Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Zhivkov, Todor (1911–1998)

Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) leader and head of state during 1971–1989. Born on 17 September 1911 in Pravets, Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov received only a modest primary education before becoming a typographer. He became politically engaged at age nineteen when he joined the clandestine Communist Youth organization. He joined the BCP in 1932. During World War II, he joined the antimonarchist partisans and fought against the Bulgarian Royal Army, which was allied with Nazi Germany. At war's end, he became a member of the BCP's Central Committee and went on to serve as secretary of the Municipal Committee of Sophia, the equivalent of the city's mayor.

By the late 1940s, Zhivkov had become the protégé of Valko Tchervenkov, who at the time was the strongman of the BCP. In 1951 Zhivkov joined the BCP Politburo as his meteoric political ascendancy continued. He soon became secretary of the Politburo's Central Committee, which gave him control over much of that body as a whole. In 1954 Tchervenkov tapped Zhivkov to be first secretary of the BCP. A cunning politician, Zhivkov soon pushed his mentor aside, with Moscow's implicit blessing. From 1962 until 1971, Zhivkov functioned as the leader of the BCP and as Bulgaria's premier, which afforded him vast powers over Bulgarian affairs. He was a hard-liner with dictatorial tendencies. Even while the Soviet Union implemented de-Stalinization policies in the mid-1950s, he refused to release Bulgaria's political prisoners. Indeed, the Bulgarian gulag would not be abandoned until 1962.

In 1971 Zhivkov proclaimed himself head of state as chair of the Council of State, essentially rubber-stamping his own authority as Bulgaria's leader. He continued to rule with an iron fist, choosing to surround himself mainly with family members acting as advisors and administrators. By the mid-1980s, with significant political changes afoot in Russia, he decided to crack down on his nation's Turkish minority of some 800,000 people. His repression of the Turks led to their mass exodus, with many crossing the border into Turkey. This debacle destabilized Bulgaria's already weak economy and strained relations with Turkey and the West.

Simultaneously, Zhivkov attempted to give the impression that he, like Russia's President Mikhail Gorbachev, supported perestroika. In reality, Zhivkov implemented few meaningful reforms. By late 1989, Bulgaria was on the brink of economic collapse. On 10 November 1989, as the Berlin Wall was crumbling, he was driven from office. His rule had been brutal and his policies disastrous. In February 1991, he was put on trial for his abuses of power, convicted, and sentenced to seven years in prison. For health reasons, he was confined under house arrest. Zhivkov wrote his memoirs during imprisonment and died on 5 August 1998 in Sofia.

Luc Stenger


Further Reading
Bamberg, James. British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-75: The Challenge to Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.; Bell, John D. The Bulgarian Communist Party from Blagoev to Zhivkov. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institute Press, 1985.; Bokov, Georgi, ed. Modern Bulgaria: History, Policy, Economy, Culture. Sofia: Sofia Press, 1981.; Zhivkov, Todor. Memoori. Sofia, Bulgaria: "SIV" AD, 1997.
 

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