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Todor Zhivkov (1956-1989)

"Seldom in my life have I seen a politician who would listen as attentively and absorb every word as he did. He obviously knew well that the comprehensive and timely used information was a major support of power," wrote a Western journalist about Todor Zhivkov.

The advisors from his team say that his thorough information always helped him to know, accept or remove those who worked with him. His ability to move his subordinates like an expert chess player, so that his power was never threatened by a rival, is generally acknowledged. But for a man who rose from poverty (he was born in the village of Pravets near Botevgrad in 1911) he knew pretty well and skillfully applied many other levers of power. There is no other explanation for the fact that Zhivkov stayed in power for thirty-five years, the entire state submitted to his will!

Before coming to power, Todor Zhivkov sensed the spirit of the new age more quickly and more correctly than any other communist leader. As the state institutions were utterly dependent on the party apparatus, powerhungry Zhivkov saw that the party leadership was the right place to entrench himself. By 1951 Todor Zhivkov had become a member of the Politbureau and three years later was elected First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Vulko Chervenkov, then Number One in the party and the state, underestimated Zhivkov's abilities and his prospects for career in the party.

Zhivkov disliked Chervenkov but would rather play the role of the obedient subordinate who respected party discipline and undivided authority. The future party and state leader had no warm feelings towards Georgi Dimitrov. In close circles he often accused Dimitrov of having made the first step towards "chieftainism", of having introduced the personality cult in Bulgaria in the first place. Anyway, the ostentatious Stalinist ways of all three of them is understandable, bearing in mind Bulgaria's close dependence upon the Soviet Union.

The solution to the cult in Bulgaria came in April 1956 at a conference that was later praised as "historic". Zhivkov was the first Bulgarian politician to realize the profoundness of the changes in Moscow after Stalin's death. The new Soviet leader Khrushchev in turn saw in him a politician who could deliver a blow on Stalinism in Bulgaria. Through his performance at the conference which was to remove Chervenkov from the helm, Zhivkov did away with all obstacles to his total power for more than three decades.

Since Zhivkov's downfall in the autumn of 1989, there have been different assessments of his personality. In most cases they are utterly negative. A dictator or just a dodger, he was nevertheless an interesting figure whose place in history is yet to be determined. Both as a party leader and as prime minister and head of the State Council, he was bewitched by power and would do anything to control the army, the security services, and the economic levers, patronize outstanding scientists and cultural figures etc. In the spring of 1956, Todor Zhivkov proclaimed the end of the personality cult but himself became a generator of an even more oppressive cult whose only idol was power.

This dictatorial sort of ruler was exactly what was favored in the conditions of the socialist system and the Kremlin-imposed political and social order in the countries of Eastern Europe.

Todor Zhivkov and his associates were never lacking in ideas about Bulgaria's economic development. At the numerous party congresses, they moulded their ideas into resolutions. But the inherent wrongness of the very foundation of the totalitarian system and the rules of the Kremlin-directed game doomed those ideas to failure, no matter how promising they might have seemed.

In the last decade of his rule, Zhivkov made some faint-hearted attempts to find other solutions that might bring backward Bulgaria closer to the fast-developing West. He sought to follow the mainstream of Soviet foreign policy but did not keep away from Western Europe and Japan. In his search for a more internationally-oriented policy, Zhivkov came to a disagreement even with Mikhail Gorbachev, the architect of the Soviet perestroika. Yet he remained a communist leader of unlimited power who in the end sought to change some aspects of the totalitarian system which was falling apart, and on November 10, 1989 he was brought down along with the socialist system he so believed in.

Primary Source:
- Translated from the book "Rulers of Bulgaria"
- Bulgarian text by Profesor Milcho Lalkov, Ph.D.
- Published by Kibea Publishing Company, Sofia, Bulgaria

text used here with permission from translator, save modifications for noding

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