Hristo Botev, 1848-1876
Botev is one of those figures who is known to every Bulgarian but not widely known outside his native land. We hear his name if we listen to Radio Hristo Botev (which I recommend as the best quality radio station broadcasting in Bulgarian), in the name of the town Botevgrad, and in streets named after him in every Bulgarian town and city. Those familiar with football may know the name of the Bulgarian football team ‘Botev 1912’, and the football stadium in Plovdiv named after this great but tragic figure. His name has been preserved despite the political transformations from the Kingdom of Bulgaria to the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and now to the Republic of Bulgaria.
Modern Bulgarian commentators, and ordinary Bulgarians, see him as the greatest Bulgarian revolutionary after Vasil Levski. As a revolutionary who died in the struggle to force the Turks out of Bulgaria he is revered and respected by Bulgarians of all political colours and of none. He is one of the many in the Bulgarian Pantheon of revolutionary fighters. Criticism and revisionist opinions of these historical figures is not encouraged.
In some cultures we can poke fun at historical figures. “Blackadder’ went down well in the English-speaking world. I cannot imagine anyone in Bulgaria poking fun at historical figures in the History of Bulgaria in the same way. Bulgarian History is a serious business.
It is appropriate that I am writing this on the day we Scots celebrate another Romantic poet, on Burns Day, 25 January. Hristo Botev must have been in the same mould as Scotland’s National Bard.Cedrtainly as ordinary men and women in Scotland can quote from Burns’ works, so ordinary Bulgarians know the works of Botev. He was born in that romantic and revolutionary year 1848 and like so many romantic poets he had a short, dramatic and tragic life.
The son of a teacher, he was born in the Bulgarian town of Kalofer, which at that time, like the rest of Bulgaria and much of the Balkans, was a province of the Ottoman Empire. The early years of the 19th century were the time of the National Revival or the National Awakening (Vuzrozhdenie in Bulgarian, sometimes mis-translated as the ‘Bulgarian Renaissance’). Since 1393, when Turnovo was taken by the Turks, Bulgarians had been second-class subjects of the Sultan. Christians were discriminated against in many ways and there was continuous, pressure to convert to Islam.
Remarkably, large numbers of Bulgarians did not convert to the new faith but remained Bulgarian and Christian. In the Rhodopes there were mass conversions to the new faith. In other areas Muslim subjects of the Sulttan moved in from the Caucasus and Anatolia.
This immigration continued for centuries and intensified in the 19th century. As Turkey was pushed out of the Caucasus many Muslims from that area were settled in Bulgaria.
There was some sporadic resistance to the new rulers but on the whole a modus vivendi was reached. That was until new ideas came in to the Balkans. The Enlightenment and the French Revolution brought with them new ideas : Freedom; The Nation ; Independence.
Young Hristo Botev must have been caught up in the fashionable ideas of his time. At the early age of 17 he was sent to Odessa, now in Ukraine, then in Russia, to continue his education. Botev returned after some time to teach in Kalofer but found that not to his taste. He made a public speech denouncing the Ottman authorities as occupiers and the wealthy Bulgarians (‘Chorbadji’) Telling his father he was returning to Odessa to study Medicine he left his native town and went to Romania which at that time was one of the main centres of Bulgarian revolutionary activity. Having discovered that he had some skills in writing, Botev edited and wrote for different Bulgarian political and literary magazines. By this time, armed struggle against the Ottomans, had become almost respectable in the circles in which he moved.
On 17 May 1876 with a group of what we might call partisans, Botev seized the Austro-Hungarian steamer ‘Radetzky’ and crossed into Bulgaria near the place where Kozlodui nuclear power station is today. This band of partisans (a ‘cheta’) saw their task as to direct the uprising against the occupiers and lead Bulgarians to freedom. There was already an uprising in progress all over Bulgaria at this time and Botev and his men hoped to join forces with the insurgents. After initial skirmishes with Ottoman regulars, the detachment divided into smaller groups.
While moving into the mountains on 20th May (2 June in the new-style calendar) Botev moved forward to survey what the enemy was doing. He was shot in the chest and died as a result of his wounds. The remaining members of the ‘cheta’ moved on but were all killed by the pursuing bashi-bazouks and regular forces. The Uprising and Botev’s part in did not directly lead to freedom. However the uprising did lead to foreign intervention in the war of 1876-1878. Rumanian, Bulgarian and ssertbinas joiuned forces with huge numbers of troops from Imperial Russia. Part of the tragedy of modern Bulgarian History is that Bulgarians themselves were not able to gain their freedom. Against the might of the Sultan and the Ottoman Empire something more was than needed than small groups of dedicated ‘komitadjis’.
Now on the anniversary of his death in Bulgaria (2 June) a minute’s silence is observed at noon in memory of Botev and others who died in the struggle to make Bulgaria free from foreign rule.
As a literary figure, Botev did not produce large quantities of poetry. He wrote only 22 pieces of poetry that have survived, and his satirical prose. For those who can read Bulgarian I would recommend trying his poems, perhaps with the help of a Bulgarian.
Translations of his poems are not particularly successful. As is so often the case, there is a magic in poetry that does not translate well into other languages. Different versions of his poems in English are available and you will find them on sale in Bulgaria where you can find second-hand books.
If you want great poetry do not read Botev in translation. Read it in the original. For a great master of the English language who wrote on the subject of Oppression in Turkish Bulgaria, look for something by that Irishman, Oscar Wilde on the Christian Massacres in Bulgaria. The deaths of innocents incensed him as much as it did his contemporaries, Gladstone and Botev. Bulgaria’s struggle was a cause celebre in 19th century Britain and Ireland. Strangely, after Independence, awareness of Bulgaria disappeared from British life – until the wave of new immigrants in the early years of this century!
From Botev I will quote only the last verse of his poem on ‘The Hanging of Vasil Levski”
Плачи! Там близо край град София
стърчи, аз видих, черно бесило,
и твой един син, Българийо,
виси на него със страшна сила.
And my attempt to render this into poetic English :
Weep, weep, near the town of Sofia
I see a ghastly gallows
And your only son, Bulgaria
Hangs there with morbid force.