During the prelude to World War II, Bulgaria's ruler Czar Boris III (1918–1943) advocated neutrality but was ultimately forced into an alliance with Nazi Germany. Boris proved a reluctant ally at best and through creative foot-dragging managed to protect the nation's Jewish population from mass extermination at the hands of the Nazis. He also prevented Bulgarian soldiers from serving on the Eastern Front. His untimely death in August 1943 before the war ended deprived the nation of a skilful leader, although it is unlikely, given Bulgaria's strategic importance, that he could have prevented its incorporation into the Soviet sphere.
The Red Army crossed the Danube into Bulgaria on 9 September 1944, greeted by cheering crowds and the small Bulgarian wartime resistance movement. A regency government, ruling in the name of Boris's six-year-old son Simeon II, soon fell in a bloodless coup led by the Fatherland Front, a coalition that included the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP), the influential Agrarian Party, and a number of other small groups. By 1946 the BCP dominated the coalition, but oversight of the country by a joint Soviet-American commission prevented the party from dictating its own terms.
Veteran international communist Georgi Dimitrov, who became prime minister in November 1946, proceeded cautiously at first. He waited until after the termination of the joint commission to seize power openly and promulgate a Soviet-style constitution. Dimitrov died suddenly under mysterious circumstances in Moscow in July 1949. Bulgarian mourners built a mausoleum in twenty-four hours of fevered labor, placing his embalmed body on permanent display in Sofia, like that of Lenin in Red Square in Moscow.
Dimitrov's successor, Vasil Kolarov, a founding member of the BCP, died within a year of Dimitrov, prompting Soviet leader Josef Stalin to select Vulko Chervenkov as prime minister (1950–1956). Later Chervenkov became head of the BCP and president of the National Council of the Fatherland Front. Chervenkov quickly moved to suppress all opposition, sent dissidents and intellectuals to the Bulgarian concentration camp at Kozloduy, collectivized agriculture, promoted the development of heavy industry, and established a cult of personality. Stalin's March 1953 death undercut Chervenkov's authority, however, especially after new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev exposed Stalin's crimes in 1956. Over the course of the next five years, Sofia BCP boss Zhivkov, who was personally acquainted with Khrushchev, removed Chervenkov's supporters from their positions and gradually stripped Chervenkov of his offices.
By 1965 Zhivkov had assumed all of Chervenkov's titles and effectively eliminated all challenges to his own authority. Zhivkov ruled Bulgaria from April 1956 to November 1989, in effect as his personal fiefdom. He built dozens of grand personal residences, many of which were later converted into resort hotels. Although Zhivkov supported Soviet foreign policy, he rarely committed troops abroad. Instead, Bulgaria sent hundreds of physicians and engineers to Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean to provide professional assistance to Soviet friends and allies. Bulgaria also aided clandestine Soviet operations, most notoriously the 1977 assassination of dissident writer Georgi Markov with a poisoned umbrella in London.
In keeping with his personal style, Zhivkov actively promoted the political career of his daughter Ludmillia Zhivkova. Raised under communism and educated abroad at Oxford, she became deputy chair of the Committee for Arts and Culture in 1971 and was appointed to the BCP's Politburo in 1980. Zhivkova cultivated a rather flamboyant and bohemian image, dressing in flowing white robes; publicly displayed an interest in Buddhism and other Eastern religions; and surrounded herself with the best and brightest of her generation. She opened Bulgaria to jazz and abstract art and advanced Bulgarian national pride by sponsoring archaeological investigations of the ancient culture of Thrace. In 1981 she staged a nationwide celebration of the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of the first Bulgarian state. Her premature death from a cerebral hemorrhage that year marked the end of Bulgaria's liberalization. Thereafter, many of her close associates were purged and jailed, while economic difficulties forced her father into taking increasingly conservative actions.
During much of the 1970s Bulgaria enjoyed good times thanks to cheap energy from the Soviet Union and favorable trading relations with the other nations of the Soviet bloc. By the mid-1980s, however, mounting hard currency debts and the inherent inefficiencies of the communist economy put increasing strains on the population and encouraged dissident activities, resulting in rounds of repression that only inspired more dissent in return. To distract the Bulgarian people from their difficulties, Zhivkov embarked on an ambitious building program by refurbishing regional centers and hosting tours of the international diplomatic community. He also raised an old bête noire by launching a campaign to force ethnic Turks, who had lived in Bulgaria for centuries, to adopt Bulgarian names and renounce their heritage or face deportation.
In 1989 members of the BCP visited Moscow to determine their reaction to the unrest sweeping Eastern Europe. When they returned that November they summarily deposed Zhivkov, changed the name of the BCP to the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), and held open elections. Although the BSP won the first round of elections, the political situation remained unstable, resulting in the fall of the BSP to the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). The BSP returned to power in 1994 but collapsed spectacularly in the wake of hyperinflation and civil unrest in 1997. Disillusioned with the chronic infighting between the BSP and the UDF, Bulgarian voters rejected both parties in 2001 and elected their former king, Simeon II, prime minister. Bulgaria has moved so far toward the West that it formally joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004 and the European Union (EU) on 1 January 2007.
Vernon L. Pedersen
Crampton, R. J. A Concise History of Bulgaria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.