Todor Zhivkov

Todor Zhivkov
General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party
In office
March 4, 1954  November 10, 1989
Preceded by Valko Chervenkov
Succeeded by Petar Mladenov
1st Chairman of the State Council
In office
7 July 1971  17 November 1989
Preceded by Georgi Traykov (as Chairman of the Presidium of the National Assembly)
Succeeded by Petar Mladenov
36th Prime Minister of Bulgaria
In office
19 November 1962  7 July 1971
Preceded by Anton Yugov
Succeeded by Stanko Todorov
Personal details
Born Todor Hristov Zhivkov
(1911-09-07)7 September 1911
Pravets, Kingdom of Bulgaria
Died 5 August 1998(1998-08-05) (aged 86)
Sofia, Bulgaria
Nationality Bulgarian
Political party Bulgarian Communist Party (1932-1990)
Spouse(s) Mara Maleeva
Children Lyudmila (1942-1981)
Vladimir (1952-)

Todor Hristov Zhivkov (Bulgarian: Тодор Христов Живков, tr. Todor Hristov Živkov; IPA: [ˈtɔdɔr ˈxristɔf ˈʒifkɔf]; 7 September 1911 5 August 1998), was the Communist leader of the People's Republic of Bulgaria (PRB) from March 4, 1954 until November 10, 1989.

He became First Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1954 and remained on this position for 35 years, until 1989, thus becoming the longest-serving leader of any Eastern Bloc nation,[1] and one of the longest ruling non-royal leaders in history. His rule marked a period of unprecedented political and economic stability for Bulgaria, marked both by complete submission of Bulgaria to Soviet directives[2] and a desire for expanding ties with the West. His rule remained unchallenged until the deterioration of East-West relations in the 1980s, when a stagnating economic situation, a worsening international image and growing careerism and corruption in the BCP weakened his positions.[3] He resigned on November 10, 1989, under pressure by senior BCP members due to his refusal to recognize problems and deal with public protests.[4] Within a month of Zhivkov's ouster, Communist rule in Bulgaria had effectively ended, and within another month the People's Republic of Bulgaria had formally ceased to exist.

Early life

Todor Zhivkov memorial in Pravets

Zhivkov was born in the Bulgarian village of Pravets into a peasant family. In 1928, he joined the Bulgarian Communist Youth Union (BCYU), an organisation closely linked with the Bulgarian Workers Party (BWP) – later the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP). The following year he obtained a post at the Darzhavna pechatnitsa, the official government publisher in Sofia. In 1932, he joined the BWP proper, later serving as secretary of its Second Borough Committee and as a member of its Sofia County Committee. Although the BWP was banned along with all other political parties after the uprising of 19 May 1934, it continued fielding a handful of non-party National Assembly Deputies and Zhivkov retained his posts at its Sofia structure.

During World War II, Zhivkov participated in Bulgaria's resistance movement against the country's alignment with Nazi Germany and was sympathetic to the country's 50,000 Jews.[5] In 1943, he was involved in organising the Chavdar partisan detachment in and around his place of birth, becoming deputy commander of the Sofia operations area in the summer of 1944. Under his rule, many fellow former combatants with Chavdar were to rise to positions of prominence in Bulgarian affairs. He is said to have coordinated partisan movements with those of pro-Soviet army units during the 9 September 1944 uprising.

Rise to power

After 9 September 1944, Zhivkov became head of the Sofia police force, restyled as the Narodna Militsiya (People's Militia). He was elected to the BCP Central Committee as a candidate member in 1945 and a full member in 1948. In the run-up to the 1949 treason trial against Traicho Kostov, Zhivkov criticised the Party and judicial authorities for what he claimed was their leniency with regard to Kostov. This placed him in the Stalinist hardline wing of the Party. In 1950, Zhivkov became a candidate member of the BCP Politburo, then led by Vulko Chervenkov, leading to a full membership in 1951. In the years which followed, he was involved in countering countryside resistance to forced farm collectivisation in northwestern Bulgaria.

After Joseph Stalin's death, an emphasis on shared leadership emerged. The hardline Stalinist Chervenkov was removed as General Secretary of the BCP in 1954 under Soviet pressure. Zhivkov took his place, but Chervenkov retained some of his powers as prime minister. Bulgarian opinion at the time interpreted this as a self-preservation move by Chervenkov, since Zhivkov was a less well known figure in the party. After Nikita Khrushchev delivered his famous secret speech against Stalin at the Communist Party of the Soviet Union 20th Congress, a BCP Central Committee plenary meeting was convened in April 1956 to agree to adopt a new Krushchevite line. At that plenum, Zhivkov criticized Chervenkov as a disciple of Stalin, had him demoted from prime minister to a cabinet post, and promoted former Committee for State Security (CSS) head Anton Yugov to the post of prime minister. It was at this point that he became the de facto leader of Bulgaria. Subsequently Zhivkov was associated with the "April Line," which had anti-Stalinist credentials. At the BCP 8th Congress in late 1962, Zhivkov accused Yugov of anti-Party activity, expelled him from the BCP and had him placed under house arrest.

With the increasingly strengthening positions of Zhivkov as the country's and Communist party's leader, former partisan leaders and active military, took a critical stance on the revisionist policies of the communist leadership. In the events described as the "April Conspiracy" of 1965 or the "Plot of Gorunia," general Ivan Todorov-Gorunia, general Tzviatko Anev (Цвятко Анев) and Tzolo Кrastev (Цоло Кръстев) organized group of high-ranking military officers planning to overthrow the regime. Their plan was to establish a pro-Chinese leadership in the country. The coup was exposed and between 28 March and 12 April 1965 and most of the plotters were arrested.

As prime minister, Zhivkov then held both of Bulgaria's leading political and government posts; for nearly all of Bulgaria's existence as an independent nation, the prime minister has been reckoned as the country's leading political figure. Though the post of head of state was traditionally reserved for the leader of the surviving pro-Communist faction of the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union, the "Zhivkov Constitution" adopted by referendum in July 1971 promoted him to chairman of the new State Council. The post, equivalent to that of president, confirmed his position as the country's top leader. Zhivkov remained faithful to Moscow during his 35 years in power, but adopted a more liberal stance than his predecessor by allowing some market reforms (such as allowing surplus agricultural goods to be sold for profit) and ending persecution of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.



In the mid-1950s, Soviet-style centralized planning produced economic indicators showing that Bulgarians were returning to their prewar lifestyle in some respects: real wages increased 75%, consumption of meat, fruit, and vegetables increased markedly, medical facilities and doctors became available to more of the population, and in 1957 collective farm workers benefited from the first agricultural pension and welfare system in Eastern Europe.[6]

In 1959 the Communist Party borrowed from the Chinese Great Leap Forward to symbolize a sudden burst of economic activity to be injected into the Third Five-Year Plan (1958–1962), whose original scope was quite conservative. According to the revised plan, industrial production would double and agricultural production would triple by 1962; a new agricultural collectivization and consolidation drive would achieve great economies of scale in that branch; investment in light industry would double, and foreign trade would expand.[6] Following the Chinese model, all of Bulgarian society was to be propagandized and mobilized to meet the planning goals.[6] Two purposes of the grandiose revised plan were to keep Bulgaria in step with the Soviet bloc, all of whose members were embarking on plans for accelerated growth, and to quell internal party conflicts. Amalgamation of collective farms cut their number by 70 percent, after which average farm acreage was second only to the Soviet Union among countries in Eastern Europe.[7] Zhivkov, whose "theses" had defined the goals of the plan, purged Politburo members and party rivals Boris Taskov (in 1959) and Anton Yugov (in 1962), citing their criticism of his policy as economically obstructionist. Already by 1960, however, Zhivkov had been forced to redefine the impossible goals of his theses.[6] Lack of skilled labor and materials made completion of projects at the prescribed pace impossible. Harvests were disastrously poor in the early 1960s; peasant unrest forced the government to raise food prices; and the urban dissatisfaction that resulted from higher prices compounded a crisis that broke in the summer of 1962. Blame fell on Zhivkov's experiments with decentralized planning, which was totally abandoned by 1963.[6] Despite this, by 1960 the value produced by heavy industry matched that of light industry, and food processing for export grew rapidly.[7] Throughout the second phase, budget expenditures consisted primarily of reinvestment in sectors given initial priority. The completion of collectivization in 1958 had shifted 678,000 peasants, about 20 percent of the active labor force, into industrial jobs.[7]

Large-scale industrialization caused many laborers to move from rural to urban areas, which required the construction of numerous pre-fabricated apartment buildings such as this one in Sofia

By the early 1960s, however, changes to the system were obviously needed to achieve sustained growth in all branches of production, including agriculture.[8] Specific incentives to reform were shortages of labor and energy and the growing importance of foreign trade in the "thaw" years of the mid-1960s. Consequently, in 1962 the Fourth Five-Year Plan began an era of economic reform that brought a series of new approaches to the old goal of intensive growth.[8] In industry the "New System of Management" was introduced in 1964 and lasted until 1968. This approach intended to streamline economic units and make enterprise managers more responsible for performance. In June 1964, about fifty industrial enterprises, mostly producers of textiles and other consumer goods, were placed under the new system. Wages, bonuses, and investment funds were tied to enterprise profits, up to 70% of which could be retained.[9] Outside investment funds were to come primarily from bank credit rather than the state budget. In 1965 state subsidies still accounted for 63% of enterprise investment funds, however, while 30% came from retained enterprise earnings and only 7% from bank credits.[9] By 1970 budget subsidies accounted for only 27% of investment funds, while bank credits jumped to 39%, and retained enterprise earnings reached 34%.[9] The pilot enterprises did very well, earning profits that were double the norm.[9] By 1967 two-thirds of industrial production came from firms under the new system, which by that time had embraced areas outside consumer production.[9]

Zhivkov's reforms resulted in some expansion of trade with the West, as evidenced by licensed Coca-Cola production since the 1960s with a Cyrillic logo

Before the end of the 1960s, however, Bulgarian economic planning moved back toward the conventional CPE approach. Many Western analysts attributed the Bulgarian retreat from the reforms of the 1960s to tension caused by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. International events may well have played a role, but the timing of the retreat and the invasion suggest another component: dissatisfaction among the Party elite with the results and ideological implications of the reform.[10] For example, in July 1968, one month before the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria's unorthodox, three-tiered pricing system was eliminated. The party leadership had never accepted the concept of free and flexible pricing for some products, which was an important Bulgarian departure from centralized planning in the 1960s.[10] Resistance to reform was further encouraged by a series of cases in which major enterprise directors used newly decentralized financial resources to line their own pockets.[10] However, some of the recentralization measures, such as the creation of an agricultural-industrial complex, also received domestic criticism.[11] Both Western and domestic customers remained dissatisfied with the quality of many Bulgarian manufactures. Party meetings and the press criticized monopolistic abuses resulting from irrational decisions at the top and poor implementation of rational policies at the enterprise level.[11]

After a relative stagnation in the 1970s, the New Economic Model (NEM), instituted in 1981 as the latest economic reform program, seemingly improved the supply of consumer goods and generally upgraded the economy.[12] In an effort to remedy the chronic distribution problems of the central economy, higher economic institutions became financially accountable for damage inflicted by their decisions on subordinate levels.[13] Complexes or associations were given explicit freedom to sign their own contracts with suppliers and customers at home and abroad.[13] However, NEM was unable to drastically improve the quality or quantity of Bulgarian goods and produce. In 1983 Zhivkov harshly criticized all of Bulgarian industry and agriculture in a major speech, but the reforms generated by his speech did nothing to improve the situation.[12] A large percentage of high-quality domestic goods were shipped abroad in the early 1980s to shrink Bulgaria's hard-currency debt, and the purchase of Western technology was sacrificed for the same reason, crippling technical advancement and disillusioning consumers. The NEM proved to be a failure, and GNP growth between 1981 and 1982 was only 2.9%.[14] By 1984 Bulgaria was suffering a serious energy shortage because its Soviet-made nuclear power plant was undependable and droughts reduced the productivity of hydroelectric plants.[12] Bulgaria marked significant progress in scientific research by sending two men in space and supplying 70% of all electronics in the Eastern Bloc,[15] but infrastructure remained poorly developed well into the late 1980s.[16]

In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev visited Bulgaria and reportedly pressured Zhivkov to make the country more competitive economically. This led to a Bulgarian version of the Soviet perestroika program. After a round of failed experimental measures, in January 1989 the Party issued Decree Number 56. This decree established "firms" as the primary unit of economic management.[14] In a fundamental departure from the socialist prohibition of private citizens hiring labor, as many as ten people could now be hired permanently, and an unlimited number could be hired on temporary contracts.[14] This last round of reforms by the Zhivkov regime confused rather than improved economic performance. However, statistics on growth for 1986-88 still indicated a 5.5% annual rate, up from the 3.7% rate achieved during the previous five-year plan.[14]


Zhivkov's social policies resulted in Bulgaria having Gini coefficient of 18 in the 1970s, ranking among the countries with the lowest levels of income inequality in the world

Even before Zhivkov, Bulgaria made significant progress in increasing life expectancy and decreasing infant mortality rates. Consistent social policies led to an increase in life expectancy to 68.1 years for men and 74.4 years for women.[17] In 1939 the mortality rate for children under one year had been 138.9 per 1,000; by 1986 it was 18.2 per 1,000, and in 1990 it was 14 per 1,000, the lowest rate in Eastern Europe.[17] The proportion of long-lived people in Bulgaria was quite large; a 1988 study cited a figure of 52 centenarians per 1 million inhabitants. One of the first mass HIV testing programs was initiated under Zhivkov, and as of October 1989, some 2.5 million people in Bulgaria, including about 66,000 foreigners, had been tested for HIV, and 81 Bulgarians were diagnosed as HIV positive.[17] Increases in real incomes in agriculture rose by 6.7 percent per year during the 1960s. During this same period, industrial wages increased by 4.9 percent annually.[18] Availability of consumer durables significantly improved in the 1970s. According to official statistics, between 1965 and 1988 the number of televisions per 100 households increased from 8 to 100; radios increased from 59 to 95; refrigerators from 5 to 96; washing machines from 23 to 96; and automobiles from 2 to 40. Available automobiles were primarily Soviet Fiats, some of which were manufactured in Bulgaria.[18]

In the postwar era, and especially under Zhivkov, housing in Bulgaria improved significantly as more and better-quality homes were built.[19] However, many of them were cramped - the average home in Bulgaria had three rooms and an area of 65 square meters.[19] Housing remained one of the most serious shortcomings in the Bulgarian standard of living throughout Zhivkov's rule. Residential construction targets in the Five-Year Plans were regularly underfulfilled. Consequently, families often waited several years for apartments; in Sofia, where overcrowding was at its worst, the wait was as long as ten years.[18]

The educational system, despite the addition of ideological subjects, remained relatively unchanged after the beginning of the Communist era. In 1979 Zhivkov introduced a sweeping educational reform, claiming that Marxist teachings on educating youth were still not being applied completely.[20] Zhivkov therefore created Unified Secondary Polytechnical Schools (Edinni sredni politekhnicheski uchilishta, ESPU), in which all students would receive the same general education. The system united previously separate specialized middle schools in a single, twelve-grade program heavily emphasizing technical subjects. In 1981 a national program introduced computers to most of the ESPUs.[20]


Although the Zhivkov regime often advocated closer relations and multilateral cooperation with Yugoslavia, Turkey, Greece, Albania, and Romania, a number of traditional issues barred significant improvement until the late 1980s.[21] Without exception Zhivkov imitated or supported Soviet twists and turns such as Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.[22] Substantial historical and economic ties supplemented the ideological foundation of the relationship. In the 1970s and 1980s, Bulgaria improved its diplomatic relations with nations outside the Soviet sphere.[22] The 1970s was a period of closeness between Brezhnev's USSR and Zhivkov's Bulgaria. Zhivkov was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union in 1977.[23] Yet, though Bulgarian émigré dissident Georgi Markov wrote that "[Zhivkov] served the Soviet Union more ardently than the Soviet leaders themselves did," in many ways he can be said to have exploited the USSR for political purposes, with Bulgaria serving a buffer between the USSR and NATO. Thus, he claims in his memoirs that the USSR had become "a raw material appendage to Bulgaria," something obliquely confirmed by Gorbachev when he wrote in his memoirs that "Bulgaria was a country which had lived beyond its means for a long time." An example of how the "raw material appendage" was exploited was the trade in Soviet crude oil. This would be shipped to Bulgaria's modern refinery in Burgas at subsidized prices, processed, and resold on world markets at a huge premium.

In 1963 and 1973, the Zhivkov regime made requests — it is unclear how far these were in earnest — that Bulgaria be incorporated into the USSR, both times because the Bulgarian government, having engaged in bitter polemics with Yugoslavia over the Macedonia naming dispute, feared a Soviet–Yugoslav reconciliation at its own expense. In 1963, following the decision of Patriarch Alexy I of Moscow to recognize the autonomy of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, the Bulgarian leaders openly declared that there was no "historic Macedonian nation." In the face of Moscow's post-1953 efforts to reach out to Belgrade and Athens, Zhivkov seems to have calculated that a policy of unswerving loyalty to the Kremlin would ensure that it remained more valuable for the USSR than non-aligned Yugoslavia or NATO-affiliated Greece.[24]

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Bulgaria gave official military support to many national liberation causes, most notably in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, (North Vietnam), Indonesia, Libya, Angola, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and the Middle East. In 1984 the 9,000 Bulgarian advisers stationed in Libya for military and nonmilitary aid put that country in first place among Bulgaria's Third World clients. Through its Kintex arms export enterprise, Bulgaria also engaged in covert military support activities, many of which were subsequently disclosed. In the 1970s, diplomatic crises with Sudan and Egypt were triggered by Bulgarian involvement in coup plots.[25]

Under Zhivkov Bulgaria's policy toward Western Europe and the United States was determined largely by the position of the Soviet Union.[26] Events such as the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan automatically distanced Bulgaria from the West; then, in the early 1980s Soviet efforts to split NATO by cultivating Western Europe brought Bulgaria closer to France and West Germany - a position that continued through the 1980s. Even back in the 1970s, Zhivkov actively pursued better relations with the West, overcoming conservative opposition and the tentative, tourism-based approach to the West taken as early as the 1960s.[25] Emulating Soviet détente policy of the 1970s, Bulgaria gained Western technology, expanded cultural contacts, and attracted Western investments with the most liberal foreign investment policy in Eastern Europe.[25] As in 1956 and 1968, however, Soviet actions altered Bulgaria's position. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, which Bulgaria supported vigorously, renewed tension between Bulgaria and the West. Alleged Bulgarian implication in the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981 exacerbated the problem and kept relations cool through the early 1980s.[25] A 1988 application for membership in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was refused because of the Turkish assimilation program, after widespread expectations of success.[26]

Bulgarian relations with Greece, a traditional enemy, were stable throughout the 1970s and 1980s, in spite of major government changes in both countries. Zhivkov made this stability a model for the overall Balkan cooperation that was a centerpiece of his foreign policy in the 1980s.[27] In 1986 the two countries signed a declaration of good-neighborliness, friendship, and cooperation that was based on mutual enmity toward Turkey and toward Yugoslav demands for recognition of Macedonian minorities in Bulgaria and Greece. An important motivation for friendship with Greece was to exploit NATO's Greek-Turkish split, which was based on the claims of the two countries in Cyprus. In early 1989, Bulgaria signed a ten-year bilateral economic agreement with Greece.[27]


Until the late 1980s, Zhivkov successfully prevented unrest in the Bulgarian intellectual community.[28] Membership in the writers' union brought enormous privilege and social stature, and that drew many dissident writers such as Georgi Dzhagarov and Lyubomir Levchev into the circle of the officially approved intelligentsia. On the other hand, entry required intellectual compromise, and refusal to compromise led to dismissal from the union and loss of all privileges. The punishment of dissident writers sometimes went far beyond loss of privileges. In 1978 émigré writer Georgi Markov was murdered in London for his anticommunist broadcasts for the British Broadcasting Corporation, and Blaga Dimitrova was harshly denounced for her critical portrayal of party officials in her 1982 novel Litse.[28]

Zhivkov also softened organized opposition by restoring symbols of the Bulgarian cultural past that had been cast aside in the postwar campaign to consolidate Soviet-style party control. Beginning in 1967, he appealed loudly to the people to remember "our motherland Bulgaria".[28] In the late 1970s, Zhivkov mended relations with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.[28] Zhivkov's extensive campaign of cultural restoration provided at least some common ground between him and the Bulgarian intelligentsia. In 1980 Zhivkov had improved his domestic position by appointing his daughter Lyudmila Zhivkova as chair of the commission on science, culture, and art.[29] In this powerful position, Zhivkova became extremely popular by promoting Bulgaria's separate national cultural heritage. She spent large sums of money in a highly visible campaign to support scholars, collect Bulgarian art, and sponsor cultural institutions. Among her policies was closer cultural contact with the West; her most visible project was the spectacular national celebration of Bulgaria's 1,300th anniversary in 1981. When Zhivkova died in 1981, relations with the West had already been chilled by the Afghanistan issue, but her brief administration of Bulgaria's official cultural life was a successful phase of her father's appeal to Bulgarian national tradition to bind the country together.[29]

Sports also prospered during Zhivkov's rule. From 1956 to 1988, Bulgaria won an unpredecented 153 Olympic medals and numerous European and world competitions in sports as diverse as volleyball, rhythmic gymnastics and wrestling.


Dissent was punished under Zhivkov's rule. The CSS was a feared tool of control, and overt opposition largely stayed underground until the late 1980s. In 1978, the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was assassinated in London by an agent who stabbed him with an umbrella tip which implanted a very small ricin ball. According to former KGB general Oleg Kalugin, this was requested by Zhivkov and either performed by the KGB or it assisted the CSS; the actual assassin is reputed to have been Francesco Gullino, working for the CSS. In Zhivkov's time, Bulgarians found it extremely difficult to travel abroad.

Zhivkov was particularly intolerant of dissent within the Party. When Mikhail Gorbachev announced his reform program, Zhivkov made a show of copying it, believing that Gorbachev wasn't really serious about glasnost or perestroika.[30] However, he showed his true colors when he expelled several members of a human-rights watch group from the Party. Soon afterward, when several intellectuals announced the formation of the "Club for the Support of Perestroika and Glasnost," he arrested the leaders and threw them out of the Party.[31]

Nepotism and insistence on predanost

Zhivkov promoted his children, daughter Lyudmila Zhivkova and son Vladimir Zhivkov, in the BCP hierarchy. Lyudmila became a Politburo member and earned the ire of the BCP and Bulgaria's benefactors in Moscow with her unorthodox artistic ideas and practice of Eastern religions. She died abruptly at the age of 38 in 1981. Her health was severely compromised by stress, failed marriages, and unusual dietary/lifestyle practices, although rumours of assassination or suicide abounded. With Lyudmila's death, her friends and supporters were quickly removed from all positions of power. Son-in-law Ivan Slavkov was made chairman of Bulgaria's state television company and later became president of the Bulgarian Olympic Committee.

Apart from promoting his family, Zhivkov instituted a complex system of privileges which extended to former Resistance figures, Party members and prominenti of the sciences, arts and manufacture. In the early 1960s, he was instrumental in constructing a large set of housing, financial, educational, electoral and other benefits to be granted to a large category of people called "Active Fighters against Capitalism and Fascism" who had ostensibly been members of the rather modest Bulgarian Wartime resistance and which was expanded to absurd proportions. Without necessarily receiving great remuneration (pay differentials under Zhivkov were within the 5:1 range, with the overwhelming majority of salaries being within the 3:1 range), Party members and CSS informers received very significant perquisites which involved access to accommodation, luxury imported goods, hard currency, the ability to travel abroad, superior medical and dental treatment and unhindered entry to higher education for their children. The scope of these privileges broadened as they rose in the Party hierarchy. Eminent artists, scientists and "Heroes of Socialist Labour" (mostly collective farmers and shop-floor workers) received similar privileges. Established in the early years of Zhivkov's terms in power, Corecom was a retail chain in which foreigners could shop with hard currency, but its main customers were privileged Bulgarians close to the Zhivkov regime.

In Zhivkov's Bulgaria, money had lost many of its traditional properties, being replaced by sets of complex personal and family material and career considerations which have been described as "feudal". This hampered the prosecution in post-Zhivkov fraud and corruption trials, since no venality could be proved against those charged: they had merely received goods in kind and services which moreover had been their "legal due".

Zhivkov reserved a special attention for his birthplace of Pravets. In the 1960s this small village was declared "an Urban Community," becoming a town a decade later. In 1982 Bulgaria's first Apple clone personal computer was named the Pravets. The grateful citizens of Pravets responded by erecting a heroic statue to Zhivkov which he duly had taken down, ostensibly to prevent a personal cult growing around him. It was re-erected after his death.

Throughout his tenure of power, Zhivkov surrounded himself with those who exhibited predanost (loyalty, devotion, the desire to proffer all). In his reminiscences, Vladimir Kostov, a Bulgarian secret agent who defected to France in 1978, recalls how the powerful minister of internal affairs would suffer nervous episodes before meeting Zhivkov lest his predanost should fail to come across sufficiently expressively.


Throughout his term of power, Todor Zhivkov's dialect and poor manners made him the butt of many acerbic jibes and jokes in Bulgaria's urbane circles. While the feared CSS secret police was commonly said to persecute those who told political jokes, Zhivkov himself was said to have found them amusing and "collected" an archive of them. His popular nickname was "bai Tosho" (approximately "Ol' Uncle Tosho") or occasionally (and later) "Tato" (a dialectal word for "Dad" or "Pop"). Markov tells a story of how Zhivkov reproached a popular newspaper cartoonist for modifying his signature to resemble a pig's tail, yet did not persecute him. A handful of satirist dissidents such as Radoy Ralin enjoyed some prominence, although Ralin was not favored by the authorities due to his sharp satire.

Zhivkov survived the Sino-Soviet split, Khrushchev's fall in October 1964, an attempted Stalinist-Maoist coup d’état in 1965, his daughter Lyudmila Zhivkova's death in 1981, Brezhnev's death in 1982, and Mikhail Gorbachev's post-1985 reforms.


In December 1984, Todor Zhivkov began a campaign of forcible assimilation of Bulgaria's Turkish minority, most notably forcing all Turks to take Bulgarian names. By 1989, resistance to this policy led to riots, which resulted in multiple deaths. In May 1989, Zhivkov suddenly granted permission to all Turks to leave the country, which led to over 300,000 emigrating to Turkey within three months. As it turned out, this was the beginning of the end for the longtime leader. Bulgaria was the target of near-unanimous condemnation from the international community; even the Soviets protested. Gorbachev already did not think much of Zhivkov; he had lumped Zhivkov in with a group of inflexible hardliners that included East Germany's Erich Honecker, Czechoslovakia's Gustáv Husák and Romania's Nicolae Ceaușescu. However, after the Turkish episode, he was determined to see Zhivkov gone. The Turkish affair also alarmed several high-ranking Bulgarian officials as well, including Prime Minister Georgi Atanasov, Foreign Minister Petar Mladenov and Finance Minister Andrey Lukanov. They began plotting to remove him, but had to move discreetly given the ubiquity of the CSS.[30]

In October 1989, Mladenov organised a CSCE environmental summit in Sofia. He invited an independent group of Bulgarian environmental activists, Ecoglasnost, to participate. Ten days into the conference, several Ecoglasnost activists and supporters were brutally beaten up by CSS and militia officers—on orders from Zhivkov. They then collared 36 other opposition activists, drove them to the countryside and forced them to walk back to Sofia. Amid near-unanimous international condemnation, Mladenov, Lukanov and Atansov decided that Zhivkov had to go. In a critical step, they convinced Defence Minister Dobri Dzhurov to support them.[30][31]

The plotters struck on 9 November, a day before a Politburo meeting. Dzhurov met Zhivkov in private and told him that he needed to resign, and there was enough support on the Politburo to vote him out. Zhivkov was taken by surprise and tried to marshal support, to no avail. Just before the Politburo formally met that day, Dzhurov told Zhivkov that if he didn't resign, the Politburo would not only vote him out but have him executed. Seeing the writing on the wall, after the motion calling for his removal passed, Zhivkov resigned, officially for reasons of age and health. Mladenov was named the new party leader. Zhivkov's ouster, however, came too late to save the regime. On 11 December, only a month after Zhivkov's ouster, Mladenov announced that the Communist Party was giving up its guaranteed right to rule and that free elections would be held in June. In January, the National Assembly struck out the portions of the constitution giving the Communist Party a monopoly of power. Thus, within only two months of Zhivkov losing power, the Communist system he had dominated for 35 years was no more.[30][31]

While he was initially shown reverence in public in removal, by January 1990 he was expelled from the BCP and was arrested on a number of fraud and nepotism charges. Two years later, he was convicted of embezzling government funds and sentenced to seven years in prison. Due to old age and poor health, he was allowed to serve his term under house arrest. He was eventually acquitted by the Bulgarian Supreme Court in 1996. Zhivkov retained his lucidity and interest in public affairs until his death from pneumonia in August 1998, aged 86. His funeral was widely attended.

The Porcupine, a fictional account of the trial of Stoyo Petkanov, a barely disguised Zhivkov, was written by Julian Barnes and published in Bulgarian and English in 1992.[32]

Aftermath and legacy

Political and social

After Zhivkov fell from the presidency and was expelled from the BCP, the Party gave up its monopoly on power in February 1990 and allowed Bulgaria's first democratic elections for 59 years in June 1990. Like the Soviet Bloc in the face of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (SEV, Comecon), the Warsaw Pact Organization and the USSR itself collapsed, by 1992 Bulgaria entered a period of transition from socialism to a free market economy and democracy. The country's political ideology and foreign policies of Zhivkov's era have thus been reversed.

On the other hand, Bulgaria's post-communism political, business, military, academic and artistic elites, as well as the members of the country's large and active organized crime groups, have been almost entirely the scions of Communist eminenti who had become prominent during Zhivkov's long rule.

Zhivkov's onslaught on Bulgaria's Muslims and Turks radicalized and united what had been scattered and quiescent minorities. Since 2001 (and also from 1991 to 1994) the DPS (Movement for Rights and Freedoms) party, composed almost entirely of Bulgarian Turks, has held the balance of power in Bulgarian politics. Thus, one of the major Zhivkov projects produced the very opposite effect of what had been intended.

A most damaging process, which emerged during the early years of Zhivkov's rule, was the "demographic problem" which saw traditionally large Bulgarian village families emigrate to industrial cities where they tended to have one child or none at all. The reforms undertaken during Zhivkov's regime consisted mostly of fines for families without children and limiting abortion. At the turn of the 21st century the Bulgarian population was widely expected to decline from a 1990 high of nine million to some five million within a generation.


On the other hand, after very significant reverses and difficulties in the 1940s and 1950s, the Bulgarian economy developed apace from the mid-1960s until the late 1970s. Most of today's large industrial facilities such as the Kremikovtsi steelworks and the Chervena Mogila engineering works were built under Zhivkov. Bulgaria's nuclear power station, AEC Kozloduy, was built in the 1970s, all six large reactors commissioned in under five years. This, and Bulgaria's many coal-fired and hydroelectric power stations, made the country a major electric power exporter. By the 1970s, the focus switched to high technologies such as electronics and even space exploration: on 10 April 1979 Bulgaria launched the first of two kosmonavti (cosmonauts), Georgi Ivanov, aboard Soviet Soyuz spaceships and later launched its own space satellites. Having been among the first nations to market electronic calculators (the ELKA brand, since 1973) and digital watches (Elektronika, since 1975), in 1982 the country launched its Pravets personal computer (a near-"Apple II clone") for business and domestic use. In the mid-1960s an economic reform package was introduced, which allowed for farmers to freely sell their overplanned production. Shortly after that Bulgaria became the first and only Eastern Bloc country which locally produced Coca-Cola. Mass tourism developed under Zhivkov's direction from the early 1960s onwards.

However, this Bulgarian economy was exceptionally susceptible to Soviet largesse and Soviet-bloc markets. After the Soviet crude oil price shock of 1979, it entered a very severe recession from which it hardly recovered in the 1980s. After the early-1990s loss of Soviet and Comecon markets, this economy (unused to competing in a free market environment) entered prolonged and significant contraction. Zhivkov-era industrial facilities were largely unattractive to investors, many being left to decay. Great numbers of specialist personnel retired and died without being replaced, or else emigrated or left their state jobs for more lucrative private employment. As agriculture declined, tourism has emerged as almost the sole Zhivkov-era industrial survivor. It is however widely regarded that incompetent administration after 1989 had a much greater effect on the decline of the economy, as even successful industries declined.

Honours and awards



Wikimedia Commons has media related to Todor Zhivkov.
  1. Todor Zhivkov - The longest serving authoritarian, The Sofia Echo, 3 April 2003
  2. Bulgaria - The Zhivkov era, Library of Congress country studies, 1992
  3. Bulgaria in the 1980s, Library of Congress country studies, 1992
  4. The Removal of Zhivkov, Library of Congress country studies, 1992
  5. Bar-Zohar, Michael, Beyond Hitler's Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria's Jews. Adams Media Corp. 1998, p.199
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Domestic Policy and Its Results, Library of Congress
  7. 1 2 3 The First Five-Year Plans, Library of Congress
  8. 1 2 The Era of Experimentation and Reform, Library of Congress
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 Industrial decentralization, Library of Congress
  10. 1 2 3 Industrial Recentralization
  11. 1 2 Larger Economic Units, Library of Congress
  12. 1 2 3 Bulgaria in the 1980s, Library of Congress
  13. 1 2 The New Economic Model, Library of Congress
  14. 1 2 3 4 Last Round of Zhivkov Reforms, Library of Congress
  15. "Milliarden Dollar Schulden in Moskau. Osteuropa nach dem Ende der Ära Breschnew" (in German). 15 November 1981. p. Der Spiegel 46/1982. Retrieved 25 July 2011.
  16. Transportation, Library of Congress
  17. 1 2 3 Health, Library of Congress
  18. 1 2 3 Standards of living, Library of Congress
  19. 1 2 Housing, Library of Congress
  20. 1 2 Education, Library of Congress
  21. Relations with Balkan Neighbors
  22. 1 2 Foreign Policy, Library of Congress
  23. (Russian) Biography at the website on Heroes of the Soviet Union and Russia
  24. Balázs Szalontai, Political and Economic Relations between Communist States. In: Stephen Anthony Smith (ed.), Oxford Handbook in the History of Communism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 314.
  25. 1 2 3 4 Foreign Affairs in the 1960s-70s, Library of Congress
  26. 1 2 Western Europe and the US, Library of Congress
  27. 1 2 Greece
  28. 1 2 3 4 Zhivkov and the Intelligentsia, Library of Congress
  29. 1 2 The Political Atmosphere in the 1970s, Library of Congress
  30. 1 2 3 4 Sebetsyen, Victor (2009). Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire. New York City: Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-375-42532-2.
  31. 1 2 3 Thompson, Wayne C. (2008). The World Today Series: Nordic, Central and Southeastern Europe 2008. Harpers Ferry, West Virginia: Stryker-Post Publications. ISBN 978-1-887985-95-6.
  32. Bookmunch Classic Interview: Julian Barnes on Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain

Political offices
Preceded by
Georgi Traikov (as chairman of the National Assembly Presidium)
Chairman of the State Council
7 July 1971 – 17 November 1989
Succeeded by
Petar Mladenov
Preceded by
Anton Yugov
Prime Minister of Bulgaria
19 November 1962 – 7 July 1971
Succeeded by
Stanko Todorov
Party political offices
Preceded by
Vulko Chervenkov
General Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party
4 March 1954 – 10 November 1989
Succeeded by
Petar Mladenov
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