.

In the late 1930s, the BKP and the Workers’ Party were merged to create the Bulgarian Workers’ Party (BRP). In 1938 the communists, as part of a wider opposition bloc, gained 63 parliamentary seats.

In 1940 the Bulgarian government rejected a Soviet proposal of mutual friendship and help, which would allow the Soviets to use Bulgarian military bases, in return granting Bulgaria some of its claimed territory occupied by Romania. At the beginning of World War II Bulgaria maintained its neutrality. It joined the Axis bloc in 1941. Being at war with the USA and the UK, it remained neutral towards the USSR. After the German invasion of the USSR, the BRP called for an uprising against the regime. Consequently, the communist armed resistance was organised and spread throughout the country. In 1942 the BRP followed a direct order by the USSR to establish the Fatherland Front (OF) which at first ap

peared as a wide political platform for diverse opinions. Its unifying features were calls against the regime and the demand for democratisation as well as leaving the German-led Axis alliance. OF’s programme was broadcast via Moscow radio. In September 1944, the Bulgarian government broke off diplomatic relations with Germany and the USSR declared war on Bulgaria. The negotiations between the Bulgarian regime and the Western Allies ended in a fiasco. A wave of strikes and demonstration broke up and gradually transformed into an uprising.


At the Moscow Conference in October 1944, it was decided that Bulgaria would fall into the Soviet sphere of influence. On 8 September 1944, the Red Army crossed the Bulgarian border. One day later the coup d’état was accomplished. The Communists and their allies, operating under the guise of the Fatherland Front, seized power with the support of partisan troops and the Soviet army to ultimately form the new Bulgarian government. Within a matter of months, the Communists were able to side-track the other political parties and become the dominating force in Bulgarian politics.

The OF was transformed from a coalition of a few political parties (differing in social basis, ideology and programme) into a monolithic organisation under the control of the communists. Finally, the Communists liquidated all independent political activists and achieved a position of practically unchallenged power, using mainly occupying troops, Soviet terror, propaganda and a skilled tactic of dividing the opposition. The door to political, economic and social soviet-pattern transformation was wide open. In September 1946, monarchy was abolished and the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was proclaimed. On the basis of the new constitution of 1947, power rested in the hands of the leadership of the Party (since 1948 acting under the name of the Bulgarian Communist Party); the parliament and government only existed to carry out the Party’s decisions. 

In October 1944, an armistice was signed between Bulgaria and the USSR, and in February 1947 the peace treaty was signed. Bulgaria retained its 1941 borders, also maintaining control over Southern Dobruja in the process.

Immediately after the 1944 coup the anti-communist underground resistance movement (the so-called Goryani) took up arms against the communist regime. The movement was active across the entire country and enjoyed support across different parts of the population, though particularly with the peasantry. They mainly opposed sovietisation, nationalisation, collectivisation, repressions and the communist ethnic policy (the so-called Macedonisation). The movement was aggressively suppressed and its last fighters were killed in the late 1950s.

De-Stalinisation in Bulgaria was slow and limited, taking place without any participation of society. It brought changes chiefly at the highest level of government. The then General Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party Valko Chervenkov, known as Bulgaria’s “Little Stalin”, was accused of personality cult and replaced with Todor Zhivkov, who had the absolute approval of the USSR. Following this change in leadership, some the most notorious Soviet advisers, who had been overseeing the process of sovietisation, returned to Moscow. In the following years Zhivkov cemented his position. As the Soviet Union’s most loyal ally and supporter during the Eastern Bloc crises, he moved Bulgaria politically and economically even closer to the USSR, for example Bulgarian special forces trained terrorists who the Soviets would use for political gain.

There was no organised dissident movement in Bulgaria until the mid-1980s, because of the sheer scale of repressions and invigilation. Only then the partial liberalisation and crises created favourable conditions for forming an opposition. Despite the repressions a lot of diverse unofficial organisations were created in a very short amount of time time, such as the „Club for the Support of Perestroika and Glasnost” founded by Želju Želev.

Zhivkov’s order to pacify opposition activists during the International Ecological Forum (Ecoforum) in Sofia in October 1989 was observed by journalists and ultimately deepened the crisis in the BKP while also accelerating the fall of communism. In November 1989 the Communists overthrew Zivkov. During mass demonstrations people demanded multi-party democracy. Opposition organisations established the Union of Democratic Forces with Želev at the helm.

In January 1990 the Round Table Talks started. Communists and the opposition representatives decided to hold democratic elections. In June 1990 the successor to the BKP won the first multi-party election. In 1992 Želev became the first democratically elected president.



The communists began to eliminate their political opponents immediately after the coup d’état in 1944. The Bulgarian policy of terror and intimidation was executed across the country. The mass purge organised by Bulgarian authorities was the most brutal among all USSR satellite countries. In autumn, between 20,000-40,000 people were murdered without any trial. They were, among others, members of local authorities, notables, teachers, Orthodox priests and traders.

Officials at all levels were expelled with justifications ranging from retribution for past offences and the “fight against fascism”. Some of the officials associated with the previous government were arrested as soon as 9 September 1944 and deported to the USSR. From December 1944 to June 1945 about 130 show trials were organised at the “People’s Tribunals”. The “judges” were often people with no legal education. About 10,000 people were accused, among them members of the ruling dynasty, royal councillors, most of the cabinet ministers of the 1941 government, members of parliament, officers, policemen, city mayors, businessmen, lawyers, judges, journalists, and so on. About 2,700 of them were sentenced to death, more than 1,200 to life imprisonment and about 1,600 to long-term imprisonment.

Another tool used to eliminate political opponents was the security apparatus. It was based on the Soviet pattern and supported by NKVD units and soviet military counterintelligence. When the communists had strengthened their power, they crushed the activists of anti- and non-communist political parties. Their members were falsely accused of collaboration with the “fascist underground movement” or “hatching a plot in the army” and sentenced in show trials. The purge also touched members of the communist party.

Bulgaria was one of the first East European countries to organise labour (concentration) camps. In December 1944 a special ordinance-law allowed for the creation of the officially called Work Education Centres (TVO). It was a system of about 90 camps and labour “boarding houses”. Those who were regarded as “politically dangerous people” would be interned there indefinitely without trial. Like in the USSR, political prisoners were kept together with criminals. The exact numbers of people who passed through the camp system in 1944-1962 is still difficult to pinpoint. Estimates vary from 25,000 to 184,000.

In 1953-1956 there was a certain relaxation of the policy of terror. In July 1953 an amnesty for political prisoners was announced, which marked the beginning of de-Stalinisation. The 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR brought Bulgaria only temporary liberalisation. Events in Poland and Hungary in October 1956 triggered political unrest in Bulgaria. In fear of the situation getting out of control, authorities immediately tightened repressions. After the 22nd Congress in the USSR in October 1961, the Bulgarian regime released another wave of political prisoners. In the 1960s, repressions were no longer massive, but any form of resistance against the authorities was still eliminated.

In the second half of the 1980s, Bulgaria’s forced assimilation campaign against Bulgarian Muslims turned into an ethnic purge. In a few months several hundred thousand people were forced to emigrate, 40 people were killed, and 5,000 were imprisoned.


Bulgaria was not as ravaged by the war as other Balkan countries. The heaviest post-war burden were the costs connected to the soviet troop presence in the country and rebuilding the capital. Bulgaria was obligated to pay reparations reaching 45 million dollars to Greece.

Until 1944 Bulgaria was an agrarian society consisting of many small private landowners who cultivated land by traditional methods. Following its ascent to power, the communists aimed to put the entire economy under total state control and introduce Soviet-model central planning. The forced nationalisation and collectivisation of agriculture, as well as rapid industrialisation, electrification and urbanisation brought fundamental changes to the economic structure of Bulgaria as a whole.

In 1946 the agricultural reform bill was passed. Expropriation and nationalisation of land plots exceeding 20 hectares were key points of this policy document. Prior to this, the fragmentation of ownership had cleared the way for collectivisation. The first phase was gradual and rather voluntary, but in 1950 it became stricter. In 1947 only 3.8 % of arable land was collectivised. In 1949, 11.3 % belonged to collective, state-controlled farms; this grew to 43% in 1950 and 90% in 1958.

The nationalisation policy was formally declared in 1947, but industry, banking and trade were gradually taken over even earlier and without any compensation. By the end of 1948 about 85% of industrial production was in the hands of the state and another 7% controlled by cooperative organisations. By 1952 the private sector had virtually disappeared. Most shops were either state-owned or administered by state-controlled cooperatives. The dominance of the public and cooperative sector in the economy, as well as state centralism, was formally legalised by the new constitution of 1947.

Industrialisation began in 1947 with the introduction of multiannual plans. It had encountered fundamental problems, such as the lack of local raw materials and qualified staff (including highly skilled workforce). ”Voluntary” brigades of young people were organised to combat this, but they were inefficient. However, despite the difficulties, the production in the heavy and extractive industry sector increased considerably. This wouldn’t have been possible without the availability of cheap labour force (including political prisoners) and the significant Soviet and COMECON aid. The massive industrialisation brought a slowdown in consumer goods production, so the costs were taken by the society.

In the second half of the 1950s, the Zhivkov regime undertook some efforts to improve the standard of living for the people, in order to increase its popularity. In 1958 the third Five-Year Plan was introduced and investments in the light and food industries were prioritised. In 1964-1968 reforms were carried out to increase the efficiency of the economy – the system of central planning was liberalised, and the industrial plants regained some of their autonomy. After the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria gave up on its economic experiments. In the 1960s, Bulgaria also started to develop its tourism sector. The agricultural reform in the 1970s caused a drop in efficiency in parts of the agricultural sector.

At the turn of the 1970s and 1980s the new economic policy was announced; however, it wasn’t enough to prevent the worsening economic crisis. Bulgaria had to sustain a shortage of natural resources and external investments alike, but also struggled to maintain sectors that brought losses. The situation was aggravated by natural disasters such as tough winters and droughts. The improvement of the supply situation was only temporary (1980-1981). The annual GDP growth fell from 5-6.5% (in the 1970s) to 3% (in the 1980s). Foreign debt grew rapidly from 700 million $ in 1979 to 4.4 billion in 1989. Bulgaria was also in danger of an ecological disaster, which was kept secret by the government.

Society and culture

After seizing power, the communist party was quite popular in society, especially with the urban intelligentsia. Within only one year, starting in October 1944, membership of the Bulgarian Workers’ Party grew from 15,000 to 250,000. Among the reasons were: traditional Bulgarian russophilia (encouraged by the international situation), the communist propaganda (fake slogans of democratisation and social justice), but also careerism and opportunism on the part of the new members.

Creating the New Soviet Man and restructuring society was one of the communists’ main aims because new loyal cadres were dearly needed. By using persecution, cajolery and bribery, the communists managed to destroy the old establishment and replace it with a new elite between 1944-1947. Violent industrialisation and collectivisation brought changes in the social structure and ethics, causing large migration flows from rural to urban areas.

All fields of social life, including science, had been placed under communist control and subordinated to ideological (Marxist-Leninist) considerations. Cultural events and the education system were turned into a tool of communist propaganda. Unreliable teachers from universities and schools alike were purged. University enrolment was strictly controlled, and all foreign schools were closed. Religious education was excluded from all educational stages.

Russian language classes became obligatory. All publishing was controlled by the state; even the paper factories themselves were nationalised. Censorship was introduced and the state engaged in the re-writing and falsification of historic facts. Any contact with the free world was forbidden, although access to Western culture was possible during the brief period of liberalisation introduced by the PRB. Writers and artists resisted the ideological oppression and continued to write poems and other works, both modern and inspired by Bulgarian traditions.

By 1948 the OF had been transformed into a mass political and social organisation, entirely subordinated to the Party just like all others. In the 1980s the number of members reached 4 million – this was nearly half of the population of Bulgaria. OF membership was considered a minimal declaration of loyalty to the regime. The organisation’s task was to re-educate society to follow the Soviet way of life.

Bulgaria was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state. The vast majority of Bulgarian society followed the Orthodox Christian faith. The Muslims (mainly Turks) were the largest minority (around 10%). The Christian faith was persecuted and the communist constitution imposed the separation of church and state. In fact, however, the government was content with gaining total control over the Bulgarian Orthodox Church which consequently became one of the instruments of communist policy. The small Protestant Churches as well as the Catholic Church were practically banned.

At first, the Turks enjoyed relatively broad cultural and religious rights. Starting in the mid-1950s, the assimilation policy towards the Muslim minority was gradually tightened. One of the main aspects of this policy was the forced name-changing. In the 1970s the assimilation campaign was directed against the so-called Pomaks - Slavic Muslims inhabiting Bulgaria. In the 1980s this policy referred to as the “Revival Process” was used against the Turks. Any resistance was brutally put down. After the Holocaust, the Jewish population was reduced to 44,000. When Israel declared its independence, most Jews left the country – only around 6,000 Jews remained in Bulgaria.



When the communist coup d’état took over the Bulgarian royalist army, it was almost entirely intact. Only one corps was on active duty, fulfilling occupation duties in Macedonia and Serbia. In September 1944 all Bulgarian Forces, about 700,000 soldiers, were placed under control of the Red Army and mobilised for the operation against Germany. On 8 October the Bulgarian army launched its first offensive action against the Germans.        

Two of the main goals of the communists were the liquidation of the National Army and the build-up of new, soviet-style forces. Immediately after the coup in 1944, communist infiltration and indoctrination of the Bulgarian army began. Political commissars were assigned to the troops to supervise the communisation along with purges of officers.

Supporters of the previous regime were deemed politically unreliable and soon got replaced with former partisans or fresh recruits, often without any command experience. Subsequent purges allowed the Communists to dismiss a great number of officers, but also seize the Ministry of Defence in 1946; this strengthened their political clout regarding army affairs. By 1948, 59.7 % of officers were party members while 16.3 % belonged to the communist youth movement. The process of sovietisation also affected military doctrine, organisation, armaments, uniforms and ranks.

In 1947, the USSR decided to withdraw its military troops from Bulgarian territory. The Bulgarian army (renamed to The Bulgarian People's Army - the BNA) was deemed able to guarantee regime stability by itself. Military service was obligatory and served the added purpose of exerting control over societal development. In the 1950s, the BNA was effectively used to put down the anti-communist underground resistance movement. It was also involved in the suppression of Muslim minority unrest during the assimilation campaign in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The pacification of ethnic Turkish villages in the district of Kardzhali in the mid-1980s is regarded as the largest Bulgarian military operation since the end of the Second World War.

In the 1940s, Bulgaria supported the communist forces in the Greek civil war. Around 10,000 communist insurgents were granted supplies, shelter and training. In May 1955 Bulgaria joined the Warsaw Pact. Zhivkov’s regime strongly supported the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 but sent only two artillery regiments (the 12th and 22nd, about 2,000 men in total). Bulgaria also exported weapons, supported North Vietnam, and sent military advisors on missions to Algeria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Syria.

The 1947 Paris Peace Treaty imposed some limitations on the Bulgarian forces. It determined both the maximum number of soldiers (56,800 for the army; 3,500 for the navy; 5,200 for the air force), and the sorts and quantity of arms. However, during the Cold War all these restrictions were disregarded with consent of the USSR. Zhivkov’s regime was intensively developing the munitions industry with considerable technical and financial aid from the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, defence expenses reached 7 to 8 percent of the GDP. According to official statistics, the BNA (only the sixth-largest military of the Warsaw Pact) reached the following numbers in 1989: 118,000 soldiers, 2,200 tanks (mainly T-55), 2,400 personnel carriers, 70 air-defence systems, and 230 planes. However, the Bulgarian military soon experienced a 10 percent drop in manpower – by 1990, the number of soldiers had dropped to 107,000.




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