Thursday, 19 February 2015

Who Was Vasil Levski?

Any tourist visiting Bulgaria will notice that one name keeps on cropping up. It is seen on sports stadia, schools, roads, and public parks to give just a few examples. This one name is enshrined in Bulgarian history, and that is Vasil Levski. For many Bulgarians, this man epitomises all that is good and great about Bulgaria. Sadly his name is not widely known outside of the country, which is a shame. Consider what Martin Luther King did for the civil rights movement, and it is probably fair to say that Vasil Levski did just as much for Bulgaria and Bulgarians. Yet European history has managed to largely ignore his efforts and sacrifice. So who was this man Vasil Levski?

He was born on the 18th July 1837, to his parents Ivan Kunchev and Gina Kuncheva, in the town of Karlovo. In honour of his maternal Uncle he was named Vasil Ivanov Kunchev. His parents were part of the emerging middle classes, with his father being a craftsman and his mother's family being part of the clergy. At that point in Bulgarian history the country had been under Ottoman rule for more than 400 years. Bulgarians and other Christians were treated as second class citizens by the Ottoman establishment, and constant friction arose because of differing religious beliefs. Young Vasil's father died in 1844, leaving his wife Gina to raise Vasil and his siblings. He had 2 younger brothers Hristo and Petar, an elder sister Yana and a younger one, Maria.

His education began in Karlovo, and he was also a local craftsman's apprentice studying tailoring. At the age of 18 his maternal Uncle, who was a superior Abbot and envoy of the Hilandar monastery, took him to Stara Zagora where he gained further schooling, while working as the elder Vasil's servant. He also undertook clerical training, and in 1858 became a monk under the religious name of Ignatius. The following year he became a deacon monk.

In 1862 he left the religious world of a monk and travelled to Belgrade in Serbia. He had become inspired by Georgi Rakovski, who was attempting to put together the First Bulgarian Legion. This was a military unit comprised of Bulgarian volunteers and revolutionary workers whose aim was the overthrow of the Ottoman rule. After several armed conflicts around Belgrade a truce was diplomatically brokered between the Serbs and their Ottoman rulers. This resulted in the First Bulgarian Legion being disbanded. It was during training and the conflicts that Vasil gained the nickname Levski. A translation from the old Bulgarian reveals that this means Lionlike. After a short stay in Romania Vasil Levski returned home to Bulgaria in the spring of 1863. His own Uncle reported him as a rebel to the Ottoman regime, and so he was forced to endure 3 months of imprisonment in Plovdiv until he was released. He gave up his religious office, and began working as a teacher near his hometown of Karlovo. While a teacher he also gave shelter to those persecuted by the ruling Ottomans, and also began organising patriotic companies amongst the population.

His activities began to create suspicion from the authorities, and once again he was forced to move. Levski met up with Rakovski again, and learnt of two revolutionary bands determined to cross into Bulgaria and cause an armed rebellion. These bands were led by Panayot Hitov and Filip Totyu, and with Rakovski's recommendation Levski became the standard bearer for Hitov's group. They crossed the Danube at Tutrakan in April 1867, fighting skirmishes along the way they made it to the Balkan mountains before escaping to Serbia in August. This led to the Second Bulgarian Legion being formed in Belgrade. Levski had to undergo surgery for a stomach complaint, and by the time he was back on his feet the Legion had been disbanded. Attempting to reunite with his compatriots caused Levski to be briefly imprisoned once again.

Over the next couple of years Levski made journeys throughout Bulgaria, meeting up with various patriotic revolutionary cells and cadres. On his second tour he carried proclamations from the provisional Bulgarian government based in Romania, declaring that he was acting as their representative. In 1869 he was one of the founding members of the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee based in Bucharest. Through a disagreement about implementation and planning, he left to begin his own plans for an insurrection based on an internal revolutionary network in 1870. Over the next 18 months he busied himself with creating a vast network of secret committees throughout Bulgaria, perhaps his previous trips had been beneficial for this purpose. These secret committees brought arms and trained volunteers to be part of a coordinated uprising. Each volunteer had to swear an oath of allegiance, and treason was punishable by death. To maintain the high level of secrecy they had their own secret police, who would monitor each individual's activity. With a price on his head, Levski was forced to use disguises during his travels.

Revolutions are not cheap, and funds were in short supply. An unsanctioned, though successful, raid on an Ottoman postal convoy yielded 125,000 Groschen. The Ottoman authorities soon rounded up the raiders, who included Levski's assistant Dimitar Obshti. Under torture they revealed much about the Internal Revolutionary Organisation, including its links to the BRCC in Bucharest and the leading role that Levski played. Realising that he would soon be hunted down, Levski decided that he would flee to Romania and take stock of the situation. Not knowing how much had been revealed by those captured, he needed to remove or destroy important papers held in the central committee's archives in Lovech. On the morning of 27th December 1872 he was surprised and detained at an Inn in the village of Kakrina. Various theories surround how he was captured, but the one most popularly cited is that he was betrayed by a priest.

Following his capture he was taken to Tarnovo for an initial interrogation, and then on 4th January 1873 he was transferred to Sofia for further questioning and trial. He revealed nothing apart from his own name. The death sentence was passed on the charge of a servant who had been killed when money was being extorted from a wealthy local in Lovech, rather than as the head of an impending armed rebellion. Today there is a monument which stands close to the spot where Levski was hanged. Realising that even in death Levski could still be an important catalyst for an insurrection, the authorities had the body buried secretly. To this day no-one knows for sure where the final resting place of Vasil Levski is, but there are various myths and legends. In 1937 the following story appeared in the newspaper Mir. It told how the body of the Apostle had been buried near to the gallows by the priest Todor. In the night following the execution the Sexton of the church of St Petka disinterred the body and then buried the remains in the church's altar. During urban developments in 1956, archeological excavations were required in the church of St Petka. A grave was discovered, and although not conclusively proven many conclude that it does belong to Vasil Levski.

Many of his thoughts and beliefs are just as pertinent today, as they were all of those years ago. Here are a couple for you to ponder upon

"To be equal to the other European nations depends on our own united strength"

"If I shall win, I shall win for the entire people. If I shall lose, I shall lose only myself"

"It's deeds we need, not words"



Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A Corrupting Influence?

Welcome to the first blog of February, after a few years of writing these blogs it gets slightly difficult to avoid covering old ground. Especially at this time of year when the weather is not favourable towards getting out and about. Last month it was the children coming round on New Year's Day followed by Yordanov Den. This month it is birthdays, Valentine's Day and Trifon Den. So whilst I was pondering what to write this time I came to the conclusion that it was about time that I made a confession.

Now those of you who actually know me, will possibly be aware that I have three great loves in my life, that is besides my better half of course. Were it not for Net then I wouldn't be where I am today. Anyway these great loves of mine, they are football, music and reading. You might be wondering where the confession comes into play. Well I think that I might actually be a corrupting influence on unsuspecting Bulgarians. All done quite unintentionally I hasten to add, but perhaps my enthusiasm might have rubbed off somewhere along the way. It's innocent until proven guilty anyway, and enthusiasm is worthwhile for mitigation purposes.

The first charge involves football. I do have to hold my hands up and admit that I prefer club football to International matches. I am a firm believer in supporting your local club. This meant that when I was growing up that gave me a choice between Wimbledon and Crystal Palace, even though my Dad was an Arsenal supporter. Thankfully I decided on the Eagles, and have followed them through thick and thin since, my cousins and other family members might have had something to do with my choice as well. It is probably fair to say that we are not the most fashionable of clubs, but we never have really boring seasons. One thing that many pundits agree on is that the supporters generate a proper good old fashioned atmosphere, and this isn't only limited to home matches. Selhurst Park is an old fashioned stadium and not one of these new soulless bowl type ground, but whatever happens down on the pitch the supporters are there behind our team. I have shown people clips on YouTube, and now a few Bulgarians watch out for our results, some watch the matches on the TV and I know of at least one who has made the pilgrimage to SE25 to watch the Palace. In my own turn I have taken in a few matches at the local ground here, so I also follow Lokomotiv GO.

Next we have the charge with regards to music. As I have previously mentioned in these blogs, when the weather warms up people emerge into their gardens. They also bring their radios with them. Unfortunately the volume controls often seem to be broken, they are either off, or at maximum. No matter how hard I try I can't really seem to get my head round Bulgarian music (Chalga doesn't count as music). To my ears it just sounds like a lot of random notes thrown together. Well that's not quite true, as I do like the haunting quality of Malka Moma as sung by Neli Andreeva. As loud music seems to be the order of the day I also join in. Although anyone wandering about close by is likely to be entertained by something like Madness or The Damned. Maybe not to everyone's taste, but I have been known to play classical music too, but sometimes the dogs decide that they want to join in as backing vocals.

I have previously been asked if people can borrow books, so that they can practice their English. Rather than confuse them with American spellings and vague grammar I have tried passing on English writers. Not wanting to replicate English Literature classes from my schooldays I avoid the Dickens and Shakespeare. Instead I have passed on the likes of Colin Dexter, Peter Robinson and Stuart MacBride. Perhaps they might not paint a totally accurate picture of life in the UK, but at least they are written in English.

There are other areas where I might be guilty of being a corrupting influence. One such area is the patch of land just outside of our garden wall. I do try and keep the 'grass' cut short, and if the Kmet wanders past I often get the official nod of approval. I have noticed that more of our neighbours are starting to do the same, but instead of using a lawnmower quite often goats or sheep are used. I try to set an example of if I see litter I pick it up and put it in the closest bin. When we first got to the village it seemed like those getting social payments would be utilised picking up litter and keeping the village tidy, sadly that no longer seems to happen so it is up to everyone to do their bit and keep the village looking good. There is still the problem with people letting their dogs run loose round the village. Fair enough they don't seem to worry the flocks of geese or chickens, but they do cause a lot of unwanted puppies.

It is a two way street though, and I am sure that bits and pieces have rubbed off on me. I now seem to be more patient, I have more time for people and I have remembered that enjoyment can be gained from even the simplest of things. I will still be following the football, listening to music and reading though.