Tato - The Man and the Myth
By Patrick Brigham - written for the Sofia Western News in 1998
In September 1997, I concluded an interview with the last surviving East European communist dictator, ex - President Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria. This was with the help of Ahmed Taleb, and David Mossop. Zhivkov had recently written his autobiography, which was published in paperback, for sale exclusively within Bulgaria. It was an account of a life spent in high office, and he wanted to talk about it to the SWN.
However one might have viewed Zhivkov, he seemed to be perfectly capable of hanging onto power for a very long time, despite frequent threats to his position and changes in the Russian leadership, all of whom he closely shadowed from Stalin onwards. When in 1989 his leadership came to an abrupt end, he not only left behind a web of half truths and considerable political enigma, but oddly enough a remarkable number of loyal supporters. At his ‘not so private funeral’ in Sofia on Sunday 12th August, hundreds of his mainly older friends and colleagues turned out to say goodbye to Tato. He was undoubtedly a man who was remarkable for his effortless skills at survival, and to the great age of 87. This is an account of last year’s interview, and some new observations.
Todor Zhivkov was eighty six on the 7th September, and he spent it like he did most days, under house arrest in the comfortable villa he shared with his adopted daughter Jenny. On his birth certificate his date of birth is stated as being 14th September, but this was in fact the date of his Christening. By his account, the priest who christened him was drunk.
On my very first visit to see him to discuss an interview - at his villa in the suburbs of Sofia - an old saying kept running through my mind - ‘The first trick the Devil played on the world, was to convince mankind that he did not exist,’ and it was with this thought that I first met a man who had influenced the hearts and minds of the Bulgarian people for nearly three generations. At the time he was the last living example of an Eastern European Communist Dictator, one who had ruled Bulgaria with an iron fist and ideological verve for some thirty years.
When one looks at the photographs of Todor Zhivkov, as he stands next to other old world leaders like Tito, Brezhnev, Mitterrand and even Yasser Arafat, for all their importance and international stature, they seem to be similar in height. Zhivkov was not a tall man and is surprising proof that the camera does occasionally lie, as it does with many other world leaders. But, despite the passing years he remained upright, and looked surprisingly fit at the time, despite reports of his ailments.
The press had frequently remarked that these ailments were invented, to keep him out of prison or from the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but in reality his illness must have been true. He was quite a jolly man, liked to crack jokes in between his reminiscences and one was often regaled by a healthy grin, comprising - I suspect - his original teeth. A self confessed man of the people, in common with the workers who he still then indefatigably regarded as his own kind, he had always treated personal illness with contempt. In our interview he occasionally alluded to the misfortunes of health, but only in terms of his old age pension, and the cost of Bulgarian medicine.
By then he had spent nearly eight years under house arrest, and up until one fateful Thursday afternoon on the 18th September of last year, he was only able to leave the surroundings of his family home with government permission, such as a visit to a festival in Iundula, when many of his old supporters came to greet him. Contrary to my expectations at the time, he did not talk of any future role in a Bulgarian Government, but rather saw himself as the retired elder statesman. Surprisingly, he was nothing like some of his Old Bulgarian comrades, who have the unfortunate habit of talking rather loudly, as if to establish some kind of pecking order and he seemed genuinely pleased to have someone to talk to about the past.
As he peered through his incredibly bottle thick spectacles, I saw little of the malevolent dictator - a picture often presented by newly found democrats, those out to impress the often gullible foreigner, or indeed those who wish to disguise their past support for him - but a man who was resigned to a fate of reflection, and occasional nostalgia.
Behind his dated glasses, the eyes appeared shrewd and searching and as he spoke, and his memory seemed unimpaired by eight years in obscurity. Sitting on a verandah surrounded by a beautiful and well kept garden, he was pleased to mull through the past - his political history - and showed no concern that his words would be misused. Never the less, this was a man who had once enjoyed great power, the ear of each and every powerful communist leader since Stalin, and leaders from the West. One sensed however, that despite the intervening years, he still possessed all his instincts and faculties. He found it easy to answer questions, which he punctuated with expansive gestures, occasionally changing his reading glasses to long distance ones; perhaps to look more deeply into the past, or perhaps just to look at another day.
I asked him about his new book, about his life, and about his reminiscences, much of which now seems inappropriate or too long to publish, so I include extracts from the interview, which cover some of the main issues of his time in power and to give the reader an idea of his personality, his politics, his delusions, and his often clever abstractions.
Q. Do you feel the need to speak to the Bulgarian people, and the world?
‘Yes, I do. I have been under house arrest for the past eight years. I am unaware of another head of state in the world, which has been under house arrest for eight years. I need to speak to the nation; I am a politician and a statesman. I was at the head of the Bulgarian Communist Party for thirty years. Nine years as Chairman of the Council of Ministers and twenty years as head of state in Bulgaria. I have been active in the political life of Bulgaria for the past sixty years, and I have spent all my life amongst the people, and amongst the workers. When I was young I studied as an apprentice printer and worked in the printing business. I am connected to the people and to the intelligentsia, and being held under house arrest is a real punishment.’
Q. Have you ever spoken to the western media?
‘I have given lots of interviews, in France, Germany and Japan, and almost everywhere around the world, with the exception of Great Britain. My worst relations were always with Great Britain, which was not my fault.’
Q. What made you enter politics?
'Do you want to know the truth about Todor Zhivkov? I have been in politics since my early days, from the age of 16. First of all I became a member of the Marxist groups in school and then the Communist Youth Party. I spent two years in the Comsomol and then I was accepted into the Communist Party. In the period after WW2 I spent a number of years as party secretary to various regions in Sofia, which culminated in April 1956 when I was elected to the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party, and Chairman of the Council of Ministers.’
Q. What or who inspired you?
‘Ideals. I have met and been close with all the leaders of the socialist parties, in Europe and the USSR, because I was chairman of the council of ministers for nine years, and I had to maintain good links with Russia for reasons of wealth, and because of the natural resources which they possessed. If it was not for that, Bulgaria would never have reached the level of European development it achieved.’
Q. What did you do for Bulgaria?
‘Bulgaria was the second poorest country in Europe, after Albania, when I was elected to the head of the Council of Ministers. Bulgaria soon began to develop, in terms of the standard of living, cultural development and on a number of other issues. Bulgaria even overtook a number of other socialist countries. There have even been reports in the western media that the Bulgarian nation is one of the most intelligent nations in Europe. This is true, that after I was head of state, secondary education was compulsory for all and a vast number of Bulgarians now graduate from secondary schools. The annual number of university graduates and post-graduate students when I was elected to the post of Chairman of the Council of Ministers was 1,200, and when I was removed from office that number had risen to 30,000 annually. Can you imagine in a small country like Bulgaria, with such a huge number of young people educated to such a high level in various areas of science and culture.’
Q. In your opinion, when did socialism begin to collapse and why?
‘It was after the appointment of Gorbachev to the post of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR. Perestroika resulted in the complete collapse of the old order, which you have seen with your own eyes. But I was isolated and could not organise any opposition to the processes. I was abandoned by the General Secretaries of other socialist countries, to struggle against the destructive power of Gorbachev. He betrayed us. I did however, have another thesis [of reform] which was profoundly different from his. My view was to meet ‘The West’ halfway, and the west was prepared to do this. This was expressed by both Kohl and Mitterrand during the last meetings which I had with them. They were prepared for this change, but were caught unawares by the events which unfolded. They did not expect that Gorbachev would hand them all the socialist countries on a plate. Such events would have been much more peaceful and Bulgaria would still be the developed European country that it was, rather than the poorest country in Europe, which it now is.’
Q. Was the collapse due to external or internal factors?
‘Both internal and external. The key was in our hands, until Gorbachev handed it to the west on a plate. He paid no attention to us -although what he did will be a matter for history to decide - because Perestroika was a subterfuge. The majority of the Russian people realised this, but there were no forces able to overthrow it. For me the socialist system had to be maintained. All the benefits which it had created for the people had to be preserved and not allowed to degenerate to the present situation in Russia and Bulgaria. We had nothing against the introduction and the use of the ‘Achievements of Human Civilisation’ from the west, in Bulgaria. However, events took their own course, and not the one I would have chosen, because this led to the total plundering of Bulgaria, and the destruction of everything.’
Q. When did you realise that things were changing for you personally?
‘One or two years after the appointment of Gorbachev, I was perhaps one of the first to realise that we had taken the wrong road. I sent him a letter containing my own thesis [of reform] and my views on the problems. He paid no attention to my letter; on the contrary, he began a campaign against me. During further meetings I confronted him verbally and in writing, my final letter being a request to hold a meeting of all the General Secretaries of the Communist Party’s to discuss the matter. He promised to do so, but the meeting never took place. He deceived me during this entire period, saying that he would do something, but he did not.’
Q. What happened in Bulgaria, and within the Party?
‘Gorbachev had a number of his own protégés which he mobilised. He appointed one of the best trained KGB agents to the post of Ambassador to Bulgaria, the campaign against me began, and even Bulgarian delegations visiting the USSR were subjected to propaganda against me.’
Q. Bulgaria, of all the former socialist countries had the closest relationship with the USSR. What was the reason for this special relationship?
‘This was the mainstay of the policies of my leadership. Only an idiot would not have realised, that without the natural resources of the USSR, Bulgaria could not have made any progress. I was once told by a Soviet scientist that Russia has such a wealth of natural resources, that it could support the entire planet for several centuries. All the socialist countries were designated areas for industrial production, although Bulgaria was only given fork-lift trucks. Despite that, we developed that industry and became the biggest producer in the world of fork-lift trucks and we supplied the entire socialist block. It was then that we began to develop our own electronic industry, and machine building industry, because by then Bulgaria had already developed its own agriculture.’
Q. How do Bulgarians think of you now?
‘When I was let out to go to the festival in Iundula recently, a crowd of thousands came out to greet me - even after the policy of changing their Islamic names to Bulgaria ones - their religious leader came out to greet me, and for twenty minutes they would not let me go. My bodyguards had to make a corridor for me. Some people are worried now, and the press are beginning a campaign against me.’
Q. There was no Soviet Army in Bulgaria. Why?
‘That was the understanding. I didn't sign the agreement, it was signed by Georgi Dimitrov and it wasn't changed, although I reduced the number of Soviet military advisors in the army and in state security.’
Q. What were your main successes?
‘The main success which we had was in our relations with Western Europe - with the exception of Great Britain which pursued an active campaign against Bulgaria - which was on the basis of a balance of interests, rather than on a class principle. My first international visit, as head of state, was to France under De Gaulle, which was mutually active, and based on trust. I went to Germany later to visit Chancellor Schell which was very successful, and he then came to Bulgaria. We developed relations with Kohl and had head-to-head meetings; just the two of us with an official interpreter, and I visited all the countries of Europe with the exception of Great Britain and Sweden, and they paid return visits to Bulgaria in turn.
Q. What about other Balkan countries?
‘At the time, Bulgaria's relations with all the Balkan countries were good, especially with Greece and Turkey. We had certain problems with Rumania, but that was due to the character of Ceausescu.’
Q. What did you want from Western Europe?
‘Bulgaria's relations with Western Europe were on the basis of a balance of interests which gave us the opportunity of discussing those matters which were of importance to the West. Bulgaria was a small country in need of raw materials, which were all guaranteed from the USSR, so there were no problems with their supply or with subsequent markets. The problem was providing Bulgaria with the ‘Achievements of Human Civilisation,’ from Western Europe. That was what we underestimated, and was the basis of my conflict with various people in Bulgaria, and also with Gorbachev. We needed to provide Bulgaria with these achievements and a market economy. This was the basis of the new thesis [of reform] which I developed, because a new historical period had begun for mankind in the west, particularly in the 1970's with the introduction of electronics, automation, information technology, and networks. This was a new stage in development, when science became a productive force. At the same time, of course, we should not underestimate the positive benefits which socialism has created for people.’
Q. Was there any misunderstanding between you and other countries about the Turkish question in the 1980's?
‘While I was head of state, there were no misunderstandings. If you look at the official protocols from Ankara and Sofia, there is no mention of Turks in Bulgaria. They are referred to as Bulgarian Muslims, Turkish-speaking Bulgarians, and Bulgarian-speaking Muslims. This question was developed after my removal from office. Bulgaria could not allow the expansion of Turkish place names and personal names. Only the Bulgaria which exists at the moment, could allow such a state of affairs. The Turks are now on the offensive, supported by the USA and I don't know who else. I don't even know if England isn't involved!’
Q. Is there still a place for communism in the world?
‘Yes! There is no alternative to socialism. Eventually socialism will come. It will not be the sort of socialism which we have experienced till now - and I am now too old to take an active part - but there will be others after me. The conditions which exist in countries like England, France, Germany and the US will create socialism. Soon, everything will be computerised - it is happening now - and there is even talk of a reduced working week to 33 hours. This might not happen today or tomorrow, but that is socialism! Call it what you may, that is socialism! And it is no longer me who is working for socialism, but those in Western Europe who are working towards it, because they have no other option.’
Q. Your late daughter has a very special place in the hearts of the Bulgarian people. She achieved many things in the area of cultural development and education. Can you say a few words about her?
‘Liudmila Zhivkova was an exceptional talent. She was a woman, who looked to the future, but there were many things which the Politburo could not accept and they reacted with silence or innuendo. But she was right and she developed Bulgarian culture, and brought it to the attention of the whole world. And now everything which is connected with her name has been destroyed. She was more developed and more mature than any of us in ‘the leadership,’ in terms of her intellect and perception, both for Bulgaria and for the world.
Q. Tell us about your memoirs?
‘My memoirs are not ordinary memoirs and will be the subject of interest and research. I discuss international matters in them, and they include criticism of modern Marxists, not of Marx, but the Marxists. I criticise those who interpret and develop Marx in modern conditions. No-one up till now has made this sort of criticism of modern Marxist thought.’
The interview concluded with the usual thanks and handshakes, but we did not go at once, and he seemed pleased about what he had said. He had not lost the touch. But, it was something that someone had once said to me, and it began to happen. They said that he was like a flower, which opened up in the sunshine, perhaps it was because he had begun to talk again.
I have lived in Bulgaria for some years now and to some extent the reality of my day to day life, has caused a small cloud to appear in the sky - to obscure the true importance of some issues - and Zhivkov is certainly one in question. Politicians very often try to blame him for all that is wrong, to turn him into some sort of communist bogeyman, whilst presenting themselves as angels of enlightenment. In the first days of democratic reform he was accused of stealing millions of dollars of ‘The Peoples Money,’ and hiding it away in numbered bank accounts in Switzerland. Some said that he had bled the country to death, and despite scanty evidence, much of this is probably true! But, let us consider the true reality of Bulgaria since he was deposed and imprisoned? The country has been ravaged, the banks have been sucked dry by fraud, theft, and by credit millionaires - and until last year’s elections - politics and politicians were synonymous with graft corruption and incompetence. So what is so special about democracy in purely criminal terms? Good question!
At the time of our visits, although apparently in a so called prison, Todor Zhivkov seemed to have servants and not prison warders. To the casual observer it looked as if - with a bit of luck - he could have gone to visit the local pub if he had really wanted to. So it occurred to me that his seclusion may well have been as much by his own choosing, as by court sentence, and that at the time, the question of imprisonment may well have been more about perspective than reality, or even by mutual consent.
On the final visit to see him in Boyana, on the morning of the 18th September, he was not in good spirits. We were shown into the patio area via the garden path at the side of the house, and he was sitting there glumly looking at the newspaper. He cheered up a bit when he saw us, but there was no denying that he had bad days as well as good. We spoke of certain aspects of the article, that it was our desire to be open and honest about the circumstances of his confinement, and he in turn pointed out that he also had personal rights too, any infringement of which could easily be presented to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, should they come into question. But, writing this now all seems rather academic. Todor Zhivkov has finally gone.