Voice of exiled Bulgarians and peasant activists
Georgi Mihov Dimitrov was a Bulgarian émigré and a political leader in exile during the Cold War. The Bulgarian community in the United States has a long history. Numbering around 15,000 by beginning of the twentieth century, these immigrants had settled mostly in Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland. The end of World War II was followed by a new wave of immigrants that transformed Bulgarian-American life; by the end of the 1930s the number of first- and second-generation Bulgarians in the country had risen to 70,000, with another 2,000 arriving after 1945. Many of these were anti-Communist exiles who had fled Bulgaria at the end of the war or soon after when it became clear that the Communist Party of Bulgaria systematically persecuted its political opponents. At the same time, a number of former politicians, governmental officials, army officers, diplomats, and trade representatives also sought asylum in the West. One of the most prominent was Dr. Georgi Mihov Dimitrov, nicknamed “Gemeto” (He is not to be confused with Georgi Dimitrov (1882-1949), the Bulgarian Communist politician and the first leader of “red” Bulgaria). G. M. Dimitrov’s career exemplifies the efforts of anti-communist Bulgarians in the West; he was a leader and voice of the exile community who encouraged solidarity among Bulgarian communities on both sides of the Atlantic and advocated for the introduction of democracy in his homeland.
Agrarian Political Activism in Interwar Bulgaria
Dimitrov, a teacher by profession, became one of the most skillful representatives of the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union (BANU) in the 1920s and 1930s. Immediately following World War I, BANU controlled Bulgaria’s parliament and government, promoting the goal of a constitutional, labor-based state where the improvement of human resources—central to the country’s economy—would be secured by the state through universal education and public health. BANU supported the Bill for People’s Health and other progressive legislative measures, but their plans were frustrated by a right-wing coup on June 9, 1923, backed by Tsar Boris III. BANU moved into the opposition and was highly critical of the new regime’s subsequent failure to bring about economic and social reforms. Party members suffered persecution, including Dimitrov who was at one time forced to flee abroad for several months. During this short period of exile, he established contact with other prominent peasant, smallholder, and agrarian parties in Europe that would prove invaluable in his future career. After his return, he was once again placed under surveillance by the Bulgarian secret police, and his situation soon became even more dire.
Exile and Postwar Emigration to the United States
Dimitrov vigorously opposed Bulgaria’s alliance with Nazi Germany during World War II and tried to build up an armed, anti-fascist resistance movement. After its failure, he managed to escape the country and spend the rest of the war in exile in Egypt, Palestine, and Turkey. Returning to Bulgaria in September 1944, he tried to re-establish BANU and to strengthen its conceptualization of Agrarianism based on an equal division of landed property and the advancement of agricultural groups within Bulgarian society. There was, however, another power bloc violently staking its claim to the “protection” of peasants’ interests: the Communists backed by the Kremlin and the Red Army that had been deployed in “liberated” Bulgaria. Political developments increasingly pointed to a Stalinist regime and the democratic camp had no means of resisting. Dimitrov, whose popularity was growing, became dangerous to the communist rulers and was placed under house arrest. In May 1945, he escaped, saving his life, and hid in the homes of friends and followers. On September 5, 1945, the American embassy in Sofia assisted him in leaving the country.
The Americans and the British took an active role in Dimitrov’s escape in part because they knew him during World War II as a reliable and qualified organizer whose knowledge of Bulgarian political and military matters could prove useful to them. Western intelligence services, like the Office of Strategic Services, often employed prominent “defectors” from behind the Iron Curtain as important sources of information. Dimitrov’s wife joined him in exile, but both small children, Anastasia and Alexander, were left in the care of their grandmother. The Dimitrovs never saw their son again, and their daughter would only be granted permission to move to the United States seventeen years later. The tragic separation of his family strengthened Dimitrov’s determination to fight against international Communism, and he redoubled his pro-democracy political activities. Meanwhile, Communist forces had taken complete control of the Balkans, Eastern and Central Europe.
Cold War Activism in American Exile
The next chapter of Dimitrov’s political career unfolded on the opposite shore of the Atlantic. He joined other Bulgarian democrats who had settled in the United States, and together they worked to raise awareness among the Western public about the Communist threat. They also aimed to unify Bulgarian émigrés of various political and party backgrounds. One of the earliest projects in this pursuit was the founding of the Bulgarian National Committee (Bulgarski Nacionalen Komitet, BNC) in January 1949. It published two official periodicals, Free and Independent Bulgaria (Svobodna i nezavisima Bulgaria) in Washington D.C. and Liberation (Osvoboždenie) in Paris.
Dimitrov was aware that the BNC, for which he had been elected chairman, could only achieve some of its goals through cooperation with political émigrés from other countries behind the Iron Curtain. Accordingly, he reestablished contact with the Hungarian, Polish, Yugoslav, and Czechoslovak agrarian party leaders he had met during the interwar period. The formation of political parties in exile was, however, a complicated process. These parties often lacked financial support as well as sufficient personnel. In the end, many managed to assert themselves only after their leaders or most important party functionaries emigrated or fled to the West. The agrarian wing of the East-European exile was comprised primarily of BANU; the Hungarian Independent Smallholders, Agrarian Workers and Civic Party; the Polish People’s Party; and the Croatian Peasant Party. The Czechoslovak Republican Party, meanwhile, was aware that its somewhat old-fashioned ideology needed to be adapted for the Cold War world. This reconsideration of modern agrarian concepts, accompanied by frequent negotiations in 1946-1947, resulted in the August 1947 creation of the International Peasant Union (IPU), also called the “Green International,” in Washington, D.C.
The Union was secretly financed by the CIA through the Free Europe Committee and consisted of members of agrarian parties from twelve countries behind the Iron Curtain. In addition to liberation from Communist regimes, the IPU demanded the self-determination of nations, future integration of Europe, and the formation of regional federations, as well as the development of cooperative movements as the basis of each national economy. All these were based on IPU’s ideology of Agrarianism, the so-called “third path,” that was a synthesis of socialism and capitalism, simultaneously demanding a strong role for the responsible state and the inalienable right of individuals to carry on business and to manage their private land. Dimitrov, as long-time IPU Secretary General, played a crucial role in the formation of Union programs. IPU leaders traveled round the globe, taking part in international conferences on farming, agriculture, and the protection of natural resources. From time to time, they were also invited to share their expertise as consultants in developing countries. For example, Dimitrov and the IPU President, former Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Nagy, made a tour of several Latin American and South-East Asian countries in the mid-1950s and advised the pro-U.S. governments on the organization of land reforms and the avoidance of collectivization. The primary aim of these trips was propaganda; the agrarian exile leaders were cast as envoys representing the victims of communism, sent to warn the peasantry against revolutionary promises and to share their experiences with the devastation of agriculture under Communism in Europe.
Georgi Dimitrov was also active in another supranational exile body, the Assembly of Captive European Nations (ACEN), and took part in its anti-communist propaganda campaigns. The ACEN had a rotating chairmanship that Dimitrov held twice (in 1962-63 and 1967-68), in addition to frequently serving as the Assembly’s vice-chairman. He published prolifically, gave speeches, and was a frequent member of ACEN delegations traveling round the world.
Continued Political Work in Face of Adversity
Despite his dedicated efforts, Dimitrov did not succeed in significantly strengthening the position of the BNC as the undisputed lynchpin of the Bulgarian exile. In 1958, opposition rose in the form of the Bulgarian National Front (Bulgarski Nacionalen Front, BNF) led by right-wing royalists who rejected Dimitrov’s leadership and acknowledged only the heir to the Bulgarian throne, Simeon II, as the legitimate leader of the anti-communist struggle. Dimitrov, after his bitter experience with the royal regime, advocated converting Bulgaria’s political system into a parliamentary republic after liberation. The BNF’s position was based on the obsolete Tarnovo monarchist constitution of 1879, and the ensuing competition between the BNC and the BNF led to a rupture within the Bulgarian émigré community. Dimitrov’s group was supported by the Americans and, thus, was linked to the Bulgarian desk of Radio Free Europe. It also had more frequent contacts with West European politicians. The opposition BNF, under the leadership of the conservative lawyer Ivan Dochev, had stronger support in Germany, Canada, and from the Bulgarian Orthodox church abroad. In its bulletin Fight (Borba), the BNF criticized both the communist Bulgarian government and the BNC.
Nevertheless, Dimitrov continued his activities in the name of the Bulgarian people. He published, lectured, gave speeches, and helped his fellow citizens—in refugee camps and later in their new homelands—to find appropriate employment. The international situation had dramatically changed by the late 1950s. After the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was brutally crushed by Soviet troops, it became clear that communist rule over half of Europe would not disappear within the next few decades. Dimitrov added his signature to all important memoranda and protests prepared by ACEN, IPU, and number of other political, cultural, and social organizations and peace movements. At the same time, he continued his work in support of democracy, warning against communism.
Georgi Dimitrov died of a heart attack on November 29, 1972 in Washington D.C. at the age of sixty-nine. By the time of his death, the number of Bulgarians living in exile was estimated at over one million. Some twenty thousand of this number lived in the United States. In the nearly 30 years of his American exile, Dimitrov became one of the well-known voices of the Bulgarian community, advocating the necessity of freeing his nation from Communist rule.