Debunking Victimhood: short stories of Pomak uprisings in communist Bulgaria 7 min read

 In Analysis, Culture, Eastern Europe
February 1 marked the anniversary of the national remembrance of the victims of Communism in Bulgaria. On this date in 1945, the People’s Court handed down death penalties to a large number of political figures from the former royal regime, paving the way to a series of persecutions and murders until 1989.

Almost eight thousand names of Bulgarians are commemorated as victims of the period between 1945 and 1989 on the commemorative wall of the Monument of the Victims of Communism. Located right in front of the National Palace of Culture in downtown Sofia, this place of remembrance equalises the memory of all victims of the Communist regime, with no distinctions whatsoever. As Tomasz Kamusella notes in his monograph, among the victims commemorated in this manner, Turks and Muslims account for at least a third of all the victims of Communist repression. They are the victims of the so-called ‘Revival Process’ – namely, the assimilation campaign initiated in 1984 by the Communist regime that forced ethnic Turks to change their names into new Bulgarian ones, whose history fails utterly to be properly addressed in the Bulgarian and European memory discourse. 

Likewise, there is also little memory and conscience of the so-called ‘Rebirth Process’, another assimilation campaign that targeted ethnic Pomaks in Southwest Bulgaria since the 1960s.

Who are the Pomaks?

Bulgaria’s ethnic Pomaks are one of the smallest yet much-debated minority groups in the country, as well as in Northeast Greece and Turkey. Popularised by some international media outlets, they have always lived in the Rhodopes region. Since they were forcedly converted to Islam during the Ottoman Empire, they accustomed themselves to typical livelihoods of Muslims. Bulgarians have always questioned their ‘identity pedigree’ as Pomaks have historically spoken a large variety of Slavic dialects and embraced only an idiosyncratic form of Islam

During Communism, the Pomak identity became a subject of discussion inside the Party due to the danger that their cultural affinity with ethnic Turks could have represented for Communist Bulgaria. In 1964, Communist officials decided to mull over a mass-scale assimilation campaign through name-changings, which however was not implemented smoothly at first.    

Pomak resistance in Southwest Bulgaria

In 1964, the Bulgarian Academy of Science distributed to local teachers and other influential figures a list of ‘acceptable Bulgarian names’ to convince Pomaks to embrace again their Bulgarian-ness. When the ‘Rebirth Process’ was launched on the ground, ethnic Pomaks resisted it. Although almost all Pomaks had their original Arabic-Turkish names changed into new Bulgarian ones by 1980, a series of outbursts and uprisings unfolded between the 1960s and the 1970s. Many Pomaks made their voices heard and stood up against Communist policies, paying a high price for their resistance. Many were either interned or brutally killed, and their bodies were thrown into local rivers or mine shafts, as Mary Neuburger recollected in her work

When the Blagoevgrad Prefecture began to visit villages in South-westernmost Bulgaria for promoting the name-changing campaign among locals, dissidence was already on the rise. 

While in the village of Brashten many elderly Pomaks were found only disturbed by the name-changing, rumours of revolt coming from the village of Ribonovo were soon proven true. A large-scale violent protest took place. Many Pomaks took to the hills, but others patrolled the school of the village and its main entrances all day long, keeping teachers under house arrest at the same time. Petar Diulgerov, the Blagoevgrad Regional Secretary of the Communist Party, described the gravity of the resistance in the mountainous region. The rebels – that was the way Pomak resistors were described – did not only take control of the local government but also fought violently with a government commission and military detachment that were sent from the town of Gotse Delchev to quell the revolt. Despite this, Pomaks were able to heavily injure police officers and disarm them, putting fezzes and turbans on their heads in a sign of disagreement with the ‘Rebirth Process’. 

A few kilometres away, precisely in the village of Vulkovar, which was back then considered one of the most Turcophile villages in the region, a similar tactic was organised to confront Communist officers. Local Pomaks resisted Diulgerov and his comrades, building a human yet impenetrable wall composed of the great majority of villagers surrounding the mayor’s office where Diulgerov and the others could not have escaped. From midnight until sunrise, many Pomaks armed themselves with hunting rifles, axes and sticks, letting Diulgerov and other officials out of the village, yet without having changed the local population’s names. 

In March 1973, a few Pomaks were murdered in the village of Kornitsa for opposing the name-changing campaign. A commemorative monument is today placed in the village, remembering the names of those who opposed the so-called vŭzhroditelen protses.  

‘Misguided brothers and sisters’ – the communist perspective

Interestingly enough, these local stories of revolts against Communism were made available by a Communist persecutor and a presumed scholar, respectively Peter Diulgerov and Peter Marinov. The latter was a renowned ethnographer and notorious figure having joined the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1944 together with his fellows from ‘Rodina’ – a cultural movement founded in Smolyan to promote Bulgarian-ness to “misguided brothers and sisters”. However, after a few years, exactly in 1947, Marinov and his Rodina’s fellows were expelled from the Communist Party since rumours arose regarding their collaboration with the Fascist regime in the pre-war period. 

Neuburger reports how Marinov nevertheless described how revolts of Pomak communities unfolded. He noted the gender dimension of the Pomak resistance in the town of Rudozem, where Pomak women were much more active than men in standing up against the forced name-changing campaigns for newborns between the 1960s and 1970s. For four years, between 1970 and 1974, the local resistance of Pomaks against the name-changing campaign escalated across other regions of Bulgaria. In February 1970, the spirit of this local resistance was so contagious that other small towns, such as Madan, Rudozem, Dospat and Devin, and other surrounding villages, were all influenced by. Thousands of Pomak resisters assembled for several days to contest the assimilation campaigns. 

In May of 1972, in the village of Yakoruda in the Western Rhodopes, a few Pomaks with freshly changed-names accepted to promote the ‘reacquisition’ of their Bulgarian identity as volunteer brigades. The fanfare was utterly interrupted, however. Other local Pomaks began to organise blockades at the exits of the town and later heading to the main town square. There, Peter Diulgerov was holding a speech emphasizing the tragic fate that Pomaks happened to face due to the measures of Ottoman colonialists. Pomaks came to incite the locals to oppose the Communists and their subtle plans aimed at healing the ‘wounds of Turkification’. Despite the several hours of threats of bloodsheds with barred doors and physical resistance, they had to give in to the pressure of local authorities. 

Murdered because resistors: debunking victimhood? 

This year, the commemorations of the Bulgarian victims of Communism sparked some contestation on social media, making room for discussing the issue of victimhood over Communism. When it comes to commemorating Turks and Muslims murdered during the 1980s, many largely recall the ‘Great Revival’, yet misunderstanding it as a preventive campaign aimed at neutralising some Turkey-backed military operation in support of Turks in southernmost Bulgaria. Instead, the recollection of Pomak victims who opposed Communism remains overlooked.

Currently, new studies and research shine a spotlight on a large and diverse number of figures murdered by the Communist regimes: not only victims but also rank-and-file, collaborators, opportunists and careerists who fell under the category of victims. Among Bulgaria’s victims, ethnic Pomaks and Turks compose a category of the unmemorable. Their memories are interlinked with traumatic experiences, like many others in Central and Eastern Europe, but subtly hierarchic identity discourse strategies against Islam and Muslims have produced official amnesia in Bulgaria.

Post-memories and oral histories of the assimilation campaigns, as well as of the 1989 mass expulsion of Turks from the country, remain still unnoticed. Nevertheless, local stories of Pomak resistors may not only overt acts of resistance during Communism, but also debunk visions of victimhood and powerlessness in Europe during the last century.  

Featured image: Pomak Women from the village of Mugla 1934 / Wikimedia Commons
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