The Cult of Totalitarian Leader Todor Zhivkov In Bulgarian Cinema – Tsvetan S. TODOROV (updated)

The article reviews films on the cult of Todor Zhivkov (1911 – 1998). It was first published under the name of Stillborn Myth in Cinema Art Magazine in 1990, and in 1998 included in Tsvetan S. Todorov’s book The Moving Shadows.
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Articles and research on communist censure and „locked films“ were recently published, yet next to none of them ever mentioned films on the Zhivkov cult.

Todor Zhivkov (1911 – 1998).


The myth of the exceptional role of Todor Zhivkov in the Bulgarian revolutionary movement was hugely exaggerated by the state and has absolutely no credibility.
On the other hand, it is only in these films that the salvation of Bulgarian Jews by Todor Zhivkov is documented, an instructive, yet sad history.
The first attempt to show Todor Zhivkov on screen was in the documentary „Chavdartsi“ (1964) by Nyuma Belogorski, but this film was not shown to the majority of the Bulgarian people.
Explanatory notes have been added for the English translation.

Tsvetan S. TODOROV

Todor Zhivkov was leader of the Party and the State for longer than anyone else in socialist Bulgaria.

The cinema, which was owned and run by the state, flattered Zhivkov in a very special way.

For 33 years, from 1956 to 1989, Todor Zhivkov demonstrated how to use art to serve politics. His constant instructions made clear what had to be done and what not – by any means. He would closely observe the developments in the cinema, praise some artists, or “constructively” criticize them, and more often than not deprive them of work.

The cinema had only one duty: to praise him. In communist times, films such as “Margarit and Margarita” (1989) were literally unthinkable.
In Bulgaria, at the turn of the 70s a few feature films were produced to present Zhivkov’s revolutionary past, an instructive yet sad period in the history of our cinema, notwithstanding its democratic tradition. These films were made under a well-known totalitarian mechanism. They all aim at conjuring up,in the public mind, the myth of Zhivkov’s exceptional role in the partisan resistance as well as the building of socialism. Although a little late, the cinema was quick to join the sycophantic choir.
Todor Zhivkov’s character first appeared in feature productions in 1977 when two films were made simultaneously.

Boy posleden 1977

Zako Heskija’s “A Final Battle“  (“Boy posleden”, 1977) took up the topic with caution. The character of the Party Plenipotentiary (the part played by Ivan Bourdjiev) did not provoke any concern. The film was based on a real story from the book of Veselin Andreyev, the partisan poet. His memoirs seemed to be truthful and credible. As for the character of the Plenipotentiary: he had all the virtues of the model partisan fighter.
Evil, however, never arrives alone.
At the same time the co-production of “Soldiers of Freedom” by Yuriy Ozerov was released (1977, 4 episodes); (“Soldaty svobody” (1977, 4 episodes).

Soldiers of Freedom









Apart from the the Soviet “Mosfilm”, studios from Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia took part in the co-production.
Scriptwriters Dimitar Metodiev and Atanas Semerdzhiev took part in the Bulgarian episodes, as well as about ten popular actors. The co-production is a cinematographic epic, a story of the communist struggle during the Patriotic War, in the typical style and mood of social stagnation. Behind the tale of ordinary soldiers and guerilla leaders, the official communist version of events is promoted in the background. Once again, this film shows yet another approach of how to develop the cult of a leader in an easy and guileless way.
This cinematic cult was not developed in all socialist countries, though: in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia such films were not produced.
Soviet films in praise of Stalin, up to the very end of his reign, turned out to be the most popular, e.g., “The Fall of Berlin”, Padenie Berlina USSR, 1949, by director Michail Chiaureli.

Regrettably, the socio-political system in Bulgaria increasingly thrived on those kind of films. Three more Bulgarian films openly propagated Zhivkov’s key role in the near past. Each of them has its particular cinematographic advantages, duly acknowledged then by critical reviews. Nonetheless, they still remain emblematic of an entirely wrong politics which collapsed in 1989. Before 1989, none of the critics would ever have dared and have the courage to tell the truth.

“The Hit” (Udarat)
by director Borislav Sharaliev (1981), actor Lyubomir Mladenov playing the part of Todor Zhivkov,
“The Echelons” (Eshelonite,1986), also known as “The Echelons of Death”,
by Borislav Punchev,

Eshelonite 1986

with actor Philip Trifonov in the part of Zhivkov, and
“They Prevailed” (“Te naddelyaha”, 1986) Kiran Kolarov, with Antoniy Ghenov in the part of Zhivkov.

“They Prevailed”


These three films were high-budget epics based on “documentary” material to narrate the fictional story of Zhivkov’s younger years before September 9th, 1944. Some real events were revealed but as for our hero, the truthfulness of facts was approached cautiously. At this particular time, disregard for facts, replacement of fiction for fact and swapping of wishful thinking for reality made forceful progress.
What part did Zhivkov really play on the eve of September 9th 1944?
What did he actually do when Bulgarian society fought for the salvation of the Jewish people?
Where was he indeed, when the “Chavdar” guerilla brigade was besieged?
The films do not give the correct answer to these questions. The truth is to be sought with historians, witnesses, and un-doctored documents. Henceforth, the documentary aspect of the films is very suspect.

“Man of the People” (1981)

Cinematic Todor Zhivkov fiction also includes “Man of the People” (1981) by Hristo Kovachev, produced on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the then Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party and Chairman of the State Council of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.
In 1984, at a meeting at the Krastyo Sarafov Theatre High School, Hristo Kovachev revealed he had long been shooting the film without Todor Zhivkov knowing anything about it. When he found out that his comrades had a surprise for him in store, he wanted to see the material that had already been shot. Afterwards, according to Hristo Kovachev, Zhivkov consented, albeit reluctantly  to the film`s public release.
I guess this happened with other films, too, before they were shown to the public. We cannot be certain, all this might be fictitious.
These films offer clear proof of the creation of a cult of a particular person, as well as of the attempt at creating a myth out of a particular name. Having in mind the failure of official mythology at home and above all in the Soviet Union (the films about Stalin) in the 50s, Bulgarian authors had to be extremely cautious and streetwise.
The personality cult can barely be detected in any of these or similar films, if we consider them retrospectively. Though it may seem incredible, they still appear to be natural, normal, and even… modest.
But if we step back in time and look at the big picture, the cult of the “most infallible and provident” leader will become very obvious. The myth is very simple and straightforward, based on the cult of the everlasting leader and his revolutionary youth. Since his early years he is deemed to have been at the centre of each important event, in the lead of each and every humanitarian action and daring operation. Is it any wonder that even today he is put on a pedestal? That’s what the logic of this myth is.
In the four films in question, Todor Zhivkov is the driving force of everything that happens,  the one to give the most important signals and gaze further than anyone into the future. The films create an amazingly similar image which proves guidance beyond the directors` aims. The main character`s name is purposefully avoided yet is invariably recognizable either by his partizan name Yanko, or a physical likeness that was certainly not unintentional. Providing further evidence, some of the reviews at the time mention the hero by his real name.
He is a man inextricably connected with the people, caring for their children, giving them a chunk of bread when hungry (“They Prevailed”). He never loses his sense of humour even in the hardest moments of struggle (“The Echelons”); he is a coldblooded warrior, exceptionally brave, with an  iron will (“A Final Battle”, “They Prevailed”, “The Hit”), exactly all those features that the media used to portray Todor Zhivkov.
Let’s get back to his film character though.
He preferred loyal co-workers and comrades in the struggle to having close friends.
He would rather have a comrade than a girlfriend.
He always wore a white shirt or a reddish cap.
He rescued prisoners on their way to death camps, saved a brigade from utter defeat, and led the revolution on September 9th.
So he rescued the Jews, the partizans, and the Bulgarian people.
Whatever he did, he never made a mistake, or changed his mind, or hesitated.
On the other hand, he is shown as a very ordinary man, a typical Bulgarian. Well, not quite, because he is easily recognizable.
His status is untouchable. He is a myth. That being the case, he cannot be shown in moments of weakness. His deeds and decisions are never questioned, never criticized or ridiculed.

The character of Todor Zhivkov is not present in films on contemporary topics, partly because it would have been hard to find a willing director, and also because Bulgarian films dealing with contemporary topics had gained a reputation for a certain realism and a democratic tendency. The official Party mythology attempted to infiltrate contemporary Bulgarian cinema with the demand to show „positive characters“. The other problem was that the Secretary General`s life in the present was lacking “heroic” action. That`s why our hero failed to establish himself in contemporary cinema…
For decades, the image of the great leader could not be approached in any critical way. Criticism not only of him but the entire Communist Party, the State and a number of institutions and organisations was banned. In Bulgaria, it was impossible to create films such as “Is There a Frenchman in the House?”  (1982) by Jean-Pierre Mocky (“Y a-t-il un Français dans la salle?”),

 where the character of the French President is set in the present and shown in quite an unorthodox manner. It was impossible, as is illustrated by the Bulgarian people`s interpretation of the Party slogan: „Everything in the Name of Man“ – we all knew  exactly who the man was – Todor Zhivkov.
For the people, his image differed drastically from the official propaganda. In private talks he was called “Uncle Tosho”, a term very distant from the official mythologizing. The cinema tried to create a myth that was of no interest to the people, it was only of service to the Party leadership.
It began probably with the films “A Final Battle” and “Soldiers of Freedom” In them Zhivkov was first shown with the halo of a hero. This idealization of an ordinary man implies the possibility of further and unimpeded development of this motif. At the same time, I assume the next films might not have been produced at all if the first one had been met with criticism. We have not forgotten those times and know very well how a critrical voice would have been dealt with: with punishment and stigmatization. For back then, the space for public debate was limited, democracy brutally suppressed, and the priority was not art but political conformity and at times propaganda would even completely replace art.
The film-makers must have been reluctant and beset by doubts about the appropriateness of such an approach. Vigilance, however  is often easily lulled: you had to remake history, what official resources insisted was the right history. On the other hand, some of Zhivkov’s postulates, such as the statement that “the backbone of Bulgarian literature has always been political”, adduced apparent safety and power.
Which history, however, was meant? The official version of our latest history, or the history of the people that had yet to be recorded? The history of his personal mythology, or the history of the people?
In the history of the ordinary people, Zhivkov’s part has little merit; it can rather be  identified by the fallacy he infected the Party with. And through the Party this fallacy infected all venues of life.
The theme that he was just an ordinary man is treated in the film “Man of the People” (1982). This film took for granted that this comrade is seen as the eminent, outstanding leader and Party figure. Therefore it was necessary to show him as an ordinary man of the people. This wasn’t so difficult: he resembled many of the people we used to meet in our daily life. What film-makers treated as an undisputable truth, however, came across in the film as a deep void. Instead of impartial analysis, “Man of the People” shows too much forced adulation, and criticism was replaced by sentiment. It was an ill-conceived commemoration, and is seen today as a document of an age long gone.
The same attributes apply to the film “Think of Me аs Fire”, dedicated to Lyudmila Zhivkova. The present article, however, is dealing with the films that, in one way or another, are directly concerned with the person of Zhivkov, not other genres of the Bulgarian cinema that use perfidiously veiled interpretations of his myth.
We can but ask ourselves what preconditioned the emergence of these films in a comparatively short period of time. Generally speaking this was a time of stagnation. It was during this period when a figure who personified the barracks-bureaucracy order played a leading role in Bulgarian cinema. He and his many siblings were ubiquitous, they overpowered everything else. With an iron fist he was trying to captain the  ship of our cinema to brighter shores, whereas in reality he managed to wreck it. This attempt was nonetheless representative of “socialist competition”,  for the best film on the labour front line, about the first workers, and of course the First One…
What instead was happening, had not been anticipated. Hristo Hristov’s “A Woman at 33” (1982) was screened but later banned after a notorious article in the Rabotnichesko Delo (“Workers’ Deed”) newspaper. Similar bans followed in television as well, where Ivan Terziev’s “Seltzeto” (“The Village”), made in1978, had to wait until 1990 before it was broadcast.


A great number of projects were still-born. For a long time, the cinema was closed to sceenwriters like Georgi Mishev, Boyan Papazov, Vladimir Ganev, and many top directors such as Binka Zhelyazkova and Hristo Piskov stopped making films.
During the time of Nikola Nenov, Director General of Bulgarian Cinematography up to 1989, every film of ideological importance had to be checked by a selected audience. Only films that were deemed to conform were granted a general release. According to this policy, the viewers were supposed to watch these films two or three times, until the effect desired by the Communist Party had been achieved. Naturally, this never happened. “The viewers” existed only in the statistics.
I saw what kind of attention was paid to these films at an economic council held at the Cinema House in Sofia in the spring of 1985. Towering above the audience, Nikola Nenov questioned a number of cinema managers why their region had not reported for a particular film the number of viewers this policy demanded. The managers panicked like naughty children who had been caught doing some mischief. One of them even dared to make an excuse: “Two copies of the film were stolen…”
Stealing a film about Todor Zhivkov was utterly absurd.
No one would ever dare to even think about speaking the truth in such an atmosphere. Yet, there was a simple explanation: people refused to be forced to watch these films. That’s why the audience was mostly made up by activists from manufacturing organisations, schools and the army.
This was part of Nikola Ninov’s tactics of surviving the traps of a totalitarian system. Like the article he published, entitled “Todor Zhivkov, the April Line and Bulgarian Cinema”: an eulogy of the Leader and his cultural policy.
The makers of these films were by no means chosen accidentally. Each of them was an illustrious professional with a secure place in cinematic history, creators of many of our best films, like “All Is Love” by Borislav Sharaliev, “Yo-ho-ho” by Zako Heskija, “Salvation” by Borislav Punchev, “Office Position: Orderly” by Kiran Kolarov, and the documentary “Damyan” by Hristo Kovachev.

All is Love 1979









It was, however, easy for the administrative system to chose the right director for a specific political purpose. Such a mechanism would be worth researching. Remembering how it worked could guarantee that it won`t be happening again in the future.
The myth of Todor Zhivkov in Bulgarian cinema was brittle. It failed to fully develop with all its branches and deformities,  well-known since Stalin’s time. Probably because there already existed some immunity to this myth. which contemporary adulators had to consider. The films themselves too would ensure their remoteness, those partizan names, the physical resemblance etc. Films about leaders seem to be inevitable in times of stagnation and social standstill. This is the major moral of the story.

Occasionally the agitation was so overdone that the leader is reduced to a comic victim of his own mythology, as was the case with the makers of “Boris I” where allusions were openly admitted.
Notwithstanding, the myth of Todor Zhivkov’s prominent part in our revolutionary movement was ill-carried, profusely budgeted, yet of no faith and still-born, so it is no longer celebrated today, though the films about the myth were granted the highest awards in the country.
Empty films in empty halls: part of our history.

*The title of the article in the original is “Stillborn Myth”, first published in the “Kinoizkustvo” Magazine, ISSUE 2/1990

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