Recently, I came across an article in the New York Times about an assassination attempt on a Bulgarian arms manufacturer in Sofia, Emilian Gebrev. They smeared poison on his car door handles.
The Times points the finger at the same Russians they say were behind the attack on double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England. It appears they targeted Gebrev for supplying ammunition to Ukrainian forces in Donbass.
In the midst of a boycott of Parliament by the Socialist Party and mass protests calling for the resignation of populist Prime Minister Boris Boykov; however, Bulgarian authorities suspended the probe into Gebrev’s case in 2020.
Reading about this instance of intrigue in post-communist Bulgaria, takes me back to an inconsequential, but perhaps revealing, experience of my own during the waning years of the Cold War.
I set out on a trip behind the “iron curtain” in mid-winter of the year of Orwell, 1984. My loyalist father from Nova Scotia blamed the “London School” for my communist adventures. He did not pay for a year of studies in England, still a mark of status amongst us colonials, for me to imbibe the spirit of Marxist philosophy in some out of the way pub.
Perhaps a gauntlet thrown before my father, a minor familial skirmish lost in the history of the Cold War, I chose to travel to Bulgaria as a homework exercise because it was the most remote and pro-Soviet of the Warsaw Pact countries. I imagined myself like Marlow, on a journey deep into the “heart of darkness.”
On the train, I read that Bulgaria’s long history of revolutionary struggles earned it a reputation as a place of disturbance. Bulgaria lies, like Cerberus, at the threshold of Europe, constantly over-run by rampaging Empires – Romans, Huns, Ottomans and Russians.
My destination was Karlovo, a town nestled astride the Balkan Mountains. It was the birthplace of a young teacher, Vasil Levski, the “lionlike.” As Stalin said of himself in his younger days, Levski was like quicksilver roaring around the 19th century Bulgarian countryside organizing revolutionary cheti to resist Ottoman power.
In February, 1873, at the age of only 35 he was betrayed by a monk whom he had taken into his confidence, and hanged in Sofia. I wrote-out a few stanzas of a poem in my journal written by his comrade Hristo Botev, The Hanging of Vasil Levski
Weep! There, near the edge of Sofia town
Stretches – I saw it – a dismal gallows
And one of your sons, Bulgaria
Hangs from it with a terrible power.
The raven croaks dreadfully, ominously
Dogs and wolves howl in the fields,
Old people pray to God with fervor
Women weep, children cry.
Winter croons its evil song,
Gales sweep thistle across the field
And cold and frost and hopeless weeping
Heep sorrow on your heart.
When the train reached its destination, I gingerly slipped out from under sleeping Turks, and past veiled zhena clutching roosters, to get off. It must have been obvious I was a tourist. A drunk barked out a warning in English:
“Bulgaria is a black, black country. The people are bloody, bloody.” The police dragged him out of the station.
I walked along the cobblestone streets of the old town. Aged homes, brightly painted blue and yellow, belied its bloody history. Snow covered hills like packs of Karakachan puppies frolicked in the distance.
I stepped into a small café just off the main square. There were no empty tables so I joined one occupied by two men, one of them drinking vodka from a bottle hidden under the table:
“It’s the first day of Lent. Dog day. He is celebrating,” the other Bulgarian covered for his comrade.
“Dog day?” I exclaimed, taken by surprise.
“They hang dogs. The children chase them, throwing stones. Not much anymore, but we call it that sometimes.” He pushed a cup in front of me. “Here, drink with us to Saint Ivan the Hermit, patron saint of Bulgaria.” Cups were raised, Nostrovia!”
A recurring dream suddenly came to mind – the stiffened body of a dog hanging from a leafless tree; the dog cut down and carried to a river followed by musicians and dancing celebrants; flowers being strewn along the way.
“Must be archetypal,” I thought, startled by the sudden recollection of my parents forcing me to give away my first dog “Joey,” who had bitten a stranger.
Returning to the conversation, grateful for this rare opportunity, I complimented the Bulgarian on his English.
“I listen to Radio Free Europe,” the Bulgarian explained.
“It is funded by the US Congress, I have heard of it.” I said but, sensing this might be provocative, I changed the topic, “Tell me, who was Saint Ivan,” I asked.
“He lived in the mountains with wolves and eagles. When the Tsar wished to meet him, Ivan would only exchange bows from a distance. He feared the corruption of his soul. When the Tsar sent him gold, Ivan sent it back saying the Tsar had need of it to feed the poor.”
The Bulgarian took a sip of Turkish coffee. At that moment, two police officers noisily entered the café, menacing machine guns slung over their shoulders. They wore fur hats with a red star. They spoke with the owner and began to survey the room, looking for someone.
This sent a chill through our little group. The Bulgarian pointedly turned away from me and shifted his chair.
Their gaze lingered at our table. They pointed at me and I looked down, trembling.
The silence seemed to last for hours; but they moved on like the black plague passing over a medieval household huddled in fear.
After they left, the Bulgarian was the first to break the silence. “They are looking for Turks.”
“Why,” I asked.
“To make them use Slavic names. The nameless do not exist.”
“Why did you stop talking to me?”
“If they see you talking to Americans, they will put black marks on your record. Look what happened to Markov. Have you heard of this?”
“No, who was he?”
“He was a writer.”
“I have not heard of him”
“He wrote stories and plays. I liked Zhenite Na Varshava; you would say The Women of Warsaw. It is about an elderly shepherd named Yordo who listens to colorful stories about city life told to him by a stranded young scientist. The stories entrance Yordo. He comes to know them better than the author does. In the end, Yordo hangs himself on a branch of the only tree growing on the deserted hillside where he spent his life.”
“What, did Markov also hang himself?”
“No. When he defected to England, they poisoned him by a shot from a pellet-gun disguised as a Bulgarian Umbrella on Waterloo Bridge. He worked for Radio Free Europe and he said too much.”
“You say you listen to that radio station?” I asked, daring to return to where our conversation began.
“Yes, you see I knew Markov,” the Bulgarian reflected. “He was my friend. I listen, yes, but I stay quiet. As we say in Bulgaria, why make the dogs bark?”
This post was originally published on Radio Free.