FOR FREEDOM AND PERFECTION. The Life of Yané Sandansky
Mercia MacDermott





After the dramatic events of April 1905, Yané turned his attention to work which was closer to his heart—the task of preparing the people to be worthy citizens of the future free Macedonia.


The first problems which he tackled were connected with family life, the position of women and matters of hygiene and health. In spite of his irrevocable decision to remain a bachelor, Yané was still as interested in the form and content of marriage as he had been when the members of Mladost had drawn up their rules for weddings. He returned to the problem in earnest after attending the sumptuous wedding of his comrade Georgi Kotsev of Debrené to Elena Aleksova from Gorni Orman (present-day Laskarevo) on May 15, 1905. The bride’s father, Alekso, was also a great patriot, who was always willing to shelter revolutionaries, including Yané, and thus all the comings and goings, gatherings and processions which traditionally accompanied a Bulgarian wedding were used as a cover for revolutionary meetings in both villages, since all the local leaders were invited.


It was a classic example of what Bulgarians describe as a ‘heavy’ wedding, with no expense spared. Vast numbers of guests, including Vlahs and Greeks (Manolis Kordopoulos among them) as well as Bulgarians, attended the festivities, and all of them received the customary gifts from the bride—embroidered shirts, socks and aprons worked in complicated patterns of many hues, hand-woven towels, kerchiefs and many other objects embodying hours of toil, and apportioned to each and all according to their standing and relationship to the young couple. For the female guests, the wedding offered an opportunity for displaying their most gorgeous national costumes and for vying with each other in the amount of jewellery, embroidery and other ornaments which they had amassed upon their persons. All the colours of Pirin’s forests and meadows were reflected in the garments of the guests and in the woven rugs and cushions upon which they sat. Here were the varied greens of the mosses and the trees, the blue of harebells and forget-me-nots, the purple of violets and gentians, the golden yellow of buttercups and mullein, the vermillion of geum, the crimson of wild raspberries, and the rose of thrift and alpine pinks. Such was the skill of these unlettered women that they could combine in a single article several shades of red and pink in such a way that they did not clash but coexisted as naturally as Pirin’s rainbow flowers.





What caught Yané’s attention, however, was the amount of metal, precious and otherwise, that the women were wearing. A favourite headdress in the Melnik district was the chember—a band of material decorated with coins, thinly spaced or overlapping, according to the family’s means— and in many villages the girls wore little caps on which coins were so thickly sewn that they resembled fish-scales. Cascades of coins, strung on a dozen or more strings, hung down their backs from nape to waist, while their bosoms were covered with numerous chains and necklaces of coins, and their belts were secured with wrought metal buckles as big as plates and known as pafti. The poorest girls used base metal discs for ‘coins’, while the moderately wealthy used silver pieces, and the very rich used gold. During the period of her engagement, which was often as long as two or even three years, a girl would receive as much jewellery—bracelets, buckles, buttons etc.—as her fiance’s financial position permitted. Even the poorest family, however, felt obliged to find the wherewithall to present the bride with a belt and the largest possible buckles.


Yané observed the glittering chemberi and the clinking strings of coins, which tinkled melodiously, like musical instruments, in time with the rhythm of the dance. At the same time, his keen eyes, trained by long years of outlaw life to detect even the smallest detail of human behaviour, noticed the embarrassment felt by the poorer girls, who stood aside, ashamed of their simpler attire and modest amounts of jewellery. He also overheard disgruntled guests discussing the gifts which they had received, and complaining that so-and-so had undeservedly been given something better. Yané enjoyed a wedding as much as any one. For a big man, he was light on his feet, an accomplished dancer who loved to lead the horo when the skirl of bagpipes and the beat of drums brought one and all to their feet. He also loved to sing and had a fine baritone voice. The Kotsev wedding, however, gave him a great deal of food for thought, and, when he had the necessary leisure, he considered the whole question of marriage and family life in the villages for which he was responsible. Having done so, the lone man, who had himself known the agony of a love that was not to be, decided to use his power and authority to further the cause of true love and family happiness by signing the following circular letter:


‘The Leadership of the Melnik Revolutionary District,

June 25,1905


‘To the Comrade Village Leaders,


‘In its tours around the district, the District Cheta has frequently had occasion to hear complaints about forced marriages. Its investigations show that, throughout the Melnik Kaza, almost all weddings have taken place, and still take place, solely according to the wishes of the parents. The father, greedy for money, literally sells his daughter to the man who will give him the most; he sells her as





though she were a cow or a sheep, without asking her whether she loves the boy and whether she wants to marry him. And because of this, the conjugal life of the forcibly married woman and her husband becomes difficult and unbearable, family discord and un-happiness are created, and not infrequently the newly-wedded bride flees from her husband and returns to her own home. The husband usually regards his wife as a bought working animal; he nearly always speaks roughly to her, swears at her, and often beats her; there are women crippled by blows from their own husbands. Another thing which has engaged the cheta’s attention is that, at the betrothal, the girl is given silver buckles, fur coats, wrought-silver posies and other jewellery. These gifts generally cost not less than 600 grosh, and therefore the parents of the betrothed are obliged to sell their last ox in order to buy these useless ornaments.


‘Since it regards as incompatible with the spirit of the Organization the uncivilized attitude of fathers towards their daughters and the sale of the latter like cattle, the rough manner in which men treat their wives, and the throwing away of money on totally useless gifts at betrothals and weddings, the District Leadership calls on parents not to marry off their daughters by force—for a marriage there must always be mutual consent and love between the boy and the girl; and, neither at the betrothal, nor at the wedding, is jewellery of any kind to be given. Those who do not obey this order will be punished, while those fathers who are caught taking money for their daughters will be fined double what they have taken: if, for example, a father has taken five liri from his son-in-law for his daughter, he will be fined ten liri to be paid into the District Treasury.


‘It has also been noted that in many villages, the villagers wear turbans, and the brides wear chemberi and tassels hung with money and other things. Since, on the one hand, they cost money, and, on the other, they are worthless, because they are useless, the District Leadership forbids the wearing of them.


‘Another matter which the Leadership wishes to bring to the serious attention of the village leaders is the filth which prevails in almost every village house. It turns one’s stomach to enter these pig-styes which are called houses. The rooms are dirty, the ceilings are covered with soot and spiderwebs, and the dishes are unwashed. The children are covered with mud and filth, and the air is poisonous. And, after this, the peasants wonder why their children are so pale, weak and emaciated, and why they so often die. They do not know that cleanliness is health and dirt is sickness.


‘Wishing in future to see simplicity and modesty in dress, and cleanliness in the home, the District Leadership calls on all group leaders to take serious measures against lack of cleanliness and the





wearing of useless and stupid ornaments.


‘Comrade District Leaders are called upon to read this circular to all women and men in the church or in the school, and to explain it to them properly.


‘Naturally, those who do not comply with this circular will have to be punished.


‘With fraternal greetings,


Signed on behalf of the Leadership: Y. Sandansky.’ [1]


In all probability this letter was written in the calm and luxury of Manolis Kordopoulos’s great house in Melnik, where Yané had gone with his cheta to rest after a battle with the Turks near Sugarevo. The Turks had concentrated considerable forces in the Pirin villages, and even quite high in the mountain, evidently determined to discover Yané’s whereabouts and to destroy both him and his cheta. On May 27, 1905, a group of some 300 soldiers came upon the cheta by chance, just as it was leaving Sugarevo. Once the shooting had started, other Turkish troops hastened to the scene, and soon the enemy force rose to about 1,500 men against the cheta’s thirty-three. After a seven-hour exchange of fire, the cheta managed to withdraw, thanks to Yané’s cool and skilful leadership, and to the welcome appearance of mist in the middle of the afternoon. The cheta’s casualties were exceptionally light: only one man killed and three slightly wounded. The Turkish casualties were much higher: the dead included five officers, one of whom was a binbashi, and over fifty men, and, in addition, there were a large number of wounded. Enraged by their lack of success, the Turks proceeded to sack Sugarevo for the second time that year. Most of the inhabitants had fled, but a few people were killed. [2]


After the battle, Yané felt that his cheta needed a good rest, and he came down to the village of Hŭrsovo with a dozen or so men. It was necessary to find a place where they could relax without constant alarms and excursions, and Yané decided that since the Turks were looking for him in the villages, the best place was the great house of Manolis Kordopoulos in Melnik. Nowhere could be more secure: the Turks would never dream of looking for him in a garrison town, full of reinforcements, under the very nose of the local kaimakam. Still less would they suspect the wealthy Greek of sheltering Bulgarian revolutionaries.


Manolis Kordopoulos was perfectly willing to accommodate the dangerous guests, but there remained the problem of how they were going to get to his house. Locked within precipitous sandstone cliffs,



1. Revolyutsionen List, No. 17, 21.VII.1905.


2. A brief account of the battle appeared in Revolyutsionen List, No. 15, 12.VI.1905. Yané’s own detailed report appeared in the same paper, No. 16, 5.VII.1905.





Melnik was like a walled city with a single gate, and anyone visiting the Kordopoulos home had to walk the whole length of the main street, passing the Turkish konak on his way. The cheta’s guns and ammunition were packed in four wine barrels and conveyed to the house on the backs of two horses. Both Hŭrsovo and Melnik were famous for their wine, and the four barrels aroused neither interest nor suspicion. Manolis himself had studied wine-making in France, and owned nearly thirty acres of vineyards near the village of Manzhovo (now Vinogradi). His cellars extended under the cliffs and contained enormous quantities of wine in casks as big as elephants.


The peasants of the area were refusing to work for the Greek landowners because the wages which they offered were too low. Yané therefore sent his chetnitsi disguised as peasants, together with another thirty helpers from Hŭrsovo, to hoe Manolis’s vineyards, and in the evening, the Greek led the twelve ‘hired labourers’ through the charshiya to his house, without anyone raising an eyebrow. Because Manolis paid well, and, in addition, provided breakfast and lunch, crowds of peasants came next day to work on his land, to the great surprise of the other Greeks, for whom they still refused to work. Yané himself came into Melnik in his favourite disguise as a cleric, accompanied by the Hŭrsovo priest, Pop Spas Gramatikov.


The Kordopoulos house was an ideal choice for a chetnik holiday. Situated at the far end of Melnik, on high ground, against a wall of sandstone ‘pyramids’, it commanded a view of the whole town. Its many rooms, luxuriously appointed, provided rare ease and comfort to the tired men, accustomed to choose between the filth of poverty-stricken cottages and the chilly purity of the greenwood. As was usual in Melnik, the solid, stone-built lower storey contained the service and storage area, while the white-washed upper storey contained the many living and reception rooms. The superb principal room had no less than twenty-four windows, arranged in two rows and ornamented with stained glass. A secret staircase, concealed behind a closet, led up to the attic rooms, with an outlet at roof-level to an enclosed garden shaded with vines. On one side there was the house; to left and right the land fell away in sandy precipices, and to the north rose ‘pyramids’ more than a hundred feet high, with bushes on the top. Here, steps had been cut in the sandstone to enable the chetnitsi to disappear in case the house was searched. Trenches had also been dug on the heights in case of attack, and every morning, while it was still dark, two chetnitsi would go up to the top and keep watch in order to ensure the safety of their comrades below.


Having installed himself in the Kordopoulos house, Yané summoned Georgi Kotsev to arrange for the transmission of correspondence. Kotsev came, and found Yané and his men in the great reception room awaiting a feast of roast lamb. All of them were in full dress, with bandoleers and revolvers on their persons, and their guns were neatly stacked in the





turners of the room. When the meal began, Kotsev noted that even on holiday Yané did not drink spirits, and would not allow his men to do so. Thus, the rare liquor offered with the roast lamb was consumed by Kotsev and the host alone. Never for a single moment would Yané risk losing his ability to react swiftly and soberly to any situations which might arise.


In fact, no incident disturbed the cheta’s month-long stay in the great house. The Turks continued to search for Yané, but, after two weeks’ fruitless journeying from village to village, they concluded that he had gone to Bulgaria, and the soldiers were ordered back to barracks. [3]


The campaign to carry out the Organization’s new decrees began almost at once. The ‘heavy’ Kotsev wedding was the last of its kind in the district. Thereafter, expenditure on such ceremonies was greatly reduced, and gifts were given only to those closest to the bride. Bride-money no longer exchanged hands; the stealing of brides was made a punishable offence, and other archaic customs, such as displaying the bride’s shift on the morning after the wedding, were forbidden. The rationalization of wedding customs was taken up not only at regional but also at grass-roots level. In the minutes of the Second Regular Meeting of the Organization in the village of ‘Sevastopol’ (Lovcha), held in September 1906 and attended by 180 members, the following paragraph occurs: ‘Morality is that which restrains a man from many evils. As soon as a man declines morally the worst vices become manifest in him—he becomes a thief, a Don Juan, etc. In our village, the girl and the boy remain engaged for about a year, during which time, being acquainted, they go to extremes, with the result that, at the time of the wedding, the girl is either in the family way or has given birth, and, so as not to be compromised, she kills her baby, something which has a bad effect on the population both religiously and morally. So as to put an end to this evil, the meeting decided: in future, girls and boys should be engaged for the space of two months.’ [4]


It was natural that the new laws should encounter a certain amount of resistance, especially among old people accustomed to the traditions of the past. Sometimes even those whom the laws were designed to protect were unable to adjust to the new ways of thinking. In Kashina, for example, a man complained to Yané that his daughter, Elena, had been stolen by the son of Dinka Filyano, who was a close friend of Yané’s. Elena had been betrothed to the boy, but was apparently having second thoughts, so the boy had taken her by force, at his father’s instigation, and had kept her three or four days in the forests outside the village. Yané asked his friend why they had done such a thing, and Dinka Filyano



3. Memoirs of Georgi Kotsev. OIM Blagoevgrad, No. 1596. Kotsev mentions that the cheta went to Melnik after the battle above Sugarevo, but gives the date as 1906. Since more than one engagement was fought near Sugarevo, it is difficult to determine the date of Yané’s visit to Melnik with complete certainty.


4. OIM, Blagoevgrad, No. 225.





replied that they needed another woman in the house to help his wife with the work—a perfect illustration of Yané’s contention that most men look upon women as ‘working animals’. Yané then turned to Dinka’s wife and asked her how she would feel if her daughter had been abducted, and he threatened to punish the family. With Yané, friendship counted for nothing where the law of the Organization was concerned. But first he sent for Elena and asked her whether she wanted to go back to her father’s house. The girl replied: ‘Dyado [5] Yané, I am no longer fit for my father’s house. Why should I bring shame upon it? I am no longer a virgin, I now have to stay in this house.’ Even now, Yané pressed her to think again, but she remained firm in her resolve to accept her fate and marry the boy who had deprived her of her virginity. Under the circumstances, there was nothing more that Yané could do; Elena’s father now gave his consent to the union, and the wedding took place almost immediately. [6]


To lead the people out of the darkness of their ignorance and ancient ways was no easy task. A certain amount of compulsion was both permissible and essential, but lasting results would be achieved only if one could carry the people with one, only if one could persuade them that the new ways were better than the old. Elena was one of those who found it hard to break with tradition and who therefore resisted Yané’s attempts to help her, but to the end of her days she adored him, describing him to her grandchildren as a man born to do good. [7]


Between his battles with enemies of all kinds, Yané was tireless in his efforts to build Utopia in that most unlikely of places: the bloodstained land of Macedonia. With her soaring peaks and distant vistas, Pirin herself lent wings to his dreams and visions. People could not be allowed to live in misery and squalor in this wondrous land where the sun was generous and the waters pure. It was the contrast between the beauty of Pirin and the inadequacy of people’s lives that moved him to utter the words which were later inscribed upon his tomb. The incident has been recorded by one who heard him say them:


‘Yané loved life and rejoiced in it with the joie-de-vivre of a child. It was a fine, sunny spring day when the cup of life was brimming over and filling the hearts of all that were alive. He stood by the window, looking out, and exclaimed: "How beautiful life is! How happy people should be! Those who make them wretched are real vermin." ... A ragged Turk passed by with a load of wood on his back. Yané gazed at the Turk, lost in thought, and then whispered: "Poor wretch." And, after a little, he



5. Yané was still in his thirties—a comparatively young man, but the girl calls him Dyado—Grandfather—as a sign of respect.


6. OIM Blagoevgrad, No. 2984. Memoirs of Georgi Panchev. See also Iliya Filyanov, Po Stŭpkite na Yané—Pirinskiya orel, pp. 36-38. Iliya Filyanov is the grandson of Elena.


7. Filyanov, Opus cit., p. 31.





added: "To live means to struggle: the slave for freedom, and the free man for perfection". [8]



8. Hristo Konstantinov, Starika, Sofia 1935, p. 29.


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