Bulgaria’s Independence Day

[Sofia, Bulgaria, Sept 22, 2017]

We returned from Greece on Thursday, Sept 21. Our host Keti made us Greek coffee before we left. This was very similar to Turkish coffee, which is not surprising – both Bulgaria and Greece spent hundreds of years under Ottoman rule.

Friday, Sept 22 was another official holiday in Bulgaria – the Day of Independence. I was not exactly sure how this day was different from our Liberation Day (March 3) or our Day of Unification (Sept 6). These events happened in different years and, for reasons I will explain below, some were not properly celebrated under communism. It’s not surprising we have three different holidays that sound very similar – the Balkans are complicated!!! 🙂

Day of Liberation – March 3, 1878

This is the day of the San Stefano Treaty. This is the first treaty following the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878. Bulgaria at this point had been under Ottoman rule for 500 years. Despite Ottoman attempts to assimilate the Bulgarians, we retained our Eastern Orthodox faith and our language in order to resist assimilation. By the late 19th century, the Bulgarians had woken up from their 500-year slumber and had started organizing rebellions to overthrow Ottoman rule. In 1876, a particularly bloody suppression of the April rebellion finally garnered the attention of the Great Powers in the West (Great Britain, Astro-Hungary). At the same time, Russia and Turkey were heading into war again. Russia was trying to recover losses from the Crimean war earlier in the century and gain access to the straights under Ottoman control in the Black and Aegean seas. This war presented a great opportunity for the Bulgarians and other Balkan nations to join a much more powerful country, Russia, against their common enemy. I wrote a blog entry about the battle that turned the war when I visited a monument devoted to the battle in 2014.

Once the war was won, the treaty of San Stefano established Greater Bulgaria. Its territory was big – too big for the Western powers to swallow. They were afraid of growing Russian influence in the Balkans. They pressured Russia into the Berlin Congress later that year, where Bulgaria as described in the San Stefano treaty was broken into 5 pieces (see map below) – the municipality of Bulgaria, north of the Balkan mountain range (autonomous but not fully independent); Eastern Rumelia, south of it (Ottoman province), and Macedonia (to remain under Ottoman rule); two other pieces were given to the Serbs (in yellow, in the West) and the Romanians (in purple, in the North East). We still celebrate the day of the San Stefano treaty as the national holiday and the day of liberation, although it’s not how things ended up. The breaking up of Bulgaria by the Berlin congress is considered one of the greatest tragedies in our history. Bulgaria’s attempts to put itself back together influenced its foreign policy in both World Wars, with disastrous results.


Map courtesy of Wikipedia, link here, license here, not altered. 

Day of Unification – Sept 6, 1885

The first step of Bulgaria’s attempts to put itself back together was successful. On Sept 6, 1885, the proclamation for unification of Eastern Rumelia and Bulgaria was announced by our first king, Alexander Battenberg. Diplomatic attempts to legitimize this unification failed and Bulgaria entered into war with the Serbs to the West of us. This was one of the great victories in Bulgarian military history. The Bulgarians were at a great disadvantage here. Their army was split into two, because they were expecting the Ottomans to intervene from the Southeast. The Ottomans did nothing, and the army stationed at this border had to travel for days West to the Serbian front. Also, the Russians had already withdrawn their armies. Despite this, the Bulgarians won the war on sheer courage and spirit. The treaty signed after the war served as the official acknowledgment of the new Bulgaria by the rest of Europe.

The unification of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia left a bitter taste in the mouth of Macedonia, which remained under Ottoman rule until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Bulgaria and Serbia took turns gaining control of it in the early 20th century until Macedonia became part of Yugoslavia after WWII. After communism fell in the 1990s and Yugoslavia broke apart, Macedonia declared independence. Many ethnic Bulgarians still live in Macedonia, and the Macedonian language is essentially a Bulgarian dialect. To this day, there is a lot of sadness and bitterness over the loss of Macedonia, on both sides of the border.

Day of Independence – Sept 22, 1908

Bulgaria was autonomous but not fully independent from the Ottoman Empire following its liberation. We had our own government and royal court but were not considered an independent nation until we proclaimed ourselves as such on Sept 22, 1908. Several international events influenced the date on which this happened. The Ottoman empire was busy with internal struggles, and Austria-Hungary was getting ready to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina. Seizing this opportunity, the Bulgarian king Ferdinand I proclaimed our independence and the formation of the Third Bulgarian Empire in Veliko Tarnovo, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire until the Turks took over in the 14th century. Both our actions and the actions by Austria-Hungary were a violation of the Berlin Congress. The Western powers were not able to prevent our independence proclamation while at the same time allow the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Austrians, so the proclamation stood after some negotiations between us, the Turks and the Russians. This holiday was celebrated with great fanfare for the first few years. After WWI, it was combined with the coronation of King Boris III and celebrated on Oct 5th. After WWII, when the communists took over, all royal holidays were abolished and Sept 22 was not celebrated again until 1998. Today it’s one of the major holidays in Bulgaria although the official national holiday remains the day of the San Stefano treaty, March 3rd. I do not recall learning about the day of independence in history class, and so for the longest time I was confused as to why Western history books always referred to Bulgaria as having been re-established in 1908 and not 1878.

Since Sept 22 fell on a Friday this year, lots of Bulgarians traveled out of town for the three-day weekend. This meant Sofia was pleasantly deserted, and most museums were free to enter. Mom and I headed to the City Art Gallery, where we were expecting to see an exhibit by a Bulgarian textile artist.

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Sofia City Art Gallery

As it turns out, we had the wrong gallery, but we nonetheless enjoyed the exhibit we found instead. The exhibit was called “In the Shadow of the Orient” and featured art by Bulgarian, Serbian, Romanian and Greek artists at the turn of the last century.

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Ivan Mrkvicka - Cocoon Shelling, 1880s

Ivan Mrkvicka, Cocoon Shelling, 1880s

Angel Spasov - Cameleer, 1902, Pencil on Paper

Angel Spasov – Cameleer, 1902, Pencil on Paper

This quote featured on one of the gallery walls really captures the complicated history of these lands and the “high courage and daring deeds” that have defined and continue to define the Balkans today.

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