Khristo Botev (1848–1876) composed the verses and lyrics that rallied Bulgarian nationalists in the late 19th century. He was slain at age 28 in an illfated uprising against Ottoman rule, a death that enshrined him as one of the folk-hero martyrs of the Bulgarian independence movement.
Khristo Botev's first name is a shortened form of Hristofor, or Christopher, which translates as “bearer of Christ.” Born on January 6, 1848, in Kalofer in the Stara Planina region in central Bulgaria, he was the son of Botyo Petkov, a schoolteacher who was engaged with the century's National Awakening movement spreading across Central Europe. The nationalists sought to promote and preserve the distinct languages and traditional folk culture in places that were under firm foreign control and had been for several centuries.
The nation state of Bulgaria did not exist on a map when Botev was born; at the time, it was part of the Ottoman Empire and ruled at the local level by governors loyal to dynastic sultans in Constantinople. Botev's homeland had come under Ottoman Turk control in 1396, this following several centuries when it was a major imperial power in the Balkans and southeastern Europe. Bulgaria's strategic location on the Black Sea made it a valuable vassal state of the Turks for nearly five centuries.
In 1848 Botev's homeland was ruled by Sultan Abdülmecid I, who sought to reform and modernize the expansive Ottoman Empire in a mission to stanch unrest. While Christians in Ottoman lands like Bulgaria enjoyed the freedom of religion, Abdülmecid authorized the creation of a Bulgarian Orthodox Exarchate, thereby unifying the area's Catholic churches. At the local level, however, local governors behaved capriciously and acted with malice, and there were multiple other systemic shortcomings within the system of governance. The educational system also lagged behind that of other European nations, and at age 15 Botev was sent to a gymnasium high school in Odessa, a Ukrainian city situated on the far shores of the Black Sea. He followed the path of his father, who had been educated in imperial Russia.
It was in Odessa that Botev became aware of the exciting revolutionary currents then coming out of St. Petersburg, the Russian capital. There, a group of proto-anarchists were rallying around a university student, Sergei Nechaev, who was just three months older than Botev. Nechaev advocated full-scale revolt against autocracy, contending that violence was the fastest route to smash the power of the state. Russia was an imperial power that was largely mired, like the Ottoman autocrats, in a medieval, agrarian-based economy that relied on a combination of pageantry, superstition, oppressive taxation, military might, and religious control to maintain power. On the western edge of the Russian Empire, in Poland and Lithuania, progressive ideologues circulated that were similar to those of Nechaev and which sought to cast off the chains of feudalism. They, in turn, influenced other Eastern Europeans who lived under a third and all-powerful kingdom, that of the Habsburgs who ruled large chunks of fertile and mineral-rich turf across what was called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The National Awakening movement, which was also embraced by Botev's father, occasionally served as a shelter for nascent anti-state groups seeking political independence.
Botev came from a mountainous section of central Bulgaria that was near the outer bounds of Ottoman rule where it bordered the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He spent four years in Odessa and Russia, including a stint in Moldova, which was under Russian control. He was expelled from the Odessa gymnasium for indifference to his studies and insubordination, and he spent the mid-1860s writing poetry, working as a private tutor, and drafting leaflets for underground revolutionary groups. In 1867 Botev returned to Kalofer because his father had fallen ill and he was expected to take over teaching duties at the local school. On May 24, 1867, he delivered an imprudent speech with political sentiments at the ceremony honoring St. Cyril and St. Methodius, ninth-century missionaries to the Slavs whose Orthodox Church feast day was May 24. These Greek-born missionaries had created the first Slavic alphabet, the precursor to the Cyrillic alphabet, and their accomplishment played a role in the emergence of the First Bulgarian Empire under King Boris I.
Botev's speech attracted unwelcome attention, and he was forced to flee, crossing the Danube River into Romania. This Central European land was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was home to a mix of ethnic groups, from indigenous Romanian to Hungarian, German, plus Bulgarians and their neighbors the Serbs. Romania tacitly sheltered an exiled Bulgarian population that was fiercely anti-Ottoman and actively agitating for independence. Their leader was a former monk, Vasil Levski, who was roughly a decade older than Botev. Levski organized cells of underground supporters while helming an official group, the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee (BRCC), which became active in the late 1860s. Botev is believed to have taken part in a failed guerrilla mission to Bulgaria in 1868 during which fellow fighter Khadzhi Dimitür lost his life. Two of Botev's best-known works commemorate this death and that of Levski five years later.
Botev visited the Romanian capital Bucharest and came to know Levski and other figures in the BRCC, but lived primarily in the eastern Romanian city of Bãila during his first half-decade of exile. He acted in local stage productions, wrote poetry, and worked as a newspaper typesetter before launching his own short-lived publication, Duma na bûlgarskite emigranti (“Word of the Bulgarian Emigrants”). Leaving Bãila in the summer of 1872, Botev settled in Bucharest and wrote for Svoboda (“Freedom”) before launching another short-lived publication, the satirical magazine Budilnik (“Alarm Clock”).
The Bulgarian independence movement suffered a dramatic loss when ringleader Levski was captured after a series of managerial and operational blunders. Convicted of treason and sentenced to death, he died on the hangman's gallows in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, on February 19, 1873. One of Botev's most famous poems, “Obesvaneto na Vasil Levski”(“The Hanging of Vasil Levski”), mourns this event and showcases his gift for composing plaintive verses that highlight the Bulgarians’ desire for self-rule.
The BRCC suffered a rupture after Levski's death. Botev stayed with the side that advocated for an armed uprising and eventually became editor of the newspaper, Zname (“Flag”), a job he held from August of 1874 to September of 1875. His first collection of poems, Pesni i stihotvorenia ot Botyova i Stambolova (“Songs and Poems by Botev and Stambolov”), was published in 1875; its other chief contributor was fellow revolutionary Stefan Stambolov, who eventually become one of an independent Bulgaria's first prime ministers. Writing for the Dictionary of Literary Biography: South Slavic Writers before World War II, Lyubomira Parpulova-Gribble judged Botev's poems as clearly superior to Stambolov's, finding in the former's a “wrath aroused by the indifference of the ‘fools’ who surround him.”
Parpulova-Gribble cited the poems “Borba”(“The Struggle”) and “Strannik”(“Stranger”) as particularly noteworthy with their “powerful mix of biblical references and offensive, lower style expressions, such as ‘chosen scum,’‘sanctimonious drivel,’ ‘idols of the fools,’ and ‘idiots,’,” the critic adding that “the themes of personal and national freedom and national and social oppression are another common element” of Botev's verse.
In the last year of his life, Botev lost his father, brought his mother and two brothers to live with him in Romania, and married Veneta Raheva, a widow with a young son. He also took over the Central Committee and began planning an armed insurrection. He and the other leaders were inspired to act by a Serb rebel uprising in Herzegovina against Ottoman rule. After grouping and training roughly 200 men with the help of a Russian commando, Botev devised a masterful scheme to steal into Bulgaria undercover. The unit, dressed as humble landscape workmen, boarded a passenger steamship that stopped at multiple points on the Danube. Once all were aboard, they hijacked the steamship Radetzky and landed her at Kozloduy in northwestern Bulgaria, where they knelt and kissed the soil in a show of humility.
Because of the discrepancy between the Julian calendar (with dates abbreviated O.S., or Old Style) and the Gregorian one used elsewhere in Europe, the date of Botev's arrival in Bulgaria is given alternately as May 17, 1876, or May 29, 1876. After the captain of the Radetzky deposited them at Kozloduy, Botev and his force headed for the Vratsa Mountains but were picked off by local militia patrols. They tried to incite the populace to join them, but Ottoman leaders had been alerted to the Radetzky hijacking and blanketed the region with dire warnings about aiding a possible insurrection. Botev died in combat near Okolchitsa, a Vratsa Mountain peak near the village of Chelopek, on May 20, 1876 (O.S.), a date alternately given as June 1 or June 2, 1876, in the Gregorian calendar.
Botev's guerrilla mission was part of a larger movement across the Balkans that was reported in Western European media sources under the headlines “The Bulgarian Horror.” Ottoman forces had dealt harshly with these insurrectionists, killing thousands suspected of fomenting or supporting the unrest. There was also widespread outrage about the deaths or unlawful detentions of thousands of Christians who lived under Muslim rule. Russia lent its military to roust the Turks from Europe in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78.
Bulgaria gained its independence in early 1878, and its June 2 national holiday now honors Botev; sirens sound to commemorate the lattempt to liberate Bulgaria from the Ottoman sultanate and a moment of silence is observed. Literary critics and historians include Botev's name in lists of 19th-century writers who took up arms and died as a result. They include the great Romantic poet Lord Byron, who died in Ottoman-held Greece in 1824; Sânder Petöfi, who died in the Hungarian Revolution of 1849; and Adam Mickiewicz of Poland, who was felled by cholera in 1855 while plotting against Russia.
Berend, Ivan T., History Derailed: Central and Eastern Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century, University of California Press, 2003.
History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe: Types and Stereotypes, edited by Marcel Cornis-Pope and John Neubauer, John Benjamins Publishing, 2010.❑