Todor Zhivkov

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Todor Zhivkov

Todor Zhivkov (born 1911) was the leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party and the head of the Bulgarian government for 35 years, from 1954 to 1989.

Todor Zhivkov was born on September 7, 1911, in the village of Pravets, 40 miles northeast of Sofia, in the Balkan mountains of Bulgaria. His father, a poor peasant, was a leather worker in Gabrovo. Zhivkov became a printer's apprentice at the State Printing Office in Sofia, attending its trade school from 1929 to 1932. The printing office was a traditional stronghold of socialist-minded workers, and Georgi Dimitrov, a leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party, had begun his career as a labor organizer there. Zhivkov fell in with the Communists, becoming a member of the party's youth league in 1930. He joined the party itself in 1932. In the next two years he rose to secretary of the party's committee for the Third Urban District of Sofia.

After an aborted uprising in 1923, the Communist Party had gone underground and its leaders, including Dimitrov, Vasil Kolarov, and others fled to the Soviet Union. The Bulgarian party was marked by inner turmoil, and Zhivkov joined a faction known as the Left Sectarians, who rejected the Soviet-sanctioned policies of the party's exiled leaders. When the Left Sectarians were purged in 1935 by emissaries from Moscow, Zhivkov was one of the victims. He remained on the political sidelines through the 1930s, serving as a conscript in the paramilitary Labor Service. He married Mara Maleeva, a physician and fellow activist, and kept active in public reading clubs (chitalishta) wherever they lived, occasionally directing plays and acting in them.

Rise to Power

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 brought unity among Communists worldwide. Zhivkov returned to his job as the party's district secretary in Sofia. As Soviet troops beat back the Germans and began advancing westward, the party hoped to engineer an uprising when the Red Army came to Bulgaria's borders. Zhivkov was dispatched by party insurgent commanders to his native mountainous area to spur on the partisan movement there. He led a detachment called Chavdar (after a 16th-century Bulgarian hero who fought the Turks), which grew in size as the Red Army came closer. In April 1944 the party proclaimed itself the First Bulgarian Partisan Brigade, with Zhivkov as its political commissar, communicating with the command in Sofia. The Chavdar brigade became the main arm of the party leaders in Sofia for sabotage, raids, and intimidation around the capital.

When the time came to seize power, Zhivkov was put in charge of the operation in Sofia. During the night of September 8, 1944, he led the partisans in capturing, without bloodshed, the Ministry of War, arresting the ministers and seizing the communications system. As the partisans became the new militia, Zhivkov was appointed its political chief of staff and directed the round-up and execution of thousands of enemies of Communism in Bulgaria. According to official figures, 12,000 people were delivered to people's tribunals, while untold numbers disappeared without a trial.

Zhivkov was rewarded by being named a non-voting member of the party's central committee in 1945. In 1948 he became first secretary of the party's committee for Sofia, equivalent to mayor, and a full member of the central committee. He became a member of the Politboro, the party's ruling group, in 1950. Zhivkov's rise was helped by the removal and execution in 1949 of the party's chief secretary, Traicho Kostov, on charges, later declared false, of conspiring with party enemies abroad.

The emergence of Nikita Khrushchev as the leader of the Soviet Union, replacing Joseph Stalin, also helped Zhivkov reach the top in Bulgaria. More pragmatic than dogmatic, Zhivkov adapted more readily than his rivals to the new, more moderate line from Moscow. In 1954 he became first secretary, the top post in the leadership, and in April 1956 he ousted the arch-Stalinist Vulko Chervenkov from the premiership and charted a Khrushchev-like policy known as the April Line. However, the new premier, Anton Iugov, emerged as the leader of a faction seeking to make the Council of Ministers, rather than the party secretariat, the center of authority. Zhivkov eliminated the threat in 1962 by ousting Iugov and his faction and making himself head of the government as well as of the party.

Follower of Soviets

During his lengthy reign, Zhivkov's main policy was to follow the Soviet model. He often stated that loyalty to the Soviet Union was the test of a Bulgarian's patriotism. He pursued increasing integration with the Soviet economy and resisted the economic experimentation of neighboring Hungary. In cultural affairs he bought off the creative intelligentsia to head off dissent. There were few major crises during his time in power except for one military plot, several instances of terrorism, and occasional outbursts of dissent. Opposition to Zhivkov and his policies existed but rarely surfaced openly until the late 1980s. Zhivkov's major innovation was the Council of State, established by the new constitution of 1971 to formulate all policy. At that time he resigned as premier to become president of that council.

By 1985 Bulgaria was conducting 57 percent of its foreign trade with the Soviet Union, mainly sending grain, and it owed the Soviets $7.5 billion. When Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the Soviet Union and instituted the reforms known as perestroika, Zhivkov followed suit in Bulgaria, loosening the hold of government on the economy and smoothing the way for joint ventures with foreign companies.

In 1984 Zhivkov launched a ruthless campaign to force Bulgarian's Turks, an ethnic minority of one million people, to change their names. In May 1989, Zhivkov encouraged a mass exodus of Turks, and about 310,000 fled before Turkey closed its border. The loss of so many people infuriated Peter Mladenov, Bulgaria's foreign minister, and in October he resigned, accusing Zhivkov of ruining Bulgaria's reputation and its economy. After a trip to Moscow, Mladenov returned. On the same day the Berlin Wall fell, symbolizing the end of the Cold War, Mladenov won a vote at a Bulgarian Politburo meeting, forcing Zhivkov to resign in a bloodless coup. Mladenov became party leader. In elections in 1990, the Communist Party, renamed the Bulgarian Socialist Party, remained in power.

Zhivkov was charged with corruption and embezzlement and placed under house arrest in Sofia. He denied responsibility for any purges or crimes committed under his rule. In an interview with the New York Times in 1990, Zhivkov stated that Bulgaria should embrace capitalism and the United States. The staunch Soviet hard-liner said: "If I had to do it all over again, I would not even be a Communist."

Further Reading

The official biography issued by the party is Todor Zhivkov: biografichen ocherk (Sofia, 1981). There is a short biography in English in Leaders of the Communist World, edited by R. Swearingen (1971). Todor Zhivkov: Statesman and Builder of New Bulgaria (1982) in the "Leaders of the World" series of Pergamon Press contains, in addition to his speeches and statements, a short autobiography, chronology of his life, and list of his works in various languages. G. Markov, The Truth That Killed (1984), offers rare personal observations. Useful for the context is J. D. Bell, The Bulgarian Communist Party from Blagoev to Zhivkov (1985). □