Bulgaria, Relations with

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Relations between Russia and Bulgaria are marked by their closeness in alphabet, language, culture, and religion. Between the tenth and eighteen centuries both nations used a literary language that had emerged originally in Bulgaria together with the Cyrillic alphabet. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, Bulgarian Orthodox culture served as the foundation of Russia's nascent culture and polity (reinforced by a second wave of Bulgarian influences in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), whereas the Russian variant of the common cultural tradition played a crucial role in the renaissance of Bulgarian culture and language in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. From the beginning of modern Bulgarian education in the 1830s, Russian language and literature have had a solid presence in the Bulgarian school curriculum, and the concomitant impact of Russian culture and ideas has dramatically influenced key developments in Bulgarian history, such as the emergence of nationalism, liberalism, and constitutionalism in the nineteenth century, and of communism, forced collectivization and industrialization, and a glasnost-inspired pro-democracy movement in the twentieth.

Political relations can be traced back to Bulgaria's triangular relationship with Kiev and Constantinople in the ninth to eleventh centuries. Bulgaria's repeated loss of independence and the fragmentation of Rus made contacts episodic until the rise of the Russian Empire and its many wars with Turkey in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the war of 1877 to 1878, Russia liberated Bulgaria from Turkish rule and laid the foundations of its state institutions. Mounting bilateral disagreements led to the severing of diplomatic relations in 1886. Bulgaria's de facto independence was recognized by Russia in 1896, after the failure of a protracted campaign of military conspiracies and assassinations backed by Alexander III. Until 1912 Bulgaria maneuvered between the Balkan policies of Austria-Hungary and Russia. In 1912 it entered into an alliance with Serbia and Greece under Russian tutelage. This alliance won the First Balkan War against Turkey, but disagreement between the allies led to the Second Balkan War in 1913, which ended in Bulgaria's defeat and the decline of Russian influence in Sofia. When Bulgaria entered War World I by attacking Serbia in September 1915, Russia declared war on Bulgaria and its fleet bombarded Varna. In 1916 Russian and Romanian troops opened a new front against Bulgaria but were defeated. In March 1918 Russia signed a peace treaty in Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers, including Bulgaria.

Bulgaria's defeat by the entente in September 1918 led to radicalization and the rise of Bolshevik influence. The Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) was formed in 1919 as a section of the Comintern. In 1923 the Comintern prompted the unprepared BCP to start an uprising, which ended in defeat, reprisals, and the banning of the party. Bulgaria established diplomatic relations with the USSR in 1934; until then relations had been tense because of Moscow's encouragement of BCP subversion, which culminated in a spectacular explosion in a Sofia cathedral in April 1925, with 123 dead and several hundred wounded. Bilateral relations improved markedly after the conclusion of the Soviet-German nonaggression pact in 1939. In November and December 1940, the USSR attempted to gain German and Bulgarian consent for the inclusion of Bulgaria in the Soviet security sphere, but by that time Bulgaria had effectively joined the German-led coalition. Friction over Bulgaria was one of the reasons behind Hitler's decision to attack the USSR in 1941. Bulgaria served as a supply base for the German army, but was officially neutral in the Soviet-German war and diplomatic relations were preserved. Between 1941 and 1944, with the help of the BCP and noncommunist Bulgarian Russophiles, the USSR engaged in a relentless espionage, sabotage, and guerrilla campaign against Bulgaria. In September 1944 the USSR declared war shortly after the formation of a pro-Western government in Sofia, and Soviet troops advanced unopposed while a BCP-controlled putsch overthrew the government. The Bulgarian army was mobilized to fight German troops as part of the Soviet war effort, while the BCP killed and imprisoned thousands of its opponents in an attempt to cleanse the country of potential anti-Soviet elements.

When Soviet troops left Bulgaria in 1947 the country had already become a one-party state. Its security services and army, foreign and internal politics, economy, and culture were dominated by Soviet advisers. Every facet of Bulgarian society was forcibly reshaped along Russian-Soviet lines. Destalinization after 1953 led to some relaxation of Soviet controls. While the other satellites all attempted to move away from the Soviet model, Bulgaria came to be perceived as the closest Soviet ally. Under the rule of Todor Zhivkov (19541989), the Bulgarian elite enjoyed unique and unparalleled access to Soviet decision-making institutions, Soviet resources, and Soviet society in general. Compared with other European members of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), the Bulgarian economy had grown most dependent on the Soviet, with the USSR accounting for more than half of overall Bulgarian trade throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Glasnost gave a major boost to the creation of a small but vocal pro-democracy movement in Bulgaria in 1988 and 1989. In November 1989 Zhivkov was removed with Soviet connivance, which ushered in the era of multiparty politics in Bulgaria.

After the collapse of the COMECON, the Warsaw Pact, and the USSR in 1991, bilateral trade was limited largely to Russian oil and gas exports to Bulgaria, and political contacts became episodic. Boris Yeltsin visited Bulgaria in August 1992, and Vladimir Putin did so in March 2003.

See also: balkan wars; bulgarians; council for mutual economic assistance; russo-turkish wars


Crampton, Richard J. (1983). Bulgaria, 18781918. Boulder, CO: East European Monographs.

Dimitrov, Vesselin. (2001). Bulgaria: The Uneven Transition. London: Routledge.

Durman, Karel. (1988). Lost Illusions: Russian Policies towards Bulgaria in 18771887. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Uppsaliensis.

Haramiev-Drezov, Kyril. (1993). "Russian-Bulgarian Relations on a New Footing." RFE/RL Research Report 2(15):3338.

Jelavich, Charles. (1958). Tsarist Russia and Balkan Nationalism. Russian Influence in the Internal Affairs of Bulgaria and Serbia, 18791886. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sumner, Benedict H. (1937). Russia and the Balkans, 18701880. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kyril Drezov