On September 9, the Russian Embassy in Sofia opened an exhibition to celebrate the 75th anniversary of “the liberation of Eastern Europe from Nazism.” The initial title of the exhibition was “The Liberation of Bulgaria,” but it was changed after the public expressed outrage at the notion that the Red Army brought any degree of freedom to Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry issued a strong statement regarding the exhibition: “Without denying the USSR’s contribution to the defeat of Nazism in Europe, we should not turn a blind eye to the fact that the bayonets of the Soviet Army brought to the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe half a century of repression, stifling of civil conscience, deformed economic development and detachment from the dynamics of processes in the developed European countries.”
The statement angered high-ranking Russian officials. In Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused Bulgaria of rewriting history and acting against the law. Zakharova did not specify whether she was referring to international, Russian or Bulgarian law.
“By declaring that the Red Army brought so-called repressions, Bulgaria is engaged in rewriting history,” Zakharova told the Russian state news agency TASS. “This is a dangerous trend, because it is illegal.”
This claim is false.
“There is certainly no prohibition in international law to challenge Moscow’s official version of the events surrounding World War Two,” Evelina Kelbecheva, professor of history at the American University of Bulgaria, told Polygraph.info. For example, historians and politicians have refuted Russia’s persistent denial that it started WWII together with Nazi Germany to carve up Central and Eastern Europe – a deal sealed in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939.
“As far as Bulgarian law is concerned, the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry statement fully complies with the Law on Declaring the Criminal Nature of the Communist Regime in Bulgaria, adopted in April 2000,” Kelbecheva said.
The law states that the Soviet Union helped the Bulgarian Communist Party to come to power on September 9, 1944, bringing a criminal regime that led the country to a national catastrophe:
Article 1 (1): “The Bulgarian Communist Party (then called the Bulgarian Workers' Party / Communists) came to power on September 9, 1944 with the help of a foreign power that declared war on Bulgaria, and in violation of the Tarnovo Constitution.”
(2) The Bulgarian Communist Party was responsible for the rule of the state from September 9, 1944 to November 10, 1989, which led the country to a national catastrophe.
The law further establishes that the Communist regime subordinated Bulgaria’s interests to a foreign country, which undermined national dignity and led to the effective loss of state sovereignty.
Russian law, on the other hand, criminalizes disputing the official narrative about World War Two. The 2014 law is aimed at counteracting “attacks on historical memory in relation to the events of the Second World War.” The law is controversial and disputed by Russian historians.
In the Spirit of the Law
The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry’s statement accurately reflects the Bulgarian law criminalizing the country’s former communist regime. The ministry said that, from the point of view of international law, the facts are clear: the September 9 coup was a direct consequence of the USSR’s declaration of war on Bulgaria on September 5, 1944 and the subsequent entry of Soviet troops into Bulgaria, which had a neutral position toward to the Soviet Union.
In fact, the Red Army did not fight a single battle in Bulgaria; there were no fallen Soviet soldiers on Bulgarian territory. Except for a few accidents, including the incident in the city of Burgas, where nearly 100 Russian soldiers died from drinking methanol alcohol, there were no Soviet casualties in Bulgaria. “The Soviet soldiers first shot and killed the Bulgarian worker who warned them not to drink from the tank of methanol alcohol,” Kelbecheva said.
Although Bulgaria was a German ally for most of WWII, the country never sent soldiers to the Eastern Front and maintained diplomatic relations with Moscow throughout the war.
Historians say Bulgaria was never a fascist state, had a functioning multi-party parliament during the war, and that, despite the government’s policies, Bulgaria’s Jewish population was saved from deportations to the German death camps.
The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry further said that the USSR had declared war on Bulgaria when a new democratic government had just come to power, had announced the end of ties with Nazi Germany and reaffirmed the Kingdom of Bulgaria’s position of neutrality toward Russia.
Thus, the Red Army did not have to save Bulgaria from Nazism. Rather, it helped the local Communist party stage a coup d’état to overturn the democratic government led by the pro-Allies leader of the legal opposition within parliament Konstantin Muraviev.
The Soviet-backed Fatherland Front tried and sentenced almost the entire pre-WWII political elite of Bulgaria in a “People’s Court.” The court, operating outside the Constitution, issued 2,730 death sentences, leading to 1,400 executions. The rest of those sentenced to death had already died in extra-judiciary killings. Among those summarily shot on February 1, 1945 were two former prime ministers, various cabinet ministers and members of parliament, and the regents to the then-underage heir to the throne.
On the Russian side, Maria Zakharova was not alone in reacting strongly to Sofia’s rejection of the notion that the Soviet Army “liberated” Bulgaria from Nazism.
Natalya Poklonskaya, a member of Russia’s State Duma fraudulently elected in Crimea, a region of Ukraine annexed by Russia, started a social media discussion with her comment:
"The stupid statement of the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry, which called for rejecting the ‘dubious historical thesis’ and not considering the USSR’s struggle against Nazism the liberation of Europe, is extremely provocative and absolutely does not express the opinion of the Bulgarian people. Only an ignoramus and a provocateur can doubt the decisive role of the Red Army in ridding humanity of the fascist plague.”
Poklonskaya is wrong. Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry did not deny the Soviet Union’s contribution to the defeat of Nazism in Europe, but it recalled the price paid by the Soviet-occupied countries in Eastern Europe after WWII. “The long-term consequences for Bulgaria are the same as for other countries in Eastern Europe that fell within the Soviet zone of influence - 45 years of rule by a totalitarian regime based on the Bolshevik-Leninist version of communist ideology,” the ministry said.
This is reminiscent of the words of Donald Tusk, then Polish prime minister, who said ten years ago while honoring the Russian troops who died in Poland: "They gave their lives for liberation, but they didn't bring us freedom.”
Teaching about Communism
The public debate over the legacy of Bulgaria’s communist regime is ongoing in Bulgaria. As former Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov said in an interview, the main consequence of the events that took place on September 9th 1944 is the deep division of the Bulgarian nation.
However, starting this September, all history textbooks in the country will include the facts about the Soviet occupation of Bulgaria in 1944 and the criminal nature of the Soviet-backed Bulgarian communist regime.
Kelbecheva, who worked for years to have the historic facts included in Bulgaria’s school textbooks, believes that this development is the real reason behind the strong Russian reaction to the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry statement.
"Blood Bath" to commemorate September 9, 1944 -- the Soviet occupation of Bulgaria. Author: Andrey Vrabchev.