BulgarianBulgarian revival: AD 1835-1876

has been in the Eastern community a century longer than . Boris I, king of the Bulgarians, is baptized in AD 865 and brings his people to the faith five years later. But Bulgarians are deprived of their sense of national and religious identity in the long centuries of Turkish dominion, beginning in AD 1393.

The reason is not only the brutalities of Turkish rule, more oppressive here than elsewhere in the Balkans. It is also that the sultans in Istanbul disregard the Orthodox tradition of autonomous churches. They place all Orthodox within the empire under the authority of a Greek patriarch in Istanbul.

Thus even Christian culture and education during the Turkish centuries is Greek rather than Bulgarian. Greek becomes the language of the small educated class.

As in independence movements elsewhere (Bohemia, for example, or Albania), it is through demands relating to language that the first stirrings of nationalism are felt. In the early 19th century a few books begin to be written in Bulgarian, and in 1835 the first Bulgarian school is opened. By the middle of the next decade there are some fifty Bulgarian schools and five Bulgarian printing presses.

Next come the demands of religion. The Greek hierarchy has suppressed the ancient Slavonic liturgy, devised in the 9th century by Cyril and Methodius and written in an alphabet probably created by their followers in Bulgaria. Pressure for the revival of this ancient rite goes hand in hand with a campaign for the reinstatement of a Bulgarian patriarch. This is finally granted in 1870, when the Turkish sultan gives authority for an independent exarchate controlling fifteen Bulgarian dioceses.

By this time the more conventional ingredients of 19th-century revolution are also in place. There are Bulgarian secret societies working for national liberation. Their efforts bear fruit in an uprising of 1876.

Bulgarian atrocities: AD 1876-1877

A revolt breaks out in the region of Plovdiv in May 1876. It is suppressed with extreme ferocity, at the hands of the Turkish volunteers known as bashibazouks. Within a short space of time some 15,000 Bulgarians are massacred, with the destruction of more than fifty villages and five monasteries.

These events heighten the anti-Turkish feeling already evident in Hercegovina’s revolt. In June Serbia declares war on . By the end of that month sensational details of Turkish atrocities begin to appear in the European press. They are not reliably authenticated until late August, when they provoke one of the most famous of English political pamphlets.

William Gladstone, by now a retired elder statesman, is in bed with gout when he reads an incontrovertible account of the events in Bulgaria. In three days he pens a passionate attack on Turkey under the title The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East. The pamphlet, demanding in Highly colourful terms that the Turks pull out of Bulgaria, proves a sensation. 40,000 copies are sold in the first week of September and 200,000 by the end of the month.

With European public opinion inflamed against them, the Turks allow a conference to be held in Istanbul on the issue. But they make no concessions. In March 1877 the Turkish parliament even declares there is no further need for the traditional Russian protection of Christians in the Ottoman empire.

War to the brink at San Stefano: AD 1877-1878

In April 1877 Russia declares war on Turkey, with Romania coming in on Russia’s side. At first the Turks are able to resist the Russian advance through Bulgaria, holding them in an engagement at Pleven in July. But by December the Russians have taken Edirne and are in a position to threaten Istanbul itself.

This success drastically alters the international situation, reviving the fears of the western powers at the prospect of Russia benefiting from the collapse of Turkey. Public opinion in London in particular, orchestrated by the prime minister Disraeli, now swings violently against Russia.

The anti-Russian sentiment of 1878 is the original example of British jingoism. Music-hall crowds bellow out each night the song of the moment – promising what will happen, By Jingo, if the British have to fight. ‘We’ve got the ships’, the lyrics of the song proclaim. Disraeli sends six of them, the latest ironclads, through the Straits.

When the British fleet drops anchor within sight of Istanbul, in February 1878, the Russian army is at the village of San Stefano just six miles west of the city. Rather than risk war with Britain, the Russians refrain from attacking Istanbul. Instead, they make a treaty at San Stefano with the Turks – along lines already tentatively agreed at Edirne in January.

San Stefano and the Congress of Berlin: AD 1878

The treaty of San Stefano gives Russia and the pan-Slav movement almost everything that could have been hoped for. Serbia and Romania are now to be fully independent, having previously been merely autonomous regions within the Ottoman empire. Even more significant, Bulgaria is to become a vast principality bordered by the Danube in the north, the Black Sea in the east and the Aegean in the south.

This area comprises more than half the Balkan peninsula and includes a population of some four million. It is also certain to be under the direct influence of Russia. The western powers, confronted with these major changes in the Balkans, convene a congress to consider them.

The congress is held in Berlin. The other powers insist upon the reduction of this ‘greater Bulgaria’, limiting the new principality (which is to be autonomous but under the sovereignty of the Turkish sultan) to the region between the Danube and the Balkan mountains. The area south of the mountains, but not reaching the Aegean, is to be the new Turkish province of Eastern Rumelia.

The congress accepts that Serbia and Romania become independent and that Bosnia-Hercegovina is now to be administered by Austria-Hungary. Russia wins some territory from Turkey on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. Britain is granted control of Cyprus. The Ottoman empire continues, on all sides, to shrink.

The Russian connection: AD 1879-1896

The early years of the new principality are dominated by the question of Russian influence in Bulgarian affairs. Russia has encouraged and subsidized the Bulgarian independence movement, and the German prince elected by the Bulgarians in 1879 (Alexander of Battenberg) is a nephew of tsar Alexander II. It is widely assumed that prince Alexander will be little more than a poodle of the Russians.

However there is also a strong Bulgarian movement for real independence, both in the principality and in the Turkish province of Eastern Rumelia. These incompatible policies lead to inevitable clashes, in which prince Alexander’s role proves far from predictable.

Of the two political parties which evolve in Bulgaria, the Liberals are nationalist and the Conservatives pro-Russian. By 1881 a Liberal majority in the grand Sobranie (the Bulgarian parliament) becomes so violently anti-Russian that Prince Alexander dismisses them. He puts in their place a compliant Conservative ministry, which suspends the new constitution and grants the prince dictatorial powers for seven years.

In this same year, 1881, Prince Alexander’s uncle tsar Alexander II dies (to be succeeded by his son, as Alexander III). The Bulgarian Alexander begins to feel both more independent and more sympathetic to the nationalist aspirations of his people.

In 1885 the prince gives his secret approval to a plot by the Bulgarians in Eastern Rumelia. The rebels seize the Turkish governor general and proclaim the union of their province with the principality of Bulgaria. The prince moves into Rumelia and puts himself at the head of the government of a united Bulgaria.

After some local warfare and much international argument a new state of affairs is recognized, against Russia’s wishes, at the treaty of Bucharest in March 1886. Alexander is to be governor general of Eastern Rumelia. The army and the administration of the province will be merged with those of his Bulgarian principality.

The saga does not end there. The settlement is unacceptable to the pro-Russian faction in Bulgaria. In August 1886 conspirators seize Prince Alexander, force him to sign a deed of abdication and transport him into Russia. The Sobranie immediately passes a resolution recalling him to his throne, but tsar Alexander III prevents his return. In his enforced absence, the prince confirms his abdication.

The Bulgarians, rejecting the Russian candidate for their new prince, choose Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Relations with Russia remain strained until the death of Alexander III in 1894. The rift is healed in 1896 when Ferdinand has his eldest son baptized in the Orthodox faith with tsar Nicholas II as godfather. But by now the more important new issue is Macedonia.

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